With 22 days and counting until election day, President Trump makes his first public appearance since he was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week. Speaking to more than five thousand supporters, steps from Air Force One at Sanford International Airport in Orlando, Florida, the event marks a return to form for the embattled incumbent, echoing similar events his campaign had organized throughout the summer.
With the president scheduled to speak at 7, rally-goers are already flocking in and making their way to the runway where the event will take place by 3. The crowd is all ages, including families with small children. It is nearly universally white, and very few, perhaps one in twenty, are wearing face masks.
A number of vendors and supporters are stopped on the side of the road leading to the event. “I love our president,” says Adrian Robinson, a vendor of Trump merchandise and one of the few black supporters present. “I love the way that the president speaks to us, and I love that sometimes he may be vulgar and that he’s not always politically correct, because I can understand the language.” Robinson also sees a lot to like in Trump’s business record: “A lot of people always say that he’s a failure because he did the airline — that didn’t work out. The college — that didn’t work out. What I see is a person that’s not a quitter.” I ask Adrian what he thinks of Trump’s COVID diagnosis, but he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to speculate on one particular case among the millions worldwide.
Others are more willing to give their thoughts on his diagnosis: “I wouldn’t be surprised that he was purposely infected” says Nathan Robin of Ormond Beach, Florida. “It’s unbelievable that he even caught it.” His friend Sandy disagrees: “I thought he was careless, honestly. That doesn’t mean I’m not gonna vote for him!” Debbie, who rounds out this trio of seniors relaxing in lawn chairs in the shade, leans more towards Nathan’s perspective: “Too many people got infected *bang!* just right then, and that could not have possibly happened with all the security that is around him. I think the left liberals are doing anything they possibly can do to undermine him, to throw the election, to call the election off.”
Matthew Peterson, a local college student, is selling Trump chocolate along the road to the event, square slabs molded with the president’s likeness, in sweet and sea salt varieties. “Whether you agree with his stated policies or not, you can’t say he hasn’t been pursuing them and delivering on his promises.”
As I near the tarmac, the president arrives, right on schedule. An event organizer has corralled us for a moment while the rally-goers in front of us go through a temperature check. “Give me a nice Trump wall right here!” He cajoles us. The crowd around me appreciates the joke and oblige. He eventually gives us the go-ahead, but as Trump supporters around me see the president disembark Air Force One on the big screen just outside the event space, a mild mutiny ensues as most of them brush past the man checking temperatures. He knows he’s overwhelmed and doesn’t even try to stop those getting by him, and checks maybe one in four rally-goers as they flow around him like a river around a rock.
The event takes place on an immense outdoor runway flanked by hangars, with Trump’s podium a few hundred yards straight ahead under the last glow of dusk. The vast runway easily holds the many thousands of rally-goers, but the inclination is to crowd the stage for a better view of Trump, and no form of social distancing is being observed by supporters or demanded by organizers.
Trump’s speech is his usual fare, with some updated material regarding recent events. He does not seem to be convalescing from a serious disease, remarkably improved from his appearance on the White House balcony a few days ago. He plays the hits, talking up the border wall and deporting criminals. He boasts of having destroyed Iran’s GDP and that the “first call [he gets]” will be from them once elected.
His dynamic with the crowd is unchanged by recent events like his debate performance or COVID-19 diagnosis. Speaking of the latter, he jokes “Fortunately I’m not an old person, I’m a very young person,” and the crowd rewards him with a hearty sitcom laugh. After he claims to be immune to COVID, they rhythmically chant “WE LOVE YOU! WE LOVE YOU!”