MANCHESTER — Blaring music and an intricate light show blanketed a sea of red, white and blue as Granite Staters awaited President Donald J. Trump at a campaign rally Thursday night.
Trump’s return to SNHU Arena in Manchester was his first as president after holding two rallies there previously, one on the eve of his 2016 New Hampshire primary victory and one on the night before the national election in 2016.
“I was really overwhelmed with it,” Marilyn Huston, chairwoman of the Cheshire County Republican Committee and a Keene resident, said on the ride back from her first Trump rally, surrounded by fellow area Republicans who chartered a bus to Manchester.
The sheer scale of the event — the lights, the music, the full-throated chants — drew comparisons to a home football game or a rock concert rather than another political event — and Huston said it made her previous favorite from Mitt Romney pale in comparison.
A quintessentially American soundtrack was bumping in the buildup to the rally, featuring artists from Frank Sinatra to Neil Young, with Trump coming on after the volume was cranked up for Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”
“I wish I had brought my gun-range hearing, you know, ear protectors,” state Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, chuckled.
“I would love to go to another one, but I would never go [for] the pounding music, and I don’t know why they do that,” quipped her husband, Fred, who had also never been to a Trump rally before.
Following the tradition of his 2016 campaign, Trump was played out by “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones.
A surprise shared by those on the bus — who caught up with The Sentinel by cellphone — was how different they found the jovial atmosphere of the rally compared to what they’ve seen in video clips of scuffles between supporters and protesters.
“I felt that — I heard a couple of people in our group say how safe they felt there — and we felt safe, too, which, you know, is amazing because you’re at a very large political rally, and it’s somewhat controversial, obviously,” Ann Savastano of Keene said. “There’s polarization, and there’s all of the violence that has been erupting. It was amazing to feel so safe.”
Savastano and others remarked on how minimal the presence of hecklers was. While a few protesters were thrown out of the arena and one was mocked by Trump for his weight, the only other significant interruption came from a medical emergency in the standing-room only section.
Huston also remarked on the age diversity of the crowd.
“What amazed me [were] the number of young people that were there,” she continued. “... I think [Trump]’s amazing. I mean, how long did he talk? Not a single note in his hand.”
Trump — who spoke for about an hour and a half in his signature style of riffs with occasional adherence to a teleprompter — heaped praise on Gov. Chris Sununu and Corey Lewandowski.
Lewandowski, a Windham resident and Trump’s former campaign manager, has been the subject of speculation around a potential run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Jeanne Shaheen. Trump stopped short of endorsing Lewandowski, since he has not yet officially declared, but the president added that he thought the Granite Stater would do well in a general election.
Trump also localized his rally speech by addressing the opioid epidemic, and even harkened back to his controversial 2017 comments, where he called New Hampshire a “drug infested den” in a leaked phone conversation with then-Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.
“I used to go around New Hampshire more than any state, and you’d say, ‘Sir, the state is infested,’ ” Trump said about an hour and a quarter into his speech. “You said, ‘Sir, we’re like a drug den.’ You tell me.”
He then touted the federal government’s opioid response initiatives, including $6 billion in new funding and 3,000 defendants prosecuted by the Department of Justice for opioid distribution.
At another point, Trump spoke about his efforts to stem the decline of manufacturing, telling the audience, “You’re like central casting for the closing of factories.”
For rally-goers like Sen. Ward, supporting the president is about more than his rhetoric: And on Thursday night, it was about being united as one in the arena in an era of polarized politics.
“I know his tweets, and some of them I really don’t care for very much, but the guy has accomplished a tremendous amount that I really think is worth thanking him for,” Ward said. “... As far as I’m concerned, he really deserves another four years.”
The second-term state senator then went to a more philosophical reflection on the rally, describing how one’s persona merged with the joyous energy of the crowd to form — just for a couple of hours — a collective whole.
“That was incredible, to be in a huge group of people that all felt the same way. It doesn’t happen very often,” Ward said, describing the feeling as “of being not one against everybody else, but being one of a whole group of people who agree on the same values. That was really very reaffirming.”
The disconnect between the day-to-day depiction of politics in the Trump era and the shared feeling inside the arena for the rally stuck with Ward.
“Too often, you sort of sit there by yourself or with a couple of people, and you have to be really careful about what you say and how you react to people,” Ward said, “but to share this kind of thing with a whole mess of them, thousands of them, was really very special.”