BIRCH RUN, Mich. – It took just six words for the hot and winded crowd to remember why it showed up for Donald Trump. The Republican presidential candidate was 45 minutes late, delayed by air traffic that even his personal 757 could not cut through. The speech started with a riff on China's currency devaluation, which Trump tried to put in layman's terms: "Devalue means, suck the blood out of the United States!"
Then Trump turned to immigration. He haltingly retold the story of a boy he'd met, the "apple of his father's idea," cut down by an undocumented immigrant.
"We have to build a wall," said Trump.
The audience, 2,800 people-strong, started to cheer. Those sitting in the bleachers of the Birch Run Expo Center stomped their feet, as if trying to power the home team to a win. It took 10 seconds for the din to quiet, and for Trump to move on to the Iran deal ("the worst deal"), the media ("scavengers"), and his Republican foes ("zero in the polls"). In his first rally since a difficult first presidential debate, and an attendant (but slight) decline in the polls, Trump changed nothing.
As far as central Michigan was concerned, he didn't need to. Trump's crowd lined up for the Genesee and Saginaw Republican Party's Lincoln Day party hours before it started. Organizers quickly ran out of media credentials, scribbling the word "press" on legal pad paper and ushering reporters into a space barely big enough for their 16 cameras. Fans of the tycoon candidate wore home-made shirts, and tucked copies of his books under the arms. They paid at least $25 for entry, and that did not cover the cost of the fair food or beer from the concession stands.
"People want a real person now because we're tired of the politicians," said Carla Smith, 55, who volunteered to set up the event wearing a red, white and blue shirt and a home-made Trump button the size of a dinner plate. "Last year, we voted all these Republicans in to stop Obama, and they rolled over. They let him sign those orders to let all the illegals in."
Trump's anti-politician strategy, if it can be called a strategy, has seen him eschew traditional retail campaigning for show-of-strength rallies. His ad hoc platform of trade protectionism and tight borders was tailor-made for Michigan, a state where NAFTA is a fighting word.
But Trump made no public appearances in the state, spending the morning on the phone with CNN and Fox News, and squeezing in another Fox hit from his eponymous tower with Fox host Sean Hannity. His campaign had no real presence at the Birch Run event, even though it will require at least 15,000 signatures for ballot access. That made for a contrast with nearly 100 well-drilled protesters, who lined the road to the expo center waving anti-Trump signs and Mexican flags. Trump claimed at one point that "a thousand" fans had been stuck outside the venue. According to organizers, only around 25 people showed up to see if they could access the sold-out speech.
The lack of a street team might have emphasized what Trump wanted: His grass-roots support is scattered, random and real. Multiple attendees said they had never previously gone to a political rally, much less a party fundraiser. The speech they got only occasionally focused on the problems of Michigan, as when Trump paused to note that the companies he would strong-arm out of moving factories to Mexico would be better off building them nearby.
Trump's glancing interest in local politics made it into in a pre-speech press conference. Asked if President Obama showed leadership in the 2008/2009 bailout of the major auto companies, Trump meandered through an answer that left him without a position.
"You could have let it go, and rebuilt itself, through the free enterprise system," said Trump. "You could have let it go bankrupt, frankly, and rebuilt itself, and a lot of people felt it should happen. Or you could have done it the way it went. I could have done it either way. Either way would have been acceptable. I think you would have wound up in the same place."
That answer, not ideal in Michigan, actually contrasted one of Trump's prior stances. "I think the government should stand behind them 100 percent,” Trump told to Fox News’ Neil Cavuto in 2008. “You cannot lose the auto companies. They’re great. They make wonderful products." And on Tuesday, as he warned his audience about the threat of Chinese currency manipulation, he said that further exploitation could "make Detroit look like nothing."
Trump's combination of heavy doom and thin details carried him through 52 minutes of speech, bookended by the theme from The Karate Kid and Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." He got knowing chuckles when suggesting that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) opposed the Iran deal only after being assured that his vote would not sink it. When he asked how many people in the crowd had read his first book, The Art of the Deal, hundreds of hands shot up.
"It's my second favorite book of all time," said Trump. "Do you know what my first is? The Bible! Nothing beats the Bible."
It was one of his best lines, but it came late, and some of the people inspired to care about politics by Trump had started to trickle out. A steady, small stream of people exited the room, and when Trump wrapped, a full-on rush for the parking lot broke out.
"It was great, but we've been here for four hours," said LouAnn Hurry, 54, as she moved toward the exit. "Now I don't know why I come to these."
Trump had his crowd when it counted. And at the press conference, he happily contrasted the receptions he got to a weekend incident in Seattle, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lost the mic at a rally to protesters who demanded that "racist progressives" were not talking enough about black lives.
"That will never happen with me," said Trump. "I don't know if I'll do the fighting myself, or if other people will. It was a disgrace. I felt badly for him, but it showed that he was weak. You know what? He's getting the biggest crowds, and we're getting the biggest crowds. We're the ones getting the crowds. But that's never going to happen to Trump."