Over the course of the 2016 U.S. campaign season, Donald Trump rallies became something more than an election-season stop. Supporters chanted “Build the wall” and “Drain the swamp,” playing off of their candidate as he showed his support for them, their passion sweeping the Republican candidate into a surprising win for the White House.
The connection between Trump and his supporters continued this week, as the president-elect kicked off a victory tour to thank voters in several key states and to begin outlining an agenda guiding his presidency.
But the rallies also represent an unusual opportunity. While many standing in line in the chill December wind in Cincinnati were attending their third, fourth or even fifth Trump rally, many Trump voters drove in from neighboring states to see the man they had voted for in person for the first time.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks at a USA Thank You Tour event at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., Dec. 1, 2016.
Some still skeptical
Jolliff, a 63-year-old single dad with an 8-year-old son and one lung thanks to a near-fatal battle with cancer, said he had seen too much to think one rally could change the way he thought.
“He’s just going to run his choppers,” the former truck driver told VOA of his expectations about his first Trump rally. “When he’s out in the open like this, this is just about him in the spotlight, but when he’s sitting behind the desk and doing his job, he’s got to pipe down and open these up a little bit,” he said, pointing to his eyes.
Jolliff, who goes by his last name, said his vote went to Trump because of his support for veterans. But he said he was also concerned by the president-elect’s ability to say things without thinking through the consequences, and he hoped that would change.
“Everybody knows what a president’s expected to do, he’s expected to keep jobs, try to end this war. We’re killing ourselves over there for no reason, protect ourselves over there.”
Inside, Susan from Akron, Ohio, stood close to the podium where Trump would speak, waiting with her two young daughters, who said they had faced taunting from school classmates because of their support for Trump.
Susan, who gave only her first name, said she was attending her first Trump rally with her daughters because she remembered the experience of attending a rally for President Ronald Reagan when she was their age.
“This world is changing, and Trump is going to be part of it. These kids are going to be a part of it, and they had a lot to do with it even though they couldn’t vote, they still were able to express what they feel, and I think they helped the election.”
But she still said she wasn’t sure if Trump could measure up to the memory of Reagan during his first 100 days in office.
“No one has been able to come close to that,” Susan said.
Not a full house
The rally did not fill the US Bank Arena, a fact Trump explained by saying he had not expected his motorcade to block so much traffic. But as he settled into the familiar points of his campaign-trail speech, Trump was able to move the crowd with the familiar themes of his campaign: corruption in Washington and the ways the mainstream media underestimated his candidacy. Supporters cheered and laughed as Trump recounted media and pundits predicting his loss.
“We didn’t break it — we shattered that sucker,” Trump said of the so-called blue wall of states, including Ohio, that delivered him a victory over Hillary Clinton. Trump’s message of job growth and a return to American greatness resonated in these states where economic setbacks left many independent and longtime Democratic Party voters looking for a new voice.
Trump told Ohio voters, “It’s time we moved the rust out of the Rust Belt and ushered in a new Industrial Revolution.” While much of his message Thursday night focused on a rehash of campaign slights from the media and opponents, Trump told the crowd, “Anything we want for our country is possible. Now is not the time to downsize our dreams.”
He teased the crowd, telling them he would share his pick for secretary of defense if they promised not to let it leak to the press, even with international and national media standing by watching. Supporters laughed as if they shared an inside joke with the candidate.
After the rally, surrounded by her beaming daughters, Susan nodded and said, “Better than Reagan.”
A protester walks out of a rally that is part of President-elect Donald Trump's and Vice President-elect Mike Pence's "USA Thank You Tour 2016" in Cincinnati, Ohio, Dec. 1, 2016.
As some supporters surrounded the media riser, holding Trump-Pence campaign signs up to the cameras, other Trump voters recalled the experience of chanting Trump’s familiar lines in person for the first time.
“When everybody starting cheering ‘Drain the swamp,’ I feel like that was the most exciting part of the entire rally,” Noah Kommaughton from Hamilton, Ohio, told VOA. He said his family’s small ice cream store would benefit from a president who wouldn’t make them pay taxes.
“For me, it means getting rid of everyone that’s a political leader, that doesn’t relate to small America and normal human beings. He’s a business owner so he has to deal with all types of people all the time, so he knows what it’s like to deal with small businesses and with normal people.”
Even though the election has ended, President-elect Trump is still finding ways to make his case to voters across the country.