The Rolling Stones' “Heart of Stone” blared across the Charleston W.V. Civic Center. Eager local residents and a scattering of people from nearby Ashland, Kentucky and a few more from other points in Pennsylvania moved furtively toward their seats, eager for the show to begin. The only people of color who could be seen among the thousands entering the Civic Center were t-shirt vendors, peddling outside in makeshift booths selling MAGA paraphernalia.
“I wish he would just shut up. That poor man. He’s doing such a great job, but he just needs to shut up. No one will give him a break.”
Her t-shirt proudly proclaimed. “Fake News. CNN. NBC. CBS. ABC. MSNBC.”
“What makes it fake news?” she was asked.
"They don’t tell the whole story,” she explained.
“Like what? What don’t they say?”
“It’s like they only report the facts that FOX won’t report,” she said.
“Well, if FOX doesn’t report all the facts. Doesn’t that make them fake news too?”
“Well I like those facts,” she explained. Her friend nearby chimed in. “Aliens. They don’t report about the aliens either.”
“All of the politicians are crooks. But this man tells it like it is. He’s a man of conviction.”
The music suggested a baby boomer’s trip down memory lane—even if those artists don’t want Trump using their music. Even so, it kept the early crowd happy as they poured in from work and bought the cheaply made hats and t-shirts. A man holding a “Buy American, Hire American” sign eagerly bought a t-shirt with a “Made in Nicaragua” tag and a red baseball cap with a “Made in China” tag. The African-American man selling the—swag, would you call it?—said he was a fan of Trump’s.
“Hey, I’m selling a lot of these t-shirts and hats to these fools,” he said with a wry smile. “What’s not to like?”
Inside the arena, the fenced-off media had to outlast the occasional catcalls and boos. CNN’s Jim Acosta was a singular source of attraction for some of the naysayers. “He’s trying to take away my vote,” a large man in Crocs and a t-shirt shouted. That man spent the night grimacing at most members of the press and tossing indiscriminate and vague threats at the pen. He identified himself as Derek Best of Roanoke and said by reporting stories he didn’t like, the news media was trying to take away a president who “won fair and square.”
“But if he did something illegal, wouldn’t you want to know that?” he was asked. “Oh, hell,” he responded. “All of the politicians are crooks. But this man tells it like it is. He’s a man of conviction.”
“Well, I think Manafort, Flynn and Cohen certainly are, but Trump hasn’t been charged yet,” I replied.
Kevin Corke from FOX News was one of the few reporters drawing praise from those who stood around gawking at the reporters as if we were animals in a zoo. But, as much as people wanted to meet him and get pictures taken with him, Acosta wasn’t without his love-hate admirers who wished the same. “I hate CNN,” a woman offered in an unsolicited and loud manner.
“Okay,” was my reply.
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“Uh. Sure. He’s a nice guy.”
“I hate him and his network, but I love him,” she said and scurried off to get her picture taken.
Acosta and Corke both were amiable and gracious as individuals asked for them for a picture. By now. the arena was nearly filled and the warm-up acts were getting ready to whip the crowd into a feeding frenzy.
“Living on the Edge,” by Aerosmith played on the loudspeakers and a man with a shaved head, multiple earrings, tattoos, a sleeveless denim shirt, a goatee, wrap-around shades and a “F**K you and your sensitivity” t-shirt felt obliged to tell me what a great fan he was of Donald Trump.
“Eight years. Get used to it. Trump for eight years,” he shouted.
“I don’t care,” I replied, "but I don’t know. Depending on the judge and jury, he might get more than that.”
The man stared at me silently and then walked away. Just before the show began and as we heard Guns n’ Roses' version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” which still sounds like a truckload of cats being forcefully sterilized, word traveled that Paul Manafort had been found guilty on eight counts: five of them for submitting false tax returns, one count of failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts and two counts of bank fraud.|
The crowd began murmuring about Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen copping a plea in New York. It hit like a Muhammad Ali combo to the White House staff, but most members of the crowd remained unfazed by the latest presidential scandal.
“Bob,” a man wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “Three Useless Things: a Dull Knife, a gun with no bullets and a liberal,” said it mattered little to him what was said of Trump or the fact that his former personal attorney, campaign chairman and National Security Advisor were all now convicted felons and Trump had only been in office a little more than a year and a half. “He cares about West Virginia,” Bob said. “He’s the only one who does.”
"The markets will crash" if the Democrats succeed in impeaching him. That’s why Trump's on the road stumping for Republican candidates.
After he left, the speakers began blaring music again. We were entertained by “Sweet Child O’Mine” by Guns n’ Roses and then 10 minutes before the president was scheduled to take the stage, we were entertained with “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, “Dream On” by Aerosmith and “Revolution” by the Beatles.
As Trump made the stage at 7:13 p.m., he walked on with the sounds of John Denver singing “Country Roads.”
The crowd went wild. Trump dragged out his standard stump speech, but the news of Cohen and Manafort had definitely made an impression on him. While the 10,000 rabid fans screamed with pleasure as he said, “I don’t want to brag about it, but I got a great record,” Trump appeared more lackluster than in previous performances. He as much as called Justice a “fat ass” and while the crowd loved it, Trump didn’t seem to take much pleasure in it. He went through his greatest hits: jabbing the NFL, the press, the Democrats, the Russian investigation. Of course, he hit the “Democrats want to turn the country into one giant sanctuary city more protective of criminal aliens than the people” note.
He painted his usual dystopian picture of America that only he could save. He noted that we had the cleanest air and water, which is why he backed out of the Paris Accords and was rolling back regulations. “After all, if the seatbelt works, you don’t need it,” a security guard next to me said with a smile.
Trump said when he asked people from West Virginia if they wanted to “learn new skills, build new widgets, gidgets and gadgets, they said no.” According to Trump, they said they wanted to dig coal.
“Of course we did. We love Black Lung disease,” the security guard told me. But the crowd went wild. Then Trump did something very unlike Trump in his other speeches. He defended the media and said we have to put up with them because censorship is a bad thing. The big guy in the Crocs who earlier wanted to fight then said he’d give us a hug. But he didn’t.
Trump left the stage after an hour and 15 minutes. As the energized crowd filed out of the doors still sneering at the press, they stopped and bought more t-shirts and hats. Casey Horton, a Democratic candidate for the 1st District House of Delegates stood outside watching the crowd.
“I had to see it for myself, what we’ve become,” he said. “These are my friends and neighbors and they’re blindly following the man. They can’t see the light.”
On Fox and Friends Thursday morning, the president told us all why: “The markets will crash,” he said if the Democrats succeed in impeaching him. That’s why he’s on the road stumping for Republican candidates, and that’s what those who follow him fear. It's also Trump’s ultimate fear. As he stumps for the GOP and jumps around the country doing so, he’s more and more a man in over his head, flailing about and hoping not to drown in the controversy he created.As long as they keep buying t-shirts, he might make it. But, as Horton says, “I’m betting on Mueller that he won’t."