In the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump has achieved at least three things that few presidents ever have. His approval rating is in the 30s. His former aides — and reportedly the president himself — are under federal investigation. And members of Mr. Trump’s own party are running what has been described as a shadow campaign to replace him in 2020.
But when I hear people talk of Mr. Trump’s supposedly dismal future, I think of his not-so-dismal past. I was the first national television correspondent to cover Mr. Trump full-time, so I know what can happen when people ignore the unbridled enthusiasm of his crowds.
For more than 500 days, I watched as Mr. Trump’s campaign grew from an awkward rally around a backyard pool in June 2015 to a raucous, 10,000-person convention center event in November 2016. In that same time, I also watched as Mr. Trump’s candidacy survived a procession of death predictions.
Lately, it seems, those predictions are back. Last month, when asked whether the president will be the Republican nominee in 2020, the Republican senator from Maine, Susan Collins, told MSNBC, “It’s too difficult to say.”
Every week there’s a new last straw: Comey, Charlottesville, Arpaio. If all else fails, Robert Mueller, the special counsel, will surely take him down, right?
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When I was out on the road following Mr. Trump, I sneaked in a bit of “Game of Thrones” on my laptop between rallies. What I learned, to paraphrase the show, is that what is dead may never die — and, in Mr. Trump’s case, may only rise stronger.
Mr. Trump’s candidacy was dead when he announced it. (Mexico is sending “rapists.”) His candidacy was dead when he insulted a former prisoner of war named John McCain. (“I like people who weren’t captured.”) His candidacy was dead when he cast suspicion on an entire religion. (“Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”)
Dead when he attacked a federal judge, a Gold Star family, the pope. Deader than dead when he bragged about grabbing women by their genitals. (“When you’re a star, they let you do it.”)
The more Mr. Trump’s candidacy was said to flatline, the more life I saw in his crowds.
In August 2015, a month after a high-ranking Republican National Committee operative promised me that America would never tolerate a man with no military service disparaging an American military hero, I was standing on a football field in Mobile, Ala., surrounded by 30,000 screaming Trump fans, an unheard-of turnout six months before a primary. Were they mad about the candidates words on Mr. McCain? No. The opposite. “He’s not afraid of anybody,” one woman told me.
Of all the times Donald Trump was done, it is his current status as a supposedly lame duck first-term president that reminds me most of his final months on the trail. Back then, luminaries in his own party were condemning him, calling on him to drop out and researching a late-race change to the top of the ticket.
Much of the country was outraged. The polls were bleak. No politician had ever come back from what Mr. Trump was facing. But then, as now, the view from armchairs in Washington and newsrooms around the country missed something that it was impossible to miss out on the trail. Mr. Trump’s supporters were tired — of Washington, of the media, of waiting. And that fatigue allowed them to overlook a lot. They knew he was flawed but at least, they thought, he was on their side.
On one of Mr. Trump’s primary victory nights, in a ballroom at Mar-a-Lago, surrounded by people in diamonds and silk, I couldn’t help wondering what Mr. Trump’s rally crowds would think of all the money their candidate chose to celebrate with. “Why do people fighting for a raise relate to all of this?” I asked a man in a tuxedo. “Because deep down, they know he’s one of them,” he said.
“Trump sees us,” his supporters would tell me, everywhere we stopped. “You don’t.”
When they couldn’t exactly cheer for him, they found ways to excuse him. Five days after the “Access Hollywood” tape, for example, I asked an older woman in a flowery red dress what she thought of her candidate’s theory of sexual license — as a lone protester was playing the tape on a loop outside a rally venue in Lakeland, Fla.
She smiled. “What person hasn’t said it?” she said.
“I haven’t said it,” I said.
“Well, good for you,” she said.
“You’ve said you’re going to grab women by the … ?” I asked.
“No. Don’t be stupid,” she said, and walked away.
Shortly after, Mr. Trump was onstage, kissing a pink Women for Trump sign, really pressing his face against it. The crowd roared because they thought it was funny and because it was a clear rebuke to anyone offended by what Mr. Trump waved away as “locker room talk.”
Sometimes Mr. Trump’s supporters had to justify or ignore his positions, too. Sure, they liked a lot of his policies and ideas, but they weren’t married to any of them. They wanted the man above all. And if he said it, they’d find a way to support it, even if he reversed himself the next day.
I once asked a man heading into a rally why he supported Donald Trump.
“Because he is going to build a wall,” the man said.
“What if he doesn’t?” I countered.
“I trust his judgment,” the man said.
They trusted his judgment and on Election Day they trusted Mr. Trump more than they trusted any of us. That’s why when members of the media pronounced his candidacy dead, his supporters knew the opposite was true. It was never more alive.
Maybe that has changed. I don’t know. Nobody does. The building blocks of political life are too complex to predict, too unstable to rely on. But I do know what political devotion looks like, and I do know what happens when you choose to discount it.