The hired security guards, all with shoulders thick as bulls, walked through the rows of steel barricades shouting instructions.
“Pack it in,” they told the people, many of whom wore shirts that told of loving freedom.
“I think we’re just compressing,” someone behind me said.
The people had come from far and wide on Wednesday, descending upon the Gastonia Municipal Airport for a rally for President Trump, where they’d wait for hours together. Close together. One man I met rode a motorcycle from Huntersville and one woman took an airplane from Florida. They came from Tennessee. Georgia. West Virginia. South Carolina. And of course North Carolina. The mere mention of Gaston County drew hoots and hollers.
For many it was like catching a favorite artist’s farewell tour. Not that they think Donald Trump is going to lose this election. But it might be the last time they could see him in his most Donald Trump setting — campaigning.
It was his 10th visit to North Carolina this election year.
The late-October sun was getting a little mean. The people who had masks on pulled them down to wipe sweat from their mouths. A little after 2 p.m., about 90 minutes before the gates opened, the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, had said in a release that the state’s coronavirus metrics were concerning. He issued an order that said the state would remain in Phase 3 of its reopening plan. That order requires outdoor gatherings to be no more than 50 people.
More than 23,000 were on their way to this wide-open stretch of fields and runways, according to a final count acquired by WBTV.
I’d come to talk to people about the political disconnect between cities like Charlotte and the rural areas of the state. I’ve lived all over North Carolina and love the people I’ve met here: the fishermen and the farmers, bankers and artists, weirdos and the ordinary ones.
The polarization of the state over the past decade has been most disheartening.
They’ve never been the same, the city and the country. But the jabs used to be tamer and matter less. Rural folks might laugh at the word “streets,” because all they have are roads. Stuff like that.
Now it seems to be more fundamental, that North Carolina has people who believe different truths about the world, people who could look at the same sky and see two different colors.
The most visible representation of that in line was masks. Roughly a third of the people here had them on. Coming from Charlotte, a land where warning signs are on every door, it was almost frightening. After all, just this week, the county health department has had unnerving updates: After an event at the United House of Prayer for All People, more than 60 people contracted the virus. Two died.
But here just 45 minutes west of the city limits, everybody went through a temperature check at the door and after that, it was if they’d been cleared to return to their regular lives.
When the gates opened, they walked fast to the front, much like people with floor tickets to a big concert, all hoping to be in the front row.
Red, white, and blue was everywhere. It took three local crane companies to hang the giant American flags behind the stage.
I landed a spot that was at least somewhat above the crowd, on the top row of rafters where I could stand on the seat without blocking anyone’s view. But once I got there, the stands filled in around me and I wasn’t leaving. The people around me, the masked and the maskless, were kind and enjoying themselves, but sometimes the setting sun would reveal a little spray, and I wondered how all this would end up.
At around 5:30, people were already packed in, chest to back, chest to back, chest to back, across the runway. I counted probably 1,500 people in the risers behind the stage.
They roared when Dan Forest, the Republican lieutenant governor who’s running against Cooper for the governor’s job, took the stage.
Polls show that most of North Carolina approves of Cooper’s Covid-19 response — 54 percent in a recent WRAL News poll — and that Forest is trailing in his race. But not here he wasn’t.
“Elections are about choices,” Forest said, and then he made it clear that if people liked getting together like this, they should vote him in. “Roy Cooper’s been locked up for 215 days.”
Forest was just one of several speakers who helped rile the crowd in the hours before Trump’s arrival. Then came about 45 minutes of music.
The sun set in above the entrance as the songs played on. It was stunning to see after seven months of avoiding big crowds, red hats stretched seemingly from me to the pink horizon, while the speakers blared with Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.”
At around 6:30, some guys came out and started tossing MAGA hats in the crowd, which was easily more than 10,000 by now. The song changed to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and people raised their hands high in hopes of catching one while the words rang out, “glory, glory, hallelujah.”
Fifteen minutes before Trump’s arrival time, shuttle buses were still pouring in. Cell phone service was non-existent. Just after 7 p.m., the sirens and motorcade came flying in. The crowd bubbled, whispering the same words they’d uttered in Greenville in the eastern part of the state last week, same as they did in Winston-Salem last month, and at the one-day RNC in Charlotte in August, and at the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte in March.
When Trump took the stage, it was as if AC/DC had come up from the floor.
“Thirteen days,” he said to start, referencing the days between this moment and his final presidential election day. “Can you believe it? Thirteen days from now and you see what’s happening: bump, bump, bump. They’re starting to get nervous.”
“Conservative awakening!” a man in the rafters near me shouted.
He hit on all the issues his supporters care about in rapid fire: police and law enforcement, the second amendment, immigration, and ensuring “more products are proudly stamped with the phrase, ‘Made in the U.S.A.’” He localized the address, talking about bringing back manufacturing and taking care of tobacco farmers.
He claimed he’d protect the suburbs from things like “low-income housing,” and said he’d put an end to policies that “order you to stay at home while letting rioters and MS-13 killers will roam free without masks. Without masks. MS-13 doesn’t have to wear a mask.” He may have been talking about Antifa.
It was hardly offensive to his crowd.
I met two local women who immigrated to the United States from Peru and Chile in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “I think he’s the best president in my 20 years here,” Carolina Sprinkle said.
They’re part of the Latinas for Trump group. As Catholics, they said their most important issue was Trump’s stance against abortion. Also, “Capitalism,” Shirley Cano-Michael said, “has made this country great.”
I asked them if they were worried about the virus. They each pointed to their masks. They’d worn them all night they said.
“But I don’t want the virus to stop life,” Sprinkle said.
That’s what Trump and Forest are counting on, that more people are like Sprinkle — people who say that even as case numbers rise in North Carolina again, they’ll vote against candidates who support a shutdown.
Of course, one could say — as health experts have — that if everybody wore masks and distanced, the numbers wouldn’t be rising again. Standing here, there was no doubt that only one person on the planet could convince them to do that, and he wasn’t going to.
The crowd size was the story.
“That’s a lot of people,” Trump said to them after a large applause. “You should’ve seen the people on the road, they couldn’t get in. You know, as big as this crowd is. Tens of thousands of people on the roads coming up.”
The crowd cheered.
He then recounted a conversation he says he had with a police officer before the event, in which he encouraged them to let more people in.
“I said, ‘Officer, we have 10,000 people out there, much more than that, all the way down.’ … I said, ‘It’s a field, just — Let’s open it up, let’s move the trucks back, the bus and everything.’
“They said, ‘Sir, we have a problem.’ (I said) ‘What?’ (They said) ‘Stampede.’”
The crowd laughed.
“I said, ‘Stampede?’ … ‘I thought that was for cattle?’”
Right around the time he said that, Joe Biden released a statement.
“Nearly 4,000 North Carolinians have died due to Covid-19, and nearly 25,000 have tested positive, but President Trump still has no plan on how to get this virus under control,” the statement read. “Instead he’s … holding rallies that fly in the face of North Carolina’s Covid-19 guidelines.”
Earlier in the day, Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris had been in Charlotte, speaking to a smaller, socially distanced audience at the minor-league stadium. Last month, Biden was at Charlotte’s Camp North End, speaking to a little more than a dozen people who sat in chairs surrounded by circles.
Trump took shots at the Biden campaign’s precautions. Made fun of the circles and made fun of the crowd sizes. In doing so, he only endeared himself to the thousands herded around him.
Polls show that it’s not working, at least not in the things polls show. Biden still leads in North Carolina, one of the most crucial swing states in the 2020 election. But standing here, hours after the governor warned of rising case numbers, the polls didn’t seem to matter and lockdown orders definitely didn’t — nothing mattered as much as what the person on the stage was saying.
“The pandemic is rounding the corner,” Trump said. “They hate it when I say that. You turn on this MSDNC and fake news CNN and all you hear is COVID. COVID. COVID, COVID. COVID. COVID.”
BOOOOOO, the 23,000 people here roared back.
“COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. COVID.”
In that moment, at least everyone there was thinking about the same thing, if for different reasons.