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ATLANTA — The 44th and 45th presidents of the United States flew into Georgia over the weekend, campaigning for their party's candidate for governor and offering perhaps the clearest apples-to-apples comparison on display in the 2018 midterms with their dueling visions for a divided country.
I went to both rallies to try to figure out what was driving voters and to determine who was the more inspiring president to their bases in 2018.
I came into the weekend only knowing two things for sure. One, I’d never covered President Barack Obama on the trail before. In fact, I’d never been to a campaign rally without Donald Trump. And two, I spent 510 days covering Donald Trump on the trail in 2015 and 2016, but hadn’t been to one of his rallies since the transition.
Obama in Atlanta
First up was Obama. On Friday, he stumped for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically black liberal arts institution. It was packed, a sold-out crowd of 6,000 that didn't look like any other crowd I had seen at a political event before. The room was almost entirely African-American — the exact opposite of Trump’s crowds. But the differences were more than skin deep.
Nearly everything about this rally was new to me. The mood, the message, the attitude, the stagecraft, even the clothes the supporters wore were different. Up until Friday, every rally I’d been to looked more like a pageant of red, white and blue, festooned with American flag scarfs, eagles on shirts, patriotic sequins, and the deeper we got into 2016, MAGA Hats, "Lock Her Up" tees, and Donald Trump’s face anywhere you could fit it.
Obama supporters came in everyday street clothes. A few had "Hope and Change" on their chests. One woman wore a "Still My President" T-shirt and some wore "Abrams for Governor" gear. Almost none had signs and most kept their support to a sticker or a pin.
And they were happy to speak to reporters, happy to share their views and argue for their candidate.
They talked about healthcare, the economy, and finding someone who will represent them. They worried about a political divide that looks like an unbridgeable chasm and a sitting president who they say is only making things worse. Some of them had waited in line all night to hear Obama speak.
Javien Moore, an 18-year-old student at Morehouse who showed up in a matching maroon college sweatsuit, told me that he and his friend Charles came out to see Obama because they wanted to feel inspired again.
“The morals of our country need to be rekindled,” Moore told me matter of factly. Both young men say they voted for the first time this year — and they voted early.
“I feel like no matter who's going to be in charge there's going to be an issue with them,” Charles said. “But I feel like having the right people in the right place will do us better as a community rather than tear us apart.”
Outside, in front of an oversize hand-painted portrait of Obama, Cheryl Scales counted all the reasons she was supporting Abrams: “She's qualified. She's talented. She's inclusive. She has incredible policies.” Scales, who owns a construction development firm and hands out business cards with her portrait on the front, didn’t get into specifics but said race and gender were absolutely a factor in her decision.
“Selfishly? I'm a black woman. I want to see the first black governor who is a female in this country.” She said there was nothing she liked about Abrams' GOP opponent, Brian Kemp.
Back inside, Obama came into the gym from a side door and bounded up a small flight of stairs to the stage. At Trump rallies, the screams of the crowd could drown out a jet plane. Obama’s supporters screamed too but it sounded different — an unbridled joy that I can only compare to what I’ve seen on old newsreels during Beatlemania, which is probably why both John McCain and Mitt Romney portrayed him as a pop star.
On stage, his voice raspy from recent campaigning, Obama talked about health care, reminding the crowd that the Republicans have voted multiple times to repeal Obamacare.
"So now it's election season and suddenly, magically, Republicans are out there running ads saying we're going to protect you if you've got pre-existing conditions," Obama said as a man in the crowd chanted “lies, lies, lies.”
He accused Kemp of trying to “disenfranchise people” and told folks the “character of our country is on the ballot.”
At one point, with a less-than-perfect sound system and Obama’s voice growing increasingly hoarse, the crowd shushed itself to try and hear him better. Obama leaned into the microphone. Unlike Trump had done at times in 2016, Obama didn’t yell at his advance man or declare that he wouldn’t pay the sound guy.
But more than anything else, Obama had one real message for the evening: Vote, vote, vote.
“When words stop meaning anything, when people can just make stuff up and there’s no consequences, democracy can’t work,” he said. “The only guardian of truth is you. You and your vote."
Trump in Macon
On Sunday, I was 90 miles away in Macon to see Trump campaign for Brian Kemp, Georgia's Secretary of State.
It was my first Trump rally in two years but nothing had changed — the same adoring crowds, same MAGA gear and same “Women For Trump” signs. There were socks stamped with Trump’s face and shirts emblazoned with some new slogans, including: “TRUMP 2020 the Sequel: Make the Liberals Cry Again.”
One of the more creative T-shirts, if a bit muddled in its message, said “Keg Stand Kavanaugh,” featuring an image of the newest Supreme Court justice’s face surrounded by red, white and blue beer kegs.
Max Colvin told me his number-one issue was the economy and jobs. “I think the president has done a terrific job and even though I’m still unemployed that’s OK,” he said. Colvin, who said he used to read the weather on a local radio station in Macon, thinks the president just needs more time to help him find a job.
“It’s not even been two years yet," he said. "All the signs are pointing to a better economy every day and more jobs. Everyone is saying we’re going to have inflation but if you have a job and you’re making good money do you care what a loaf of bread costs?”
The President’s honesty didn’t matter. No one batted at an eye when I asked them about Trump’s difficulty with the truth, instead arguing that “he tries his best.” Some parroted him by blaming the media. No one I spoke with at the airport tarmac rally trusted a mainstream outlet beyond Fox News. More than a few people wore INFOWARS shirts.
“Not CNN. I don’t want to say Facebook but I do read a lot of statistics,” explained Phil Slowther, who was wearing socks decorated with cartoons of Trump’s face. Asked where he gets his statistics, Slowther told me they come from “little side organizations.” He says he decides what to trust by using his common sense and praying on it.
Meredith Koehler was wearing a red MAGA hat, dark sunglasses, and a chunky rhinestone necklace. She told me she just needs to go one place for her news: “Fair and balanced. I only watch Fox.”
Al Harper said he didn’t trust reporters like me because 90 percent of the coverage is negative, a favorite Trump talking point. I countered that most politicians from both parties would say the same and that it isn’t our job to do PR for the president. “Your job to tell the truth,” he said. “If you’re leaning 90 percent one way, how can it be the truth?”
When it came to Abrams versus Kemp, Deborah Ellis, an African-American woman handing out Kemp stickers, said the decision was easy.
“I feel like African-Americans should stop looking at her color of her skin, and listen to what she says, and what she stands for,” Ellis said. “It shouldn’t be a racial issue about any of this. It should be who is the best person for the job.”
They all told me they worried about immigration and the caravan. They didn’t want Georgia to become a sanctuary state or a haven for liberals. They all said they’d vote for Trump again in 2020.
None said they believed in Democrats, who some describe as “socialists.”
Even the rally music was largely the same as it was in 2016. Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" was back on the playlist. So was "I Want It That Way," by the Backstreet Boys. And it was still playing at 95 decibels.
After hours of waiting on the airport tarmac, Trump emerged to "Rockin' in the Free World," by Neil Young. The DJ had to play it twice to get the timing right.
The president walked from the plane to the stage. Only this time, the plane wasn’t the black one with his name on it in big gold block letters, as it was two years ago. It was blue and white with The United States of America in an understated Caslon typeface. I’ll admit that was a first for me. I’d never seen Air Force One in person. Most of the folks around me hadn’t either. They were understandably awed.
As Trump took the stage slowly clapping and soaking in the affirmation, the crowd let out an earsplitting cheer that sounded like one long guttural roar. “We won’t go back,” they chanted, followed later by “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “win, win, win.”
It took less than five minutes before the president mentioned Hillary Clinton. The crowd bit and launched into a resounding rendition of “lock her up.” A little later on they repurposed it for a Kavanaugh accuser, who Trump said totally recanted her story.
He told attendees that Democrats want to eliminate borders, they want to let in criminals who will hurt their family, and would allow “illegals” to vote. And, he said, Democrats want to take away their guns.
He called Abrams “one of the most extreme, far-left politicians in the entire country” and warned Georgians she wants to turn their state into Venezuela. Unlike Obama, who kept bringing his message back to Abrams, the candidate he was there support, Trump only mentioned Kemp sparingly. In Macon, he made it clear who the headliner was.
In all, the weekend could be summed up in two simple appeals to the base. Hope, Change, and Healthcare, versus Caravans, Guns, and Defiance.
They are the slogans of two Americas. The question to be settled on Tuesday is which America has more people in it.