ASHEVILLE, N.C. — As thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters left his rally here this week, they were greeted by protesters who accused them of being, among other things, racist, hateful and uneducated.
“Grow a brain, b----!” one protester shouted at a Trump backer. Another pointed at rallygoers and yelled: “Racist a------s!” A third held a sign that read: “Make racists afraid again.”
Then they chanted in unison: “Love trumps hate! Love trumps hate! Love trumps hate!”
“They have these vulgar signs, yet they’re screaming about love,” said Lisa Jones, 51, a Trump supporter from Hendersonville, N.C. “And we’re the ones that are intolerant? We’re deplorable and intolerant? Well, we just found out that we’re deplorable. We thought that we were just intolerant.”
Many rallygoers here in this mountain town Monday evening shrugged off Hillary Clinton’s controversial remark that “half” of Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” because they are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” While the Democratic candidate has expressed regret for using the word “half,” she has not abandoned her assertion that some of Trump’s supporters are truly deplorable.
“It made me feel real little,” said John Warren, 72, of Asheville, who wore a camouflage “Make America Great Again” cap. “That she was downplaying us. I mean, we are voters and, you know, we respect her. But not in the position she is running for.”
Many Trump supporters say they have been called much worse for their views on same-sex marriage, abortion, transgender rights, Syrian refugees, illegal immigration and race relations. Like the Republican nominee, they say they aren’t afraid to say politically incorrect things and no amount of name-calling from liberals is going to change that.
“One man’s steak is another man’s baloney,” said a 62-year-old salesman from Tennessee who said he was proud to have sold 14 Confederate flags outside the rally but did not want his name published. “Just like a woman: I mean, I might say she’s beautiful. The next guy might say she’s ugly. You know what I’m saying?”
A 43-year-old construction project manager dressed up as a “deplorable,” putting a laundry basket over his head. Another man carried a sign reading: “Deplorable lives matter.” As two young men left the rally, one turned to the other and said, “Okay, Dan, let’s go be deplorable.”
During the event, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani joked that Clinton had mentioned “some phobics I’ve never heard of” and that “maybe the claustrophobics are for Trump.” Trump pulled supporters on stage to share their thoughts, concluding: “These are not deplorable people. That I can tell you.”
The Trump campaign has focused heavily on the “deplorables” theme as a way to paint Clinton as elitist and out of touch, but it has also stumbled into its own problems with the issue.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., posted a picture labeled “The Deplorables” on Instagram over the weekend that placed his father and several Trump surrogates alongside conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and a cartoon character, Pepe the Frog, associated with the online white nationalist alt-right movement. Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence has refused to use the word “deplorable” to describe former Ku Klux Klan leader and Trump supporter David Duke, though he said Tuesday that he and Donald Trump disavow Duke.
The Clinton campaign points to such incidents, as well as polls showing that many Trump supporters harbor prejudiced views of nonwhites, as evidence that many Trump backers are indeed deplorable.
At the Monday night rally, one protester held a sign that read “Deplorable Trump misleads good people.”
Some here acknowledged that a small fraction of Trump backers could be seen as having deplorable views, but they added that every movement has a fringe.
“Some of them are, but I am a common-sense, logical person,” said Joe Pruden, 26, a plumber from Asheville, whose girlfriend’s weight was mocked by a protester.
He continued: “Trump supporters, they’re on the defense, and I’ve been talking to other conservatives and saying, ‘Hey, we need to start standing up, man.’ We are done being bullied into a corner by these liberal, left-wing, progressive Nazi foot soldiers.”
Kathy Campbell, 40, said Trump could avoid some of the criticism by more carefully choosing his words.
“Trump has a way about him that comes off sounding mean and hateful,” said Campbell, who lives in North Carolina’s Rutherford County and originally supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “I don’t care for his tone sometimes because I think you catch more flies with honey.”
Campbell likes that Trump would crack down on illegal immigration and the public aid undocumented workers receive. She said her children were on Medicaid for a total of 20 years and, as a single mother, she needed the assistance of food stamps for five years, even though she was working full time.
“The women who are sitting on their asses at home that can work, and they keep having baby after baby after baby just so they can keep getting more and more food stamps? They’re abusing the system,” Campbell said.
She added: “I’m a deplorable. Whatever. I’m also called narrow-minded. You know what? There is so much talk about tolerance. Where’s the tolerance for me as a Christian? Where’s the tolerance for me as a Republican? There’s none.”
This sentiment is common among conservatives here in North Carolina, where Republican lawmakers sparked a national backlash by enacting legislation that weakened anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians and that requires transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates.
Shannon Niven, a 40-year-old nursing student and mother of two from Transylvania County, said Trump supporters like her are educated and accepting — but tired of having the values of others forced upon their lives. She said the debate over the rights of transgender people, who she believes have a “mental illness,” shows how much society has changed in the past decade or two.
“Let a man come into the bathroom with my little girl, and he may not make it out,” she said. “North Carolina — we’re conservative, we’re Christian, but we’re also a little crazy, and we will defend ourselves.”
The supporters and protesters who showed up to the rally had mostly made up their minds about the election, but each side tried to sway the other anyway. Brenda Lilly, a Clinton backer who teaches in Asheville, chatted with a young couple outside the event and tried to warn them about Trump.
“He is a racist. He’s a racist. What makes you think that he’s not?” Lilly said, giving a few examples, including Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims.
“It’s only temporary,” the teenage girl, who will not be old enough to vote in November, said as she held a Trump flag over her head.
“Temporary! That’s what they said about Jews in Germany,” Lilly responded. “Please, read your history. I beg you.”
Lilly also debated with Michelle Visconte, 47, who says Trump was right to label illegal immigrants as rapists and criminals.
“I dated Hispanic men all of my life, and now I’m just like, I’m done. I’m done,” Visconte said. “Because you know what? They’re here to bleed us and take advantage of whatever they can get.”
“No, they’re not,” said Lilly, who lived in California for 27 years before recently returning to North Carolina. “Were all of your boyfriends rapists and criminals?”
“Not every one. I had a couple good ones,” Visconte said.
“Were they all criminals?” Lilly asked.
“No,” Visconte replied. “Wait a minute, wait a minute: Yes, they were criminals if they came over to the United States illegally. That’s a criminal.”
Conversations like this exasperated Lilly and confirmed what she had suspected.
“Quite frankly, I think 50 percent could be a small percentage,” she said of the size of the “basket of deplorables.” “These people are nuts. And I don’t think they all are. I think there probably are some fine people.”
After the rally, arguments between supporters and protesters continued. Two younger demonstrators got into a nasty yelling match with an older man wearing a profane pro-Trump T-shirt; they all took videos of one another saying or doing unkind things. Friends intervened and a police officer begged, “Please, just be nice.”
Later, as a young man wearing an “Obama can’t ban these guns” tank top flexed his muscles for a photo, a young female protester threw a cup of water on him and ran away. As he pulled the wet shirt off, he yelled, “That f---ing b----!”
As the two sides exchanged nasty words, an older activist took the lead in denouncing the Trump supporters, while a motherly woman leaving the rally urged the young men to go home before a fight broke out. She then turned to the gray-haired protester and asked why he was trying to incite a fight.
“They need to be called out,” he said. “They need to be called out for their racism.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.