Some of President Donald Trump’s loyal supporters are becoming well-practiced in the art of forgiveness, saying they are drawn to his record and willing to overlook his rhetoric.
“I think his personality is hard to deal with, his way of handling people is difficult,” said Karen Deeter, a Florida retiree who moved here from Illinois. “He’s not a politician, but he’s gotten some things done.”
After one of the most controversial weeks of his presidency, as the nation navigates the interwoven crisis of racial injustice, a crippled economy and a still-flaring pandemic, signs of his reelection are blossoming in Trump country, which more than ever these days feels like a world away from Washington. Trump faces significant headwinds, polls suggest, as his advisers scramble to adapt to the challenging political climate.
As the President eyes a return to the campaign trail, chomping at the bit to resume the rallies that defined his first bid for office and much of the last three years, the Trump army is also mobilizing for November to help him win another four years in the White House.
To avoid becoming a one-term President, his advisers concede he must keep voters like Deeter on his side.
She dislikes his tweets, bluntly declaring: “I wish that would stop.” She isn’t fond of his name-calling or a tone that can be mean-spirited. But Deeter voted for Trump four years ago and – for now, at least – said she plans to do so again.
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“It’s not to the point of hold your nose and do it, but I think there are reservations,” Deeter said in an interview as she gathered her morning mail this week at a Post Office in nearby Ponte Vedra Beach. “I feel like he needs to, I don’t know, maybe tone down his rhetoric?”
When asked whether she believed Trump would do so, she added: “No, he’s not that personality. But I look more at his policies and results and go at it that way.”
In conversations this week across Jacksonville and neighboring conservative communities, Trump’s supporters were resolute in their belief that he would win a second term. They, in fact, are more confident than some of his own advisers, who acknowledge a tough fight ahead.
It’s not that Trump supporters aren’t watching events unfold across the country; they simply view them through a different lens than many Americans. Take, for example, the photo-op outside St. John’s Episcopal Church last week near the White House as authorities cleared peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Park.
“I thought he was displaying his support for the Christian church,” said Beverly Slough, a member of the school board in St. Johns County. “I thought it was very, very brave to walk there.”
She praised the Trump administration’s economic record and she did not blame the President for the soaring unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. She said her only advice for the President would be to think twice before sending incendiary tweets.
“I think that it’s valuable that he takes to Twitter because that’s how he gets his message out,” Slough said. “But I think that maybe, sometimes maybe, he ought to take a breath or two before he presses send. That’s all.”
Yet even as several voters expressed displeasure at some of his remarks, in the next breath many declared their intent without hesitation to vote for him.
“He’s going to say what’s on his mind and to me, I appreciate his tweets,” Courtney Fernandez, a volunteer for the Trump campaign here in Duval County. “Sometimes you look at him and go, ‘OK, that may have been crossing the line,’ but he means well, he loves our country.”
For the next four months, Fernandez said, she intends to motivate and persuade voters with one chief goal in mind: “Letting women know that it’s OK to following Donald Trump, President Trump. It’s OK!”
Steve Adams, a retired Naval aviator, said he believes Trump’s most important legacy is building a conservative federal bench. That alone, he said, warrants a second term.
“For me, specifically, it’s the judiciary,” Adams said when asked why he supports the President. “Appointing conservative justices – more importantly justices that will apply the Constitution and not try to change it through judicial activism. I’m very happy to see that he’s been very successful with the Republican Senate in getting justices appointed.”
A week after former Defense Secretary James Mattis declared that Trump is the first president of his lifetime who “tries to divide us,” several voters here said they were unmoved by the criticism from Mattis or Colin Powell, the former Republican Secretary of State and decorated military leader who said Trump has “drifted away” from the Constitution.
Bob Dickson, a Navy veteran and lifelong Jacksonville resident who invests several hours each week here registering Republicans to vote, said, “Everyone has their own opinion.”
“Mattis has his opinion, Powell has his,” Dickson said. “But there are so many, many Republican leaders who are solidly behind the President that he’s going to continue to have a large base of support.”
The question, of course, is whether that base is enough to win, with one poll after another showing an erosion for Trump among independents and women.
Dean Black, chairman of the Duval County Republican Party, said he doesn’t believe the polls this year any more than he did four years ago, most of which showed Hillary Clinton leading Trump. He said the President’s law and order message, which he demonstrated last week, would draw voters to the Republican ticket.
“No, I don’t think independent voters are going to be turned off in a way that’s damaging to President Trump and the Republican Party,” Black said. “To the contrary, I think they will be turned off in a way that shows them the Democrat Party has been hijacked by radicals and should not be trusted with power.”
In 2016, Trump carried Duval County, which includes all of Jacksonville, by slightly more than 1 percentage point – and neighboring St. Johns County by more than 30 points. It’s that combination he’ll need to win Florida again as he seeks to build a path to 270 electoral votes.
Jacksonville is among several cities being considered by the Trump campaign for the Republican convention in August. Black said hosting the convention would energize GOP voters across Florida and help the President’s chances in November.
“This is Trump country here. This is the single best city in America, in which to host the Republican National Convention, and for several reasons,” Black said. “It’s a battleground county in a battleground state, in a city where you have unified Republican governance.”
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican, was heckled with chants of “No RNC! No RNC!” on Tuesday as he marched with peaceful protestors after he announced the removal of a Confederate statue overnight across from City Hall.
He declined to say whether the President’s rhetoric made his job easier or more difficult.
“I have no problem doing my job. I signed up for this,” Curry told CNN.
Asked whether he believed Trump would carry Duval County, he said: “I don’t want to talk about politics today.”