WILMINGTON — He was nearly an hour late to his speech at the Aero Center at Wilmington International Airport on Friday, but the crowd erupted into applause and rose to their feet when former President Donald Trump walked up to the podium.
“Thank you very much and hello, Wilmington,” he told the roaring crowd.
Trump spoke for a little more than an hour, discussing a “stolen” 2020 election, deriding immigrants, praising fossil fuels, calling for the execution of drug dealers, and briefly teasing a 2024 presidential campaign.
No stranger to the Port City, Trump made stops during his last presidential bid against Democratic nominee Joe Biden and when he dedicated Wilmington as the nation’s first World War II Heritage City. Friday evening’s visit was his first in two years, one organizers expected to bring out 10,000 people, though less seemed to be in attendance.
This time Trump was campaigning for other Republicans, notably Congressman Ted Budd (R-13), who is making a bid for the U.S. Senate seat; fellow Republican Richard Burr is retiring at the end of this year. Budd is opposed by Democratic candidate and former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley.
Pollsters show Beasley and Budd neck-in-neck for the seat. The latest FiveThirtyEight poll has Budd with a 0.3% advantage. In the spring Budd showed a more commanding lead, ahead by a few points, but the margins narrowed by August and the candidates traded off small leads in September.
The polls didn’t stop Trump from saying Budd was ahead “big” in the race, though encouraging Republicans to still get out and vote.
“Ted is running against a weak-on-crime, left-wing extremist named Cheri Beasley,” Trump told a booing crowd during his speech.
He accused Beasley of supporting raising taxes on “hard working families.” Trump added the former judge halted the death sentences of eight death-row inmates who committed violent crimes, ranging from rape to murder (since 2006, North Carolina has had in place a de facto moratorium on capital punishment).
By contrast, he described Budd as a “law and order” candidate.
Beasley’s campaign took to social media after the rally to call Trump’s statements lies.
Along with Budd, state GOP party chairman Michael Whatley, N.C. District 13 candidate Bo Hines, N.C. District 1 candidate Sandy Smith, N.C. District 7 representative David Rouzer, South Carolina District 7 candidate Russell Fry, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, and Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson addressed attendees from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., prior to Trump’s arrival more than two hours later.
The speakers at the “Save America” rally hit Republican talking points: a poor economy, indoctrination of children in schools, and how Democrats are destroying the country.
Even Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara — originally from the area and who toyed with a Senate bid but ultimately decided against it for now — sent a video to her hometown apologizing for not being there.
Crowd response remained lukewarm compared to the raucous cheering for every line uttered by Trump; however, reception increased at the mention of him.
“Our country was much better off under President Trump,” Smith yelled from the podium, generating claps and adulation from the sea of red hats, Trump merch and American flags. “That’s because President Trump loved every single one of us and he cared.”
Strong support continued when Smith called to “seal the southern border,” while Hines elicited boos from the crowd when bringing up current gender norms that have challenged conservative thinking.
“We have men competing in female athletics,” he said.
Crowds excitedly chanted “Trump!” upon each plane landing on the tarmac and applauded at the changing of songs — as if the fading of one would give space to announce Trump’s appearance.
A mix of Trump rally favorites included Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” The Village People’s “Macho Man,” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera.” Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” welcomed Smith, the only female candidate on site to speak, while Fry walked on stage to CCR’s “Fortunate Son” — a song with explicitly anti-politician lyrics.
“This is better than any rock concert,” attendee Gregg Smyth said. He was among a few hundred people in the general admission area, standing-room only, which flanked the media section.
The South Floridian has attended 13 Trump rallies to show support for “The Man,” he said.
In 2016, Smyth voted for Trump but clarified he was a fan even before the real estate mogul became a major political contender. The former president’s reputation for teetotaling compelled the voter.
“He never touched drugs, never drank, never touched caffeine — in the ‘80s in New York City, with that kind of money?” Smyth said. “He’s a real, true leader.”
Draped in Trump gear head-to-toe, Smyth didn’t shy away from stating the 2020 election was unfair. He thinks the conspiracy theory that it was robbed is “obvious.”
“Trump’s the president,” he said, mocking Biden and claiming the 46th president was not on the campaign trail while Trump was.
Mid-sentence, a private security guard tapped Smyth on the shoulder and ushered him away without saying a word. The interview was cut short.
“He won’t let me talk to you,” Smyth said, throwing his hands up as he exited the media barrier.
Several guards approached other people who were speaking to reporters from the barrier and cut their interviews off as well.
By the time Trump arrived just before 8 p.m., night had fallen. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” played as the former “Apprentice” host tossed “Make America Great Again” hats into the crowd. Over the megatrons, a voice exclaimed: “NORTH CAROLINA IS TRUMP COUNTRY.”
“That’s a big crowd, Ted,” Trump commented among those who gathered on the tarmac to greet him just a few feet away from the stage.
Out of the gate, Trump came after one of his favorite targets.
“The fake news media. There they are,” Trump said, pointing to the media section as the crowd booed reporters. “Look how many. Look how many there are.”
Trump described November 2022’s general election as a referendum on the Democrats. In North Carolina, it is high stakes, as the GOP could take a supermajority if they gain three seats in the House and two seats in the Senate. This would give the legislature power to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.
Trump wasted no time getting into issues he takes umbrage with, including the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. He called it largely a climate bill that will put American energy out of business.
He rattled off a list of statistics to demonstrate how items like gas and milk are more expensive than when he was president. He claimed gasoline is an unlimited source of energy for vehicles and criticized the Biden administration for both the push for electric vehicles and the increased cost of fuel.
“Two years ago, when I was in office, gas, gasoline — the famous, beautiful gasoline — was $1.87 a gallon,” Trump said, claiming prices are continuing to rise.
For three months, the cost of fuel experienced a decline. On Sept. 21 it rose for the first time in 98 days, from $3.67 to $3.68 a gallon; it’s at $3.71 as of Sept. 25.
Trump added the stock market had worsened and violent crime heightened nationwide since his time in office. He pointed to recent murders in the Durham and Raleigh area as examples of “Democrat failures.”
According to the Council on Criminal Justice, violent crimes in the U.S. dropped in the first half of 2022, but are still up significantly compared to before the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020.
Trump pushed off efforts of his successor administration as misplaced.
“The only thing these deranged leftists care about, the only thing they talk about is trying to destroy your favorite president: me.” Trump said. “Have you ever heard of me?”
The crowd roared with approval.
A few minutes of his speech was dedicated to railing people who aren’t politicians — namely, immigrants and drug dealers. He claimed 10 million people have crossed the border this year, about five times more than federal estimates indicate.
Countries south of the border, he added, have emptied their prisons to send violent offenders to the United States.
“It’s numbers like nobody’s ever seen before,” he said.
Trump has repeated this claim for years, yet reports do not substantiate as much. In Mexico, for instance, as of 2021 there were 223,000 prisoners. Reuters published this month the country released 2,000 prisoners who have not committed serious crimes. Mexican President Lopez Obrador made a similar order in 2021 for people who were never charged of a crime or were victims of torture.
Trump said his points are not Republican or conservative, they’re just “common sense.”
“We don’t want open borders, we want low taxes, we want good education, we want military,” Trump exclaimed. “Good, strong military.”
He also addressed the ongoing criminal investigation into documents stored at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump called the civil fraud suit brought against him by New York Attorney General Latitia James “abusive” and a hoax.
Speaking to his base, he continued to mount the 2020 election as stolen. Trump said he won twice, despite 2020’s certified results showing Biden received 81,283,098 votes, Trump garnered 74,222,958 votes, and 2,891,441 went to other votes (the final Electoral College was 306 Democratic states to 232 GOP states).
The only way, he said, to beat his opponents is to “swamp ‘em.”
“We may just have to do it again,” Trump teased the cheering crowd.
While the 45th President of the United States focused the majority of his speech on himself and his stances, Smith, Hines and Rouzer each got brief mentions. Trump commended them for doing good jobs and highlighted Hines for his N.C. State football career.
He also provided an “early endorsement” to Robinson for any race that North Carolina’s first Black lieutenant governor entered. Robinson ran his 2019 campaign on a similar platform to Trump — ”common sense conservatism” — and has teased campaigning for governor in 2024.
A half-hour before Trump wrapped his speech, he asked Budd to join him to deliver a few comments.
“I think I can speak for all of us here, who are glad to have Donald J. Trump back in North Carolina,” Budd told the crowd. “Mr. President, I can also say we are ready to stop the Biden-Beasley agenda and make America great again.”
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