JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — While the media again and again recounts Donald Trump’s latest self-brewed controversy, his supporters say they don't care.
Telling the Russians to hack a former secretary of state’s emails? A joke, many of them say.
Insulting the family of fallen war hero? He was baited into it, they say.
Refusing to endorse the reelection of Republican stalwarts such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.)? They say Trump doesn’t need the Republican leadership.
Many of Trump’s supporters say they don’t even care that he seemed to kick a crying baby out of a rally in Virginia earlier this week.
“He was joking,” said Spencer Marble, 19, during Trump's latest campaign rally here Wednesday night.
To Marble and countless other Trump supporters, that was just another Trump joke misinterpreted and exaggerated into controversy by a hostile media. At two rallies Wednesday in Florida — first at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach and later at an arena in Jacksonville — several supporters said they're willing to overlook these jokes and ineloquent comments because Trump has taken on the heroic task of rescuing the United States and returning it to glory.
“If that’s all they got, they got nothing,” said Jeff Jarrell, 59, a general contractor who attended the event in Daytona Beach.
“The number one thing that I love about him the most is that he stood up to the Old Establishment of both the Democratic and Republican parties,” Jarrell said. “The Old Establishment is not supporting him, and he won’t need them.”
Jarrell said he thinks Trump supports ordinary working Americans over the elite and that he will rebuild the middle class by rebuilding the manufacturing base and wrestling power from big corporations, the moneyed elite and the politicians who do their bidding.
“It’s about the people,” Jarrell observed. “And the people have spoken.”
Also at the Daytona Beach rally was Don Gruber, an 80-year-old who admits Trump is too easily provoked and too easily drawn into controversies. Gruber, a Marine veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, sat on a motorized wheelchair in front of his wife, Terry. In Vietnam, Gruber said he lost half of his left arm and that an explosion mangled one of his legs — so he understands the sacrifice of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim American parents whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan, was killed in a car-bomb attack in Iraq in 2004. They challenged Trump's views at the Democratic National Convention last month, prompting criticism from him. Gruber said Trump is too easily drawn off his really important message of saving the United States.
“It was a set up,” said Gruber of the Kahn controversy. “He fell into it.”
Gruber’s advice for Trump: “Stay on topic. Stay on topic,” he said.
But that tendency doesn’t dissuade Gruber from his belief that Trump will be a great president. He just thinks Trump needs more grooming and a bunch of really experienced people advising him.
Later on Wednesday in Jacksonville, about 100 protesters lined the street leading to the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, where at least 10,000 people attended Trump's rally. One protester with a megaphone led a group in a chant: “Donald Trump, You’re an a--. Here comes the working class.” When protesters and supporters of Trump started to clash and the arguments grew heated, a group of Jacksonville sheriff deputies told the crowd to leave the area and walked in a line, shoulder to shoulder, to push the protesters down a sidewalk and away from the arena.
Inside the Jacksonville rally, the working class was on the mind of electrician Larry Hodges, 50. He sees similarities between Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) critique of the U.S. economic system, and he agrees with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that banking regulations need to be strengthened. He said he believes Trump’s promises to rebuild the U.S. manufacturing base will reestablish the middle class, and he says that banning the illegal immigrant labor force will increase jobs. Both those efforts, he said, will get more money flowing through the economy.
During the rally, Trump said that earlier he met with six Gold Star families whose loved ones were killed in the Iraq War. He said one man gave him a campaign donation, telling the nominee that it was more money than he could afford.
"I just thought it was amazing," Trump said during the rally. "The love in that room for this country is amazing."
Steve Roberts, who was also at the Jacksonville rally, said that “American culture and the American a way of life has gone off track” and that the last time it was on track was in the days after the 9/11 attacks.
“Americans came together after 9/11,” Roberts said. “I remember that time when we were Americans together, and we need a president that will pull us together.”
Back then, Roberts saw the displays of patriotism, such as flags waving from car antennae and television news anchors sporting flag pins. But he complained the togetherness only lasted five or six years. As the crowd in the arena in Jacksonville bellowed, "USA! USA! USA!" and "Trump! Trump! Trump!" Roberts says he felt that fervor again.
Correction: An earlier version of this report included an incorrect reference to the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.