Donald Trump stepped onto the golden escalator that descends into the pink-marbled food court of Trump Tower. He flashed a thumbs-up as he passed a line of supposed supporters — random tourists lured off the street with the promise of an “only in New York” experience — and inched toward the reporters seated below. In a rambling speech, he marveled at the crowd size, called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” declared that “China is killing us” and vowed to make America great once again.
It was the garish start to a politics-as-reality-show that no one — whether for or against him — could stop watching. As the summer progressed, he hit No. 1 in the polls and attracted thousands to mega-rallies in cities from Mobile, Ala., to Phoenix on his unlikely journey to the White House.
But two years later, President Trump is struggling to keep his viewers engaged. Governing turns out to be less entertaining than the spectacle of a political horse race — especially when complicated by conflict-of-interest scandals, a widening criminal inquiry and a policy agenda bogged down by infighting and partisanship. A new poll last week by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 64 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing; only 35 percent approve.
The president’s die-hard supporters — the sort who make a pilgrimage to Trump Tower to ride the golden escalator — say they tune out much of the controversy, including the stream of news about the congressional and FBI investigations into alleged ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. And while many of them say Trump has met their expectations during his first five months in office, they also have a sinking feeling that those obstructing him will keep him from reaching his full potential as president.
“It’s very frustrating that he gets pushback on everything that he tries to do. It’s just everything. Everything,” said Debbie Maddox, 61, a retiree and Trump supporter from the Houston area who visited Trump Tower this month with her daughter and two grandchildren. “They just don’t give him a chance to do it, no matter what it is. He’s always wrong.”
Her daughter, Stacey Cotton, gently tells her mother that the president’s brash style makes it hard for many to trust him.
“He has an arrogance to him that I think sometimes makes it difficult for people to receive his message the way he wished they would receive it,” said Cotton, 43, who teaches third grade. “He’s not this polished politician.”
Cotton usually votes for Republicans, but she couldn’t bring herself to vote for Trump — or for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Now that Trump is president, Cotton said, she is willing to give him a chance to “spread his wings and see what he can do” — and she wishes others were willing to do the same.
In deep-red Texas, Cotton said, her friends, neighbors and co-workers have largely stopped talking about politics and the president; it’s just too divisive. She recently purchased an Ivanka Trump-branded blouse and then worried that wearing it might offend someone.
Cotton watches the local news in the morning, but she’s not following what’s happening in the White House as closely as she followed the campaign. Her parents watch Fox News nearly all day long, but her mother admits that she doesn’t know much about the Russia investigations.
“All of this stuff just makes you hate politics,” Maddox said. “All of it is just so negative. I don’t think I’ve heard so much junk during any other presidency.”
That was a common refrain among Trump’s supporters in the ’80s-reminiscent lobby.
“I think he’s doing a great job. I don’t have any complaints. I wish the media would back off, because they’re very negative and anything he does they want to pick apart,” said Lori Vanauken of Florida, as she and her family ate burgers and fries in the same spot where Trump announced his candidacy.
Vanauken and her husband said they wish Congress would implement some of Trump’s ideas instead of wasting time with hearings. They believe the president’s word over that of former FBI director James B. Comey and others — but added that even if Trump did tell Comey to stop investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn, it’s no big deal.
“Okay, so something happened — get over it and move on,” said David Vanauken, an engineer. “That’s what middle-class people do every day: You have a struggle, you resolve it, and you move on. Don’t keep hanging on it.”
Three weeks after Trump’s hometown announcement speech, he traveled to Phoenix for a rally that suggested that something unexpected was starting to happen. Thousands requested tickets — prompting the campaign to upgrade from a hotel ballroom to the city’s convention center.
That’s when immigration rights activists in Arizona, a testing ground for controversial crackdowns on migrants, decided to take him seriously.
“For some folks, it seems like a crazy joke, but we’ve seen people like that here,” said Maria Castro, 23, a community organizer with the Puente Human Rights Movement. “We’re in Arizona. We know what this is like. If we don’t want this to spread to the rest of the country, we have to do something now and pay attention to it.”
Castro and dozens of other activists showed up to Trump’s rally — only to find themselves far outnumbered by Trump’s supporters. Amid chanting from fellow activists, Castro pulled out a cloth banner that read, “Stop the hate.”
“As soon as we put the banner up, people swarmed us,” Castro said. “We were struggling to just keep it up. And that’s when people started punching.”
Castro and the others had never experienced anything like that in Arizona — but physical violence at Trump events would quickly become the new normal.
In the angry crowd that day, the activists saw Trump’s potential. Castro thought Bernie Sanders could stop him, but when he lost the Democratic nomination in June 2016, she posted on Facebook: “Are y’all ready for a Trump President? All 50 states will look like AZ, start organizing your bases now. Hillary can’t take the Donald. #NotWithHer.” Eventually, Castro voted for the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein.
“We couldn’t be happy fully because we knew that everything that we had been fighting for 10 years was going to go national,” Castro said, a tear rolling down her cheek as she remembered election night. “I was feeling devastated.”
She doesn’t regret her vote for Stein, saying that “you can’t blame it on this one night and on 1 percent of the people” who voted for the Green Party. While Castro often votes for Democrats, she doesn’t consider herself one and said the party needs to move beyond a message of “At least I’m not Trump” or “At least I’m not a Republican.”
A few months ago, Castro learned she was pregnant — and she decided it was no longer healthy to consume so much news. She still gets breaking news alerts on her phone and will still scroll through headlines and videos on Facebook, but she’s careful not to get too caught up.
“It was just weighing super heavy on me to the point where I was angry all of the time,” she said. “It was overpowering. I didn’t feel like it was healthy for me to be upset all the time. So I’ve made that conscious decision that I can’t have this in my life all day every day.”
Across town at the Phoenix Convention Center, Southern Baptist pastors gathered last week for their annual convention and passed a resolution denouncing the alt-right movement for a whites-only state, following a heated discussion over the wording. The push for the declaration came from younger and minority clergy.
Several pastors and their family members said they voted for Trump based on his positions, not him as a candidate. They were pleased to see Trump nominate Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and hope the president will follow through on his promises related to abortion and religious liberty. But many said they are more focused on their congregations, families and issues in their own communities than on what’s happening in the White House.
John Connell, a 63-year-old pastor from Florida who has strongly supported Trump for more than two years, said he was not surprised that Trump won or that Democrats are fighting him — but he was surprised to see members of Trump’s own party stalling on his legislation and continuing the investigation into the Russia allegations, which he calls “kindergarten trash.” Much of the criticism of Trump is overblown or exaggerated, he said.
“Hopefully with the midterm elections, we will continue to see that the nation as a whole is behind him,” said Connell, who said he believes only election results, not polls or approval ratings. “The East Coast and West Coast — the edges, the fringes — aren’t behind him, but Middle America is very pro-Trump.”
Jessica James, a photographer whose husband is a pastor in North Carolina, said the two of them voted for a third-party candidate, as they didn’t want to be associated with the negative connotations of being a Trump voter. James said that she rarely has time to follow the latest things Trump has said or done — and that it’s not vital to her busy life right now.
“There’s so much in this world that I could sit and worry about,” she said. “My hope is not in America, it is not in anything else but the Lord. . . . Whatever happens, I can’t control it, so I’m not going to worry about it. It’s all in the Lord’s hands.”
Despite being the “joke candidate,” Trump surged through that first summer at the top of the polls. With each rally, more people tuned in to watch the Trump Show.
In late August, thousands descended on Ladd-Peebles Stadium in a working-class black neighborhood in Mobile, Ala. At the front of the line was Bill Hart and his co-worker Keith Quackenbush, who drove in from Pensacola, Fla. Behind them was a young mother from Southern California who flew to Alabama just to see Trump. Local officials estimated the crowd at 30,000, although many have argued that the number is inflated.
Hart said he didn’t understand why people were so dismissive of Trump at that point. As he watched the football stadium fill, he knew Trump would win.
“A lot of people just didn’t understand that he connected with real people,” said Hart, who is now 48. “Not D.C. people. Not the media that’s so against him still. He connected with them.”
He also watched his number of Facebook friends dwindle. Hart is gay, and many of his friends couldn’t understand how he could support a Republican, let alone Trump. Soon, Hart took the Trump stickers off his car and decided against getting personalized plates reading “TRUMP45.”
“A lot of times, you have to hide your support of Trump — that’s the saddest thing. If you have Trump on your car, you have to worry: Is somebody going to key my car?” said Hart, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. “It’s even harder now because people are just so vile about it.”
He describes Democrats, protesters and journalists as “drama queens” who “just want to create drama and make themselves look good.” But Hart said he does wish that Trump would “put the damn phone down,” and he was disappointed that the president did not put out a statement supporting Pride month, which celebrates the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“If he would have come out and made a proclamation, it would have been used against him. If he doesn’t, it’s against him. It’s a no-win,” Hart said.
Tim Wadsworth, a state representative from Winston County in rural northwestern Alabama, endorsed Trump that day, along with three other state lawmakers. Trump won 90 percent of the general-election vote in Winston, and Wadsworth said his constituents remain “100 percent behind him.”
“You just have to ignore a lot of the things they’re saying and get down to what he’s actually doing,” Wadsworth said. “People can stir things up as much as they want to . . . but in the long run, justice prevails.”
That rally in Mobile turned out to be one of the largest of Trump’s campaign, and the neighborhood was overwhelmed with traffic. A neo-Confederate activist passed out copies of a newspaper that included a headline about “black-on-white crime.” There was a helicopter in the sky, along with a small plane carrying a banner promoting one of Trump’s rivals. Trump’s private plane swooped past.
Stephen Wheeler Sr., 46, remembers coming home that day and finding his street shut down.
“I couldn’t go to my damn house,” Wheeler said last week, as he and his son hauled a lawn mower past the stadium. “You’re not going to stop me from going to my own house.”
Wheeler didn’t take Trump seriously then, and he doesn’t take him seriously now.
“He needs to be impeached,” said Wheeler, who voted for Clinton.
That is a common sentiment in the predominantly African American neighborhood, where residents said they’re tired of hearing the news that Trump angered another foreign ally or that there’s been another development in the Russia investigation.
They just want him gone.
“If they can impeach Bill Clinton for infidelity, then they can impeach him for unreasoning and ill manners,” said LaKela Maye, 27, who moved away from Mobile for college but recently returned when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Maye, who voted for Clinton, said the president doesn’t seem to care about the issues that are so vital to this community — health care, education, women’s rights and unemployment.
“We take it day by day over here,” Maye said of her neighborhood. “Whether he comes or goes, we’re still going to have to live our day-to-day lives. . . . We have to move forward — whether it was Hillary in the office or Donald Trump or a man that was purple, we will still be the same way.”
Alice Crites and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.