On Sept. 25 last year, several thousand people gathered on a Friday night around a bandshell at the Great State Fair of Oklahoma for what felt like a rock concert.
The opening acts included a live bald eagle named Uncle Sam, a young singer who belted out pop covers and a fiddler. The audience included an Elvis impersonator, a bearded member of the “Duck Dynasty” family and a group of young Democrats from a nearby college who couldn’t stop themselves from dancing along with the crowd.
And then there was the featured act: Donald Trump.
For 50 minutes, the unlikely Republican presidential candidate ordered journalists to pan the sprawling crowd with their cameras, mocked 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney, imitated political pundits, bragged about his poll numbers, plugged an upcoming “60 Minutes” interview and promised that he would make the country wealthy again. He vowed to self-fund his campaign, bully U.S. companies that try to move to Mexico, let Russia handle the Islamic State terrorist group and get rid of birthright citizenship for “anchor babies.” The audience pulsed with laughter, cheers and chants of his name.
Why were they there?
Political pundits had said for months that it was just for the show, while Trump insisted that he had sparked a political movement. He was right.
Standing toward the back that night was Charlie Bevers, a retired social studies teacher in his 60s from Moore, Okla., who said he was increasingly frustrated by what he viewed as the federal government’s minimal respect for the U.S. Constitution.
“At first, when he said he was going to run, I thought it was a joke. When he got out there and did his ‘Trumpisms,’ I listened because I thought it was funny,” Bevers said that night. “Then I realized he was saying what I want to hear.”
It was a sentiment that I would hear again and again over the next year, as I followed Trump to more than 170 rallies in 35 states and talked with thousands of his supporters. The first question I usually asked: Why do you like him?
The answers were nearly always the same: He’s saying what I’m saying, thinking, feeling or wanting to hear. He’s not a politician and not part of a corrupt system. He’s honest and speaks his mind, even if it gets him in trouble. And he’s tough.
Plus, Trump told his supporters that it was okay to blame their financial problems on undocumented immigrants and the Chinese, that it was okay to be fearful of Muslims and those who don’t speak English, that it was okay to punch back at Black Lives Matter activists, that it was okay to hate Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
In those early days, Trump had no Secret Service protection and nothing to lose. He took kids on rides in his helicopter in Iowa and stopped by a high school homecoming. There were no fundraisers, no sprawling staff, no teleprompters, no one telling him no. He held rallies in struggling former industrial towns with low median incomes and high rates of anger — and thousands showed up.
The rally in Oklahoma foreshadowed what would come. There was the crowd — loud and adoring, no matter what Trump said or did or what might be revealed about his past. There was the palpable outrage, the sharing of conspiracy theories, the mob mentality.
“Pick up your pitchfork!” a local politician shouted, firing up the crowd before Trump arrived. “Follow our next commander in chief! Join the Trump brigade and take back America once and for all!”
And there was the candidate, basking in the glow.
“No matter where I go, we have these incredible crowds,” Trump said that night. “Something is happening that is amazing. It’s amazing.”
Nov. 18, 2015: Worcester, Mass.
On a Wednesday night in mid-November, more than 12,000 Trump supporters and a small group of protesters gathered at an arena in downtown Worcester, a city with many more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Generations ago, waves of immigrants moved here to work in textile factories, many of which closed decades ago. The town has tried to reinvent itself as a biotech and health-care hub. Although less than 70 percent of Worcester is white, it seemed like nearly 100 percent of Trump’s crowd that night was.
Earlier that month, Trump received Secret Service protection, a sign of just how far he and his movement had come. Photos of the packed arena in a blue town in a blue state would stun those who were convinced that at any moment, Trump would implode and drop out, allowing them to resume the traditional process of selecting a nominee.
Sitting close to the stage were Tom and Sandy Morrissey, who drove in from Rhode Island and spoke longingly of the days when the nation was, in their eyes, a better place.
“When I grew up in Miami, it was English-speaking, and now 75 percent of the households are non-English-speaking,” said Tom Morrissey, a Vietnam War veteran in his late 60s wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. “And people say they like to go to Miami because they like to go down there for the Cuban music. Well, I love Cuban music — I like to go to Cuba for Cuban music.”
“I want my home town back,” he continued. “And you can call me a racist or whatever.”
The Morrisseys said they once tried to buy a get-well card in a Miami convenience store but there were no options in English. Another time they went into a bakery and, they said, the woman working there refused to sell them pastries unless they ordered in Spanish.
“They would not serve us,” Sandy Morrissey said. “That’s how bold people have gotten because they can be bold. That’s the only reason why.”
“So if you want that to happen to this whole nation,” Tom Morrissey said, “you go ahead and vote for Hillary.”
“People don’t want to know the truth,” Sandy Morrissey added later. “I don’t think people care — and I think God has withheld his judgment on America. We are in deep trouble. This is not the America I knew as a child. It just isn’t. And I feel bad about that.”
On the stage that night, Trump marveled at the crowd.
“Look at the people pouring in,” he said. “This has been a movement. No matter where I go — and I don’t even know if it’s for me. It’s for me, I guess, a little bit. It’s for the message.”
Dec. 21, 2015:
Grand Rapids, Mich.
A few days before Christmas, Trump traveled to an aging arena in Grand Rapids on a cold, dark, rainy night. As traffic backed up, some parked near the railroad tracks. Generations ago, the city was known for its furniture factories that have mostly closed, although the economy here has been rapidly growing the past few years.
The rally felt like a Christmas party. The stage was decorated with huge wreaths and a red “Merry Christmas” sign written in elegant script. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” blared. Many in the crowd said they couldn’t wait for the country to again say “Merry Christmas” under President Trump.
Sitting near the top of the bleachers was Kevin Steinke, a self-employed consultant in his 50s from a nearby suburb. He and his wife, a part-time music teacher, have two teenage sons, and they feel as though they are financially stuck in place, maybe falling behind. It had become difficult for Steinke to find clients, and he thought about once again working for a company instead of for himself — but it’s hard to get hired over 50, he said.
Sitting with his sons, he said the country needs a chief executive more than a “politician in chief” — someone who can cut government bloat without destroying the government, who can ease taxes without destroying schools, who can get rid of regulations without wiping them all out.
“People are getting frustrated by the fact that we don’t seem like we’re getting anywhere as a nation,” Steinke said. “A lot of us feel like we’re going backward.”
Steinke has always been a Republican and has always voted for Republicans, and he doesn’t understand why the GOP continues to allow the Affordable Care Act to stand. He’s glad the party received a much-needed jolt from an outsider.
“It’s causing some of the establishment people to panic,” he said, “and I kind of like that.”
On stage that night, the Republican front-runner triumphantly declared: “This isn’t really a silent majority anymore, folks. This is a very, very aggressive, very, very noisy, loud majority. Very, very noisy. Very, very loud.”
Feb. 11, 2016: Baton Rouge
Ten days after losing the Iowa caucuses and two days after winning the New Hampshire primary — his first ballot victory — Trump traveled to an arena in Louisiana’s capital that pulsated with gleeful energy matching his new burst of momentum.
The South was home to Trump’s biggest and rowdiest crowds, and a pre-rally speaker noted that the candidate didn’t have a “Southern nickname,” dubbing him “Donny John.”
Sitting near the stage were Matthew Stirling and Darrin Hahn, brothers-in-law who live just outside town and hustle for every dollar they make. Stirling kept apologizing for Hahn’s bad language.
Stirling, then 40, said he installs security fences and had seen a huge spike in business because so many people “feel pretty damn unsafe.” Hahn, then 45, is a commercial electrician.
“We’ve got to go drum it up,” Hahn said. “If I don’t go drum up work, then I’ve got 11 guys who don’t work the next day, so I constantly have to go, literally, business to business.”
And that’s why they like Trump. He hustles, just like them.
“He’s a regular guy,” Stirling said. “He eats Wendy’s on his plane.”
“But he owns a plane!” I responded.
I was endlessly surprised that people said they related to Trump — who grew up wealthy, attended boarding school, received a $1 million loan from his father as a young man and lives in a gold-and-marble tower in Manhattan with his third wife, a former model. He is a germophobe who doesn’t like shaking hands and will drink soda only from a sealed can or bottle. Backstage at a rally in New Hampshire in January, I asked Trump to tell me about one interaction he had with a supporter that stuck with him — and he called his campaign manager over to answer the question.
“Doesn’t matter,” Hahn said, shaking his head. “He’s actually out there and hustled it and built it.”
Said Stirling: “He can come over to my house, and I will boil him crawfish. He can land his plane in the cul-de-sac. I mean, if he wants to go hang out with all of those VIP donors, that’s fine. But come hang out with a real hard-working American man. I’ll buy his beer, I’ll buy him Wendy’s, I’ll boil his crawfish. Don’t matter.”
Aug. 9, 2016: Wilmington, N.C.
It was early August on the North Carolina coast, and it was miserably hot. Hundreds of people were lined up outside a small coliseum at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
In June, after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump attacked a federal judge assigned to one of his civil cases, saying he was unable to be impartial because his parents were born in Mexico. In July, after becoming the nominee, Trump attacked the Muslim American parents of a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq, saying they had no right to question him from the stage of the Democratic National Convention.
In the spring, Trump had appeared poised to topple Clinton. Now, it seemed as though the race was over. Instead of focusing on the messages that resonated with Americans, he was obsessed with defending himself.
Yet his most avid supporters were still standing with him, still waiting hours to see him.
I was there with them, fanning myself with a reporter’s notebook and sweating off my sunscreen. In June, Trump banned The Washington Post from covering his events, although reporters could attend most of his rallies by entering with the general public. For three months, I attended his gatherings like his fans did — signing up for a free ticket online, arriving to venues hours early and waiting in line.
That gave me a direct look at the chronic disorganization of Trump’s campaign. He had sparked a movement, but his campaign seemed to be doing little to harness it.
The lines were often long, sometimes stretching more than half a mile. Food and water were rarely available, and neither were separate entrances for the elderly or the disabled. Occasionally, local Republican organizers would sign people up to vote and recruit volunteers, but the campaign never did.
At many political rallies — including those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), Clinton’s Democratic primary challenger — campaign staff members count off the line and let supporters at a certain point know that there is no chance they will get inside. This never happened as I waited. Those around me assumed that if they had a ticket, they would get in.
Either the campaign was too disorganized to grant this kindness to its most devoted supporters — or, as I came to suspect, they cared more about creating a spectacle for reporters to document and for Trump to point to as proof of his broad support.
In a rare move ahead of the Wilmington rally, the campaign limited the number of tickets to 5,800 — although no one was checking tickets at the door.
“That’s not fair,” a retiree said when she heard the news from those around her, tears welling up in her eyes. (She was one of the last people admitted.)
Frustration grew as the start time neared. As the Trump supporters waited, protesters on the other side of the street behind a barricade screamed at them. A young woman yelled out Bible verses while holding a pink sign that read, “Jesus was a socialist.” A guy in a banana costume quietly held a sign reading, “This s--- is bananas.”
Trump’s supporters were hot and tired, and now they were being attacked. Many yelled back.
“Your food stamps are in the mail!”
Soon the venue was filled and workers closed the doors. There were disappointed groans, but I couldn’t find anyone who blamed Trump. After all, they said, it’s not his fault that he’s so popular.
People hung around for a few minutes, not sure what to do. Some went back to their cars. Others made an angry beeline for the protesters.
Inside, Trump bragged about the “thousands of people outside that can’t get in.”
“I’m the messenger,” Trump said, trying to make this movement about more than just him. “But I’ll tell you what, the message is the right message.”
Oct. 11, 2016: Panama City Beach, Fla.
In early October, Trump traveled to the Florida Panhandle, one of his hotbeds of support. More than 8,000 showed up at an outdoor rally on the water, a much-needed confidence boost for Trump. He had just apologized for recorded comments revealed by The Washington Post in which he bragged in 2005 about sexually assaulting women, and he faced accusations from a growing number of women that he had forced himself on them.
Leaders of the party were distancing themselves, resigned to a loss of the White House but hoping to keep as many seats as possible in Congress.
“Paul Ryan’s an idiot,” said Marla Clark, 52, a legal assistant at a private law firm who lives in Panama City, referring to the House speaker. “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. The parties are nothing but a problem. That was great in my parents’ generation, but in this generation?”
She was also mad at Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, for not standing more firmly with Trump when controversy hit. (“Does an officer leave his canine behind? No.”) She was mad at those offended by Trump’s crude comments. (“They’ve never spewed anything nasty out of their mouth?”) She was mad at Clinton, the “rigged system” and the media. (“They’re desperate.”)
And she was even a little mad at Trump.
“I was worried that he gets angry too fast,” she said. “I was worried that he doesn’t think about what he says. And there have been many times where I’m like: I want him for president, but his mouth does tend to just get out of line once in a while.”
She wanted Trump to win, and she was still hopeful he could — as long as people realized how bad things had gotten and how much worse they could still get.
“I’m truly scared,” she said. “I’m just scared for the world. I’m scared for the United States. I really am.”
Oct. 31, 2016:
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Eight days before the election, Trump returned to the aging arena in Grand Rapids. It was Halloween, and his campaign had decorated the stage with pumpkins, buckets of crimson mums and bales of hay.
“Monster Mash” and other Halloween songs blared. The audience included Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, Lady Liberty and “Crooked Hillary” in an orange jumpsuit.
Sitting near the top of the bleachers for that afternoon rally was Robert Donley, 74, who retired from IBM in 1999, drove a commercial truck for five years, and now splits his time between Michigan and Arizona. For most of his life he was a Democrat, but he said he began voting for Republicans after President Bill Clinton was caught lying about having an affair with a young intern.
He likes that Trump wants to go after companies that exploit workers or move jobs overseas. He agrees with Trump on cracking down on illegal immigration but is conflicted on the nominee’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, although he doesn’t have a better idea. He likes that Trump doesn’t dwell too much on social issues such as same-sex marriage.
But he doubts that Trump will win. Instead of hammering on the messages that resonate with voters like him — job creation, trade, taxes and the economy — Trump obsessed over his personal feuds. Donley was stunned when Trump attacked the Hispanic judge, calling it “low-class, lowbrow.”
But Hillary Clinton’s email server was once again in the news, and Trump seemed to have one last opening.
“It opens a window, but the problem with Donald — I mean, he can turn a good thing into a defeat really fast with his mouth,” Donley said.
On the stage that day, Trump insisted that he would win.
“We’ve created a movement. This is like a great movement that the whole world is talking about,” he said. “And honestly you’ll never have this chance; in four years, I don’t care who it is that runs, you’re never gonna have this chance. So you have to get out and vote. Vote with all of your heart, vote with all of your soul, because this is it.”