Loyalty, long lines, ‘civil war’ talk: A raging movement propels Trump

NEWTON, N.H. — Sel Mize was just starting to walk again after a bad fall that hurt his hip and sent him to the hospital. But Donald Trump was coming to town, and he and his girlfriend weren’t going to miss it.

He got to the Atkinson Country Club around 10 a.m. to wait in line outside in the snow, dressed in shorts, his hip still tormenting him. “Mega, mega pain,” the 59-year-old said. Trump was late and didn’t speak until about 7 p.m., but it was worth it, Mize said.

Back at his home in Newton — where an American flag with Trump’s face hangs in the front yard, with the words “NEVER SURRENDER” — Mize described a dark mood among Trump die-hards, with some people burying their guns for fear the government might take them.

“I just hope he gets back to help the country because right now, the way it’s coming, there’s gonna probably be a civil war,” Mize said.

Trump, a former president who is facing 91 criminal charges across four criminal indictments, is closing in on a second straight dominant victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday, polls show, a win that many Republicans say could effectively end the GOP nominating contest. He is in that position because of support among Republicans that is not just broad, but also remarkably intense.

Voters have proved far more loyal to the former president than his Republican critics hoped at the beginning of last year, allergic to criticisms of his record and behavior — including what prosecutors say is evidence of criminal wrongdoing — and rushing to his side in the face of legal jeopardy. And Trump has trounced GOP rivals offering similar policy agendas, boosted by a fervent base that treats him with singular veneration.

Rallygoers wait all day to see him. Supporters dismiss video evidence of his inconsistencies and echo his grievances and falsehoods. Competitors have long written off as much as a third of the GOP electorate as set on Trump and utterly unpersuadable. A majority of Republicans believe Trump’s disproven claims that he actually beat Joe Biden in 2020, and in interviews, some Trump supporters appeared unwilling to accept a loss in 2024. In Trump, many see a movement leader giving voice to their struggles and settling scores on their behalf.

That fealty to Trump has alarmed some in the GOP and beyond. Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that, amid sinking trust in democratic institutions, millions of Americans believe “the use of force” is justified to prevent Trump’s prosecution and to return him to the White House. Such “radical” support for Trump is on the rise, said political science professor Robert Pape, who directs the group behind the surveys. Many people who study political violence are worried about a 2024 repeat of the kind of chaos that unfolded on Jan. 6, 2021, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol in outrage over Trump’s loss.

“What we have and what we can measure is the raw kindling that is combustible,” Pape said. “What we can’t predict are the matches that political leaders can throw on that kindling.”

The implications for a potential rematch with Biden in the general election are extensive, with tens of millions of Americans pitted against one another with the embers of the last election and its violent aftermath on Jan. 6, 2021, still smoldering. Trump’s enduring loyalty has given him unrivaled status in his party and what many Republican strategists see as an ironclad — if limited — base of support for November.

For now, Trump is trying to clinch the nomination — and his supporters’ commitment is evident in the earliest tests of the primary season. Ahead of the Iowa caucuses, which Trump swept by about 30 points, a poll from the Des Moines Register and partners found that roughly half of Trump’s likely caucus-goers were “extremely enthusiastic” about their candidate — far higher than the 23 percent of DeSantis supporters and 9 percent of Haley supporters who expressed extreme enthusiasm. Just 11 percent of Trump’s supporters identified as anything less than “extremely” or “very” enthused.

DeSantis dropped out of the race Sunday and endorsed Trump, who had spent the past year targeting DeSantis with mocking nicknames and deeply personal insults.

Young Trump supporters share how former president Donald Trump secured their support and the sense of community they feel within the MAGA movement. (Video: Ross Godwin/The Washington Post)

Trump’s rivals have argued that his overall support — he won just over half the vote in Iowa — is actually underwhelming for someone effectively campaigning as an incumbent. “Reagan would have won 80 percent,” DeSantis said at a brief news conference shortly before exiting the race, arguing that poor turnout in Iowa was driven not just by frigid temperatures, but also by “terrible enthusiasm,” including among Republicans disaffected with Trump.

Yet the devotion of Trump’s core supporters stands out. No other candidate inspires quasi-religious statements of devotion such as “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president” and “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross — TRUMP 2024,” two slogans on T-shirts regularly sold outside Trump rallies.

“Even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it,” Trump recently told Iowans bracing for the cold on caucus day, drawing laughs.

‘If he’s running, we’ll back him’

Jude Augusta was outnumbered Saturday morning as he sat down for breakfast with fellow Republicans — some of whom had stopped showing up to the weekly meetup after Augusta said he found some of Trump’s behavior abhorrent. Most of the seven men sitting around the table at Linda’s Breakfast & Lunch were set on voting for the former president.

Lou Gargiulo, a former New Hampshire state representative supporting Trump, crossed his arms as Augusta, 52, recounted his frustrations at the breakfast meeting convened to talk about Trump with a Washington Post reporter present.

“Nobody is perfect,” Gargiulo said. “But I evaluate people by their actions, not their words under pressure.”

Yes, Trump was facing dozens of charges and was found liable for sexual abuse in court. But Gargiulo and other Trump supporters said all of that — and any litigation yet to emerge — would not change their minds.

Jon Ringel, a retired federal worker, pointed around the table at each person.

“You can pick anybody,” Ringel, 57, said, “you have the power of the federal government coming down on you, you can find stuff on anybody.”

He asked how it was possible that there are more indictments against Trump than any famous mobster who killed people.

“It was a strategic mistake,” Gargiulo said. “All of these cases [are] like throwing it against the wall and hoping something sticks.”

Gargiulo brought up old allegations of infidelity leveled against one of Trump’s rivals, which just resurfaced in the tabloids and which the rival has denied. Trump is notoriously accused of having had an affair with an adult-film star — he also denies it — and his wife, Melania Trump, has said Trump sought her number while he was still together with ex-wife Marla Maples.

But supporters often hold Trump to different standards.

Trump was a celebrity, Ringel said.

“Trump is Trump,” interjected Rui Moura, 64, who plans to vote for him. “We know who Trump is.”

At a Trump rally Friday in Concord, N.H., Daniel Jackson acknowledged that he worries about Trump’s 91 charges and how the legal saga might play out. He doesn’t think the charges are legitimate, he said, but “who’s to say one of those charges doesn’t stick?”

His wife, Kristen Jackson, cut in: It doesn’t matter.

“If he’s running, we’ll back him,” she said.

She wore her “Ultra MAGA” baseball cap, one of her many Trump memorabilia items.

The bumper stickers on her car that read “Say no to creepy Joe” and promote unproven election-fraud conspiracy theories have attracted attention. In 2022, someone slipped a face mask onto her car with a note on it stating Trump lost the 2020 election and calling her a traitor, Jackson recalled.

Inside the venue, she giggled as she listened to Trump. This was the funniest political event she’s ever attended, she later observed. She agreed with everything he said. She noticed when he mixed up rival candidate Nikki Haley for former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, but she said she knew what he meant and gave him a pass.

“I’m impressed by all the other stuff,” said Kristen Jackson, who has previously run for the school board and a representative seat in Concord.

At Trump rallies, ‘like-minded people’

The woods around Mize’s house are dotted with small roadside Trump signs. But Mize’s fervor for Trump is unusually visible. His front yard has a Trump flag, as well as a “Take America Back” banner, a small Trump yard sign and a bigger Trump yard sign. In the back, there are goats, chickens, a cluttered garage and a truck with a passenger-side window film that shows Trump, brow furrowed, giving a thumbs-up.

Just down the street at a convenience store, a stack of local newspapers nearby had a front-page story about a Massachusetts court battle over efforts to remove Trump from the ballot.

When Mize goes to Trump events, he meets people who have even more Trump stuff. He and his girlfriend, Tracey Mailhot, said they have been to several rallies but never get tired of going because they like to be around “like-minded people.” They like the energy.

They loved the economy under Trump: Gas prices were lower, their 401(k)s went further. But mostly, they like Trump because he doesn’t seem like a normal politician.

“How many of these career politicians would be going through what he is going through now with all the court cases and stuff when he could be sitting back with all his money?” said Mailhot, 59. “He’s putting himself on the line, he’s going through all these court cases. He’s doing it for the American people.”

Other presidential candidates, such as DeSantis, tried to argue that Trump was actually doing it for himself. “Trump’s running on his issues,” the Florida governor said on the trail. But it was a tough sell to the many Republicans who reflexively defend Trump and question the motives of those who criticize him.

“If it wasn’t for Trump, that wall never would have gotten started,” Mize said in response to Republican criticisms that the former president never finished a barrier at the U.S.-Mexico border.

As for talk of civil war, Mize said he’s just echoing what he hears from many people at Trump rallies. “If I don’t mention it, a lot of people there say the same thing,” he said.

Republicans who voted for Trump in 2020 and strongly believe despite the lack of evidence that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him are notably more likely to believe that civil war is coming, according to one recent study.

That same group was “much more supportive of the use of violence to effect social change,” said one of the researchers, Garen Wintemute of UC Davis. Wintemute agreed with another analyst’s assessment that Jan. 6 was “the beginning of something” rather than the “end of something.”

At the snowy rally last week in Atkinson, N.H., many Trump supporters were as enthusiastic as Mize. They also echoed some of Trump’s false claims and conspiracy theories.

Paula Petrou, 77, of Haverhill, Mass., said Trump is “a man’s man” who “says it like it is” and “has a great sense of humor.” Jonny Burgess, 55, wearing a jacket with an “Ultra MAGA” inscription, called the charges against Trump fake and said, “I can rattle off 123 accomplishments that he did in his first term.”

At 11 a.m. Friday, Bianca Weber was the first to arrive at the doors of the Grappone Conference Center for Trump’s 8 p.m. speech in Concord. It wasn’t long before others stood or sat behind her blue folding chair and matching MAGA blanket. As the temperatures dropped to the low teens, the 45-year-old dental hygienist made quick friends with others in line, who would hold her space when she needed to warm up in her car.

Eight years ago, she didn’t know much about politics.

Then “Trump intrigued me,” she said.

When the coronavirus pandemic was declared in 2020, she grew frustrated when people would tell her to use a face mask. She wore one at work, but she would go maskless with her children at the grocery store and get dirty looks, she said. One person called her work to report her. She decided to run for the school board as part of a conservative movement of parents who wanted greater involvement in their schools’ decisions about health and education.

Now her husband tells her: “You make Rush Limbaugh sound like a liberal.”

This was Weber’s first Trump event, but many others had more experience.

Edward X. Young, who lives in New Jersey, drove more than 300 miles for the event. He wouldn’t have any say in the New Hampshire primary, but he couldn’t miss his 67th Trump rally to show his support.

His jean jacket was dotted with pins of the Trump family. One button read, “Barron 2052,” referring to the youngest Trump child.

Joel Achenbach in Atkinson, N.H., contributed to this report.

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