FREDERICKSBURG, Va.—By the end of the speech, it still wasn’t clear what Donald Trump was doing here in the 120,000-square-foot expo center, a space which usually hosts gun shows or quilting conventions but was on Saturday filled not quite to capacity with people decorated by Make America Great Again! paraphernalia.
Fredericksburg, an independent city of less than 30,000, has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, when George H.W. Bush got 55 percent of the vote. After Bill Clinton won in 1992 with 47.5 percent, the residents never gave the Grand Old Party another glance.
It is also 73 percent white, at a time when Trump needs to be reaching out to the African-American community. Although he insists he will win 95 percent of the African-American vote, he is polling around 0 or 1 percent with the demographic.
One elderly woman smoking outside the rally before Trump arrived said she was from France and became an American citizen about 20 years ago. She wore a gray T-shirt with an American flag in the shape of a heart on it. She believed that Trump would win if “a few” black voters decided to support him.
At the rate things are going now with all constituencies, it seems unlikely that Trump could win the presidency without winning Virginia. But his numbers here are only getting worse.
Hillary Clinton has consistently led the polls here since at least October of 2015, according to the data provided by Real Clear Politics.
She led by a double-digit margin until May, when things began to tighten somewhat, culminating in mid-July when she was ahead by only 3.5 points. But the numbers soon changed in her favor.
Over the last several weeks, Clinton has seen a dramatic surge that has her beating Trump by a solid 11 points on average. In a recent NBC/WSJ/Marist poll, she was up by 13 points.
Like so much of Trump’s campaign, his travel schedule doesn’t have a message, either. The wisdom of campaigning in a small city of predominantly white Democrats, in a state where he is doing worse with each passing day, is unclear.
He seems to go wherever he wants, regardless of the fact that where he wants to go is often a place that he is wasting money by visiting. He recently campaigned in Connecticut, a state which has nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans and hasn’t voted for a Republican, like Fredericksburg, since 1988.
The phenomenon of Trump’s possibly useless travel is especially curious as it continues this week, amid a staff shakeup that—again—was supposed to usher in a new era of Trump the Professional Candidate.
Although, maybe he was just here in Fredericksburg for practice.
Trump read dutifully from his teleprompter, straying only to add commentary for comedic or dramatic effect and not to say anything completely insane (by his standards).
To the degree that he has a message, he stayed on it for the duration of his remarks, talking loudly but dispassionately about veterans, trade, law enforcement, immigration, terrorism and the phantom great, safe and wealthy America of some distant but unspecified era.
“Law and order will be restored to the United States of America!” he said. “Put America first! America first! And it’s going to be America first from now on.” He decried the alleged “large numbers of gang members [who] are in this country illegally right here in Virginia!”
In the audience was David Brat, the Republican Virginia congressman who won a surprise victory over former Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the epitome of an establishment Republican. Like Trump, Brat struck an outsider message.
Brat wore a white dress shirt and blue seersucker pants. He lingered by the press pen and affably talked to reporter after reporter. “We’ve got the next president of the United States here, so it’s a good reason to be here,” he told me.
“We ran on similar issues,” he said, although he admitted that Trump’s rhetoric is rather different. “Everybody steps in it,” he said. But, he added, “I’m praying” he’ll turn things around by staying on message.
“The last two speeches he gave were awesome,” Brat said, “It’s African-American, Hispanics: how are the little guys doing, for real? Terrible. That’s the facts, it’s undisputed. Every inner city’s owned, basically, by a Democrat machine. And so he’s making a pitch, and I made the same pitch.”
Onstage, Trump attempted to talk about race, but it seemed designed to check off a box more than to genuinely make that pitch to African-American voters.
“I’ve asked the African-American community to honor me with their vote,” he said Saturday. “I fully recognize that outreach to the African-American community is an area where the Republican Party must do better.The GOP is the Party of Lincoln, and I want our party to be the home of the African-American vote once again. I want an inclusive country, and I want an inclusive party. We reject the bigotry of Hillary Clinton, who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.”
He said his campaign is about giving voice to the people “who turn on television every night and don’t see anyone speaking up for them—the forgotten man, the forgotten woman.” Although, it’s difficult to turn on the television any night and not be bombarded by Trump supporters yammering.
“I am your voice,” he said. “I will never let you down.”
Then, in rapid succession, he said, “Together, We Will Make America Wealthy Again.
We Will Make America Proud Again.
We Will Make America Safe Again.
And We Will Make America Great Again For Each And Every American.
Thank you, and God Bless You!”
Although it feels trite at this point to note it here, in the interest of accuracy: Trump left the stage, as he typically does, to The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”