MANCHESTER, N.H. — There’s no question Donald Trump looms large in the Democratic psyche. On the eve of the momentous first primary of 2020, the president made his presence inescapable, crashing his Democratic rivals’ crucial last day of campaigning, lobbing insults, and previewing the messaging weapons he will wield against Democrats in the general election.
But first, Trump boasted about his crowd size at a raucous rally Monday night.
“We have more in this arena and outside of this arena than all of the other candidates, meaning the Democrats, put together and multiplied times five,” crowed Trump shortly after taking the stage, surrounded by thousands of supporters in the Southern New Hampshire University arena in Manchester.
Hosting one of his trademark events the day before the New Hampshire primary, Trump clearly wanted to troll Democrats. But the rally also served as a preview for what Democrats can expect in the general election: an undaunted incumbent who will paint the Democratic nominee as a radical socialist bent on destroying the strong economy Trump claims he alone has built.
“Democrats are now the party of high taxes, high crime, open borders, late-term abortion, socialism, and blatant corruption. The Republican Party is the party of the American worker, the American family, the American dream, and the late great Abraham Lincoln,” Trump said.
“Under my father, America will never be a socialist country!" vowed the president’s elder son, Donald Jr., a sentiment echoed a few minutes later by Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump bragged about what he described as a “full, complete, and absolute, total acquittal” in the Senate impeachment trial — or “this vile hoax,” as Trump put it. The line drew some of the loudest applause of the night.
“While the extreme left has been wasting America’s time,” he said, “we’ve been killing terrorists, creating jobs, raising wages, enacting fair-trade deals, securing our borders, and lifting up the citizens of every race, color, religion, and creed.”
He also brought up one of his favorite conspiracy theories, totally debunked: that he lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton in 2016 because Democrats “had buses being shipped up from Massachusetts, hundreds and hundreds.”
Trump and his surrogates offered plenty of insults of the Democratic field, but the pain for Democrats started hours earlier.
The president’s visit practically shut down the center of the largest city in the state, where Democratic presidential candidates were desperately vying for voters’ attention and support in the final day before voting starts.
The Monday evening rally, held in a sports arena across the street from the hotel where several national news organizations have set up shop for the primary, ate into the news coverage Democratic candidates were seeking. The front page of New Hampshire’s only statewide paper, the Union Leader of Manchester, led with a story Monday morning about Trump supporters lining up early to get to the rally.
It’s exactly what Trump did a few days before the Iowa caucuses, holding a rally in the state that snarled traffic and stole local news coverage.
As such, Trump has sought to create a political split screen: Democrats gripped by anxiety and in-fighting on one side; a unified Republican Party cheering an exultant leader on the other.
“We have so much more enthusiasm than them, it’s not even close. They’re all fighting each other, they’re all going after each other," the president mused. "They don’t know what they’re doing, they can’t even count their votes,” Trump said to laughter, referring to the widespread reporting problems and unclear results from last week’s Iowa caucuses.
“Washington Democrats” are taking their cues from “crazy Bernie,” Trump said at another point, then suggested the Democratic Party was trying to rob the Vermont senator of the nomination.
“They’re doing it to you again, Bernie!” he cried.
Supporters stood while Trump’s eldest son mocked former vice president Joe Biden, and senators Elizabeth Warren and Sanders. He ridiculed Warren for getting “trolled into taking a DNA test.”
One Trump supporter wiped away tears as Don Jr. joked that Biden was confused. “I almost feel bad for Joe Biden, because in all fairness, if Joe Biden came out to a crowd like this, he would say, it’s great to be here in Florida!” Don. Jr. said to raucous laughter.
But earlier in the day, New Hampshire’s Democratic Party chairman, Raymond Buckley, said although the president came to Manchester because he wanted to “get in on the fun,” the strategy would ultimately backfire.
“He is giving an enormous boost for the Democratic candidates by reminding people why it’s so important to vote,” Buckley told reporters in a conference call.
Trump supporters lined up for blocks outside the arena, with some even camping out 24 hours in advance, despite the chilly weather. Parking was scarce. A rap song imploring listeners to “Drain the swamp!” pounded from a boombox on the street. Vendors sold T-shirts featuring the president holding up both middle fingers, above the words “Impeach this,” along with Trump 2020 pins and "Women for Trump'' T-shirts.
“It is so uplifting,” said Lynda Payette, 65, a fan of the president since 2016. Payette, who is from Bethlehem, N.H., carried a giant cardboard sign with a glittery red heart addressed to Trump (“You are my valentine forever” it read) and wore a Rosie the Riveter pin with Trump’s face superimposed over Rosie’s.
“It’s so much positive energy,” Payette said.
After the event ended, attendees gave the president rave reviews. “I thought it was awesome,” said Beth Savage, 52, of Windham, N.H. It was the first time Savage had seen the president speak in person.
Her daughter, Mary Savage, 13, said the president surpassed her expectations. “They can’t put him down,” she said.
A highlight for some attendees was “The Snake,” a poem that Trump interprets as a cautionary tale about immigration, which was a mainstay of his 2016 election campaign. Critics consider it racist.
“I liked the poem,” said Sue Nelson, from North Conway. “Wake up America. There are some snakes.”
Some Trump supporters said they had been following the Democratic primary (with glee), while others said they hadn’t bothered to tune in.
“They’re not going to get very far, in my opinion,” Victoria Gouldrup, 20, said of the president’s Democratic rivals. Gouldrup had wrapped a white Trump 2020 flag around her shoulders to stay warm. It was her first time attending a Trump rally; she and a friend had been waiting in line for about two hours. Still, her spirits were high.
“I’m excited, especially after he got acquitted last week,” Gouldrup said.
The Manchester rally was the first the president has held since the acquittal.
Jim Merrill, who led Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, said that Trump’s rally is about “having fun with the Democrats, first and foremost.”
In November’s general election, Merrill said, Trump could easily be the first Republican to win the state since George W. Bush’s close win here in 2000. Trump lost New Hampshire by roughly 2,700 votes in 2016, his narrowest defeat in the country.
“Trump wins New Hampshire in November based on his current trajectory,” said Merrill. “But November is a lifetime from now.”
Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Zoe Greenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg. James Pindell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.