ELKHART, Ind. — In a speech that functioned more as a victory lap for the current administration than as the expected, typical campaign stop, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence spoke Thursday night in the North Side Middle School gymnasium in support of Indiana's U.S. Senate hopeful Mike Braun.
Braun was an unexpected winner in Indiana’s Tuesday primaries, beating out Republican opponents Luke Messer and Todd Rokita. However, Trump was the main event, his speech covering routine talking points from his campaign days, brags of recent successes and more.
“We’re finally rebuilding our country,” Trump said. “We’re fighting and we’re finally putting America first.”
Hours before the event, Trump supporters wrapped around the streets neighboring North Side Gymnasium, one of the state’s largest middle school gyms, with seating for more than 7,000.
Supporters wearing ‘Fake News Network’ T-shirts and holding signs reading ‘Stormy, Keep Your Private Parts PRIVATE,’ and even one carrying a stuffed Pepe the Frog toy, filtered into the gym three hours before the president was slated to speak.
“What do you like that the president has done?” a reporter asked a supporter outside the event.
“Returned confidence,” the woman replied.
In stark contrast to Trump’s days on the campaign trail, there was little anti-Trump sentiment expressed from those inside the gym. Supporters were told protesters were given a dedicated space outside the school.
The voice of a cheery woman broadcast within the gym before the speakers took the stage warned supporters not to touch protesters if they somehow made it inside.
“Trump supports the First Amendment as much as he supports the Second Amendment,” the voice chirped among cheers. If you see a protester, it said, “hold your sign above your head and shout, ‘Trump, Trump, Trump.’”
The physically violent air carried in Trump’s run during the primaries — marked by threats, pepper spray, and Trump’s own encouragements to “knock the hell out of” protesters — seemed to have lifted, but the misinformation and verbal attacks still came easy to some.
"I honestly don't know how that lady got the popular vote," one Trump supporter said of Hillary Clinton.
"She didn't," another said. "She stole. She stole six states."
"They got busloads of illegals," the man added, "And told them what name to vote under and to vote Democrat, and they paid them."
The planned rally was scheduled last week first for South Bend, Indiana, but was moved to Elkhart to “accommodate more Hoosiers.”
Indiana carries a storied history for the president. The state’s voters played a key role in Trump’s Republican Party nomination. He has routinely touted jobs saved at the Indianapolis-based air-conditioning manufacturer, Carrier, despite the plant’s recent wave of layoffs. The vice president’s record when serving as Indiana governor also helped secure the conservative vote in the 2016 general election.
Since inauguration, Trump visited the state once in a September rally drumming up support against Senate incumbent Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana. The president left Hoosiers with a memorable promise to “campaign against him like you won’t believe,” in the upcoming midterm elections if Donnelly refused to support the recent Republican tax overhaul.
Pence introduced Trump on Thursday, speaking shortly and remaining on message.
He took the stage listing a few of the Trump administration’s recent accomplishments — the promise of a new embassy soon to be established in Jerusalem, America’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the safe return of three American hostages kept in North Korea.
“How about the action this week?” Pence asked an electrified crowd. “None of this would’ve been possible without the strong, clear, resolute leadership of Donald Trump.”
But, Pence quickly got to the point, telling his Hoosier base Indiana deserves better than Donnelly.
Trump came out echoing the vice president, calling Donnelly the least effective lawmaker in the Senate.
“This November Indiana will face a really important choice,” Trump told supporters. “You can send a really incredible swamp person to the Senate, like Joe Donnelly, or you can send us Republicans like Mike Braun to drain the swamp.”
Yet, Trump weaved on and off topic, touting low unemployment rates, especially those of Elkhart County, and his ability to make deals, both foreign and domestic.
He, at times, claimed his administration was working to “Make America Great Again,” while also promoting a new slogan, “Keep America Great.” He took multiple jabs at the “fake news media,” praised progress on the border wall and took credit for shop owners he claimed were once again saying the words “Merry Christmas.”
Before closing, Trump invited Braun to the stage, taking another swipe at "Sleepin’ Joe,” as the president called the senator.
“You can count on me to be a true reinforcement,” Braun told the crowd. “And the guy who’s going to retire Joe Donnelly.”
Donnelly released a statement shortly after the rally, saying he works first for Hoosiers, not a president or political party.
"It's OK that the President and Vice President are here today for politics," the statement read. "But problems only get solved when you roll up your sleeves and put in the hard work."
Trump closed his speech Thursday night telling Hoosiers he’d actually delivered more than he’d promised as president, but their support was needed to elect Republicans and effectively “drain the swamp.”
“With your vote, we’ll win,” Trump said before leaving the stage to the tune of the Rolling Stones hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
Neighbors watched from porches as attendees spilled out into the streets. Just a block away from the middle school, Cassopolis Street stood divided.
On one side, protesters lined the street with signs reading “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA.”
And, on the other side, Trump supporters stood defiant with their signs saying “Keep America Great.”
Despite traded insults, some protesters tried to stay hopeful. High school students from Elkhart Central High School said they remained optimistic both sides could someday bridge the divide.
Wendell Wiebe-Powell, a 20-year Elkhart resident, said simply, “This is what Democracy looks like.”