FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina—With a thick beard and overalls, James White doesn’t cut the appearance of a man who’d carry around a teddy bear in public.
But for Donald Trump, he’ll do it.
Standing outside Trump’s rally in Fayetteville on Monday night, White showed off his personal “Trumpy Bear,” a Trump-themed teddy bear with a red tie, cufflinks, and Trump-style faux-hair that goes for $40 and has been hawked in commercials on Fox News. He planned to wave the bear during Trump’s speech.
“It’s my way of supporting Trump,” White said, before explaining how Trumpy Bear’s American flag cape can fold into a pouch on his back.
White was one of an estimated several thousand Trump diehards who descended on a Fayetteville sports and entertainment complex Monday night to see the president rally his supporters.
Trump was in Fayetteville to campaign for Dan Bishop, a special election candidate on the ballot Tuesday. It was a place he never should have been. The district is one that Trump won by 11 points in 2016 but has since become a toss-up as the president’s numbers have softened. Bishop’s Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, had appeared to narrowly lose his race for the seat in the ballot count last November to Republican Mark Harris, only to see the election overturned amid evidence of ballot tampering by Harris’s campaign.
For such an occasion, the president tried his best to stay on message. The night, after all, was meant to keep Republicans from falling even further into the minority in the House. And during his roughly 90-minute speech, Trump mostly avoided the kinds of crowd jeers and racist attacks that have made headlines at earlier rallies. But despite the potential for embarrassing national fallout for Republicans if Bishop fails to keep the seat red, Trump couldn’t help but veer off-message.
“I guess Dan’s speech wasn’t so good,” he joked after an audience member fainted during Bishop’s speech.
Though the rally was about helping Bishop win the seat, the night felt more like a political carnival that brought Trump’s cast of characters and adoring (teddy bear carrying) fans together. Among the entertainers were the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. and pro-Trump internet video stars Diamond & Silk. The two internet personalities, whose real names are Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, received wild cheers and shouts of “we love you!” from the crowd when they walked through the event.
But not every Republican politician in attendance was greeted so warmly. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) took the stage after the national anthem and tried to warm up the crowd with a jab at quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose civil rights protests were a frequent topic for rallygoers.
“Anybody take a knee?” Tillis said. “Not in this house!”
But Tillis, who’s facing a primary challenge after writing an op-ed earlier this year criticizing Trump’s decision to redirect money from the military towards construction of the southern border wall, was greeted with a wave of boos. The Trump-crazed crowd even booed him a second time later on, when Trump introduced him.
Like White, those in attendance had come not to help the Republican Party but to marvel in Trump and the F-U politics he preaches. And, for the most part, that’s precisely what they did. Both Trump Jr. and some of the most passionate rallygoers reveled in “triggering” liberals, wearing T-shirts that declared “Fuck your feelings” or ones that dubbed Trump “someone with balls.”
Seventeen-year-old T-shirt vendor Jordan Conradson flew from Phoenix with his brother to sell shirts modeled on the Jack Daniels whiskey logo that promoted a mythical Trump drink made of “liberal tears.” Conradson said the $15 shirts were a hit.
“They’ve just been flying,” Conradson said, who planned to sleep in his rental car that night rather than getting a hotel room to preserve his profits from the T-shirt sales.
The “triggering” theme continued in Trump Jr.’s warm-up speech. As he took the stage, Trump’s eldest son kissed girlfriend, Trump campaign senior adviser, and former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, then asked the audience to note that Guilfoyle had consented.
“I will not be getting MeToo’d this evening!” Trump Jr., the author of an upcoming book decrying liberals called Triggered, said to laughter from the crowd.
Later, Trump Jr. jokingly warned the crowd not to say that there are only two genders — prompting rally goers to repeatedly yell “Two!” and hold up two fingers.
“You guys are crazy!” Trump Jr. said.
Linda Barrera, from Charlotte, North Carolina, said she came to the rally “to get my country back,” and to bask in the camaraderie of fellow Trump supporters. She claimed that it’s become difficult to openly support Trump.
“Now you might get eggs thrown at you,” she said.
Several rally goers said Trump was bringing the country back to a vague era of national greatness, in a reference to his 2016 campaign promise “Make America Great Again.” In his speech, Trump portrayed his reelection campaign as the only thing stopping Democrats from attacking American institutions, with plans ranging from implementing socialism to the ban on incandescent light bulbs.
Greensboro, N.C. tile specialist and diehard Ronald Reagan fan Anthony Castaldini said he had been feeling down about the state of American politics for nearly a decade before Trump ran for president. In the George W. Bush administration, as a protest against Bush—whose name he still refuses to say—he printed up a set of shirts with the Reagan’s face on them, and began wearing them as a sort of homage.
“I don’t do shit without Ronald Reagan,” Castaldini told The Daily Beast.
But now there’s another president winning Castaldini’s admiration — and a spot on his custom shirts. Castaldini and his wife Elizabeth drove to the Trump rally, decked out in their handmade Trump gear.
With curly gray hair that touched his shoulders and an American flag bandanna wrapped around his forehead, Castaldini showed off his latest T-shirt design, this time with Trump added to it alongside Reagan. He’s already worn it so many times, the lettering declaring that Trump is “saving America” faded away, forcing him to replace the printed-on message with paint.
“To me, he’s fantastic,” Castaldini said. “He’s bringing us back to the Reagan days.”