It was a day on which Donald Trump was looking for lightning to strike twice. And for thousands of his faithful supporters who had waited for hours outside Orlando’s Amway Center on one of the stormiest days of the Florida summer, it did.
Crashing thunder and lightning bolts during the afternoon provided a fitting build-up for the noise and raucousness of the evening rally, at which Trump announced his re-election bid in front of 20,000 “Make America Great Again” fans.
Thousands more who were unable to snag a seat inside watched the proceedings on giant screens across the plaza, the sea of bright red Maga hats providing a splash of colour against the gray skies and dark clouds overhead.
“We’re here to support our president starting his campaign for four more years, but really everything he’s done in the last two years has delivered the message already,” Jake Morton, a car mechanic from Tampa, Florida, said. He and his wife had waited for more than four hours in the rain, without an umbrella and not even close to the front of the line that began to snake around the buildings adjacent to the arena before daybreak.
Unsurprisingly, no welcome mat was rolled out for the president by Florida’s Democrats, who held their own “Win With Love” community rally at a popular LBGTQ hangout a short walk from the Amway Center.
“We know what Donald Trump is going to say today, same old lies he always does,” said Terrie Rizzo, the chair of the Florida Democratic party, speaking at the nearby Stonewall bar in Orlando. “But we have a message for Donald Trump: in 2020, Florida will defeat you.”
Flying high over the large early evening gathering at the Stonewall bar was the Trump baby blimp, a staple of recent protests against the president in the UK. Lightning storms had prevented it from launching earlier in the day by the lightning storms.
A happy crowd danced and sang to live music in the rain, but the carnival atmosphere was marred by the appearance of several dozen of apparent members of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization deemed by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be a hate group.
Marching from the Amway Center chanting, many wearing Maga hats and some making white power gestures, the group was intercepted by City of Orlando police officers outside the bar. The officers spread their bicycles across the road as a barricade.
Proud Boys and white power signs in Orlando. pic.twitter.com/t0ELnjtkTB— Philip Crowther (@PhilipinDC) June 18, 2019
A tense standoff ended after a few minutes when the Proud Boys group turned back following a request by the police, and there was no violence or confrontation between the rival groups.
Later on, inside the Amway Center, Trump opened his one-hour, 20-minute monologue with a characteristic broadside against the hated “fake news media”.
Like a master conductor, Trump guided his audience through a familiar recital, showers of boos and jeers echoing across the arena at all the predictable moments: the Russian “hoax”, the viciousness of his perceived oppressors, the Democrats, the specter of impeachment, the dishonesty of the media during an administration he insisted was “under assault from the very first day”.
Amid a cacophony of adulation that rivaled anything seen during Trump’s first presidential campaign in 2016, one of the loudest and lengthiest cheers of the night came when Trump asked the crowd to vote on a slogan for his 2020 campaign.
Keep America Great was a clear winner, with the erstwhile Make America Great Again seemingly destined for the history books now that, in the president’s view, the swamp is drained and the country’s economy is better than it has ever been.
The messages were well received as the crowd continued to bay its disapproval at the journalists cordoned inside the press pen .
Yet the economy could not be said to be booming for the countless vendors of Trump merchandise who had set up their stalls in the streets around the Amway in anticipation of a bumper day. One of them, Franklin Hughes from Columbia, South Carolina, lamented that the constant downpour was losing him business.
“It’s been very quiet,” Hughes said as another sizeable group of Trump supporters raced past him wearing ponchos. It was the same at stall after stall, with piles of Trump 2020 hats, shirts and banners left unsold under polythene covers while rally attendees already bedecked in Maga hats sprinted by in search of shelter. Hughes said he feared driving back up the interstate highway with almost as much merchandise as he had arrived with last Thursday.
By the time Trump wrapped up his epic speech with a pledge to keep America “winning, winning, winning”, several pockets of empty seats had appeared in the auditorium as some weary attendees headed for home.