President Donald Trump swung through Phoenix on Tuesday for a campaign rally designed to fire up his base in a state where he beat Hillary Clinton by a tenuous 3.5 percentage points last year.
In contrast with Monday’s calm, measured speech about the prolonged war effort in Afghanistan, Tuesday night’s Trump performance promises to be a raucous affair akin to the campaign events that forced America’s election prognosticators to rewrite every political rule book.
The president’s first audience members began arriving 10 hours before the rally’s appointed starting time, standing in Phoenix’s concrete city center in temperatures that reached 107 degrees.
Two-dollar cold water bottles outsold three-dollar tacos on street corners. Trump fans took turns holding each other’s places in line for bathroom breaks and visits to a cool spray mist descending from a nearby Hyatt hotel’s entryway overhang.
The most common sight, other than ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, was umbrella after umbrella sticking up above the crowd – not to protect against much-needed rain, but used as a parasol to tame the heat.
President Donald Trump swung through Phoenix on Tuesday for a campaign rally designed to fire up his base in a state where he beat Hillary Clinton by 3.5 percentage points last year. Trump (right) and Vice President Mike Pence deplane Air Force One in Phoenix on Tuesday
Arizona’s Republican governor Doug Ducey (left) greeted Trump at the Phoenix airport but he did not attend the evening rally
The heat took its toll, too, on a promised mass-protest that threatened to bring thousands who stayed home.
A combined 7,400 people had indicated that they plan to show their disgust for the president, via RSVPs on two Facebook advertisements for anti-Trump rallies.
Only about 500 showed up, and found pro-Trump activists creating just as much noise. They shouted ‘Walk of shame!’ in response as the rally-goers made their way to the front of a line that snaked for six city blocks.
An hour before Trump was scheduled to speak, there were an estimated 8,000 inside the convention center.
One protester outside patrolled back and forth, parading a sign before news cameras that read: ‘Looks like we’ve taken this “Anyone can grow up to be president” thing just a bit too far.’
Another carried a First Amendment message: ‘It’s only “Fake News” if he doesn’t like it. Support freedom of the press!’
One small group inflated a 20-foot-tall Trump effigy dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member.
Police separate protesters on 2nd Street before Trump’s campaign rally outside the Phoenix Convention Center
On the other side of a police-patrolled barricade stood a man in a T-shirt proclaiming that ‘AntiFa is Satan,’ a reference to leftist ‘Anti-Fascist’ protesters who wear black masks and carry mace and clubs.
He held signs denigrating both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Muslim faith.
‘BLM are racist thugs,’ one read. The other, which included the Muslim crescent with a red line through it, said that ‘Every real Muslim is a jihadist!’
Behind him stood a Trump supporter in a campaign t-shirt bearing an unusual tagline: ‘TRUMP 2016: F**k your feelings.’
He held a sign aloft as a warning to anti-Trump activists: ‘Don’t start no s**t, won’t be no s**t.’
One features a logo incorporating the number ’45’ – Trump is the 45th US. president – in a mockup of the Nazi swastika.
The other includes a graphic of Trump with Ku Klux Klansmen, and is advertised under the title ‘White Supremacy Will Not Be Pardoned.’
Trump has spoken at the Phoenix Convention Center before, a late-October 2016 rally where his establishment-rattling immigration message was temporarily overshadowed by a fan who appeared to chant ‘Jew-S-A’ at reporters as he left the venue.
The man, George Lindell, later claimed he was misunderstood.
‘When you pronounce “USA” in Spanish it sounds like “Jew S. A.”,’ Lindell said, adding: ‘We need to integrate the Spanish lingo, the Spanish language into our society.’
Trump’s return to Phoenix on Tuesday came with its own newer set of controversies.
The White House diffused the most explosive one by telling reporters aboard Air Force One that there would be no announcement of a presidential pardon for embattled former sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Trump endorser who faces a possible prison term for defying a judge’s order related to illegal immigration in 2011.
‘There will be no discussion of that today at any point, and no action will be taken on that front at any point today,’ White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
Some 7,400 people had indicated that they plan to show their disgust for the president, via RSVPs on two Facebook advertisements for anti-Trump rallies, but only about 500 showed up to protest. Anti-Trump protesters inflate a balloon depicting Trump as a KKK member
Trump’s Arizona swing started with a reminder of his laser focus on illegal immigration, visiting with Yuma, Arizona-based Marines who work with U.S. Border Patrol agents and inspecting a Predator drone that they use to patrol the border U.S. with Mexico.
Administration officials who briefed reporters on Tuesday pointed to a fortified border fence along the section of border nearest to Yuma, and said it was largely responsible for a dramatic drop in people illegally making it from Mexico to the United States.
That number was down 46 per cent in the first seven months of 2017, compared to 2016.
The fence has been up since 2008, however, and numbers have been steadily decreasing since at least 2005.
Republican partisans and Trump himself have suggested that his election victory by itself signaled a coming change in policy that made human traffickers re-think their strategies.
An anti-Trump protester holds a sign outside the venue where the rally will take place
Yet the president missed a chance to pose in front of the imposing border barrier that was just 15 miles away from his stop in Yuma, with one administration official blaming unspecified ‘security concerns.’
Trump’s visit to Arizona brought the state’s sometimes smashmouth GOP politics to a head since there is no love lost between Trump and Arizona’s two U.S. senators, both Republicans.
Sen. Jeff Flake faces a stiff primary challenge next year from former state lawmaker Kelli Ward, whom Trump has cheered on Twitter as he called Flake ‘WEAK on borders’ and ‘toxic’ in the Senate.
Flake’s recent anti-Trump manifesto ‘Conscience of a Conservative’ rankled the president. In the first half-dozen pages he calls Trump’s famed Twitter feed ‘all noise and no signal,’
‘Volatile unpredictability is not a virtue,’ Flake adds. ‘We have quite enough volatile actors to deal with internationally as it is without becoming one of them.’
Most telling, Flake skewers his fellow lawmakers who went along with Trump’s rise to power as the lesser of two evils – the greater being Hillary Clinton.
‘We pretended that the emperor wasn’t naked,’ he writes.
‘Even worse: We checked our critical faculties at the door and pretended that the emperor was making sense.’
Despite his stinging critiques, Flake has sided in Congress with many of Trump’s proposals, including two votes to repeal the Obamacare law.
Still, Trump seems prepared to throw one brushback pitch after another at Flake’s head, sending a message to other recalcitrant Republicans to get in line and follow his lead.
The Republican establishment is firing back.
On Tuesday the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC run by a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, released a vicious digital ad targeting Ward as a lunatic with ‘crazy ideas’ who engages in ’embarrassing behavior.’
Southern Arizona Militia, a private group, stands guard outside the Phoenix Convention Center before the rally for Trump
In a sign of battle lines being drawn, Trump donor Robert Mercer – the billionaire whose money funds the Breitbart News website – donated $300,000 to a pro-Ward super PAC.
Arizona’s Republican governor Doug Ducey found a way to avoid alienating either side of the spat on Tuesday, saying he would greeting Trump at the Phoenix airport but skipping the evening rally.
At least three Arizona Republican members of the House of Representatives were on hand: Andy Biggs, Trent Franks and Paul Gosar.
Phoenix’s Democratic mayor called on Trump last week to cancel or postpone Tuesday’s rally.
Despite garnering precious op-ed space in The Washington Post, he found himself screaming into a stiff wind.