ELKHART, Indiana — President Donald Trump swept into politically friendly Midwestern turf Thursday evening for a campaign rally to drum up Republican Senate support and promote unity just days after primaries in which GOP congressmen lost key races.
Hours after Trump announced the release of three Americans held captive in North Korea and a planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, speakers blasted Queen’s “We are the Champions,” inside a packed middle school gymnasium in this northern Indiana town.
In 2016, Trump carried Elkhart County and much of the region surrounding the recreational vehicle industry and manufacturing hub. On Thursday, he was greeted by a crowd of thousands of ticketed supporters who couldn’t make it inside a packed middle school gymnasium.
Protesters were vastly outnumbered by Trump fans, with businesses and schools welcoming the president — in town to try to drum up support for Republican Senate nominee Mike Braun, just days after he secured the nomination in the primary election. Trump moved the rally from South Bend to Elkhart to target Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s political ground.
Trump’s plan is to drum up support in areas where Democrats are vulnerable, but some supporters said they didn’t vote in last week’s primary. They wore “Make America Great Again” hats and T-shirts, Trump 2020 signs and T-shirts, with some there to thank the president they say is saving their country.
“He wants our freedom to go forward. All kinds, speech and independence,” said Steve Kashishian, 68, of Elkhart. “To live in the lights and not in the darkness. People they have their independence, not to be tied in the old rules.”
At the North Side Middle School, police guarded the front entrance alongside a large military vehicle. The school’s gymnasium quickly swelled to more than 7,500 people with thousands lining the streets of the school to try to get a chance of coming in.
Many said they’d walk back to their homes to watch the rally on TV.
“Whatever he campaigned for, he’s trying to get done,” said Barb Brown, of Elkhart. “I really trust him.”
Brown called Trump’s “personal” controversies “garbage.”
“It makes you not appreciate the media anymore, or trust them. It’s not necessary and it’s not helping the country. It’s splitting us up,” Brown said.
Charles Moore, too, said he “looks over” negative headlines for a president he voted for: “They’re haters. I don’t care. Don’t bother me.”
“The tax system helps us out a lot,” Moore, of Lake Station, Ind. said. “We like our crumbs, as Nancy [Pelosi] would say.”
There were some Trump supporters with some advice, however.
“I have a few things he does I wish he wouldn’t do,” Norman Beerhorst, 68, of Osceola said. “His Twitter. Just too much gibber gabber stuff. Concentrate on getting stuff done for us.”
Beerhorst said Congress should focus on working with the president: “They just spend too much time running, trying to downgrade Trump, worried about these personal relationships that his wife needs to worry about, not the general public.”
Beerhorst said he supports Trump — and is happy about the economy and corporate tax changes — but wants more changes when it comes to gun control.
“Gun control for the automatic weapons for sure. I still believe in the right to bear arms but like our forefathers meant, not automatic assault weapons,” Beerhorst said. “Those need to be changed. The laws to get guns need to be changed. I wish he’d work on that a little harder, but the NRA is a pretty big operation.”
At the intersection of Cassopolis and Emerald, several blocks from the rally, more than 100 people protested the president’s visit. Police outside the rally said protesters were sectioned off blocks from the middle school.
“I am from here, Elkhart, Indiana, and I don’t want this in my town,” said Michelle Richards, 53. “Because Trump promotes racism, sexism, misogynistic behavior towards women, and homophobia with Mike Pence. I’m sorry I don’t want that in my town.”
Richards chanted “He’s teaching our children to lie,” to Trump supporters across the street, with many shouting back.