Loading articles...

Air Force One swoops into South Carolina as voters head to the polls

After a week filled with Democratic rallies, town halls, get-out-the-vote efforts and one frantic, cacophonic televised debate, it was all over in South Carolina but the voting late Friday, save for one last election-year inevitability: a visit from Donald Trump.

On the eve of Saturday’s final primary vote before Super Tuesday, Air Force One swooped in to the Palmetto State for one of the U.S. president’s trademark Keep America Great rallies, attracting legions of Trump devotees, some of whom waited for hours in long, snaking lineups outside the North Charleston Coliseum.

“I’m 56 years old, and I may never get this opportunity again,” said Robin Moses, a devoted supporter who turned out with her husband, Gary, to brave the crowds in order to see Trump for the first time in person.

“To have a president come this close to me and me not even try — well, it just wouldn’t be American.”

The rally, in a packed house with a maximum capacity of more than 12,000, was vintage Trump. He denounced “fake news,” dismissed congressional Democrats as “horrible, dishonest people” and a “bunch of losers,” and urged the crowd to cheer the loudest for the would-be Democratic nominee they’d most like to see take on the president — “who the hell is easier to beat,” in his words — between “Sleepy Joe” Biden and “Crazy Bernie” Sanders.

“Crazy Bernie” won going away.

There was little evidence of what risks becoming the biggest challenge the Trump administration has ever faced: the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has sickened more than 85,000 people around the world, killing 2,923 since erupting in China late last year. Officials are talking in pandemic terms, touching off a global stock slide that wiped out 12 per cent of the Dow Jones index in a single week.

And now there are cases on the U.S. West Coast that suggest COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is being spread in the broader community, rather than through direct contact with infected people or others who travelled to overseas hot spots.

To hear Trump tell it, everything is under control and all the fear-mongering is the fault of the Democrats. “This is their new hoax,” he said.  

The administration’s response to the virus — Trump has put Vice-President Mike Pence in charge of co-ordinating the effort — has been “magnificently organized,” he claimed, crediting the decision to impose a travel ban on visitors from affected countries for keeping the number of cases in the U.S. low.

He is even using the crisis to fortify his zero-tolerance approach to immigration, likening border security to “health security.”

“We will do everything in our power to keep the infection and those carrying the infection from entering our country,” he said. “Whether it’s the virus that we’re talking about or many other public health threats, the Democrat policy of open borders is a direct threat to the health and well-being of all Americans.”

Before the event began, there was no evidence of any concern among the thousands of people hemmed in to a serpentine network of crowd-control barriers slowly making their way into the coliseum.

“I think — and no offence — but the press blows everything out of proportion,” Moses said. Her husband’s advice? “Do your basic hygiene,” he said. “Wash your hands, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough — do your basic hygiene to help keep it from spreading.”

Trump’s supporters, it seems, are everywhere in South Carolina — even at Bernie Sanders rallies.

“I’m just here to see what all the fuss is about,” said Danny Price, a retiree from Pittsburgh who spends his winters in Myrtle Beach, where he dropped in earlier this week to hear the independent Vermont senator and Democratic front-runner for himself.

Using the primaries to gauge what might happen in the general election in November is a bit like predicting the outcome of the NHL playoffs halfway through the regular season, said Price, a hockey-mad Penguins fan.

Candidates, he said, always tack towards the centre of the political spectrum once they win the nomination — although that could be difficult for Sanders, a self-avowed “democratic socialist” whose progressive policies have been keeping the party establishment awake at night for months.

“Bernie is a socialist, or a communist, and he wants to give everybody free stuff. For a lot of people, that sounds exciting, but they just don’t understand who’s going to pay for it,” Price said.

“Bernie has been very open about who he is and what he stands for, and I don’t think the country is ready to be a socialist or a communist country.”

Some of the moderate Democrats in the field are banking on that, which is why Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., was still in South Carolina on Friday even after most of his rivals were decamping to the all-important Super Tuesday states.

“That’s how we’re going to deliver the change that we need,” Buttigieg told a rally Friday. “A majority big enough not just to put an end to this presidency, but to put Trumpism into the history books where it belongs and move forward. And in order to do that, we have to invite everybody we can into the tent.”

Buttigieg, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, is making a specific appeal to what is a robust military community in South Carolina — a tall order, given the affinity many in the military have for the current commander-in-chief.

“Who?” Moses asked, straight-faced, when asked if her family — her father was a veteran of the Korean War, her husband a third-generation former soldier — would ever consider supporting Buttigieg.  

For them, she said, it’s Trump or nothing.

“He doesn’t take any crap off anybody,” she said. “When it’s time to stand tough, he does that, and I think that’s what makes this country great, having a strong military and showing that you’re not scared, you don’t back down.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 29, 2020.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press