HARRISBURG, Pa. â On the 100th day, the president had fun. He zipped up to the nearest Rust Belt state full of the forgotten men and women who put him into office. He bashed the bad guys of the media and Hollywood and the swamp heâd just left behind. He promised jobs and greatness. It was like last year again, all lusty cheers and smiling faces, a refreshing tonic after three months of stubborn lawmakers, naysaying judges, carping protesters, frenetic days and lonely nights.
Donald Trump could have stayed home and had dinner with 2,700 card-carrying members of the Washington elite, many of whom make their living inspecting his every move for missteps, most of whom probably didnât vote for him anyway. But he said no to the White House Correspondentsâ Association dinner, where the swells in tuxedos and gowns feasted on jokes at his expense.
Instead, he spent Saturday night in Harrisburg, a town heâd described during the campaign as hollowed-out â âjust rotting .â.â. Itâs just a war zone.â
This time, he called it âa wonderful, beautifulâ place. He soaked in the love of Harrisburg, people whoâd waited in summer-strength sun for as long as 13 hours for the chance to tell their president they have his back.
From the top, Trump touted his decision to spurn the dinner in Washington and instead commune with his people in Pennsylvania. âA large group of Hollywood celebritiesâ â big boos â âand Washington mediaâ â another wave of boos â âare consoling each other in a hotel ballroom,â he said. âI could not possibly be more thrilled than to be more than 100 miles away from Washington swamp .â.â. with much, much better people.â
Trump ran through a long list of actions heâs taken so far, and he defended some of his decisions to back away from campaign promises. Itâs true, he said, that he hasnât declared China a currency manipulator as he said he would, but âwe have to have a little flexibility.â He said heâd asked Chinaâs president to âhelp us out with North Korea,â and he couldnât very well then say, âbut by the way, youâre manipulating your currency. Doesnât work that way. Do you agree?â
They did. They still believe he will âMake America Great Again,â and many in the crowd of about 7,000 people in an almost-full Farm Show Complex and Expo Center arena wore their red campaign caps to show it. They dressed to express their commitment, wearing shirts that said âDonald F—ing Trumpâ and âDeplorable Lives Matterâ and âTrump â Finally Someone With Ballsâ and âBuilt Trump Tough.â
The man in that last tight black tee, Tony Kubin, 36, remembered that a year ago, âI was not into politics at all,â but then he heard Trump, and âeverything he said, it was what me and my buddies have been saying forever. I mean, I hate political correctness.â
But now that Trump is president, Kubin is pleased that the president has altered his tone, become somewhat more presidential. âWhen he was running, it was refreshing because it was human, and thatâs how people relate,â he said. âWhat heâs doing now, like putting off building the wall, thatâs strategic. Heâs learning that you canât go in there and boom, boom, boom, get things done like a businessman would. Now he sees he has to work to bring everyone together. I know heâll do that. I just love his honesty, how he says itâs harder than he expected.â
Theyâve been watching Fox News and reading Facebook, and theyâve concluded that the Washington machine is blocking him at every turn. They blame the conservative Republicans, and they blame the Democrats, and they blame the news media, and they blame, even now, Hillary Clinton.
âLock her up!â the crowd chanted spontaneously, again and again. They were families and young couples and old folks, lifelong Republicans and people whoâd never voted for a Republican before, an almost entirely white audience, and they danced to Trumpâs trademark soundtrack of â60s and â70s pop hits, and they chanted âBuild that wall.â
âDonât worry, weâre going to have the wall,â Trump assured the crowd. âDonât even worry about it. .â.â. Rest assured. Go home, go to sleep.â
And they seemed okay with that. They want the wall, many people said. Thatâs foundational, basic, mandatory. But they donât blame Trump for backing away from a threat to insist that funding for a wall be included in any agreement to keep the government functioning.
Becky Gee milked the cows just before midnight Friday night, and then she and her boyfriend piled into the truck and bombed down the highway, 4Â½ hours from their family farm in Hartville, Ohio, to the arena in Harrisburg, arriving just before the sun. âI came to hear him say how heâll build the wall,â she said. âI know he will. I donât feel heâs backing down, itâs just all these opposing forces that want to see him fail.â
She trusts Trump. She only wanted to hear him promise once again that he was really for people like her, people who work around the clock and still donât know if there will be a market for their milk.
Gee, 31, has heard the criticism about how the presidentâs staff members are consumed with infighting, about how Trump keeps reversing himself, about how he hasnât gotten his initiatives through Congress.
âHeâs being misinformed,â she said, âlistening to the big companies and his advisers. He needs to meet with people like us so he can hear what weâre really going through. But I know heâll do it. He gave up a millionaireâs lifestyle to do a job I wouldnât do no matter what they paid.â
Trump said just what Gee was hoping for. He will build it. He will replace and repeal. He will destroy them. He could speak in shorthand here with his people. He didnât need to answer pesky questions about whether heâd had to acknowledge complexity where he once saw black and white.
Here, he could exhale, presenting the nationâs challenges once more as a pretty easy fix, at least for him. Here â 120 miles from the canapÃ©s and cosmos at the Washington Hilton â he could once again be the plainspeaking provocateur whoâd persuaded millions of Americans that he alone could turn the battleship. He could again become the voice of the collective id, kicking a– and naming names.
âCNN and MSNBC are fake news,â he said. The news media âare a disgrace .â.â. incompetent, dishonest people.â âSenator Schumer,â he said, referring to the Senate minority leader from New York, âis a bad leader.â âObamacare is dead, gone.â Transnational gangs such as MS-13 are âequivalent in their meanness to Âal-Qaeda.â
He returned to some of his campaign favorites â reading the poem âThe Snakeâ (âDoes anybody want to hear it again?â he said to resounding cheers), a parable about the dangers of inviting in a stranger whose bite turns out to be poisonous.
The crowd loved it. The president loved it.
Itâs not as if he doesnât get out. There are the weekends at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, plenty of golf and dinners at the steak places in his hotels. But this job has been more of a change than Trump, a 70-year-old man of routines, had anticipated. âI loved my previous life,â Trump told Reuters news agency this week. âThis is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.â
Heâs always loved work. But as he created and maintained the Trump empire, people mostly did what he told them to do. If he said it, heâd come to believe it was true.
This job is different. âNow arrives the hour of action,â heâd declared in his inaugural address. Then came week after week of what Washington does best: revision, reconsideration, realignment, rejection.
Trump responded as he always had in tough situations: He lashed out, called names, issued threats â and then he reversed course, backed down, changed the subject. He did it on Syria and on China, on immigration and on health care, on NATO and on the Export-Import Bank, on NAFTA and now even on the big Kahuna of Trumpian promises: the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
âI do change, and I am flexible, and Iâm proud of that flexibility,â Trump said this month.
The people in the arena understood. âHeâs relentless, unfaltering,â said Wes Black, 21, a student at Shippensburg University. âHeâll keep his promises. I donât worry about him backing down on the wall. Iâm most worried that Donald Trump eats his steaks extra well done and with ketchup. The rest, he can take care of.â
But as much as the crowd stood with their man, they, like the president, wouldnât mind some wins. After all, heâd promised that there would be so much winning, Americans would be bored.
Theyâre not bored yet. âHeâs learning as he goes,â said Lani Chong, 52, an auto inspector from State College, Pa. âHeâs dialed back some of his tweets and antics, which I was never a fan of. Iâd like to see the wall get built, but he has to get things approved. So heâs being flexible, which I like. Iâm more of a centrist, and I took a chance on him because heâs a businessman. Heâs not left or right, not really Republican even. I like that. I wish we had no parties â they just lock into left or right, and nothing gets done. He wants to fix stuff.â
The 100-day marker was just âridiculous,â Trump tweeted, but heâd orchestrated a cavalcade of announcements, orders, signings and appearances designed to show that he had indeed delivered on some promises. His wins came with asterisks: His tax reform plan was only a rudimentary one-sheet outline. His immigration ban was quickly blocked by the courts.
But here, he was already a winner. Heâd learned in the campaign that there was magic in big crowds, that he could read an arena as well as he could read a boardroom, that he could surf the waves of anger and joy as he reflected back to the masses their frustrations with the crooked path their lives had taken.
He loves the moment, and on this night, he was back in it. He told the crowd that next year, on the next Saturday night in April when the swells of Washington were toasting themselves, he might just come back to be with his people.
Mark Berman in Washington and Steve Volk in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.