WILMINGTON, N.C. — The crowds that pack Donald Trump’s campaign rallies still cheer wildly when the Republican presidential nominee takes the stage. They still scream with delight when he bashes illegal immigration and incompetent politicians, and jeer on cue when he mentions “crooked Hillary.”
But one-on-one conversations among those in the arena seats and quiet asides in the long lines outside reveal another sentiment these days among the Trump faithful — a growing frustration that the candidate is blowing the election, falling into traps laid by his opponents and committing unforced errors.
For Frank Steele, a Vietnam veteran in North Carolina who voted for Trump in the primary because the businessman didn’t talk down to the working class, the disappointment was most acute when Trump attacked the family of a fallen U.S. soldier after the father, Khizr Khan, spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
“He was baited, and he rose to the bait,” said Steele, 69, as he waited in line for Trump’s rally in this port city last week. “That’s his personality. He was wrong. You don’t bad-mouth somebody that’s lost a son.”
Jeff Hasler, 59, who is retired from the Army and attended a rally in Fayetteville, N.C., thinks Trump could win the election if he focused on the issue of Supreme Court nominations and stopped stumbling “over his own message.”
“You can tell he’s an amateur politician,” said Hasler, shaking his head as the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blared.
John Bash, a former machinist from Ohio who loves Trump’s anti-free-trade views and attended a rally last week for running-mate Mike Pence, said this of the social-media-savvy real estate tycoon: “I just wish he would stay off Twitter. From now until the election, he ought to just quit Twitter.”
For more than a year, Trump cultivated a fiercely loyal following inspired by the notion that an outsider businessman could turn politics upside down and rattle the entrenched interests in Washington. They helped him achieve the unimaginable, defeating a crowded primary field of senators and governors to secure the Republican nomination.
Just a few weeks ago, the White House seemed within Trump’s reach.
Polls showed the race tight, nationally and in key battleground states. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton seemed vulnerable, especially after FBI Director James B. Comey announced in early July that the former secretary of state had been “extremely careless” in her use of a private email server.
Then came Clinton’s mostly well-choreographed convention. And Trump seemed to create — and sustain — one controversy after another.
In late July, he questioned the motives of Khan, a Muslim lawyer from Virginia whose son was killed in Iraq more than a decade ago and who spoke passionately at the Democratic convention, asking if Trump had read the U.S. Constitution. To recover from that, Trump accepted a Purple Heart medal from a veteran at a rally in Virginia in early August, marveling that this was a “much easier” way to earn one and sparking another round of outrage.
That same week, Trump claimed to have watched video footage that the Iranian government recorded of the United States delivering millions of dollars, which he later admitted he had not seen. He initially refused to endorse House Speaker Paul D. Ryan in his primary and criticized a number of other prominent Republicans.
At his Wilmington appearance last week, Trump menacingly said that “Second Amendment people” could take action if Clinton appointed U.S. Supreme Court judges they disliked, accused President Obama of founding the Islamic State, and joked about kicking a baby out of a rally.
Instead of seeing an unexpected bounce in the polls following one of these high-profile controversies, as Trump had often experienced during the primaries, he fell further behind. His rebound options are limited, as his campaign infrastructure and fundraising operation are far less robust than those of the Clinton campaign.
Trump in recent days has begun to signal that a loss is possible, but he does not cite his actions as a factor. Instead, he has suggested that a loss in November would come about only through wrongdoing by Clinton and her allies. The Trump campaign distributed a call for election monitors over the weekend, asking voters to help Trump “stop crooked Hillary from rigging this election.”
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this, Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe it,” he told supporters Friday in Altoona, Pa.
In interviews, loyal Trump backers agree that the system seems rigged against their candidate. And they think the media is treating him unfairly. But some also say Trump increasingly bears some of the blame for tilting the odds even more against him.
“I just wish he would quit it,” said Bash, the former machinist who lives in Zanesville, Ohio. “I know the Democrats are baiting him. They are baiting him bad and getting him to say things.”
Bash would rather see Trump talk about the issues that won him over months ago: lowering taxes, bringing jobs back from overseas and securing the border. Bash said that after his plant shut down in 2005, the only job he could find was working 20 hours a week at Home Depot for $8.50 an hour — far less than the $18 per hour he earned as a tool-and-die maker.
“I just really believe Trump when he says he can bring jobs back,” said Bash, who is now retired. “I hope, I really hope that he can do good.”
As Steele waited outside Trump’s rally last week in Wilmington, he said that the things he likes most about Trump feed into the candidate’s weaknesses: He likes that Trump “speaks from the heart,” although sometimes that results in Trump saying things that get him into trouble. He likes that Trump is not part of the political “elite class,” although that means he’s usually unpolished.
“He was so wrong about the Khan thing,” Steele said, holding up a huge golf umbrella to keep away the sun.
Steele keeps waiting for Trump to surround himself with the right staff and take this campaign seriously — which means fewer controversial comments.
“Hopefully his children will tell him: ‘Dad, you’ve got to stop this stuff. It’s just not right,’” Steele said. “We’ve got so many problems in this country. We’ve got people dedicated to its destruction.”
Far ahead of Steele in line that day were 69-year-old Linda Barnhill and her 19-year-old granddaughter Reagan Barnhill, a chemical engineering student at North Carolina State University who was named for the late president. The elder Barnhill has been a Trump supporter since the day he announced, a fan of ideas such as the Mexican border wall, while the younger landed this spring.
“I love everything — I like the wall, I love the wall, I like the tax cut, I like the trade stuff that he’s going to do,” said the grandmother, a retired elementary school teacher who lives in Lake Waccamaw, N.C., and was dressed in a pink “Trump” T-shirt decorated with campaign buttons.
Barnhill said she has seen her community turn into “a ghost town” as the area paper mill scaled back its operations and a number of textile mills moved overseas. She thinks Trump “can talk to people like us” in a way that Clinton cannot because “he hires people like us to work for him.”
But Barnhill doesn’t like the controversies that distract from all of the issues that she loves hearing Trump talk about. Although she accuses the media of twisting Trump’s words, she said it would help if he didn’t provide so much material.
“Sometimes he speaks when he should keep his mouth shut,” Barnhill said.
Still, she’s convinced that he can win and that his poll numbers are artificially low. Her granddaughter — whose roommates beg her not to wear her Trump hat on campus for fear that she might get hurt — is not so sure. She has seen how divisive Trump can be and how uninterested her generation seems to be in this election.
“My grandma is convinced that he is going to win, but I’m a little scared,” she said. “I’m going to be honest: I’m scared of people not showing up to the polls.”