It’s hard to think of a worse place than Sun City, South Carolina, for Donald Trump to make his first public appearance since unleashing a firestorm of controversy by calling Senator John McCain “not a war hero” over the weekend.
The “active” retirement community of 16,000 is a magnet for military retirees, many of whom served in Vietnam as McCain languished in a Hanoi POW camp and is a a mandatory stop for “country-first” Republicans looking to win the state’s crucial First-in-the-South primary.
But instead of greeting Trump with protests for his comments, the conservative crowd of 600 welcomed the GOP front-runner with three standing ovations, an overflow room of 500, and rapt attention.
Trump spent an hour-plus ranting on everything from South Carolina’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, (“a total lightweight idiot"), to the Obama administration (“a bunch of dopes”), and his policy plans for everything from saving Social Security to reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs and strengthening the military.
Trump was so annoyed that Graham had called him a “jackass” earlier in the day that he crammed Graham insults throughout his speech, mocking the senior senator’s high-toned Southern drawl and reading Graham’s Capitol Hill phone number aloud to prove Graham had once come “begging” for a favor. “I think that’s his number—somebody try it!”
Not only did the audience tolerate Trump’s bluster, many said they welcomed it.
Many saw it as proof that Trump is entirely different from the cattle pen of career politicians he’s running against—a billionaire who literally cannot be bought, a truth teller who says what he’s thinking, even when it’s not popular.
Among veterans in particular, Trump’s drill-sergeant barks, along with promises to “do everything for the vets, who are being treated terribly,” left the impression that he not only cares about the struggles of veterans, but that he might actually succeed in returning the Veterans Administration, the government, and the country to the greatness they once knew.
In nearly two-dozen interviews with veterans outside of Bluffton, South Carolina, nearly all praised Trump as “not-a-politician,” “a breath of fresh air,” and a straight-shooting, successful businessman who, so far, can be trusted. His criticism of John McCain barely seemed to register as anything other than the media blowing a single comment out of proportion.
“People make statements and Trump is Trump. That didn’t bother me at all,” said John Doyle, a Vietnam veteran who is also the vice president of the Sun City Republicans, who will remain neutral in the primary. “He’s used to pushing back at people and maybe not in the best light. But deep down I don’t doubt what he thinks about John McCain.”
William Hertling, 70, served in the Army from 1963 to 1965, considers himself an independent after giving up on both political parties years ago. Hertling said he’s paying attention to Trump this time around.
“I felt what Trump said was maybe a punch below the belt, but I still understood him letting out his feelings about what McCain said about him,” Hertling said. “I do like the fact that he says what’s on his mind rather than the politicians saying what you want to hear and not backing it up.”
Max Clements, who was drafted into the Army in 1957, saw Trump’s bluntness as an attribute, not a detriment, even his comments about John McCain. “Everybody’s trying to take it out of context because he’s leading in the polls,” Clements said. “Trump is not a politician and he tells it like it is. He’s not going to owe anybody anything when he gets into office.”
If anyone in the audience could have come to protest Trump, who sought five deferments from service in Vietnam, it would have been Patrick McGowan, a war hero by any definition.
McGowan volunteered for the Army in 1969 as the war raged in Vietnam, serving in country as a “tunnel rat,” crawling through underground tunnels in search of American POWs. It was brutally dangerous work that left him with three gunshot wounds to the chest and a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star.
But McGowan had come to support Trump.
“I truly like how strong-minded he is,” he said. “He is actually for the veterans. He was not putting the veterans down. Why do they keep harping on it? Trump will change Washington and the V.A. and we need it.”
If Trump’s rival Republicans were hoping that his McCain outburst would be the beginning of the end of the summer of Trump, their hopes seem to be misplaced. The man who entered and departed Sun City to outstretched hands and cheers of thanks isn’t going anywhere.
And if the GOP establishment is looking for somebody to blame for their current predicament— with 15 experienced Republican leaders trailing a man they’ve written off as a carnival barker— they can blame themselves. While Republicans and Democrats alike have been obsessing over data, Super PACs, mega-donors, and any other way to game the system for a win in 2016, the outlandish man who built his name into a billion-dollar brand has figured out what brand many voters are looking for, and it’s pretty much anything or anyone with no connection to Washington or the system that created it.
Trump’s key message was easy to lose Tuesday amid his opera of bombast, ego stroking and name calling, but he eventually laid it out for the audience in Sun City and they nodded in agreement as they took it in.
“There is something happening here,” he told the crowd, making sure they knew he was talking about himself as much as he was talking about them. “We are tired of being pushed around and led around by stupid people…We need smart leadership, We need great leadership. We need to make America great again.”