Three weeks after watching their candidate's unexpected victory, Donald Trump's supporters again pulled out their T-shirts and buttons, got in their cars, and packed into a cavernous rally hall to show their support for the outsider turned commander in chief.
They were hopeful, happy, and mostly on-message. Save for the verb tenses and the knot of protesters outside, President-elect Trump's first rally didn't feel all that different from any of candidate Trump's.
John Sedlak, a police officer who'd driven in from nearby Hamilton, said he was "ecstatic. It's been three weeks and he's saved jobs in Louisville and Indiana already, I think he's doing pretty darn good." Standing in the snack bar line, Sedlak named economic issues and "getting tough with ISIS" as his first-day-in-office priorities for Trump.
Jack Clark, a student at nearby Covington High School, told BuzzFeed News he hoped to see Trump repeal Obamacare and bring more jobs to the region. Ethan Appelman, another local high school student, also named jobs as a day-one priority.
Blake Botner drove two and a half hours from a small coal town in southern Kentucky to attend the rally. The president-elect "seems like he could articulate to the American people what we actually think," he said, adding that it was the first presidential debate that swayed him toward Trump. Last month, he played Trump in his high school's mock election, shaving his beard, styling his hair, and practicing his candidate's signature closed-mouth frown. He won by 80%.
"First off, renegotiate some of these trade deals and stuff," Botner suggested when asked about Trump's top priorities. "Start the wall, get to work on Obamacare."
This rally — which took place at the US Bank Arena, home of the minor-league hockey team the Cincinnati Cyclones — was the first of many stops along Trump's post-election, pre-inauguration "Thank You Tour." The rallies come at an interesting moment for a political movement that gained so much of its velocity by defining itself as the underdog, the outsider, the opposition to Hillary Clinton, but which now finds itself in charge and on the inside, with more diffuse enemies to fight. With Trump (soon to be) in the Oval Office, what's a Deplorable to do?
Here in Cincinnati, the answer was: mostly what they were doing before, perhaps a little more quietly. The crowd were no rowdier, no louder, no more empowered (and notably smaller) than similar ones had been at pre-election rallies. The mood was something closer to calm satisfaction than in-your-face jubilance.
There was very little gloating, at least from the audience, nor was there much of the anger — specifically directed at Clinton — that characterized the campaign. Though one man came painted as the stoner meme turned alt-right icon Pepe and many others came covered in Trump-Pence buttons, few wore the HILLARY FOR PRISON T-shirts that were ubiquitous at rallies during the summer and fall. There were no Hillary effigies, no Hillary masks, no calls to "execute her!" In the crowd, people chatted amiably about their families and jobs.
Outside, merch hawkers told BuzzFeed News business was roughly as brisk as it had been earlier, though instead of selling T-shirts that said "Adorable Deplorable" and "Hillary Sucks (But Not Like Monica)," they offered ones that showed a content-looking Trump resting inside the presidential seal. One vendor named Art said his current bestseller was a relatively austere long-sleeve shirt that said "Disaster Relief: Trump 2016–2020" on the front and boasted a list of the 29 states Trump won on the back.
About a hundred protesters gathered too, holding signs saying things like "Home of the Reds But We Voted Blue," "Make America Kind Again," and "We Are Still Here." Meg Bruck, a 67-year-old retired social-services worker in a "Black Lives Matter Cincinnati" T-shirt, told BuzzFeed News she spent Nov. 9 "really angry and really determined." She, like many others, had heard about the protest on Facebook. The crowd shouted chants like "education, not deportation" as rally attendees streamed in, and a sole counterprotester who told BuzzFeed News he was "with Jesus, not Trump," shouted, "2-4-6-8, chop off her head and put it on a plate."
Inside — and after short speeches from Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others — Trump stayed mostly on-message too. He talked policy, pushed inclusion, announced his selection of retired General James Mattis as secretary of defense, and steered conspicuously far away from Clinton. But he also frequently went off-script, returning to campaign trail hobbyhorses including the "dishonest" press and his anti-immigration agenda, often to cheers and applause, despite the half-empty stands.
And he basked in victory: "We won in a landslide. That was a landslide," he said. "The bottom line is we won."
After a nearly hourlong speech, the crowd filtered out into the gelid Ohio winter, rubbing their hands and occasionally breaking out into a short-lived U-S-A! U-S-A! chant. Zach Foxx, a 23-year-old warehouse worker from nearby Trenton, Ohio, had come expecting a "pretty sweet regroup" after the election, something not unlike a parade for a winning sports team. Asked what he made of this event, he shrugged. "I guess it was a lot of the same."