PENDLETON, S.C. — Nothing says “this is my first rodeo” like showing up to a dirt-floored rodeo arena and asking the rambunctious crowd, “What the hell kind of building is this?”
That note of genuine bewilderment came from Donald Trump, who had been whisked by motorcade from his 757 and plopped into the parallel universe of South Carolina’s famously conservative upstate. Just up the road from the Wild Hawg General Store and two miles down from the Family Dollar Store, the Upper East Side billionaire rallied a crowd of 5,000 people, in a town with a population half of that, with a message they seemed not to have heard in a while: Hope.
Yes, it’s hard to find underneath the Yiddish taunts for Poor Jeb (Trump called him a “schlepper” on this night), jokes about the outcome of the Iraq War, (“Great job, brother!”), promises to build The Wall, and warnings that illegal immigrants will be deported en masse under a President Trump. But keep listening and it’s there — an unmistakably positive message for a specific cross-section of American voters hungry to hear it.
“We’re going to rebuild our military, better, bigger, stronger.”
“We’re going to rebuild our country. ... I’m a great builder.”
“We’re going to take care of our vets. Believe me, it’s going to happen.”
“We’re going to make America great again. We’re going to make it rich. We’re going to bring our jobs back from China and Mexico.”
Depending on where you’re sitting and who you believe, that’s either a fact-free set of empty promises or a framework to turn the country around. For the audience in South Carolina, it was the latter. And in a part of the state that once hummed with textile mills that now sit mostly dormant, the last point truly set Trump apart from his fellow Republicans.
While most Republicans, even South Carolina’s leaders, talk about the importance of free trade in a global economy, Trump hammers decades-old NAFTA as a “dumb deal negotiated by stupid leaders.” That’s a no-lose line where NAFTA still gets the blame for gutting the local textile industry and sending tens of thousands of jobs overseas. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country lost 76 percent of all of the textile and apparel manufacturing jobs in the United States after NAFTA passed, with many of the losses concentrated in South Carolina .
The state’s modernized economy and generous tax breaks have recently brought in new manufacturing business from companies such as BMW and Boeing, but those jobs are higher tech and require more training. The shame of still-empty factories and lost jobs linger on for the people and places left out of the new economy. Trump’s promises are a tonic for all of that.
“Ford is going to do even more investment in Mexico, how the hell does that help us?” Trump asked the Pendleton rodeo. “It doesn’t help us even a little bit. We close up factories and Mexico opens factories. What the hell are we doing? Folks, it’s not going to happen anymore.”
It’s at this point in every Trump rally when he really hits the gas on How Great It’s Going to Be and the cheers get louder. In essence, he promises to give people back what a changing economy, a changing country and a changing world all seem to have taken away from them — their pride.
“The American people are smart, they get it. They know our country is going down the tubes,” Trump says this night. “But we’re not going to let that happen and you’re going to be proud of it. You’re going to proud you were here. You’re going to be proud of your president. You’re going to be so proud of your country again.”
With the future laid out in front of it, the Trump crowd rises to its feet. He joyfully takes questions from people in the audience, pointing first to arms raising dog-eared copies of “The Art of the Deal.” When it’s all over, the audience streams out into the 25-degree night, sharing selfies they took with Trump in the background and snapping more in front of two John Deeres the size of a city block that are parked out back.
“I just think he’s amazing,” said Pam Grant, who works in chemical manufacturing. Pam went with high hopes to the rally and said Trump exceeded her expectations. “He’ll do what he says he’ll do. He’s connecting to the people. He sees Americans are struggling and he wants to help.”
Trump made no mention in his speech of Jesus, abortion or gay marriage, the crowded territory Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio elbow each other over every day. It’s a strange way to win a primary in a state where 65 percent of the GOP primary voters called themselves born-again Christians in 2012. But for Donald Trump, there’s always, and sometimes only, hope.
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