Donald Trump had only been onstage for a few minutes in Hickory, North Carolina, when there was a loud bang. The lift holding up an American flag at the back of the venue had blown over and half the flag — the striped portion — was now thrashing wildly in the air, as if trying to break free.
Thirty hours from the election he is on track to lose, the president made his third of five scheduled stops across the Midwest and Southeast on the Lord’s day of rest: Michigan in the morning, Iowa in the afternoon, North Carolina at sunset, followed by Georgia and Florida after that. After months grounded in the White House due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a weekend confined to Walter Reed due to the coronavirus itself, Trump has attempted to make up for lost time and for the gap in the polls, holding as many Make America Great Again rallies as he can manage each day.
The rallies are a means of energizing voters, yes, but just as importantly, they’re a means of energizing the president. The race in North Carolina is close now, as it was in 2016, when Trump led by about one point and won by 3.7. Now, Biden leads by 0.3 percent.
The rallies are many, and they are often scheduled at the very last minute, creating chaos and drama and, increasingly, danger for those who attend. In Pennsylvania, a security guard told me that there’d been a series of communication failures between the campaign and law enforcement and that, overall, he’d never worked any event so disorganized in his life. In Nevada, a police officer reported similar dysfunction. After a rally in Nebraska last week, the crowd was stranded in the 30-degree cold, sending several to the hospital. And a rally in Florida ended with a dozen people treated for heatstroke.
MAGA rallies follow similar scripts and similar staging no matter where they’re held or what the president is supposed to be talking about. At arenas and airports, the press pen may be an island, surrounded by the crowd on all sides, or it may be at the very back of the event space, which was the case on Sunday in North Carolina. The crowd formed an arch around the metal barricades, protecting the Fake News risers (one in front for national media and one behind for local) and four rows of tables and chairs with electric plugs and bottles of hand sanitizer and sheets of paper that say “TRUMP PENCE” with the Wi-Fi code.
Behind all this was the flag, which looked to be at least 20 feet tall. It had been tied at each corner to the coils of two large green-and-orange lifts. “It’s windy here!” Trump said when he first greeted the crowd. And it was. In effect, this created a patriotic sail, picking up momentum with each gust of air until it launched. Stagehands and Secret Service agents dashed to the scene to tame the symbol of America’s greatness. One man grabbed the lower corner on the right, and as it waved, the flag seemed to swallow him. Then there were two men, then three, then four. They wrestled the flag to the green lift, folded it into order, then placed caution tape around the area.
Security cleared the press out of their seats, worried that something else — like the lift hoisting up the lights illuminating the president’s stage — could fall and hit someone. As Trump launched into “The Snake,” a poem he’s recited since 2016 to make some kind of point about deceit and immigration, I made my way back to the parking lot in a stream of men and women and children in red hats and other campaign merchandise.
“So have you already voted?” a man asked a woman. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “Me too. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t voted already yet,” he said. “Hard to believe this many people show up to a rally on this short notice and yet the polls show them running neck and neck.” The woman said she doesn’t believe the polls, and the man agreed, since liberal groups, like “ABC and NBC” are in charge of them.
“The problem is it’ll take a week after the election to find out who won,” the man said. “That’s upsetting,” the woman said. He agreed, adding that any delay would give Democrats an opportunity to send more fraudulent ballots in. “You see that Project Veritas tape?” he asked. “One person can get 7,000 votes!”
“We’re setting ourselves up for a huge fight after this election,” he said. “I’ve been saying for months it’s not a matter of if — it’s when. I think something’s gonna happen, absolutely.”
As they walked down the hill, they neared a flag — fully intact — waving under a streetlight. It was red, white, and blue. It read, “TRUMP — NO MORE BULLSHIT — 2020.”