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WATERVILLE VALLEY, N.H. — It was a miserable wintry night, with temperatures dropping fast and sleet covering the roads in rural Waterville Valley. But businessman and Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump quickly warmed up the crowd.
Trump lambasted President Barack Obama for not bombing oil wells used by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to fund its operations. “One of the reasons Obama didn’t want to bomb the oil is because of the environment. Can you believe this?” Trump asked, receiving rapturous applause.
But — in a move that is increasingly being seen as a signature of the Trump campaign — his rampage was not hindered by any respect for the facts.
“Now I don’t know if that’s true or not,” he said, “but it sounds like it’s true.”
That comment, many observers believe, is increasingly epitomizing Trump’s campaign, which has seen him remain the Republican presidential front-runner despite numerous gaffes and widespread outrage over his extremist positions, especially against Muslims.
Though perhaps most campaigns are marked by exaggerations, dodges and even outright lies, critics accuse Trump of basing his campaign on racist inaccuracies and playing to voters’ xenophobia. Along these lines, the candidate has accused the Mexican government of pushing rapists and drug dealers into the U.S., said thousands of Muslims celebrated in New Jersey as the World Trade Center towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, and tweeted that the black-on-white murder rate in the U.S. is 81 percent.
None of those statements is true.Yet Trump has refused to back off in each instance and has suffered little damage among his supporters as a result.
At least 1,000 people braved the weather to see Trump speak in Waterville Valley at the White Mountain Athletic Club last Tuesday, according to a crowd estimate provided by local police. Daniel Ward, 51, was among them. Sitting near the front, Ward, a civil engineer and minister from Bridgewater, was quick to defend Trump’s controversial comments about Muslim Americans.
“There were people that were partying when the World Trade Center was coming down. This idea of anti-American sentiment, it kind of exists in America right now. There are Americans who don’t like being American,” Ward said.
Like many other supporters at the rally, he said he is attracted to what he says is Trump’s love of country. During a question-and-answer session, Ward asked the candidate what events in his life inspired his patriotism.
“This is what I like about Donald Trump. I really believe, at the core, he’s very patriotic,” Ward said before the rally. “I really believe he loves America and he wants to see the best for America and for the American people.”
‘There were people that were partying when the World Trade Center was coming down. This idea of anti-American sentiment – it kind of exists in America right now.’
Trump supporter in New Hampshire
With Trump’s new comments this week advocating a policy of keeping all Muslims from entering the U.S., a fresh round of condemnations have put the spotlight back on the candidate and served his efforts to remain at the top of the polls in key primary states.
Not that it bothers too many of his fans. Prudence Wilkie, 60, is a stay-at-home wife and Trump supporter. His perceived patriotism is a big part of his appeal, she said. She likes his bluntness and his disregard for political correctness.
“I just think he likes America, which is what we don’t see right now … and he’s very successful because America makes that possible. That’s why I like him — he’s a winner,” she said.
It seems many voters feel the same way. Trump is polling at 27 percent in New Hampshire and about 30 percent nationally, according to Real Clear Politics’ averages of recent polls. That’s well ahead of Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, the three closest other contenders.
“It is much easier for a candidate to make overarching, vague statements to simplify policy issues than dive into details and address complexity … and there is a reason it works,” said Erin Jones, a founding partner at the political consulting firm Mammoth Marketing Group. “You only have a limited amount of time to capture the attention of the voter, and simplicity is king.”
In July an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Trump’s support is concentrated among working-class Republicans. Just 8 percent of likely Republican voters with a college degree supported Trump at that time, with his support among those without a college degree was about 30 percent. Last week those figures jumped to 18 percent and 46 percent, respectively, according to a CNN/ORC poll, and 40 percent of registered Republicans earning under $50,000 per year said they supported Trump.
That poll found that 38 percent of likely Republican voters who said immigration weakens the U.S. favored Trump. Just 12 percent of those who said immigration strengthens the country were Trump supporters.
‘A crazy fascist’
Trump’s strong support among largely white working-class Republicans and among opponents of immigration is no coincidence, according to Susan Moir, the director of the Labor Resource Center at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
“It is difficult to talk about Trump and his appeal to frightened white voters without either dismissing him as a crazy fascist or using deeply rooted — and forgotten — concepts in the American experience,” she explained. “He is a classic nativist, a direct descendant of the Know-Nothings, who feared Catholic immigrants in the 1840s.”
Donald Landry, 55, sat next to his daughter, a college student, before the Trump rally on Tuesday while the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” played in the background. Landry owns a landscaping business and a restaurant in New Hampshire. He hasn’t settled on a candidate yet, but he says he’s concerned about economic inequality and people taking advantage of government welfare programs.
Asked about Trump’s controversial statements on immigration and Muslim Americans, Landry said he wasn’t concerned and criticized what he called “political correctness.” His main concern, he said, is with fixing the country.
He blamed the media for creating the controversies around Trump’s statements. “A lot of the liberal networks kind of hound on all that stuff. That’s what makes the news. It influences, I think, weak-minded people, instead of the people that really need to know the facts about what’s going on,” Landry said. “This country’s in sad shape right now, and we need someone to change it.”
Moir had tough words for the media too, but from the opposite perspective. Trump’s comments about women, immigrants and minorities are dangerous, in her view, and the media need to stop giving him airtime.
“We cannot cure the fear that lies within a portion of the American white working class, but we can refuse to feed it,” she said.
‘This country’s in sad shape right now … We need someone to change it.’
Trump supporter in New Hampshire
In New Hampshire, Trump told the crowd that last month’s attacks in Paris, which left 130 people dead, caused him to shift his campaign’s focus from economics to national security and foreign policy.
Until now, he largely focused on the economy. He has vowed to end the United States’ trade deficit with China, fight Beijing’s currency manipulation, bring jobs back from abroad and create jobs at home. While he may not have fleshed out the details on all those promises, he constantly promotes his business acumen during campaign events.
Trump’s controversial comments about undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico speak to his core economic message. Many working-class voters see immigrants willing to work for low wages as competition for scarce blue-collar jobs, according to Steven Camarota, the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.
“I think that the public has for a long time been concerned about a number of issues when it comes to immigration, such as job competition, crime, the impact on public coffers and national security,” he said.
Establishment media and many politicians in both parties have dismissed those concerns or responded with platitudes, according to Camarota. Voters can sense that condescension, he said, and it’s drawing them to Trump.
“Trump at least takes these concerns seriously,” Camarota said, “even if he does so in a careless and coarse manner.”
Nick Hatch, a 23-year-old subcontractor from Campton, also went to see Trump speak on Tuesday night. Wearing a T-shirt that read “Fuck ISIS” in faux Arabic script, he said Trump’s tough stances on terrorism and immigration are a big reason he supports the candidate.
“He wants to make it so you can only get in here legally, not illegally,” Hatch said. “I’m all about legal immigrants, not illegal immigrants that come and take the job I’m trying to get and come and work for $8 less or $10 less.”
Others at the rally tied concerns about immigration, whether from Mexico or from Syria, back to crime, terrorism and public safety.
“I’m driving down the road, and I hear about some illegal Mexican drug dealer or something that just killed somebody,” said Fred Schneider. “Like what happened in California — I don’t remember the name of the guy, but you hear those stories over and over.”
His wife, Denise Schneider, is also worried about terrorists slipping into the U.S. by posing as refugees from Syria. Talking over blaring rock music after the rally, she spoke passionately of Republicans’ desire to help refugees in need. But Americans’ safety comes first, she said. That’s a point Trump and other Republican candidates have made repeatedly since the attacks in Paris.
Schneider said Trump’s patriotism is his main draw, unlike Democrats, in her view.
“We’re proud Americans. We are proud of our country,” she said. “And I want to be proud again. I want to feel safe again.”