GREENVILLE, S.C. – Donald Trump took the stage to a thunderous ovation in the ballroom of the TD Convention Center Monday night.
Close to ten thousand people packed into the standing-room-only venue, filling the side aisles and crowding into the back of the room with phones and flags held high as red, white, and blue lights and fog machines bathed Trump’s entrance to the darkened stage.
Three thousand people were turned away from the first speech, prompting Trump to turn the night into a double-header, with a second speech for an overflow crowd downstairs.
The frontrunner, focused and as deadly serious in portions as he’s been at any rally, took aim at his Republican and Democratic rivals one by one. Then he turned his attention to the real enemies in the Middle East.
“I’ve never known the level of dishonesty. I’ve never seen people as dishonest as politicians. They will say anything,” he confided to the crowd here in Greenville, which the Union Cavalry famously raided in 1865 in a deadly manhunt for fugitive Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
“You can go watch Bush tonight,” Trump said as the crowd uniformly booed Jeb, who was busy hosting his brother George W. Bush over in Charleston with South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, who also garnered major boos. “His brother came today. They had a thing to try to make him competitive. I don’t think it’s going to work but who the Hell knows?”
“Ted Cruz is a dishonest guy. He’s a liar. He’s a real liar,” Trump said of his main challenger in the Palmetto State. “Ted Cruz, the guy’s never employed a person in his life. Never employed a person in his life … I think he’s a very unstable person.”
“Marco, he was with me when he had the meltdown and let me tell you it wasn’t a pretty sight. I thought he had just come out of the swimming pool he was so wet. When we get in with Putin, we need people who don’t sweat.”
Trump spoke of the donors and special interests who got tickets to the RNC debate in Greenville over the weekend who booed him from the gallery but simultaneously waved and smiled at him. “It’s a game! Those are supporters of Marco Rubio mostly.”
He attacked Hillary Clinton for her email scandal and scored a semi-standing ovation for bringing up Bill Clinton’s sexual past. “Remember three weeks ago she said, ‘Donald Trump is sexist’? Oh did she suffer after that one. I brought her husband into the equation. That was a long weekend for them.”
Trump came to fight. Gone was the oddball charm of New Hampshire Trump cracking jokes with costumed impersonators in the crowd. In its place stood a zealous Trump, calling himself a “messenger” for a movement that has swelled far beyond what the media and the experts ever expected.
“We’ve got to win on Saturday. We’ve got to win.”
For all the times I’ve said a Trump rally is like a rock concert – THIS really captures it pic.twitter.com/jVWOfQOdUx
— John Santucci (@JTSantucci) February 16, 2016
Outside, on-and-0ff rainstorms pounded the state’s pothole-filled highways, where trouble spots can sometimes be avoided by looking for roadside memorials. Inside, Trump channeled the crowd’s eagerness for major change. “We’re trying to be so politically correct we can’t function anymore. We can’t function.”
Trump made no bones about going after the Republican Party: “We know where the Democrats are coming from. But the Republicans keep approving this stuff,” he declared.
He laid out a vision for a new Republican White House that will not be beholden to corporate interests, such as the prescription drug companies. A Republican White House that will be more sensible on foreign policy and free trade.
“Putin said nice things about me …Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually got along with Russia and other countries? They say ‘Donald Trump wants to work with Russia to get rid of ISIS.’ Yeah! Why do we have to do everything ourselves? We’re like the world’s policemen.”
“I think I’m going to buy new air conditioners now,” he said of Carrier, the American company that recently decided to move operations — and 1,400 jobs — from Indianapolis to Mexico. Trump pledged to tax the air conditioners they sell back to the United States at 35 percent, and the crowd erupted in cheers. He spoke of lavish airports in Qatar, and compared them to the pothole-filled runways back home.
“And we have LaGuardia and Newark and LAX and Kennedy, and they’re all falling down. Those days are over.”
Here in South Carolina, Trump is battling for the soul of the Republican Party — or at least trying to give the party a new one.
It was here at the debate in Greenville where Trump said the Bush administration lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Where Trump called the Iraq War a “big fat mistake.” Where Trump finally slaughtered that last sacred cow of traditional GOP orthodoxy: the notion that George W. Bush, commander in chief on the day they attacked the Pentagon, kept us safe.
“The RNC does a terrible job. A terrible job,” Trump said at a Monday press conference in Charleston before his rally.
He then cited his pledge not to run a third-party campaign in exchange for fairness from the party. “And just remember what I said, remember in this room: I signed a pledge, but it’s a double-edged pledge. As far as I’m concerned, they’re in default of their pledge.”
Here in Greenville, Trump’s vision for a new Republican Party, rising from the ashes of the Bush disaster, is actually taking shape.
Trump’s headquarters in Greenville are centrally located on Main Street in a beautiful, spacious building visible from blocks away in any direction.
A constant stream of foot traffic comes and goes at the office, bringing spectators of all ages, from an elderly man with a “Trump” sticker on his sombrero to children posing for pictures with a life-sized cardboard cutout of the candidate. A young boy hands out Trump stickers, American flag and yard signs are dispensed, cookies are served on a tray, and Trump appears directly on a video monitor.
“The establishment, the media, the lobbyists, the donors, the special interests, they’re all against me,” monitor-Trump says. “Everybody sees it. They’re all trying to stop me.”
Behind the monitor, there’s a high-tech phone banking room. Further back are boardrooms with high-level staffers pacing about, walking-and-talking, young volunteers carrying out general labor, and miniature Trump towers of cardboard boxes filled with memorabilia to ship out to the people.
“Build that wall, baby, build that wall” a man shouts at this reporter as I leave the Trump office. A puzzled Jeb Bush staffer passes by on the sidewalk behind the Trump fan. A John Kasich bus ambles down the street to little fanfare.
“It’s locked down,” a Trump volunteer in a distinctly Southern suit tells me on the sidewalk as we watch about two dozen protesters from the Upstate Peace Network stage a little-noticed demonstration against Trump and Ted Cruz’s supposed xenophobia and anti-Islam sentiment.
The volunteer tells me Cruz is a non-factor in Greenville. This is Trump’s town.
The city of Greenville is remarkably youthful and energetic for a Republican Party stronghold. The bustling pedestrian downtown is dotted with new tech start-ups and colored by attractive and racially diverse young couples and groups of upwardly-mobile friends. The Trump office is a short walk to the symphony orchestra, the city hall, the Westin Hotel, and the statue of local hero Joel Robertson Poinsett, the first American minister to Mexico. Passerbys can find sports bars next to posters for a Furman University production of Neil Simon’s Rumors. Outside the Art Cellar, a haven for local artists, one item seems to best define the town’s independent spirit: it’s an expressionistic painting of “Parks and Recreation’s” famous TV-libertarian, Ron Swanson.
The city’s rural surroundings aren’t too keen on the establishment, either. Trump shouldn’t have to worry about fallout from his brutal fight with South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.
In nearby Pickens on the day of the debate, a group of citizens rallied outside the town courthouse with Confederate flags to protest Haley’s decision to remove the stars and bars from the South Carolina Capitol. Trucks passing the courthouse blared their horns and whooped rebel yells in agreement.
“She lies to the people of South Carolina,” local state senate candidate Don Joslyn said of Haley outside the courthouse. “We have roads out here that have potholes and cracks. You come down here and you’re lucky to make it through here without getting a popped tire. The problem is, we’ve been needing roads for years. But when they wanted to take that flag down, it was done in two weeks.”
“This isn’t the kind of crowd you’d find Nikki Haley with,” an older female protester told Breitbart News, noting that Haley once vowed not to take down the flag. “She’s going to become vice president on a lie? Not as long as I’m living.”
“Nikki Haley might as well be a Democrat” said another protester, while his friend chimed in, “I should never have voted for her. Big disappointment.”
Crowd shot at Greenville Trump rally. Back. pic.twitter.com/Xf7kTeMvFP
— Rudolph Bell (@DolphBell) February 15, 2016
After the debate, the crowd from the first speech heads to its cars past a line of black merchants selling Trump pins, Trump hats, Trump buttons, and “Bomb The Hell Out Of ISIS” T-shirts.
An Uber driver — replacing the taxi drivers who couldn’t or wouldn’t brave the slick roads to head over to the convention center — informs this reporter that at least seven accidents have happened tonight on the interstate surrounding Greenville.
But looking outside at the parking lot, at the diverse crowd of all ages, at the men who shouted “Keep winning!” at the stage, at the families with four kids who came toting signs, at the college-aged women who sat transfixed throughout the speech watching one man tear apart the political establishment from the inside, one thing became clear:
Some of these potholes are going to get fixed.