CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Is the country more divided than it was at the beginning of the political season? Will it ever heal? When Donald Trump last visited Charlotte way back in August, it was a subdued affair, as Trump rallies go — some signs, the candidate center stage, only a few halfhearted chants of “lock her up.” He was beginning his campaign’s message of outreach to African-American communities, with his awkward refrain of, “What do you have to lose by trying something new?”
Several supporters I talked with then in this diverse city were attracted as much by Trump’s moderate positions on issues such as abortion and LGBT rights as they were by his anti-establishment rage.
What a difference two months makes, especially after a videotape bragging about groping women and some actual women with complaints of same show up. It was the same venue Friday night, the Charlotte Convention Center, but the map to victory for Trump has narrowed. Both he and his supporters — a few thousand strong — were noticeably more urgent and a lot louder. Many surrounded him on stage, holding signs and his name spelled out in large block letters. One man wore a “Trump, Make America Great Again” banner like a super-hero cape.
The 15 electoral votes of North Carolina, where polls are close and not in his favor, are crucial. All the candidates and their surrogates stop in so often, if there’s a knock at the door and you open it, there’s liable to be a candidate smiling back. This week, President Barack Obama was stumping for Hillary Clinton in Greensboro and Tim Kaine spoke at Davidson College.
Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, held a town hall in Charlotte on Monday. And while he reached back to the language of faith to ask for forgiveness for Trump’s transgressions, the candidate himself was not in an asking-for-forgiveness mood by Friday.
On the headline issue that has bedeviled him, Trump in Charlotte was not as harsh as he had been earlier in the day in Greensboro, when he slammed his accusers’ looks — implying they were not attractive enough to sexually assault.
His hourlong speech in Charlotte was prefaced by a character reference from daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who has been campaigning here in her home state. The hall was stacked with women holding “Women for Trump” signs. (“I like those signs, ‘Women for Trump,’ ” he said. “I actually think I’m doing well with women.”) He mused about the reasons women are coming forward now. “For personal fame,” he said, “who knows, financial reasons.” He labeled himself “a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country.”
He reserved most of his ire for one particular woman, Hillary Clinton, as he let loose with condemnations of leaked emails, her foreign policy and her stamina. He said she was home “prepping” for debate No. 3 on Wednesday after she was “totally annihilated” in their town-hall debate, though polls taken after the candidate’s second meeting were not so definitive. “I had three to one,” he said, blaming the moderators and media as part of the conspiracy against him.
There was plenty of emotion on and off stage, with the “lock her up” chants rising in frequency and volume. The crowd really meant it this time, and interrupted his promise to end illegal immigration, chanting “build the wall.”
He ran through his greatest hits of issues, more disjointed than scripted after the Teleprompter stopped working and he dramatically dismantled it. (“Who the hell runs this place?” he asked. “Democrats,” some in the crowd answered.)
The tension spilled onto the sidewalk, where one protester, holding a poster declaring she was “queer,” a “Latina,” an immigrant and new American citizen, was met by a Trump supporter who yelled “there’s treatment for that.” Giselle Werneck Salgado, 25, a graphic designer from Brazil, said Trump “can’t just come to my doorstep, and I would stay home and do nothing.”
Antwon Williams, 34, a small business owner from Columbia, S.C., was one a handful of African-American Trump supporters, though he admitted it was a lesser of two evils for him. It was Trump that Williams said would bring jobs back to America “times 30.” On the recent accusations and the candidate’s own words on his treatment of women, Williams, like other supporters, brushed it off: “You name one person who doesn’t say crazy stuff in private conversation.”
Looking out on the scene, Trump supporters Valarie and Stephen Reilly looked a bit dismayed by the back-and-forth, with protesters and supporters, cell phones at the ready, recording every interaction. “America needs to get to that point where we’ll see one another as human beings,” Valarie said. Stephen, a brick mason, said he worries that his son, a Marine, won’t receive the veterans’ benefits due him. Valarie, who is originally from San Diego, said she wants to see a real effort to stop illegal immigration.
According to Stephen, who said he wants to see the system “rocked so hard so more people who are outsiders step in,” Trump would lead that political revolution.
Inside the hall, an older white woman put her arm around me, perhaps a gesture of reconciliation? “Can I ask you something?” she said. “Why do African-Americans vote for Democrats when they haven’t done anything to help you?” I tell her that African-American voters aren’t monolithic, that they vote as individuals based on policy and personality just like any other voter, but some may disagree with Trump’s characterizations of their lives as “hell” and many are offended at the candidate’s years-long contention that President Barack Obama was not born in America.
Well, she said sweetly, “I don’t believe he was born here, either.”
Unity may be a long time coming.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter@mcurtisnc3.