At Trump’s Post-Debate Rally, Unease Among the Faithful

The day after President Biden melted down in Thursday’s prime-time debate, Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia stood beside former President Donald J. Trump on a farm in Chesapeake, gushing.

“This is the best Trump rally ever!”

In the past, when it suited him, Mr. Youngkin kept his distance from Mr. Trump and his unpredictable behavior.

Not now. Not with all this winning afoot.

“Hello, Virginia,” Mr. Trump cooed as he took the stage before thousands of his supporters in what Republicans increasingly see as a winnable state. “Did anybody watch a thing called the debate?” He roared: “That was a big one.”

On the surface, the rally in Chesapeake was a quick-turn victory lap after the debate and before the 2024 race hits a higher gear.

“Democrats are in a lot of trouble, so I feel pretty good today,” said Jason Alter, 35, a dentist from Miami.

But beneath the jubilation, there was a low-grade panic stirring. It was the kind of panic that one sometimes feels when everything in life seems to be going … a little too well.

Throughout Mr. Trump’s comeback campaign, his supporters have told anyone who would listen that Mr. Biden was nothing more than the tool of a shadowy establishment that would, at the right moment, pull him to insert a more formidable candidate. Now, as they see it, this exact plot is playing out before the eyes of the nation.

“We all suspected it,” said Phil Capron, 40, a Virginia Beach resident and real estate investor. “And now that’s the official narrative that every major outlet is running with.”

The suspicion flowed Friday. “They did this to get him out,” said Tara Silvasy, 55, a contractor for FEMA.

But who is the ‘they’? “The party,” she said, simply.

Never one to miss out on a spidery conspiracy theory, Mr. Trump seemed as freaked out as any of his supporters about what is now possibly, perhaps, underway.

“Many people are saying that after last night’s performance, Joe Biden is leaving the race,” he said from the stage, followed by scattered, seemingly confused applause. “The fact is, I don’t really believe that,” he continued, “because he does better in the polls than any of the Democrats they’re talking about. You’ve seen that, Glenn?”

Mr. Trump spent the next few minutes explaining to his followers why the alternatives to Mr. Biden are actually weaker. He said that Gov. Gavin Newsom “can’t run California,” and the crowd booed. He mentioned Vice President Kamala Harris and the crowd booed louder. “It might’ve been Joe Biden’s single best decision, putting her vice president, because nobody wants that. I’d be very happy with that.”

Then he said, “Have they polled Michelle Obama? She polls very badly. She polls terribly.” The crowd went oddly still. Nobody seemed to be buying that one — least of all Mr. Trump, even as the words were coming out of his own mouth. “It’s hard to believe,” he said, pausing. “But crooked Joe Biden polls better than those people.”

This was all somewhat undercut by the fact that, during a different part of his same speech, Mr. Trump had told them that pollsters were never to be trusted.

“Michelle Obama would be an interesting choice,” mused Mr. Capron, wearing an “Alex Jones was right” T-shirt. “I actually think she would garner a lot of support. A lot of people really liked the Obama years.”

Ms. Silvasy said, “Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be Gavin Newsom.”

Mr. Alter, the Miami dentist, feared the same. “Yes, that would make me very nervous. I hope Joe is too stubborn and he just stays on the ticket and he thinks he can win.”

What got Mr. Trump the loudest applause Friday had nothing to do with the debate or Mr. Biden’s slippage; it was his mention of that day’s Supreme Court decision, which ruled that prosecutors had overstepped in how they charged some members of the pro-Trump mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “Those people have been treated so badly,” Mr. Trump said. “They should be released immediately, the J6 hostages.”

The next morning, Mr. Trump tried doing a little damage control — for his opponent. He posted on Truth Social on Saturday about Mr. Biden, saying “his speech on Friday was better, and he seems to be coming out of his trance.”

But in Chesapeake, he ultimately leveled with his loyalists about the coming battle ahead. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he finally acknowledged. “I have absolutely no idea.”

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