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Despite Trump bombast, support stays strong

Last modified: 9/25/2015 1:29:57 AM
Rod Webber, also known as the “flower guy,” is an activist who has become a fixture at many 2016 campaign events. Last Thursday was the first time he feared for his safety on the campaign trail.

Webber’s signature is reading verses from the Bible to presidential candidates and handing out flowers for peace. He’s developed a good rapport with everyone from Bernie Sanders to Jeb Bush, who often prays with Webber at his events.

Webber says he was roughed up by audience members as he tried to leave a Donald Trump rally in Rochester last Thursday. Video captured by Webber and a photographer for the New York Times shows a member of the crowd pushing the activist, whose own phone was knocked out of his hands a number of times.

Loud crowds and hecklers are common at Trump campaign events, perhaps not surprising for a candidate whose supporters say they like because he’s not politically correct and “tells it like it is.”

But the free-for-all nature of Trump’s rallies turned ugly twice last Thursday when supporters yelled at Webber as he left the venue, and again when a separate verbal altercation involving two different men broke out in the audience. In that case, a spectator stomped his way across the crowded bleachers behind Trump and started screaming and jabbing his finger in another man’s face.

“Take it easy, fellas,” Trump said, in response to the ruckus.

Throughout the Republican race, Trump’s observations on everything from John McCain to women to immigrants have dominated the headlines. To the surprise of pundits, the billionaire’s controversial comments have increased his poll numbers.

Trump’s outsider status is driving his popularity with voters who are dissatisfied with establishment politics, according to New England College political science professor Wayne Lesperance.

“He represents a voice for them,” Lesperance said. “It’s not just the substance of it, it’s the loudness of it.”

In addition to members of the audience yelling obscenities at Webber, the video also showed a man wearing a campaign badge emblazoned with “staff access” shouting at him to “shut the (expletive) up,” and saying repeatedly, “You’re making a mistake!”

Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks denied the man was a campaign staffer and said he may be an event volunteer. Hicks said she did not know the man’s name.

To be fair, Webber was doing a fair amount of his own yelling in the video. He initially read Trump a verse from the Bible after the candidate asked him which one was his favorite. Later, he loudly challenged Trump’s stance on climate change from the bleachers, prompting a police officer to ask him to leave.

“It was a big room in which I had to raise my voice to be heard – but I was called on,” Webber said.

Webber maintains his goal is not to create chaos at Republican events and that his calm appearances at other candidates’ events demonstrates that.

Webber said the incident shook him up.

“I couldn’t sleep that entire night,” he said. “I definitely felt the hate vibes coming at Trump events.”

A negative outlook

At Trump’s rallies, the candidate often speaks about everything he sees wrong with America: illegal immigration, trade, a sluggish economy and lagging benefits for veterans.

Trump’s main platform is immigration, which has resonated with many of his supporters around the country and the state. He is currently the Republican front-runner, and has led the pack all summer.

At Trump’s Rochester event, multiple people said illegal immigration was one of the most important issues for them.

The issue is a “symbolic” one for many Americans, said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala.

“You don’t need to live in Arizona to have an opinion about it,” Scala said.

Some audience members at Trump’s Rochester rally said they believed illegal immigrants were taking jobs and government resources away from American citizens, and said they were behind Trump’s plan to build a wall across the southern border and deport about 11 million people.

“What he’s done really masterfully without talking anything specific is tapped into this fear and frustration,” Lesperance said.

Trump’s rhetoric has already shown itself to have consequences. In early August, two brothers from South Boston allegedly beat up a homeless man because he was Hispanic, saying they were inspired to do so partly by Trump’s comments on illegal immigrants.

UNH Carsey Institute Fellow Rogelio Saenz and immigration researcher said Trump has given a new voice to old prejudices.

“A lot of hatred and racism comes out and he serves as a spokesperson, a megaphone for people with such views,” Saenz said.

Saenz’s own research shows that illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States is drastically down, in large part due to the 2008 recession. From 2008 to 2013, the number of illegal immigrants has dropped 57 percent, from 1.9 million to 819,000.

Yet the issue has become magnified in American politics, in large part due to Trump, political experts say.

“I don’t know if anyone could have driven the issues as successfully as he has,” Scala said.

Still, last week’s event in Rochester may have proved problematic for Trump.

After failing to correct a man who called President Obama a Muslim, Trump has received criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike and has started to slip in some polls.

And February is still a long way away, Scala said.

“I think it will come back to Earth eventually,” he said, referring to Trump’s poll numbers. “I don’t think voters, including in New Hampshire, are close to making up their minds yet.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen)


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