Small Crowd Shows Trump’s Fast Fading Popularity

Selma, N.C.  – A smiling young white man in a navy blue jacket emblazoned with “Team Trump” handed out silver-colored wristbands to a dozen eager Trump supporters hours before the former president’s rally here Saturday night.

“This what you all wanted, right?” said the man,  B. Caulder embroidered in white on his jacket. Then, grinning, he dealt a wristband to a woman draped in an American flag shawl.

It was 4:30 p.m., and we were all gathered near a barbeque food truck in a half-empty field at The Farm at 95, a venue for weddings and the site of Trump’s latest Save America rally.

Trump held a rally here once before – in 2016. The Raleigh News & Observer reported a crowd of more than 15,000 people. Traffic was gridlocked for two hours prior to the event.

But on this cooling and windy Saturday evening in 2022, the crowd couldn’t have been more than a few thousand people. Traffic was minimal when we arrived at 2 p.m., two hours before the warmup speakers took the stage.

Among the seven warmup speakers was Mike Lindell, aka The Pillow Guy. Another was Madison Cawthorn, a first-term member of Congress criticized by his party for claiming that Republicans hold regular cocaine-fueled orgies. Bo Hines, a former football star at North Carolina State and Yale who hopes to win a seat in Congress this year, also spoke early.

The trio had left the stage by the time Caulder rushed toward us. We were standing between the long lines for food trucks, picking at a plate of chicken tenders and fries. Caulder asked if we wanted to sit in the bleachers and instructed us to meet behind the Cruzin’ Cuisine truck to our left.

B. Caulder leads rally-goers to bleachers.

Armed with our silvery wristbands, Caulder led our ad hoc group – all of us white, only half of us wearing Trump merch – down the far-left side of the venue toward the bleachers.

Empty VIP Chairs

There were five sections of outdoor bleachers. Together, they formed a half-circle around the main stage. VIP sections – filled with white foldable chairs, some empty – flanked either side of the stage.

Caulder stopped us at the first set of bleachers. He surveyed the area for pockets of empty seats. Minutes later, we stood on the top row with a clear view of a half-empty field several times larger than a football field.

Small crowd three hours before Trump but after talks by some featured speakers

About the time we took our bleacher seats, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson took the stage. He was followed by Rep. Ted Budd, who is running in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate primary against Pat McCrory, a former Republican governor.

Over the next two hours, Caulder and another half dozen or so young men in matching “Team Trump” jackets rushed in and out of our section with more small groups of rally goers in tow.

Man with Ted Budd sticker shoots video of Trump rally. Note the tattoo on his right hand. The Roman numeral three is a symbol the far-right, anti-government Three Percenter militia.

By the time Trump took the stage at 7 p.m., the field looked the same as it had for the previous three hours – half empty. The bleachers were full, but the VIP section in front of us was dotted with empty white folding chairs.

Although this crowd was significantly smaller than the one at Trump’s 2016 rally, those in attendance couldn’t have been more excited. In a fundraising email the next day Trump called the rally “epic,” even though there was nothing grand in scale or particularly impressive about it.

Scary Newcomer Comments

Standing in line for one of the food trucks was a man from Warrenton, N.C., a first-time rally-goer, he said, but a supporter of Trump since the moment he announced his candidacy in 2015.

He mentioned telling a friend about his plans to come to the rally. He said his friend asked if he’d ever go to a Biden rally. The response from the man standing before us: only through the crosshairs of one of his rifles.

Standing in front of him in the same food truck line was a fellow from Cleveland. He said he had flown in the day before. He said he went to see Trump speak in Cleveland during his 2016 campaign. Since then, he said, he has been to all but a couple of rallies Trump has held across the country.

[Editor’s note: This is consistent with what our reporters learned at other Trump rallies. Significant portions of Trump’s dwindling rally crowds are repeat attendees, not locals, which suggests his popular appeal is waning.]

Disinformation pamphlet handed out at Trump Rally on April 8, 2022

Woman using ketchup packets to make a sign at Trump rally.

Later, sitting in front of us in the bleachers, was a woman sporting a “Latinos for Trump” ball cap she said she had picked up at the rally. An immigrant from the Dominican Republic, she said that she lives 20 minutes down the road from The Farm 95 in Johnston County. In 1968 Johnston County voters went solidly for George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who at the time was spouting a hardline “segregation now, segregation forever” line.

Feeling Osctracized

The woman said supporting Trump had ostracized her from members of her family and a significant part of the Hispanic community. But, she said, supporting Trump was worth it because of what she said he’s done for the economy and how he speaks his mind without worrying about what people think.

[Editor’s Note: Economic growth slowed under Trump. It began plummeting even before the pandemic started. In addition, job growth lagged  behind Obama’s during Trump’s first three years. Under Biden, America has experienced unprecedented job growth, despite the ongoing pandemic, with almost eight million new jobs in 14 months. Three times as many jobs have been created per month under Biden as under Trump, and that’s counting only the months before the pandemic began. ]

The woman noted that the Saturday crowd was much more diverse than the last time she had come to see Trump, at a 2016 rally in Greenville, about an hour’s drive away in Pitt County. George Wallace did well there in 1968, but since 2008 the county has voted Democratic.

Trump’s appearance in 2016 was so packed that she said she had to watch it on the TV screens outside the venue. She also said she didn’t recall seeing any other Hispanic person.

Militia Tatoo

A few rows ahead of her was a man with a Ted Budd sticker on his back. As he shot videos of the speakers with his cellphone, he exposed a large tattoo of the Roman numeral three on his right hand, a symbol associated with the Three Percenters, a far-right extremist group.

Some at the rally made strong and explicit efforts to suggest affiliation with known extremist groups. For example, a small group of men wore the signature yellow and black colors of the Proud Boys. When we were driving in around 2 p.m. these men were walking near the edge of the service road leading to the field used for parking.

And at 7:30 p.m., about 20 minutes into Trump’s speech, a group of five men – one of them wearing an “American Proud Boy” shirt – gathered to the right of the exit gate. Ten feet to their left, two uniformed police officers stood watch over the gate, making sure no one reentered without going through security.

Less than a half-hour into Trump’s rambling talk people began leaving. They made way between the man in the Proud Boy shirt and the police, exiting the venue and commencing the long walk back to their cars and pickup trucks. Trump’s voice boomed in the background as a vendor shouted a last-ditch attempt to sell American and Trump flags.

Photos by Arabella Saunders and Dair McNinch

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