Three placards were waved prominently and defiantly in front of the podium before Republican nominee Donald trump addressed a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, on Friday. “Veterans for Trump,” each said.
They were an indication that, despite what pundits have described as the worst campaign week of any presidential candidate in living memory, the blowhard billionaire still has a hard core of supporters who either do not know or do not care.
In a few short days, Trump managed to insult the parents of a fallen war hero; claim that Russia would not invade Ukraine (although it has already done so); express hope that his daughter would just “find another company” if she were sexually harassed at work; joked at a campaign event about receiving a Purple Heart (the military decoration for soldiers wounded in combat); initially refuse to endorse Paul Ryan (the highest-ranking elected Republican); and even order a crying baby out of one of his rallies.
The string of unforced errors certainly seemed to have an impact on independent and moderate Republican voters. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll put Hillary Clinton at 47% and Trump at just 38%; tellingly, she had moved one point ahead among men, who usually lean away from the Democrats. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey even put Clinton four points ahead in Georgia; the last Democratic nominee to win the state was her husband Bill in 1992.
Such margins would be enough to put the first female president in the White House. But Democrats are guarding against complacency. Another important figure crept out last week: Trump raised $80m in July, boosted by a surge in small online donations. It was indicative of a noisy, fiercely enthusiastic support base – what he calls “a movement” – that is unlikely to be swayed by controversies that transfix Washington and the media.
Lei Ann Gleaves, who describes herself as a stay-at-home mother from Franklin, Tennessee, said: “I’m still for him. It’s going to take a lot for me not to be for him because I completely distrust Hillary.”
She added: “It’s August. People are not going to tune in until after Labor Day [5 September]. They are putting their vacations in and I don’t think they’re paying attention.”
Michael Barnett, 39, a lawyer in Palm Beach, Florida, said: “I’m still supporting Trump, now more than ever. Hillary had a bad couple of weeks, now Trump’s having a downturn, but it’s going to even out. Trump is the real deal. What some people find a detriment, others find refreshing, that he’s been willing to speak his mind and say what the silent majority are thinking.”
At Trump rallies, filled with superfans decked out in campaign merchandise, the row over Humayun Khan, the American Muslim soldier killed in Iraq in 2004, does not seem to matter. Many drive for hours to attend and then queue for hours more in order to be sure of seeing their idol. One supporter at a recent rally in Virginia, Bill McKee of New Jersey, said that while he was attending his first event in person, he normally watched them in full on the One America News Network, a niche right-wing competitor to Fox News that broadcasts every Trump rally.
Several key states in the election have strong military connections that could be decisive. Some 62 Republicans in the House of Representatives are veterans. The Observer attempted to contact all of them but most did not respond. Among those who did, support for Trump was mostly holding, although some were sharply critical of his conduct towards Khan’s family.
Congressman Bill Johnson of Ohio said: “I spent 26 years in the US air force. I understand the sacrifices our service members and their families make. Humayun Khan gave his life in the service of America, and he is a hero. Mr Trump should show that Gold Star family more respect, just as Hillary Clinton should show the Gold Star families of the Benghazi heroes more respect.
“I’ve said for some time now that I would support the Republican nominee for president, because the alternative is Hillary Clinton, who has demonstrated time and time again that she is unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.”
Rep Brian Babin of Texas said: “As a veteran and the father of a Purple Heart recipient, I have no doubt that Trump would do a far better job of defeating Islamist terrorists. Hillary Clinton abandoned four American heroes in Benghazi, so I can understand why she wants to divert the attention elsewhere. But when it comes to protecting the American people form Islamic terrorism, it is an easy choice as Trump is far superior compared to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s colossal failures in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran and Tunisia. She’s a disaster waiting to happen when it comes to American national security.”
Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, who intends to vote for Trump, said: “In politics, everything should be taken in context, but rarely is that the case. Mr Khan has said that Mr Trump has contributed nothing to the country, but without business people America would have no military or infrastructure. Without people like Captain Khan, America would have no freedom. It’s time for both sides to apologize to the other and focus on the issues that will ensure our continued freedom.”
But Steve Knight of California, who has not endorsed any candidate, said: “The recent comments of Mr Donald Trump toward the Khan family are deplorable. No matter what happens with the upcoming election, it is my hope that Trump will seek to learn more about Gold Star families and the pain that they feel not for just a moment of learning of the loss of a loved one but a pain that is felt for the rest of their lives.”
And Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who has long expressed concerns about Trump, said: “This seemingly neverending parade of insults needs to stop, and the person to lead that effort will be Mr Trump himself. While they draw media attention that was useful to his candidacy in a 17-person primary, they do not win the hearts and minds of the independent voter essential in a two-way contest.”
Despite Trump’s self-destructive conduct over the past week, Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, believes that he can still win. “But he has to know he has to do some things differently,” he said. “If he continues to think this is a winning strategy, it’s over.
“He’s now getting hit by double-digit deficits in the polls nationally and in swing states like Pennsylvania, which is a must-win and which he should be winning. That should be a wake-up call. You don’t need an intervention to tell you. The people will do that.”
- David Smith