LAKELAND, Fla. -- On a rainy afternoon, the Republican presidential nominee stood before several thousand Republicans at an airport in southern Florida and complained: “If we had a little help from our very weak leadership, from the Republican leadership, we would be sailing like we've never sailed before! These are weak people.”
As the crowd cheered, someone held up a sign giving Trump a thumbs up and the “RNC bolters” a thumbs down. Most in the crowd agreed.
“Get with the program. You're a Republican no matter who is at the top,” said Gwen Leland, 49, who was at Trump's rally at a regional airport here on Wednesday afternoon. “You stand behind them, or you're going to have a whole country of Democrats in Congress and in the Senate and in the courts, and you'll never get in again. Shame on them. They need to band together.”
Most of Trump's supporters are not fazed by prominent members of the Republican Party, such as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), distancing themselves from their nominee following the release of video of comments he made about women in 2005, bragging that he can grope and forcibly kiss them because he's famous.
At rallies this week, several Trump supporters said the Republican establishment should support the nominee no matter what — but this isn't the first time they have felt let down by their party's leaders. Their frustration has been building for years, especially as Republicans gained majorities in Congress and yet did not repeal the Affordable Care Act, wipe out illegal immigration or stop President Obama from making several social changes. And, often, that's why they were attracted to Trump, who promises to be the ultimate outsider who can shake up Washington and upset career politicians whom he accuses of being too cozy with major donors.
The year-long tension between the Republican leadership and the nominee that voters selected exploded this week. Trump's poll numbers have slid dramatically, and many Republicans have basically given up on winning the White House, instead implementing emergency procedures to try to protect their seats in the House and Senate. Ryan said he would no longer defend or campaign with Trump, while giving his members permission to do whatever they need to do to keep their seats. More than two dozen elected Republicans have called on Trump to drop out of the race, and many more have said they will no longer vote for him.
But there's a risk that the party could anger or alienate the voters who have formed the core of Trump's support, setting up problems for years to come. Already some Trump supporters say they want to see major changes in the Republican Party — especially if Trump loses.
“We have to do something different. The GOP has failed us. They have failed us,” said Jeanne Mauro, a grandmother who was at the rally and who lives in Lithia, Fla. “They have let Obama run over them, they have let Obama run around them, they have let him skirt the law with all of his executive orders.”
Mauro continued her criticism of Republican leaders: “They've just lost their will to fight. They're too much in bed with the Democrats. They've become one party. ... They look at the mass media and the polls, and they're afraid. They need to stand up and say what's right, not what sways the culture.”
James Tomlinson, 59, said he's not surprised that “corrupt” party leaders like Ryan and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) distanced themselves from Trump.
“That's okay because I've got no support for them either. None. None,” said Tomlinson, who lives in Avon Park, Fla. “That pipsqueak from Wisconsin? Ryan? To hell with him. We don't need him. American does not need that guy involved in government at all.”
The night before, Trump held a rally in Panama City Beach that attracted several thousand people, including Marla Clark, a 52-year-old legal assistant at a private law firm. Clark was raised in a Republican household but registered as a Democrat as a young worker because she “couldn't afford to be a Republican,” which she saw as the party of the rich. She voted for Obama in 2008 but was disappointed by the Affordable Care Act and changed her party registration to independent, mostly voting for Republicans in 2012. This spring she changed her party registration to Republican so that she could vote for Trump in her state's primary.
If Trump loses, Clark plans to return to being an independent. She said Ryan is “an idiot” for softening his support of Trump and not seeing the movement that Trump has sparked. Clark said that she is also “disgusted” with Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, because he didn't offer a full-throated defense of Trump as soon as that 2005 video emerged.
“They need to get rid of the parties. Everybody needs to be independent, because when the Republican Party doesn't stand by their own people, then they don't need to have a party,” Clark said. “The parties are nothing but a problem. That was great in my parents' generation, but in this generation? Everybody should be independent, and that way people will be forced to learn about their candidates, they can't just choose by party. So many people just vote by party, and that's the problem. That's a big problem.”