Despite a pattern of dangerous, erratic behavior, the former president remains a strong front-runner for his party’s nomination. His durability stems from his most loyal supporters.
WACO, Texas — In the last 28 months, former President Donald J. Trump has been voted out of the White House, impeached for his role in the Capitol riot and criticized for marching many of his fellow Republicans off an electoral cliff in the 2022 midterms with his drumbeat of election-fraud lies.
He dined at home with a white supremacist in November. He called for the termination of the Constitution in December. He declared himself “more angry” than ever in January. He vowed to make retribution a hallmark of a second term in the White House in March.
He has embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, described President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a genius and used a gay joke to mock a fellow Republican. He has become the target of four criminal investigations, including one in New York that he warned might result in “potential death & destruction.”
Still, Mr. Trump remains a strong front-runner for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination. At least one reason for this political durability was assembled Saturday morning outside the airport in the central Texas city of Waco in various combinations of red caps, antagonistic T-shirts and MAGA-button flair — the Trump die-hards.
Starting before 8 a.m., more than nine hours before the former president was set to take the stage at the first rally of his 2024 campaign, his supporters streamed across dirt roads and formed an ever-growing line that zigzagged across the grass and bluebonnets, with a forest of Trump flags flying nearby. One sign nodded to both the F.B.I.’s search of Mr. Trump’s Florida property and the federal agency’s siege 30 years ago of a religious sect’s compound in this Texas city: “Remember the Alamo, Remember Waco, Remember Mar-a-Lago.”
It is Mr. Trump’s base of hard-core followers, who show up to his rallies in force, that has allowed him to maintain his grip on the party despite a pattern of dangerous, discordant behavior that would have sunk most traditional politicians.
Whether or not Mr. Trump can expand his support beyond his loyalists, as he must do to win a general election, remains an open question for Republican primary voters. But the loyalty of his superfans remains as strong as ever.
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They fly “Trump or Death” flags from Jeep Wranglers outside Mar-a-Lago. Many have fallen out with family and friends over their devotion to the former president. They view themselves as mistreated and unappreciated, and view Mr. Trump as not so much a man but a cause. “Jesus, Freedom & Trump” read the T-shirt worn by one woman who went to see the former president in Iowa recently.
Amid overlapping investigations and the looming possibility of arrest, the ardor of these supporters has not faded but, many said, has grown only stronger.
“I think it’s really disgusting,” said Leslie Splendoria, 71, who arrived early in Waco and said she had supported Mr. Trump since his first presidential run. “They’re trying to do anything they can to get rid of him.” She came to the event from Hutto, Texas, north of Austin, with her ex-husband, her daughter, her 3-year-old granddaughter and a small wagon of supplies for the long wait in line.
“No one is safe,” said her daughter, Kimberly Splendoria, 38, wearing a red MAGA sweatshirt and a Trump hat and holding her daughter, Gigi. “They can just throw you in jail, indict you.”
“Look at what happened on Jan. 6,” said Bob Splendoria, Leslie’s ex-husband. “You happened to be there and they arrest you.” He and Leslie said they had wanted to attend the protest in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, but could not make it. Both said they would not have entered the Capitol.
Hours later, Mr. Trump arrived, his plane buzzing the crowd with a flyover before landing.
His speech was a familiar festival of grievances and focused heavily on his legal jeopardy, portraying his expected indictment by a New York grand jury as a result of what he claimed was a Democratic conspiracy to persecute him. He also argued that the United States was turning into a “banana republic.”
One of the early speakers at the event, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas, told attendees that he had pushed for Waco as the rally site after a call from Mr. Trump seeking suggestions. Speaking later to reporters, Mr. Patrick said he preferred Waco because it was centrally located and could attract Trump supporters from around the state. He said he had been unaware that it was the 30th anniversary of the bloody standoff with the Branch Davidians. “Nobody knew until some of you brought it up,” he said.
Mr. Trump’s political strength has long proved difficult to fully measure. While polls show that he enjoys a commanding advantage in a Republican primary field, most surveys also show that about half of the party’s voters would prefer another nominee at this early phase in the 2024 contest.
His final swing of campaign rallies before the midterm elections in November avoided key battleground states, where independent voters who largely disliked Mr. Trump had been expected to tilt results. His rallies last year instead included stops in Iowa and Ohio, two states that he had twice won easily.
A recent call by Mr. Trump for his supporters to protest a potential indictment from the Manhattan district attorney received a tepid response and, in some cases, was met with pushback from other Republican leaders.
Still, the support that Mr. Trump has coalesced has given him the luster of an incumbent in the primary contest. That means to overtake the former president, other Republican contenders face the difficult task of first peeling support away from Mr. Trump before they can persuade those same voters to back their own bid for the nomination.
In Waco, some rallygoers were skeptical of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Mr. Trump’s chief potential rival.
“I like DeSantis, I do, but the ground that needs to be covered is going to take Trump to get it done,” said Jeff Fiebert, 69, a farmer who described himself as a die-hard Trump supporter and who moved to Waco from California during the pandemic, a move he said was motivated almost entirely by politics.
Asked what Mr. Trump could do that Mr. DeSantis could not, he said the former president was the kind of person “who goes into the bar and knocks all the bottles off the shelf just to see where they land.” Mr. DeSantis, he added, does not do that sort of thing.
While the field of official Republican challengers remains small — Mr. DeSantis, for example, is still months away from an expected formal announcement — Mr. Trump has continued to tend to his die-hard supporters. He invited a handful of his most devoted rallygoers to his Mar-a-Lago resort in November for his official campaign announcement, and delivered private remarks to many of them in a small ballroom before his public speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference three weeks ago.
Mr. Trump has spent years on the campaign trail persuading supporters to interpret pressure on him — from his opponents, law enforcement and members of Congress — as attacks on them. That is why some of his allies believe that becoming the first former president to face criminal charges — as expected in the Manhattan district attorney’s case — could carry political upside for Mr. Trump, at least in a Republican primary.
“And no matter what happens,” Mr. Trump wrote this week in an email seeking supporters’ campaign contributions, “I’ll be standing right where I belong and where I’ve always been since the day I first announced I was running for President…Between them and YOU.”
Trump rallygoers often explain their continued backing of Mr. Trump in terms of gratitude. They say he has stood up for them and, as a result, has been targeted with investigations into his company’s finances, his handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
“I think it just helps him,” said Courtney Sodolak, 37, a nurse from outside Houston who arrived early in Waco.
Ms. Sodolak, who was wearing a shirt that read, “Guns Don’t Kill People, Clintons Do,” connected the treatment of Mr. Trump to her own experience being kicked off social media platforms. She said she had been removed for posting conservative content, including images of Kyle Rittenhouse and of people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“I’ve been through 60 Facebooks,” she said. “I can’t even have one in my own name.”
The legal scrutiny of Mr. Trump, Ms. Sodolak maintained, is similarly unfair.
“It makes him more relatable to what real people go through,” she said. “The social injustice.”