Donald Trump brought his wild Republican presidential campaign to St. Louis on Friday, attracting waves of fans – and some loud foes.
The billionaire businessman’s speech in the Peabody Opera House came as voters are focusing on next Tuesday’s primaries in Missouri and Illinois. The contests could solidify Trump’s spot as the unlikely GOP frontrunner for president – or throw the Republican scramble for the White House into more turmoil.
Lines for Trump’s speech stretched around the block, some queuing up in the early hours. Virgil and Teri Kupfer of Old Monroe arrived at 7:30 a.m. to make sure they got inside to see their candidate of choice.
"He’s a business man, he’s going to make America great," Virgil said. "He stands up. This P.C. crap has got to go. He's going to make things happen."
Thousands of people dressed in American flag garb and “Make America Great” hats packed the Opera House. During a stream-of-consciousness speech that stretched on for more than hour, Trump waxed poetic on a number of topics: His distaste for Obamacare, Hillary Clinton’s faux fondness toward President Barack Obama, his desire to build a wall between Mexico and the United States, how wealthy people (besides him) are often miserable, and the dishonesty of his GOP presidential rivals and the press.
And he also criticized how America has conducted its foreign policy.
"In the old days when we were a strong country, when we were respected, to the victor belonged the spoils," Trump said. "We go into these countries whether it's Vietnam, whether it's wherever the hell we go. We go into countries. We fight a war. We leave. What's the purpose? We spend trillions of dollars. Thousands of lives. Wounded warriors all over the place who we love. And we get nothing."
He also lamented his toned-down performance in Thursday’s presidential debate, which included jabs his fellow GOP rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.
“My daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared said, ‘You know, you’re a very smart guy. It would be really great tonight if you could act really presidential,’” Trump said. “So I did. But it’s not exciting as the other, right? You know, you probably had an audience that said ‘Trump’s done a good job tonight, but this is boring. This is not the same! We want to hear about ‘Lyin’ Ted’ and we want to hear about ‘Little Marco.’”
But Cleta Null of Pacific said she liked the more toned-down Trump (and voted for him early), but she thinks he needs to humble himself more.
"He would be a good president, but he needs to show more kindness and compassion and not think so much about himself," Null said, wearing a Reagan-era American flag sweater. "He needs to think about other people - that’s what makes a good candidate."
Trump also promised the crowd that if he were to become the next president, that America’s fortunes would go in a more favorable direction.
“We’re going to start winning again,” Trump said. “We’re going to win with the military. We’re going to win with our veterans, we’re going to take care of them. We’re going to win on the border. We’re going to win with education. We’re going to win with our Second Amendment. We’re going to take care of our Second Amendment. We’re going to win with health care. We’re going to win, win, win. We’re going to make America great again.”
This message resonated with many of the supporters who came to see him, such as Gale Spiegel of Brentwood.
"He's going to turn our country around," she said. "He’s going to win this. Our country’s a mess, and we need to make it better again, and he’s the man for the job. He's going to make our economy better for generations to come, and he's a brilliant business person who know exactly how to do it."
Many supporters said Trump's private sector credentials would be better than continuing to elect "career politicians."
"With his business background, I think he is the more capable individual for getting policies or deal-making done, to where we can get back these manufacturing jobs and get America going again," said Richard Ray of Collinsville.
While Trump has fielded much criticism of late over his business practices, Scott Borden of Chesterfield said it shouldn't hurt his credibility.
"Nobody’s perfect," he said. "Some of his companies have gone into bankruptcy, but he shows you don’t have to be perfect to be a leader."
But Borden did have one concern about the candidate: that his campaign didn't anticipate such a large crowd. He and his friend Amanda Shopher waited for hours in line to get inside, only to be shut out with only about 75 people in front of them.
"We were pretty upset and disappointed," he said. "I wish they would have had it at Busch Stadium or a bigger venue."
Before he stepped on the stage, Trump received the backing of Eagle Forum President Ed Martin, who waged unsuccessful electoral battles for Congress and attorney general. He also received an endorsement from Eagle Forum Founder Phyllis Schlafly.
The socially conservative stalwart said that Trump would give Republican voters “a choice, not an echo.”
“I asked him to stand by the Republican platform, because we have the best conservative platform we’ve ever had,” Schlafly said. “And he endorses it. He will stand by it. He is a real conservative. And I ask you to support him.”
Protesters show up in force
But in perhaps a prelude to what would occur later on Friday in Chicago, good chunk of Trump’s speech was spent responding to protesters who constantly interrupted him.
Trump had to stop his speech nearly a half dozen times. Police officers had to forcibly remove some of them, many of whom were loudly heckled by the capacity crowd.
St. Louis police made 32 arrests total; 28 of those were made inside the Peabody Opera House for general peace disturbance. Three arrests for disturbing the peace were made during protests outside the rally, where one person also was booked on an assault in the third degree.
Trump’s rallies have been marred by often-violent episodes, including one incident where a protestor was punched in the face. And a reporter for Breitbart alleged that she was roughed up by one of Trump’s staffers while asking a question.
During the St. Louis rally, scuffles and some pushing and shoving occurred, while pro-Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters exchanged competing chants and verbal barbs. Accusations of violence were made by both Trump supporters and protesters.
John Collins Mohammed of Black Lives Matter said he had been spit on and rocks and pencils were thrown at him. Rally attendee Theo Graff said he saw a protester try to punch a Trump supporter.
Police intervened several times during the demonstrations, particularly when protesters drowned out Trump's speech being broadcast over speakers for those who couldn't fit inside the venue. Sgt. Brian Rossomanno said the day's "high emotions and bitter differences" sometimes would "manifest themselves in behavior we can't tolerate, so we're just trying to keep the peace."
Guitarist and Trump supporter Kraig Moss, who said he's been to at least a half dozen of the candidate's rallies, said St. Louis' was the most heated he had seen.
But during tense protestor interludes at his rally, Trump openly mocked the protesters – telling them to “get a job” and also contending they were “not good people.” He also claimed that he was being lenient toward the demonstrators.
“They’re allowed to get up and interrupt us horribly and we have to be very, very gentle,” Trump said. “Very gentle. They can swing. They can hit people. But if we hit back, it’s a terrible, terrible thing, right?”
He went onto say that “there used to be consequences” to protesting, but there “are none anymore.”
“These people are bringing us down, there’s no reason for it,” Trump said. “These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea folks. You have no idea. They contribute nothing. Nothing.”
Claire Buechele of Lebanon, Ill., said she had a ticket to attend the rally, but changed her mind and went behind a barricaded area where people were demonstrating against Trump with signs that read "STL Won't Stand for Trump" and "End Racism, Stop Trump."
"I was standing in front of people who were making racist comments and I couldn’t be near them anymore so I had to protest," she said.
Trump supporter Barbara Inman of Farmington said she felt that it was the protesters who were making inappropriate comments.
"The fact that I had friends that died in the bombing of the Twin Towers and yet people that support the Muslim religion, the terrorists and stuff, are allowed to be here, they protect them in their protests more than they protect somebody born and bred in America," she said. "It’s like Americans have no rights of our own anymore."
Faris Mashaleh of Ballwin said he only wanted to get people to believe the sign he held that read "Muslims love America, too."
"I’m not against Trump; he has good policies and he wouldn’t be a bad president. But what’s going on is the American public is interpreting his message in a very wrong way," he said. "It’s not Trump turning against us, it’s the public turning against us. I think they all have the wrong idea. We’re all human. I love America and I'm Muslim."
While many in line gave Mashaleh thumbs up or said they love peaceful Muslims, that didn't stop one supporter from telling him to "leave our country; you're not allowed here."
Social activist Joan Lipkin of St. Louis said she attended the demonstration to provide a counter-narrative to the messages she saw being spread by a predominantly white, "frightened, desperate, angry" crowd.
"That is a very dangerous storm," she said. "I think that he is feeding into people’s desperation at this point. This is pretty frightening stuff to be around someone who is this xenophobic and hate-mongering."
One masked individual wearing an anti-police T-shirt demonstrated by standing on top of an American flag. While one veteran of the armed forces called the action "disrespectful," Kevin Harter, a student at Parkway South High School in Ballwin, said he "almost cried honestly" at the flag protest because he plans to join the military.
A big nerve
Despite facing criticism for his approach and rhetoric, it’s undeniable that Trump’s candidacy has struck a nerve.
St. Louis County resident Brian Buckles said he liked Trump’s hard stance against illegal immigration. He said his stepdaughter was killed when an intoxicated undocumented immigrant slammed into her car.
“He served eight and a half years and he just got deported in November back to Mexico,” Buckles said. “He’s not supposed to come back here, but who knows with sanctuary cities and everything. It’s time this country enforced our immigration laws like every other country does.”
Other rally-goers like Calypso Pickett of St. Louis knew who they were voting for - and it wasn't Trump. Still, she said she wanted to keep an open mind and see what he had to say in person "other than what I usually see from the media." But she said she's voting for Bernie Sanders.
"I have a lot of Muslim friends, I'm African American myself, I have Hispanic people in my family," she said. "I feel like (Sanders) is more for us, rather than the way Donald Trump is, who obviously says he doesn’t want Muslims in the country and called Mexicans rapists."
Wentzville resident Melvin Nelson said he’s undecided between Cruz and Trump. When asked if Trump could follow through on some his promising – including forcing Mexico to pay for the border wall – Nelson said, “You don’t want to beat the man down until he’s given a chance in office.”
“They’re saying he’s a politician making promises,” Nelson said. “But lo and behold, he’s not a politician. He’s just a man running for president.”