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photo by Matt Keller Lehman

Trump does Orlando: When MAGA country comes to the so-called happiest place on earth 

Leave it to President Donald Trump to suck up all the air in the room, in the roughly 20,000-seat Amway Center and throughout the City Beautiful in the days leading up to his official 2020 re-election campaign kickoff in Orlando.

As Monday evening turned into Tuesday morning, downtown was abuzz. Trumplandia descended upon the city. Some were dressed like redneck Uncle Sams; others opted to wear their MAGA hat, their MAGA shirt, their MAGA socks, their MAGA everything. There was enough red, white and blue clothing around Orlando to stitch a thousand battle flags. The soft-core war of our polarized body politic was on.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

A couple hundred people were already in line early Tuesday morning.

"We're just trying to bring everybody together, man – to be a mediator," Judah Wade, one of the early Trump supporters, told Orlando Weekly. "A lot of people don't see people like us that's actually supporting Trump. So we're out here bridging the gap."

Wade was among a group of supporters wearing "Blacks for Trump" and "Trump and Republicans are not racist" T-shirts, some of whom were singing Trump-inspired soul songs with the band set up on a nearby corner. He says the group of several dozen all bused down together from Miami.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

"We're out here to let it be known that it's not racist [to support Trump], so we can get that out the way and bring more people like us over to the truth," Wade said, flashing a grin, the gold plates in his custom grill gleaming in the afternoon sun.

As Wade turned away, a top hat-wearing man and his purple-haired wife rode around in circles on humongous tricycles. On the back of the man's trike was a sign with a picture of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez laughing and a braying donkey, captioned, "Don't be a ass."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MATT KELLER LEHMAN
  • Photo by Matt Keller Lehman

Inside the Amway Center, too, the political pageantry was on full display. In speaking to the at-capacity, roughly 20,000-person crowd, Trump hit his typical talking points: He doubled down on the so-called "fake news" media, inspiring a series of "CNN sucks!" chants from the crowd. He claimed he'd "won" against Special Counsel Robert Mueller (whose report found multiple instances in which Trump obstructed justice while president). And, of course, as a nostalgic blast from the past, the president took a few swipes at his former opponent, Hillary Clinton.

In other words, it felt like déjà vu – a re-litigation of the 2016 election.

"When I get behind my desk in the Oval Office, I think about only one thing: How the American people are going to win, win, win today," Trump told the rally-goers. "I'm fighting for you, and I think you see that."

He's "fighting for" Florida in more than one way: Without Florida, there's arguably no path back to the Oval Office for Trump.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MATT KELLER LEHMAN
  • Photo by Matt Keller Lehman

Every successful presidential candidate since 1996 has won Florida's 29 electoral votes. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump beat Clinton by a slim 113,000 votes – a little more than 1 percent of the Sunshine State's electorate. But in Orange County, Clinton bested Trump by more than 24 points in the last presidential cycle.

Adding to that current good standing for the Trump campaign, Florida was also home to several Democratic disappointments in 2018. The "blue wave" that swept across much of the country, forcing a Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives and flipping key gubernatorial and state legislative seats nationwide, missed us. Republican former Gov. Rick Scott edged out Democrat Bill Nelson for a seat in the U.S. Senate, ending Nelson's three-term run after an exasperating recount. And Republican former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis also bested former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a Democrat, to replace term-limited Scott in the governor's mansion.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BARBARA SHERIDAN
  • Photo by Barbara Sheridan

But despite those recent advantages, a GOP win may be difficult to replicate in 2020.

A new Quinnipiac poll released prior to the rally on Tuesday found that Trump is currently trailing several potential Democratic opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who led Trump 50 percent to 41 percent. The poll also found that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders leads Trump 48 percent to 42 percent, while U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris lead the president by four percentage points.

Similarly, internal data from the Trump campaign's March polling, obtained by ABC News, showed Biden with a seven-point advantage in Florida in 2020.

According to a report from the New York Times, when presented with the results that showed Biden leading in several battleground states, Trump told staffers to publicly deny the existence of the data. In a tweet prior to the rally, Trump called the polls "fake."

"Polls are inaccurate. You can't trust them," said Tony Gruchalla, a Central Florida resident and one of the early-in-line Trump supporters. "I think 2016 was a big example of that, when Hillary was a 90 percent favorite to win and it was a landslide by Trump."

(Clinton won the 2016 popular vote by more than three million votes; her key Electoral College losses in states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – formerly considered a "blue wall" – were decided by just more than a combined 77,000 votes. So Gruchalla's recall of the math – "90 percent" and "landslide" – may be a little flawed, but we agree with him on one thing: Counting on polls is a fool's errand.)

Gruchalla believes Trump will win by even more next year.

"It's an event. It's a big event," Citrus County resident Jeanna Gullett said of the rally. "This is what we wanted to do for our vacation."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BARBARA SHERIDAN
  • Photo by Barbara Sheridan

Gullett was among the Trump super-fans who camped out on the sidewalk near the Amway Center Monday night, despite the fact that she and her friend Anna Connelly had booked a hotel room in Orlando for three nights as part of their rally road trip.

Gullett claimed the president has reignited a sense of political pride among citizens with conservative beliefs like hers. She feels like the U.S. is on the rise again.

"I feel blessed to be here," Gullett said of the rally, as she leaned back into her lawn chair. "This is historic and I wouldn't miss it for the world."

The next night, Gullett was among the thousands in the crowd when Trump asked attendants to vote by cheer on his campaign's new slogan. Their options: to rehash the widely adored "Make American Great Again" catchphrase, or to choose the new "Keep America Great." The applause for the former was loud, but for the latter it was near deafening.

And yes, folks, "Keep America Great" was the tagline for the 2016 horror movie The Purge: Election Year. In the irony-free zone we live in now, it's just another twig on the fire.

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