A lot of election coverage talks about how Donald Trump won, but it’s really a story about how his followers won.
I don’t pretend to know what he’s really thinking, nor how good or bad a president he’ll be. But I’ll suggest that Trump won because he forged some kind of bond with a huge chunk of the American people.
I first saw him in Raleigh, at the Dorton Arena on the State Fairgrounds, in December 2015. The crowd was like the audience for a favorite stand-up comedian. He ripped off one-liners, and they laughed and cheered. Trump beamed in self-satisfaction. I’m not sure either he or they took it all very seriously.
In March, he appeared at a big rally in Fayetteville. He stoked up the Crown Center Coliseum with attacks on “Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” The crowd roared its approval.
But that same day, he also did an interview with Sean Hannity at the same complex. The audience listened intently. I suspect they had moved on beyond curiosity and were trying to scope out what the brash billionaire was really going to do.
When Trump said he didn’t want to touch Social Security, for instance, no one said anything, but I thought I sensed one great, big sigh of relief. He obviously had intuited what voters wanted. And they listened very carefully to what he said.
It’s one thing when people applaud a politician; it’s another when they actually listen to him.
Maybe the most interesting encounter was one where I didn’t see him at all.
When he scheduled an early evening rally in Kinston on Oct. 26, some of the experts pondered whether this was a sign he was giving up. Why Kinston?
Well, he was headed home after an event in Charlotte, and maybe the Kinston Regional Jetport seemed to be an easy stop on the way.
I got there an hour before the event, figuring that would be plenty of time. I assumed he’d do a typical photo op, then jet away.
But when I got to the airport, traffic was backed up, so I parked by the road and headed toward what was obviously the airfield.
At the door to the hangar where he was to speak, a line of people three and four abreast was slowly filing in. I began walking down the line to get in at the end. I walked. And I walked.
I walked maybe a couple of hundred yards. The line kept going and going. I looked ahead, and in dusk, I couldn’t even see the end of the line: The crowd disappeared into the shadows ahead. I glanced right and saw a line of people moving the other direction.
At some point in the twilight ahead, the line had turned right, gone a hundred yards or so, then doubled back. Thousands of people had come to Kinston to hear Trump speak.
They waited patiently, quietly. The rowdiness of earlier months had subsided. Vendors tried to peddle Trump merchandise, and anti-Hillary Clinton items, but people didn’t seem very interested or angry. They were just waiting.
A small private plane landed. Was that Trump? People looked around. Then, out of the red and gold sunset, a Boeing 757 emblazoned TRUMP came roaring in.
Thousands of people waiting in line cheered.
I didn’t make it into the hangar to hear him speak, but I saw him speak back at Dorton Arena the day before the election. By that time millions had already voted. The smart guys and gals said he was going to go down to defeat.
But he seemed undaunted. He said he’d carry North Carolina and he’d win the White House.
As he talked about what he’d do as president, an interesting dynamic unfolded. At the first Dorton appearance, 11 months earlier, Trump had cued up responses. But at the second, it was the crowd that broke into cheers, “USA! USA! USA!” “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
He had to step back, clap along, give the thumbs-up sign, then go back to his speech. It seemed his supporters felt they could, at times, take charge of the moment, and the candidate had to accept their wishes.
Trump was their guy. I don’t think even the heartiest Trump fan is totally blind to his shortcomings. But as a group, a big hunk of the voters has decided he’s on their side, and that’s enough.
It’s not just that he’s a reality-show star or says outrageous things. He genuinely seems to connect with people. He has traveled all over the country to see as many real people as possible. He may even have learned something from all of the Americans he’s seen. They in turn have scrutinized him carefully, and, obviously, enough of them decided to give him a shot at the White House.
Conservatives see “man of the people” as a potentially dangerous thing. History can show innumerable examples of those who began as popular leaders and ended up badly.
But the elites can be dangerous, too. We have four years to see how far the pendulum has swung.
The media and political observers will keep an eye on Trump over the next four years. But we should also study respectfully the millions of people who have given him their allegiance. They are the real story.
Photo on home page is of line of people waiting to hear Trump in Kinston.