Darren McCollester / Getty Images

Trump and the siege of New Hampshire

A New Hampshire rally offers a look into the support base of the leading Republican candidate

ROCHESTER, New Hampshire — It was late afternoon in mid-September, the night after the second Republican debate, and dozens of volunteers for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had been pinioned at the town's cavernous rec center for over three hours, killing time, zip-tying plastic chairs together on the floor of the gym, and picking at little submarine sandwiches in a cinder block break room. It had been a long day, but the bomb-sniffing dog had cleared the building, and an earnest young man in a dark suit raised his arm high to quiet the faithful.

“Greeters,” he shouted, “take your stations!” 

A moment later, a capacity crowd of 3,000 streamed inside as the sound system piped “Crazy Train,” by Ozzie Osbourne. The coordinator of the rally was blissful. “Donald Trump,” exalted Jerry DeLemus, a 60-year-old retired Marine, “is not afraid to stand up and fight for the American way of life.” Last year, DeLemus spent more than three weeks in Nevada leading a makeshift militia in a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. His wife, Susan, is a New Hampshire state representative, a Republican prominent in the “birther” movement.

Feature stories on Trump's supporters have tended to highlight people like DeLemus; that is, political extremists, white nationalists, or those who admire Trump for his hair, the pizzazz of his hotels, and the menacing brio he showed on The Apprentice. This journalistic cherry-picking avoids an obvious question: If over 30 percent of all Republicans like Donald Trump, are all his fans really on the fringe?

A Trump supporter stares down a man shouting Bible verses during a town hall event in Rochester on September 17.
Darren McCollester / Getty Images

In Rochester, Trump's mainstream supporters had reached a critical juncture. It had certainly been the Summer of Trump. He'd started the season as a political novice; by early September, he was, according to the Media Research Center, garnering three times as much on-air time as all his Republican rivals combined. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that he had support among 33 percent of Republicans, 13 percentage points ahead of his nearest rival, Ben Carson. But now, with the leaves on New England's oaks and maples turning reddish and orange, it was time to see whether Trump could capture the autumn as well and sustain himself until the primary in February.

To do that, Trump needs to show substance, says Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist and the author of Stormy Weather: The New Hampshire Primary and Presidential Politics. Currently, Trump's website identifies his stance on only two issues — “immigration reform” and “second amendment rights” — and Scala believes New Hampshire voters will want more detail. “They take a long time to make up their minds,” he says. “They date various candidates along the way, but eventually they exercise scrutiny. Even with candidates they like, they look for the meat on the bones.”

Rochester was a fitting place for the billionaire populist to feed his fans a New Deeper Trump. Colloquially known as Rottenchester, it's a hard-bitten working-class town of 30,000, an old mill town where Cabletron, a high tech manufacturer, failed the populace in the early 2000s, incrementally dissolving a company that at its peak in 1997 employed 6,600 people. Rochester is 95 percent white, and its median income places it among the bottom third of all New Hampshire towns. The city is, writ small, the perfect target for Trump, a candidate running strong among whites with no education beyond high school.

At the rally, just before the Pledge of Allegiance, a mold maker named Carroll Higgins was talking about his days working at Davidson Rubber in the nearby town of Dover. Davidson made bumpers, dashboards, and trim for Chrysler, GM, and Ford. At its mid-80s peak, the company employed about 1,200 people. Higgins started in 1964 and stayed on as the company was repeatedly sold and diminished until finally, in 2007, he was standing in an almost empty factory, making one last nickel mold, this one for a Corvette dashboard. “We finished,” he said with lament, “and then they shut the plant and sent the mold to Mexico.”

Collins & Aikman Automotive Company de Mexico is now situated about 200 miles south of the Texas border. “Jobs shouldn't be going out of this country, and Donald Trump is going to stop it from happening,” Higgins said before alluding to a plank in Trump's platform. “When he starts charging a 35 percent tax on all car parts made in Mexico, the big companies are going to hurry right back here.”

He's a great businessman, and if the country was run more like a business, we wouldn't be in as much trouble as we are.

Ralph DiBernardo, owner of Jetpack Comics

Bob Gates, a retired Rochester carpenter, was nearby, wearing a polo shirt printed with this line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths … ” He was eager to talk about the group he and his wife had founded, Save our Students, which helps special needs kids by teaching their parents how to become “education directors” and advocates. When asked whether Trump has taken a position on special needs education, Gates paused, cogitating. “I'm going to make an assumption,” he said, “based on his call for better treatment for veterans that he will advocate for folks with disabilities as well.”

Catherine Leafe, a stylist from Manchester, said of Trump, “I've always been a big supporter. He's refreshing. He has no filter. I like that.” A solicitous volunteer in a black dress and floral print pumps, Leafe was tasked with escorting elderly guests to their seats. So many seniors were present that the gym doubled as a showroom for various styles of canes — old wooden ones, the chintzy, adjustable and more prevalent aluminum canes, and the sturdy three-footed canes that seemed the province of military men. The armed forces were well represented, and younger vets rippled with pride when a warm-up speaker called on the members of each military branch to stand up — the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, and finally the Coast Guard. The marching band from Rochester’s Spaulding High School was there, along with several youngsters in numbered Tom Brady football jerseys.

Greeter Ralph DiBernardo, who owns the Jetpack Comics store in downtown Rochester, was delighted by the turnout as he reveled in Trump’s talents. “He's a great businessman,” said DiBernardo, who is tall and lean with a salt-and-pepper soul patch under his lip, “and if the country was run more like a business, we wouldn't be in as much trouble as we are.”

Donald Trump listens to a question during a town hall event at Rochester Recreational Arena.
Darren McCollester / Getty Images

DiBernardo's part-time employee and fellow greeter, Al Spader, added, “What Trump does is put electricity around every issue. Like his talk about building the wall. That’ll get people started on needed discussions about immigration. He's going to keep electrifying things through his whole four-year term. Maybe it's time to step away from politics as usual.”

Spader is 36, and teaches science at a Rochester middle school as his day job. He’d come this evening intent on asking Trump about his stance on education reform. Spader, who describes himself as a “true independent,” said that he “wants to believe” in Trump. “I voted for Obama last time and he has been spineless! I'm ready to believe. When I came to this very gymnasium in 1996, as a kid, and saw Bill Clinton, he won me over — his charisma, his charm. I'm ready to be won over by Donald Trump.”

Soon after Trump took the stage to the bombastic strains of Foreigner's smash hit, “Jukebox Hero,” he vowed that tonight would be different: No long speech; he would instead answer questions. Perhaps he was trying to prove himself a long-distance candidate capable of nuanced answers, but the format pitted Trump in a brawl with the conspiracy theorists and dissidents speckling the gym.

The first question came from a man in a Trump t-shirt. “We have a problem in this country,” he said. “It's called Muslims. You know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American.” Eventually, he said of Muslims, "How can we get rid of them?"

“We're going to be looking at a lot of different things,” Trump responded, vaguely. His failure to confront the man's Islamophobia would soon draw criticism from virtually every other contender. But it was only the first jolt in an evening of fisticuffs. Later, a young woman asked Trump about his plan “to reduce the pollution that is driving climate change.” Trump's response was to query an audience he knew shared his skepticism: “How many people here believe in global warming?”

Just a few feet behind Trump, in the bleachers, Spader sat raising his left hand, and then when it tired, his right. He had a hand in the air for 20 minutes, but there were scores of raised hands and Trump never called on him. Instead, he chose a soft-spoken young woman who dropped a somber bomb on the evening, mentioning James Foley, the journalist who was beheaded by ISIL. Foley was from Rochester. “I want you to know about the nightmares that I have,” the woman said. Trump nodded his head, vigorously, and then he was silent a moment before cracking a joke about how hot the room was. “Does anybody have a towel?” he said.

I voted for Obama last time and he has been spineless! I'm ready to believe. When I came to this very gymnasium in 1996 and saw Bill Clinton, he won me over — his charisma, his charm. I'm ready to be won over by Donald Trump.

Al Spader, middle school science teacher

In the days that followed, Trump's Republican foes interpreted the Muslim moment in Rochester as a signal that the frontrunner was crumbling. And Trump seemed to confirm that hunch when he decided, suddenly, to skip a Republican summit. His excuse — a “significant business transaction” — inspired candidate Bobby Jindal to post a mean, gleeful tweet: “Filing for bankruptcy again?”

In Rochester, though, faith abided. Higgins, the mold maker, said of the Muslim moment, “Trump isn't responsible for what other people say. The attacks against him were just unfair.” He added, “I liked what he told us about Social Security because I'm 71.”

Meanwhile, Gates, of Save Our Students, was impressed by Trump’s treatment of climate change believers. “Out of a crowd of 3,000,” he said before giving a second, excessively low number, “there were only about four people who raised their hands. That just shows that these crazies on a kick about global warming are a bunch of deadheads.”

Spader, the science teacher, saw things a little differently. He was in a glum mood after the rally and fixed on one remark that Trump had made about changing school funding. “He said he wants to leave that to the states to decide, and I don't know,” Spader said. "Most teachers, they want more federal involvementStates and local governments don’t help us, and in the last three years we've lost ten positions at my middle school. And that James Foley question,” he added, referring to the journalist, “That was weird. Trump didn't say anything. Maybe he didn't know the guy was from Rochester. Every time he got a question he didn't like, he just blew it off or told a joke. I'm not a Trump supporter anymore. Maybe Jeb Bush …”

Spader's voice trailed off, woefully, but by the next morning he was already honing a new romance. “Bernie is at UNH in Durham Sunday,” he said, “That is sure to be just as entertaining as last night!”

When asked if he was now leaning towards Sanders, Spader's response was equivocal. Before deciding, he wanted, he said, to hear “Bernie's plan for federal education support and also his plan for getting big business out of politics.”

February is still five long months away.

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