LEESBURG, Virginia—Get stuck in traffic. Park on the side of Route 7. Walk across an overpass and onto residential streets. There are no lights. Eventually you reach a cop, who directs you down a bike path. And about a quarter of a mile down the bike path is where the line begins. Or at least it does around 8:30 p.m., an hour before Donald Trump is scheduled to speak at the Loudoun County Fairgrounds in Leesburg, Virginia, and three hours and 50 minutes before he actually does. The line continues in total darkness, save for the glow of the stars and scattered cellphone flashlights, for at least another quarter-mile.
Welcome to midnight with Donald Trump, on what, by the time he spoke, was the eve of the 2016 presidential election.
In these last few days, Trump is working a grueling campaign schedule, doing nearly a half-dozen rallies a day in disparate parts of the country, some sensible (Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina), some less so (he was in Minnesota on Sunday, picking some nit with Somali refugees). The midnight rally in Virginia—a state that’s always been a distant reach, but one that he’s never quite given up on—was the final rally of his tightly packed five-event Sunday. That meant delays.
I spoke with one couple, Greg and Andrea Masters of Leesburg, who left their house around 5 or 5:30. They waited in line for hours. When I spoke to them around 9 they had just gotten inside the rally hall, a large hangarlike enclosure on the fairgrounds suitable to fit a few thousand souls. I told them that the latest murmurs had Trump scheduled to land at Dulles International Airport, about a 20- to 30-minute drive away—let’s say 15 with a Secret Service motorcade—at 11. They shrugged.
I asked the Masterses about FBI Director James Comey and his supplementary letter sent Sunday saying his bureau, after looking through a bunch of emails it had already seen, had found nothing new. Had they heard? “While we were walking out the door,” they acknowledged, showing just how long a day it had been for those traveling to Trump’s midnight rally. They didn’t seem fazed. Clinton’s “emails were just part of a pattern of corruption.”
They can charge her or not. Comey’s second failed opportunity to indict her was just background noise to this crowd. They would have liked it, sure. But it doesn’t matter one way or another. They know that she is a criminal, even if the official word of the FBI is that it disagrees.
Leesburg is right on the border of the Northern Virginia suburbs. In the famous words of 2008 John McCain spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer, this is “real Virginia.” About an hour outside of Washington, it’s the last major outpost past the Dulles Toll Road of the D.C. suburbs, beyond which lies the more rural “real” Virginia of Winchester and the Appalachian Mountains. The crowd was an interesting mix of “real Virginians”—camo Make America Great Again hats and shirts, “Guns SAVE Lives” stickers—and less ostentatious suburbanites.
Sherry Reynolds lives in McLean, the well-to-do Virginia suburb about 25 minutes outside of Washington. She fits the profile of a #NeverTrump type found in great profusion in the Beltway suburbs: a military wife (and mother) and recently retired government and economics teacher who supported Sen. Marco Rubio in the primaries. But she’s been impressed with how Trump has honed his message in recent months, and more importantly she hates the Clintons. I asked her about the follow-up Comey letter. She hadn’t heard and didn’t seem to care. “I am tired of the corruption with the Clinton machine,” she said. “There’s plenty of other things … there’s plenty of other things that she could be charged for.” She was upset, for example, with the deterioration of America’s position around the globe and the lives we lost in Benghazi, Libya, during Clinton’s State Department tenure.
She said she’s followed the Clintons since the ’80s and that there are “plenty of people who are no longer living who wanted to talk about” the Clintons’ corruption, but no one would listen. “They just magically disappeared—like Vince Foster.”
The emails are nothing. Who cares what Comey does or doesn’t do? They’re a blip in a long line of obvious, odious, and comprehensive criminality. This is the long-held anti-Clinton suspicion that Trump has hardened into a state of absolute fact among his supporters. And it’s why Comey’s “supplementary” letter to Congress saying explicitly that Clinton will not face criminal charges needn’t interrupt the narrative Trump and his surrogates had already assembled for the evening. It certainly didn’t stop the chants of “Lock her up!” that overtook the crowd about every 10 minutes, for hours.
“I have good news: Mr. Trump has landed … ” the event’s emcee said around 10:30, at the beginning of the night’s program. The crowd went wild.
“ … in Pennsylvania,” he continued.
But he promised excellent entertainment in the meantime, whereupon he introduced former Sen. Rick Santorum. Santorum performed in his usual manner of a man working through a terrific bout of constipation. He got the crowd going most with one line. “Hillary Clinton may be the first person running for president to serve more than eight years,” he said, his wit perhaps outstripping his history here. “And it will all depend on good behavior.”
It was the first of several speeches that seemed to elide any mention of the FBI or Comey. Didn’t matter. She’s a crook, and they know she will somehow go to jail even when the authorities that would be jailing her announce they will do no such thing. Former Rep. Tom Davis, continuing the trend, joked about how he left Congress undefeated “and unindicted.” It was here that I began to wonder how many Trump supporters honestly believe that Clinton is under indictment.
George Allen, the former senator who lost his seat after calling a young brown man “Macaca,” spoke at 11:34 p.m. He spoke of how Clinton wants to change the name of the Washington NFL team. Oliver North, who actually was indicted as part of a real scandal that threatened our entire system of government, began speaking at 11:40. This was right around when Trump landed at Dulles and embarked toward Leesburg without the traveling press corps.
Around 12:10, a flickering line of red and blue flashers could be seen along the tree lines near the fairgrounds. Trump was here, and after one more introduction from Jerry Falwell Jr., he came to speak in the first general election eve rally of his political lifetime.
“Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt person ever to seek the office of president of the United States,” Trump said, after an opening Obamacare riff. The “lock her up” chants began right away, crisply in sync. “Right now, she’s being protected by a totally rigged system. … This is a rigged system. This is a rigged system. Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it, the FBI knows it.” And everyone in this room has never known anything more.
“I’m asking you to dream big,” he said, after the usual bragging about polls and the talking points about building the wall, keeping refugees out, cutting taxes, creating jobs, eliminating regulations, and making America great again, “because with your vote, in just—”
He recognized that it was after midnight.
“Now I actually have to say one day. One day. ONE DAY!” He hesitated as the roar cascaded into a “Trump!” “One DAY, I can’t believe it.” One day away. For old time’s sake, he reminisced about all of the candidates he beat in the primaries, and then he sent Virginia on its way.