Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump visited Asheville last night for the first time of this presidential campaign. Asheville, with its liberal reputation, might seem a strange place for a Trump rally. But as North Carolina has become one of the premier battleground states of this election, the state has seen an influx of candidates. Both Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have made many visits to the state. Clinton was in Charlotte just this past Thursday. But aside from a visit from Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Tim Kaine several weeks ago, Asheville has seen relative calm when compared with larger metropolitan areas like Charlotte and the Triangle, and even the eastern part of the state. But that all changed last night.
Chants of “Go home racists.”
Outside the US Cellular Center in downtown Asheville, hundreds of anti-Trump protesters gathered, waving signs and chanting. Many decried what they viewed as the racist, divisive, and even dangerous Trump candidacy. Thomas Peterson of south Asheville said some of Trump’s proposals amount to war crimes.
“You know it’s a war crime to torture people, and he’s proposed that he would do much worse than waterboarding. And it’s a war crime to intentionally kill noncombatants and he’s proposed that we have to take out the terrorists’ families. That’s a war crime.”
Cheri Brown of Black Mountain said she didn’t want a “despot” in the White House.
“I find all of this very sad that all of these people are supporting him. Because by virtue of being in support of him I think they are in support of racism and white supremacy, xenophobia…”
Jessica O’Brien from Asheville protested along with her two small daughters.
“He’s had a long history of racist, sexist actions and statements. And he’s not who I want my children to look up to.”
JL: “And you brought your daughters out with you today.”
“Yeah, it was their idea. I was worried about it. We had a talk about how different the world is and that there’s a lot of different kinds of people. And we just talked about, you know, if they go low, we go high.”
Those protesters were all gathered at the entrance. So anyone going in to see Trump had to walk through a barricaded line through the protesters. One of those Trump supporters, who identified as Keith from Canton, North Carolina, told me about why he came to support Trump.
“Well I just think he’s really good on jobs and businesses. It’s obvious he knows how to get things done because he’s proven that. He’s a very successful businessman. I really think he has good intentions to make this country prosper and make it better for everybody.”
JL: “What do you think of his opponent?”
“I don’t trust Hillary Clinton. I don’t believe anything she says. There’s no way I would vote for her.”
Inside, the arena was nearly packed.
Thousands of Trump supporters waved signs. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani gave the introduction, and then out came the man himself.
Donald Trump: “Thank you, thank you, wow that’s a lot of people.”
For anyone even mildly paying attention this election cycle, most of Trump’s speech sounded pretty familiar.
Trump: “Build the wall. We’re going to build the wall. And who is going to pay for the wall?” Crowd yells ‘Mexico!’ “100%, 100%”…. “On my first we’re going to immediately terminate every single unconstitutional order…” “I’m going to ask Congress to send me a bill to immediately repeal and replace, I just said it, Obamacare”… “… We are going to have law and order. We’re going to have safety. We’re going to have jobs. We’re going to protect our Second Amendment. We’re going to do a lot of great things…”
But Trump had a new line of attack for this rally.
Trump: “While my opponent slanders you as deplorable and irredeemable, I call you hardworking American patriots who love your country and want a better future for all our people.”
Trump was taking aim at a comment made by Hillary Clinton, a comment she’s since tried to walk back, that half of Trump’s supporters are in what she called the “basket of deplorables,” which she described as racists, xenophobes, homophobes, etc. The comment has given Trump an opportunity to cut into what was once a commanding Clinton lead in the polls, and he’s taking it.
Trump: “She talks about people like they’re objects, not human beings. She said half of our supporters are irredeemable and not American and describes the other half as having run out of options. What she can’t understand or accept is that the great majority of this country now sees right through these lies and deceptions of a failed political establishment, and frankly, soon to be a failed politician.”
For the most part, the rally and protests were peaceful. But at one point during Trump’s speech, that peace was broken. Trump stopped speaking to address some protesters who were creating a commotion in the upper rafters.
Trump: “It’s a few people out of thousands. The dishonest media, these people, the most dishonest people. They won’t report that. But the good news is the cameras follow it. That’s the only way I can get the cameras to move.”
But Trump may have wished he didn’t say that. I was filming it. And right at that moment one of his supporters appeared to punch one of the protesters being escorted out, and grabbed another by the head. He then swatted at a female protesters’ camera as she was trying to film it. See the video below, with the incident occurring at about the one minute mark.
That moment marred what was otherwise for the most part a peaceful rally and protest.
The protests continued outside after the event, and Trump’s supporters seemed to get what they wanted. Charlene Hogue of Swain County had trouble settling on her favorite lines from the speech.
“There’s so many. He was going to repeal and replace Obamacare and provide better healthcare to veterans primarily. He supports the men in blue. And he’s going to bring more jobs and he’s going to make America great again. And that’s what he’s all about.
Zack Almond of Albermarle shared that enthusiasm. He’s been to a number of Trump rallies. I asked him if this one was any different.
“Given that it was in Asheville, more protesters. But other than that, it’s the same amount of enthusiasm as every other rally.”
Patsy Thornton of Highlands expressed the sentiment probably felt by many of Trump’s supporters about Clinton’s “deplorables” comment.
“When somebody calls half the Americans, or whatever the percentage of anybody deplorable, it’s quite shocking. And he pointed out the different supporters that he has of all walks of life. And we’re not deplorable. We just aren’t.”
But while Trump supporters got what they wanted, it seems unlikely his speech or visit swayed anyone new to his side. Matthew Gronkey, an Asheville resident, came to hear Trump speak, but didn’t support him and wasn’t impressed.
“There’s this notion that if you’re powerless, you should support Trump because he is going to return you to power. He talks a lot about manufacturing jobs. He talks a lot about issues that are elements of the past, that are not coming back. And he seems to think through sheer force of will, he can make it happen, and it’s ridiculous.”
And so went Asheville and western North Carolina’s highest profile visit of this campaign season. It probably won’t be the last.
You can hear Trump's full remarks below.