PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida — Donald Trump’s evening rally here in the heart of the “Redneck Riviera” had all the markings of a classic Trump banger.
A huge, friendly, largely white, largely Southern crowd in a stronghold of the GOP’s most conservative elements awaited him. It was an evening rally, at which his theatrics — and the crowd's enthusiastic participation in his populist show of power — have often been at their best.
And, most important, Trump had a giant, elephant-shaped axe to grind with the GOP establishment, which he declared earlier in the day he’d been freed from his “shackles” to attack. He’d spent the early morning hours slamming House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain for the sin of refusing to support him, after he was caught on tape bragging that his wealth and fame gave him a free pass to sexually assault women.
And just hours earlier, he’d railed against them in person, first at a set of unannounced fundraisers in Texas and, later, in a taped interview with Bill O’Reilly in which he unloaded on Ryan in particular.
It should have been Trump at his most blazing, party-rending best. Sure, there was a teleprompter on stage, but when had that ever stopped Trump from unleashing his inner demons?
But for Trump to go Full Trump, he needs an audience that yearns for the give and take of anger and frustration that have produced most of his campaign's most Burn the World Down moments.
Unfortunately, certainly for the gathered press and the gawkers on cable TV and Twitter, neither fire-breathing Trump nor his blindly faithful masses showed up Tuesday.
The atmosphere at Panama City Beach before Trump took the stage was markedly different than previous rallies. Attendees largely ditched T-shirts with vulgar references to Monica Lewinsky in favor of tie-dye with depictions of the Republican and bald eagles.
There was none of the angry energy that marks many of his rallies, where while supporters are generally friendly even to the hated media, an undercurrent of frustration and urgency buzzes throughout.
While some of Trump’s evening rallies have had their fair share of drunken attendees, the crowd appeared almost entirely sober, and decidedly older than many of the Republican nominee's other crowds. The frat bros and the sorority girls who love them that were in attendance weren’t the normal, rabble-rousing sort that come looking for trouble with protesters.
Instead, the amphitheater at Aaron Bessant Park was more church picnic than populist rally. Vendors sold sausages, giant bags of fresh-made kettle corn, lemonade, and "butt fries" — fries covered in pulled pork and barbecue sauce — to families that spread blankets and beach towels on the lawn, and fathers and their children threw frisbees and Nerf footballs while they awaited Trump’s arrival.
A passerby who found themselves in the crowd would have been excused for thinking they'd wandered into a Jimmy Buffett concert rather than a campaign rally for one of the most divisive political figures in the history of the nation.
While the outrage against Ryan, McCain, and other elected officials is palpable on Twitter and Facebook thanks to the alt-right’s formidable online presence, at least here in Panama City Beach that vitriol simply didn’t exist — or stayed well-hidden.
Bruce Dietrich, a 64-year-old civil engineer from Tallahassee, is a lifelong Republican and a diehard Trump supporter. “I was just trying to send Paul Ryan an email to tell him how disappointed I was,” he said. “They’re too much in the establishment, they still haven’t gotten it.”
That disappointment in his party leaders was evident in his calm, quiet tone, as well as his measured assessment of what the break with Trump will mean for Ryan, who clearly has higher ambitions than speaker of the House. “It’ll have consequences for Paul Ryan, not for Donald Trump … I think a lot less of him,” Dietrich said, adding quickly, “I still think he’s a good man.”
But despite that disappointment, he’s still not ready to write off Ryan, as so many online commenters seemingly have. Asked if in a future presidential election he’d consider backing Ryan, Dietrich shrugged. “Depends on who he’s running against, I guess.”
Cathy Campbell, who splits time between Panama City Beach and her home in Georgia, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Ryan and his colleagues. “They better get it together and support him wholeheartedly," she said. "We’ve got to have Trump."
Leaning against a barricade hours before Trump would speak, Campbell warned that if Ryan and the establishment don’t get back behind Trump, “I think they’re gonna be sorry.”
But even that warning, which in someone else’s mouth would almost certainly sound threatening, had little edge to it, and was more of an earnest caution than a statement of defiance against party leadership.
There were sparks of fire, to be sure. When one of the opening speakers warned ominously that Hillary Clinton wants to end the Second Amendment, the crowd booed loudly. “Hell no!” a young man yelled, adding “You got me with that one, girl!”
Later, during a particularly cranky stem-winder by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in which he accused Clinton of corruption, the crowd began chanting “LOCK HER UP!” a classic of the Trump rally circuit.
But Giuliani waved the crowd off, insisting “wait, wait, wait,” bringing the cheer, and the crowd’s energy, quickly to an end.
An hour after he was scheduled to begin, Trump arrived to loud, but not too thunderous, applause. Earnest, but not fervent.
Trump’s confidence was on full display when he took the stage, his stern face looking out in the crowd approvingly. At first, the scene had all the hallmarks of a classic Trump barn burner: seemingly at random he decided to instruct his Secret Service detail to spread out. “Give us some room!” he bellowed into the mic to the delight of the crowd. Pleased with the reaction, he once again put his security detail through the paces. “We want room!” he yelled. And the crowd yelled back.
“We want some room!” he yelled again, prompting a roar from the 10,000-strong crowd inside the amphitheater — a fact that Trump would quickly point out. There was an energy suddenly in the crowd, all of whom were on their feet, hands pressed to the sky trying to capture a bit of the scene on their phones.
But instead of a repeat of his performance on Twitter that morning or his evening interview with O’Reilly, the faithful gathered in Panama City Beach got teleprompter Trump — his version of a tightly scripted stump speech with only slight variations. There were references to the Haitian and Cuban communities of Florida.
He railed against regulations — except, of course, those that may hurt the Everglades, a state treasure. He referenced WikiLeaks and its damaging releases of Clinton’s emails, by name, well over 10 times. He even slammed Clinton for being anti-Catholic, despite his own bitterly personal fight with Pope Francis earlier this year.
But what Trump didn’t mention was the one thing he has poured all of his energy into over the last two days — his angry, personal war with the GOP establishment. He never called out, or even referenced, Paul Ryan, John McCain, or any of the dozens of other elected Republicans who have either withdrawn their endorsements or made clear they believe Trump is a lost cause.
Without that emotional fuel, the rest of his speech felt almost perfunctory, and the crowd could tell in many ways he was going through the motions, spent after more than 24 hours of waging relentless war.
The closest he and the crowd seemed to get to the pitched levels of frustration and anger his rallies are known for came during his sustained attacks on the “corrupt media.” In one particularly long riff, Trump called out CNBC reporter John Harwood by name, accused the New York Times of being in bed with the Clinton campaign, and lambasted the media generally as being “cogs in a corporate machine” working against the interests of average Americans.
The crowd roared in approval. “Thank you,” one young man yelled, while an older woman shouted taunts at “lying CNN” across the barrier between reporters and the crowd.
More than 30 minutes into the speech came the first rhythmic chant of his name. “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” the crowd cheered. Trump looked on approvingly, nodding his head at the earnest but short-lived adoration.
But that was largely it for the staples of Trump rallydom: a few faltering attempts at “lock her up!” and “build the wall!” chants were made, but none stuck the landing.
After the rally, the crowd slowly made its way out of the venue through the dark, swarming slowly around groups of young black men selling T-shirts, hats, and buttons. The further into the parking lots of the surrounding strip malls the crowd got, the cruder the wares, until finally one man stood, alone, selling “Hillary Sucks But Monica Sucks Better” shirts.
In the end, it may not really matter for Trump — or voters — which Trump or which crowd show up. Even before he took the stage, Campbell made clear she was content with her decision, and Trump. “I stopped listening to the debates. I made up my mind a long time ago,” she said. “I prayed about it.”
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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