MOBILE, Ala. – He strode out on a catwalk at a football stadium here to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” A 50-foot cedar tree, which aides installed behind his stage with a crane, was decorated in Christmas ornaments larger than human heads. His crowd, thousands deep, held up familiar signs (“Make America Great Again”) and reprised signature chants (“Lock her up!”).
“This is where it all began,” President-elect Donald Trump exhorted, basking in the adulation of the Alabamians who had come to see him Saturday afternoon in the same stadium where 16 months earlier he staged the first electric mega-rally of his improbable campaign.
This city in the nation’s Bible Belt was the symbolic last stop in Trump’s journey to the White House – the conclusion of a nine-city pre-inaugural roadshow.
Rather than projecting inclusiveness and striving to heal the wounds from the bitter election, as past presidents-elect have done, Trump has traveled on his “USA Thank You Tour” only to states he turned red on election night. He has whipped up his massive crowds, and they in turn have displayed their allegiance – a powerful reminder to members of Congress that it would be politically dangerous to cross him.
“It’s a movement,” Trump declared in Mobile. “Don’t forget, they didn’t know you existed until Election Day – and then they said, ‘Where the hell did all those people come from?’ ”
As Trump assembles his administration and prepares to govern, he has continued the divisive rhetoric and showmanship of his campaign. He has mocked his opponents, sneered at the media and trumpeted his electoral feats. To the nearly 54 percent of voters who cast ballots for someone else, Trump’s message has been, in short: Get on board or get left behind.
Trump’s tone in the run-up to his Jan. 20 inauguration poses a challenge as he seeks to govern a deeply divided nation and build popular support for his policies. And as he tries to pivot from a rollicking campaign, Trump is struggling to tame the army of passionate followers he has playfully called “wild beasts.”
Trump’s “thank you” rallies have been an extension of those he held as a candidate, from the soundtrack (Elton John and Rolling Stones classics) to the vows from the lectern (“We will build a great wall!”).
Lately, Trump’s stages have been set with Christmas trees – 16 of them at the Orlando, Florida, stop – as a sparkling reminder that as president he would say “Merry Christmas,” not simply “Happy holidays.” He has made no mention of Hanukkah or acknowledged other faiths. And in Mobile, he was introduced by evangelist Franklin Graham, who said Trump was elected by a spiritual force: “I believe it was God.”
When Trump swooped into Orlando for a Friday night rally, it had been 38 days since he had had to worry about Hillary Clinton. But his crowd was fixated on her. They chanted, “Lock her up! Lock her up!” To them, this was still a campaign, and Clinton was the enemy.
Trump told them that in the buildup to the election, “You people were vicious, violent, screaming, ‘Where’s the wall?’ ‘We want the wall!’ Screaming, ‘Prison!’ ‘Prison!’ ‘Lock her up!’ I mean, you were going crazy. You were nasty and mean and vicious.”
But the campaign is now over, he said. Victory is in hand. The inauguration is a month away. And Trump tried to imagine for his fans how they ought to behave: “Now you’re laid-back, you’re cool, you’re mellow, right?”
Trump himself has hardly been a model of mellowness. He has used his tour stops to settle scores – with Evan McMullin, the Republican who waged an independent campaign against him in Utah; Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who resisted Trump’s candidacy; CNN’s John King, who in nightly pre-election analyses on the “magic wall” predicted that Trump would not reach 270 electoral votes; and the media generally, which Trump faulted for “dishonest” polls.
Even as Trump’s supporters have delighted in the president-elect’s stump routine, they have confessed in interviews that they wish he would adopt a more serious demeanor as he readies to enter the White House.
“Sometimes, during this campaign, he was a little lippy on the mouth. I think it would be better if he toned it down, and I think he will,” said Craig Harrison, 45, a construction worker who showed up at Trump’s first tour stop in Cincinnati with a flag draped around his shoulders that was emblazoned with Trump’s slogan.
Trump’s pre-inaugural posture is unlike any previous president-elect, historians said.
“I’ve never seen a president that continues to campaign instead of reaching out to voters that didn’t like him,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University. “He’s shunning Hillary Clinton’s supporters and almost acting like they don’t matter. … I think he sees himself as a revolutionary figure, and you’re either going to join the Trump revolution or you’re not.”
Trump’s supporters hope he continues campaign-style rallies as president.
“He has to keep an open line to the people,” said Sue Ann Balch, 61, an immigration lawyer in Alabama. “I know how it is. You catch Potomac fever and forget everything.”
“They’re saying, ‘As president, he shouldn’t be doing rallies.’ But I think we should, right? We’ve done everything else the opposite. This is the way you get an honest word out,” he said in Mobile.
Trump’s Cabinet picks have tilted heavily conservative, and so far he has eschewed a tradition of tapping a member of the opposing party for a key post. He continues to use Twitter to whip up his base, with tweets opposing flag burning and suggesting, without evidence, that Clinton benefited from illegal votes.
All nine of the stops on Trump’s “thank you” tour have been in states he won – some of them unexpectedly. The crowds have been overwhelmingly white and, by all accounts, mostly people who voted for him. Folks have come wearing Trump hats and T-shirts. Women have been given pink “Women for Trump” signs to wave. And when speakers have asked for a show of hands of who had been to a Trump rally before, it has seemed as though every hand were in the air.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who ran unsuccessfully for president this year as a Democrat, said, “Mr. Trump has every right in the world to thank his supporters in those states in which he won, but as the president-elect, he also has the responsibility to assure all Americans that he is listening to their concerns.”
To be sure, Trump is making other moves to reach out to non-supporters. The eclectic group of people who have paraded through Trump Tower in New York to meet with the president-elect have included some prominent Democrats, including former vice president Al Gore, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. A group of technology company executives met with Trump and his top advisers this week, even though Silicon Valley was considered especially hostile to his candidacy.
Trump’s approach, different as it may be from his predecessors, appears to be no less strategic. Republicans have the majority in both chambers of Congress, and by keeping his base of supporters aroused, Trump is reminding them that there are risks should they vote against his nominees or his agenda.
“He wants these voters to be heard loud and clear by Congress,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic consultant. “This is less of a thank-you tour and more of a be-ready-to-fight tour.”
Seeking to build momentum for Trump’s agenda, the president-elect and his advisers boast of a historic electoral college landslide. But Trump’s winning total ranks just 46th out of 58 electoral college results, and a shift of some 40,000 votes in three states would have cost him the presidency. He lost the popular vote to Clinton by more than 2.8 million.
Although Trump’s favorability ratings have improved since last month’s election, he has not yet experienced the honeymoon of popularity enjoyed by other presidents-elect.
Americans are evenly split on Trump’s transition so far, with 48 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving, according to a Gallup poll last week. The public displayed overwhelmingly positive attitudes toward the presidential transitions of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as recorded in past Gallup surveys.
At a time when Trump is holding no news conferences, the rallies have allowed him to communicate directly with the public, bypassing the media – something many of his supporters say is important.
“I know they lie,” said Freddie Killian, 60, an administrative assistant who cheered on Trump in Alabama. “You want to hear the truth? Come out here and listen to him.”
Don Huyvaert, a retired federal government financial analyst, said he showed up at the Wisconsin stop to let Trump know he has the president-elect’s back.
“He’s going to have his hands full draining the swamp, but this tells him there are a lot of people out here behind him,” said Huyvaert, 66, a resident of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin.
At the end of his speeches – after the teasing and taunting, after the Christmas greetings, after the cries in the crowd to jail Clinton – Trump has looked ahead to life as the president and tried to cast himself as a unifying figure.
His crowds may have been the white voters of red America, but the president-elect has declared, as he did Thursday night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, that his message is for Americans “from all parties, all beliefs, all walks of life.”
“Whether you are African-American, Hispanic-American or Asian-American or whatever the hell you are, remember that we are all Americans and we are all united by one shared destiny,” Trump said. “So I’m asking everyone to join this incredible movement.”
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