SPARTANBURG, S.C. — When Donald Trump speaks, he has a habit of gripping the lectern with all but the middle finger of his left hand. The middle finger wriggles about, curling up and down with the rhythm of his words. On Saturday night, as he addressed the crowd after winning the primary here by a ten-point margin, it seemed to be wriggling at all of us.
Trump has completely upended the Republican Party’s nominating process, and he couldn’t be more satisfied.
“A couple of the pundits said, ‘Well, if a couple of the other candidates dropped out, if you add their scores together, it’s going to equal Trump,’” he said, doing his best impersonation of a Beltway Idiot. The crowd booed and Trump threw his hands out. “Right?” he said, “they’re geniuses. They don’t understand that, as people drop out, I’m gonna get a lot of those votes also! You don’t just add them together.”
In the eight months since he first sailed down the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy, Trump has watched as every single prediction about his campaign, made by so-called experts, has been proven wrong. Not that winning South Carolina means he’ll win it all—Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney here by thirteen points in 2012. As it stands now, Trump has 61 delegates. To win the nomination, he needs 1,237. But Trump wasn’t supposed to make it this far to begin with.
It was supposed to be a blip, and then it was supposed to collapse under the weight of its own arrogance, and then it was supposed to be destroyed by the knights in the establishment, and then the voters were supposed to get serious.
Well, they were serious here at the Marriott on North Church Street on Saturday, just like they had been at the Executive Court Banquet Facility in Manchester, New Hampshire ten days ago after he won there, but not in the way that anybody could’ve anticipated back in June.
Anybody except for Trump, that is.
His calls for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border were mocked by the experts then as proof of his inherent silliness. And it is a stupid idea, one that couldn’t work even if he managed to get it done. But on Saturday, as he spoke about trade with Mexico, people in the audience began shouting, “Build a wall!” He turned to one man and said, “We’re gonna build a wall, don’t worry.” He turned back to the audience and asked them a question, “we’re gonna do the wall and, by the way, who’s gonna pay for the wall?” A chorus responded, “Mexico!”
The polls here had shown for months, much like in New Hampshire, that Trump had a sizable lead over the rest of the field. But to think that he could win anywhere was, in a lot of ways, to admit that everything we think we know about politics and what the people who participate in the process believe is bullshit.
His lead in South Carolina (and New Hampshire for that matter) was so dominant that his two nearest competitors - Sens. Ted Cruz and Rubio - openly celebrated the “historic” nature their virtual tie for second place.
“History will say that on this night in South Carolina, we took the first step forward to the beginning of a new American century," Rubio declared from his rally in Columbia, SC.
Across town, Cruz told his crowd, “"Friends once again, we have made history."
He did not explain what was historic about the evangelical in the race losing the evangelical vote in a state where —according to an exit poll—73 percent of Republican voters said they consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians. Trump, whose cursing is part of his stump speech, is on his third wife, admitted on TV that he’d never asked God for forgiveness, and this week got into a fight with The Pope.
And then, not only did he win, but he won Beaufort, the state’s only majority-Catholic county. Ted Cruz, who beat Trump in Iowa thanks to the evangelical community and invested millions here to turn them out again, came in third place. Marco Rubio, a Catholic, finished a distant second. Jeb Bush, a converted Catholic, dropped out altogether.
Before Trump descended on stage, bathed in pink and purple lights fit for one of his pageants, his fans milled about on the red and gold carpet, picking at plates of cheese and fruit and drinking booze from one of two cash bars. The extent to which their outfits of sweat clothes or sequined mini-dresses or jeans and t-shirts were accessorized with TRUMP swag—scarves and pins and buttons and a silicone mask of his likeness, in one case—made the event feel like a convention.
It’s difficult to not notice, after attending Trump rallies and parties all over the country, that the crowds almost always look exactly the same.
Trump’s appeal stretches long, but it’s not broad.
His fans are predominantly white, usually older, working people or retired working people. Oftentimes they’re very religious, but that’s not what motivates them. They feel as if the country has left them behind, but they differ from the Tea Partiers of 2010 in that they are not political and they are uninterested in policy unless the policy amounts to a giant fuck-you to a deserving group, like China, or “special interests.” The phrase Make America Great Again, to them, is a legitimate campaign platform.
“Our theme!” Trump said onstage, “what’s our theme? You know it!” The crowd answered, “Make America Great Again!”
“Our theme, which I love, maybe the greatest theme of all time, right?” he said, “and the word, ‘again,’ eventually is going to come off!”
Wayne Howell, 71, a retired grocery chain supervisor, sat off to the side of the crowd. “Well, I think we need Donald Trump to make America great again,” he told me.
When I asked Allison Ricci, 42, a school bus driver who used to watch The Apprentice, if her support for Trump was more about his personality or his policies, she said, “all of it. Everything.”
Additional reporting by Patricia Murphy and Gideon Resnick