Support for brash Republican Party presidential front-runner Donald Trump is only intensifying with every controversial statement, such as his call to ban Muslims from entering the United State. Many of his backers would even abandon the Republican Party if necessary to support an independent Trump for president.
Those are among the highlights from an evening spent with a focus group of past and present Trump supporters from the Washington metropolitan area – the heart of the political establishment that Trump’s candidacy threatens.
“I was stunned. These are Republicans and they’re prepared to sink the Republican Party,” said Frank Luntz, a longtime consultant to Republicans, independents such as Ross Perot and the news media. He led the two-hour-plus conversation with the 29 voters as reporters watched through a one-way mirror.
“They’re invested in him and they’re prepared to dismiss every critique,” said Luntz.
The voters from Maryland, Virginia and Washington – 22 of whom support Trump and seven who have moved on – applauded Trump for his combativeness.
“We are tired of political correctness,” one man offered. “We’re being burdened by it and it is making us weaker as a country globally, and I think he represents that voice of frustration.”
The participants in the group were not identified by name, though several gave their names to reporters after the event.
As top Republicans denounced Trump’s bid to bar Muslims from entering the country, more than half of the group said it supported the measure and credited Trump with recognizing their fears.
“Christians aren’t trying to get into other countries and blow up their coffee shops,” said R.J. Wolf, 43, of Washington. “Muslims are the only ones who are doing it. People who are totally foreign to us, yes, we need a temporary halt, that’s a reasonable position.”
Asked to describe Trump, members offered such praise as “bigger than life” and “smartest guy in the room.” Several, however, also suggested “egomaniac” and “demagogue.”
They said they backed Trump more for his larger than life persona than any particular policy. And they were willing to justify almost anything Trump says. His profanity shows he’s a man of conviction and a man of action. Everyone curses out of the public eye, they said.
“Americans think the country is in crisis, Trump is telling them the country is in crisis and people flock to a strong leader when they think the country is in crisis,” one man said. “He stands up there, he gives the image he’s not going to put up with any crap.”
Even when they were bothered by a Trump controversy, the voters were more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, seeking to justify every statement.
Several did not like that Trump had dismissed Sen. John McCain’s Vietnam War service, but they justified his attack by suggesting that McCain “started it” by insulting Trump’s followers. One man noted that Trump hadn’t included the slight in prepared remarks. “It was off the cuff,” he said.
And they said it was unfair to hold Trump responsible for the rough treatment of a Black Lives Matter protester at a recent event.
Trump’s apparent mocking of a New York Times reporter who has a disability drew the most concern, but even that was explained away, with members saying they weren’t convinced Trump was making fun of the man.
The group watched videos of some of Trump’s more contentious statements and his support only grew. Luntz said the more Trump is challenged, by his rivals and especially by the media, the more his supporters like him.
“You are building his campaign with every attack. You’re actually creating the phenomenon,” he said to the reporters watching the group from behind a one-way glass.
Trump’s warnings about Muslims resonate after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., with the group noting that the couple had been plotting the attacks for years. They seemed to endorse Trump’s call for monitoring mosques, arguing that the country has been too afraid to offend others.
“Scores of people died because someone didn’t want to be accused of being racist,” one man said.
Still, former Trump supporters evinced weariness with his combativeness.
“We need a leader who can work with people. We can’t create anything in Washington if everyone is bouncing off each other in anger,” one woman said. Another said she “didn’t like him calling names,” and she added that “the last straw” for her was when he “made fun of that reporter.”
The group offered only loathing of President Barack Obama, siding with Trump’s false claim that Obama wants to allow in 250,000 Syrian refugees rather than the 10,000 the administration has actually proposed. “We don’t believe our politicians,” one woman said.
And although fewer than half believed Trump’s largely unfounded assertion that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the 2001 terrorist attacks, they gave him a pass.
“We all exaggerate,” one woman said, adding: “We want someone to take a stand. We want someone to say, ‘Yes, here’s what we’re going to do,’ even if it offends everybody.”
There was widespread agreement that the media is biased against Trump and accentuates his controversial statements while downplaying his attributes. “He’s a great family man,” one man said of the thrice-married Trump.
They also chafed at portrayals of his followers as racists or bigots, saying they and Trump are neither. “We know he has a good heart and that’s not who he is,” said R.J. Wolf, 43, of Washington.
There was little passion for any candidate beyond Trump, outside of Sen. Ted Cruz. As Luntz listed the options, he missed Jeb Bush, prompting groans and laughter when he eventually mentioned him: Zero attendees chose him.
Asked what happened to Bush, once the presumptive front-runner with establishment backing, one man said, “Trump happened. Trump changed the entire way everyone is looking at everything.”
Some saw vulnerabilities in Trump’s statements on women, but they were eager to explain them away, saying some of the comments were “very old” or were made before he was an official candidate.
Some did see critics making headway against Trump with ads highlighting people who lost their jobs because of Trump – if the ads were true.
They expected Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, to play up Trump’s remarks on women, but they were confident that Trump is the only Republican candidate who can defeat Clinton.
“He will go after her with no qualms whatsoever, no parsing words,” said one man.
More than half of the group said they would support Trump if he runs as an independent and the Republican nominee was a candidate like Marco Rubio.
“The Republican establishment just died,” Luntz told them.