Last Saturday, the disgraced former President Donald Trump held one of his signature rallies at a venue in Selma in Johnston County. How successful the event was depends on who you ask. For some – like Republican Reps. Ted Budd and Madison Cawthorn, as well as the NC-13 Republican primary candidate Bo Hines – the rally was a great success. They all landed very public endorsements from the former President, as well as from Lt. Governor Mark Robinson, for their respective races.
For others, like Trump himself, the rally was more of a bust. Its paltry attendance was a testament to his waning popularity outside the hardcore Republican base. The rally was also a major embarrassment for North Carolina’s media, who demonstrated absolutely nothing learned from four (or five) years of Trumpian chaos. It was also a body blow to the state’s Republican establishment.
Trump has a well-known and long-running obsession with crowd sizes. One early sign of Trump’s boorishness came after the crowd at his inauguration fell far short of his hopes (at about one-third the size of Obama’s 2008 inauguration). In an eerie parallel to a similar conversation the former president would have with Georgia state officials after losing the 2020 election, Trump called up the head of the National Park Service and demanded he find new photos supporting Trump’s own crowd estimate.
In 2016, Trump held a rally at the same venue in Selma where attendance was widely estimated at 15,000. Significant photographic evidence, as well as testimony by reporters at the event, supported that estimate. Last weekend’s rally fell far short of that standard. Observers estimated Saturday’s rally at not even 2,000, with significant video footage – including that from hard-right outlets – supporting that claim. Here’s Spectrum News reporter Kyleigh Panetta:
Certainly, 1,000-2,000 people is a respectable crowd. But it’s hardly unusual for political events around North Carolina. In May 2021, between 1,000 and 3,000 people (estimates vary) gathered in downtown Raleigh to protest Israeli aggression towards Palestinian civilians. (A protest which registered barely a blip on the media’s radar.)
The paltry size of Saturday’s rally seems particularly odd given its intensive, statewide marketing push – much of which, neither Trump nor the Republican Party even had to pay for. Who did? The media – who was happy to do it for free.
The Media’s Coverage Was an Embarrassment
The North Carolina media has hyped the Selma rally with constant coverage for over two weeks, treating Trump’s upcoming political rally as “news.” Most have helpfully directed their readers to how to find tickets to the event in a manner suggesting more of a copy-and-paste of organizers’ press releases than anything else.
The major media outlets proceeded to covered a medium-sized political rally in Johnston County with wall-to-wall live coverage approximating that of September 11th:
The next morning, literally every story on the Raleigh News & Observer’s website was about the Trump rally:
Though reporters did “fact-check” Trump’s speech (which was, as usual, chock-full of gibberish), they also provided him (as well as Tedd Budd, Madison Cawthorn, Bo Hines, Dan Bishop and a litany of fellow travelers) a bonanza of free advertising. They streamed their speeches live and uncut, with any number of reporters on the scene. There are the heroic images splashed across screens all over the state. For Trump and his candidates, one might even say it was – excuse the expression – a coup.
This is plainly a failure. The media appears to have learned precisely no lessons about its role in hollowing out American civil society and its shared understanding of what is true, and what is not. To state the obvious, no other political rally, let alone protest, would garner anywhere close to this much coverage by North Carolina’s media outlets.
The final loser of Saturday’s Trump rally? Raleigh’s Republican establishment. The two highest-ranking Republicans in the state – Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore – were no where to be seen, and weren’t even invited. The Art Pope-John Locke Foundation, the very definition of the NCGOP’s party establishment, did not even acknowledge the rally’s existence in its mouthpiece, the Carolina Journal. In Cawthorn, Robinson and Budd’s appearance with Donald Trump, it is clear which wing of the NCGOP is ascendant, and which is just hanging on.