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The Republican loyalists who've learned to love Donald Trump

At one local caucus, the enthusiasm of Trump supporters is seducing GOP insiders into thinking he'll make their party great again.

Trump signs greet the entrance to the Wakefield, MA, Elks Lodge, April 30.
Trump signs greet the entrance to the Wakefield, Massachusetts, Elks Lodge, April 30.
Dara Lind/Vox

WAKEFIELD, MA — "People used to be afraid to say, 'I'm a Republican.' And now, look at this room," Bob Finneran told the hundreds of Massachusetts Republicans crammed into the main hall of the Elks Lodge in a northern exurb of Boston. "Donald Trump did this."

The Massachusetts Republicans were gathered for district caucuses on April 30 to select which delegates would represent the state at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in June. Enthusiastic Trump supporters swarmed places like the Wakefield Elks Lodge. And the longtime Republicans running the caucus were more than happy to see them.

In Washington, DC, and in intellectual circles, many Republicans and conservatives are openly horrified by the fact that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. But if you want to know whether rank-and-file Republicans are going to embrace Trump now that he's the presumptive nominee, you might want to look to places like Wakefield.

Longtime Republicans weren't just reconciled to Trump. They were embracing him and the passion he'd inspired. They've convinced themselves that Trump is their ticket back to the White House in November.

State Rep. Brad Jones — the leader of Massachusetts's (admittedly small) Republican House minority — had to wait nearly 40 minutes to call the caucus to order, so that volunteers could sign in all the attendees who'd been lining up to enter since 7:30 am. "This is by far the largest caucus in the Sixth District I have ever seen," he said when he finally greeted the room.

A couple of shouts from the assembled — not quite a chant, but just short of one — answered the question Jones didn't need to ask: "Trump! Trump!"

Trump excited inactive Republicans. Their excitement excites party stalwarts.

Despite Bob Finneran's claim, the Sixth District isn't exactly hostile territory for Republicans. Massachusetts Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, comes from the area — though Baker, a moderate who has said he will not support Trump in the general, made the perhaps wise decision to skip the delegate caucus. State Rep. Jones chaired the caucus.

The town of Wakefield went strongly for Scott Brown in the 2010 special election — more than 60 percent of voters chose him over Martha Coakley — and surrounding towns in the Sixth District preferred Brown as well.

But the fact of the matter is that the Sixth District is in Massachusetts — or, as attendees almost always referred to it, "Taxachusetts" — and attendees at Saturday's caucus weren't used to thinking of Massachusetts as anything but a deep blue state. So the palpable excitement that Donald Trump has generated became, itself, exciting; it became a sign that Trump could win a general election for the Republican Party.

Over and over, would-be delegates in Wakefield — in the awed but welcoming tone of people who've just been given a tremendous gift — invoked two statistics that purported to prove how powerful a candidate Trump would be. One was Trump's performance in "liberal Massachusetts's" Republican primary: 49 percent of the vote. (The fact that this was only among Republicans, not among all voters, went unmentioned.)

The other: "20,000 Democrats in Massachusetts switched parties," several delegate candidates said, to support Trump.

Massachusetts did see almost 20,000 Democrats change their registrations in the weeks before the March 1 primary, though only about 3,600 of them became Republicans (and therefore eligible to help elect delegates in Wakefield).

None of the Trump supporters I talked to in Wakefield were recent ex-Democrats. Some were first-time voters, or former third-party supporters — Ron Paul types — who'd been impressed by Trump. But many, or even most, were people who'd been Republican for a while but hadn't necessarily been active in the party.

Donald Trump had gotten them legitimately enthusiastic. Attendees started lining up 90 minutes before the doors opened at the Elks Lodge in Wakefield. Eighteen candidates — almost all of them Trump supporters — ran for the first two delegate slots.

The Trump-endorsed slate of delegates from the 6th district.
The Trump-endorsed slate of delegates from the Sixth District.
Adam Reilly/WGBH

Cruz backers were anxious to stay on Trump supporters' good sides

In other states, the now-defunct Ted Cruz campaign had outhustled the Trumpists. But in Massachusetts, the Trump operation put exhaustive amounts of effort into getting its supporters to the caucuses — and it worked.

"I've been making phone calls, a lot of emails, a lot of online," said Trump-endorsed delegate Arete Castucci — taking off her heels in the women's powder room, after more than six hours of being on her feet. "Telling people to come out, who to vote for." She was exhausted, but relieved: "I have friends in other districts, and it's very good turnout all over the state."

If the number of people wearing Trump stickers (handed out, along with Dunkin' Donuts, by the Trump campaign at a table outside the lodge), Trump shirts, "Make America Great Again" hats, and "Trump '16: Put Another Brick in the Wall" buttons weren't a clear enough indication of how the room felt, the enthusiastic shouts greeting any delegate candidate who pledged to support Trump certainly were.

It was enough to put the would-be delegates who supported other candidates on the defensive. Some of John Kasich's chosen delegates attempted to defend their man to a room full of Trump supporters, pointing to polls that show Kasich as the Republican who most consistently beats Hillary Clinton. The Trump supporters were not convinced — they nearly drowned out one would-be delegate with shouts of, "Trump!"

Would-be delegates who supported Ted Cruz, meanwhile — most of them longtime Republican insiders — tended to keep their allegiances close to the chest. They were more concerned with preserving the goodwill of Trump loyalists (and interested in stoking the surge of Republican interest) than they were in taking a stand for their candidate.

They talked about their résumés as Republican campaign workers and party officials; they stressed the need to have "a voice for Massachusetts" at the national convention; they talked about the importance of a unified Republican Party to beat Hillary Clinton in November.

The Trump supporters were neither impressed nor fooled. Even lines that would be guaranteed applause in any other context — "Who thinks any of our candidates would be better than Hillary Clinton?" — were greeted with suspicion by Trump supporters who were really only there to support one candidate.

Only one would-be delegate — Andrew Kingman, a former supporter of Marco Rubio running for the slot pledged to the Florida senator on the first ballot — had the self-confidence (or, if you prefer, self-righteousness) to condemn the Trumpists to their faces. "To support Mr. Trump as the nominee is to retreat from our history" as the party of Lincoln and Reagan, he told the crowd with tense determination.

"Traitor!" a Trump supporter shouted back.

The Republican Party, Kingman continued, should not exclude people who look different, "who believe differently, who love differently." One heckler, in a voice that wouldn't quite have been audible if the rest of the room weren't so angrily quiet, tried to complete the sentence for him: "— who are losers!"

Trump brought in new people, but how invested are they in the Republican Party?

Some party insiders were happy to embrace Trump early on. One of the delegates endorsed by the Trump campaign, Amy Carnevale — the one who tried to start her speech by getting everyone to agree that all the Republicans were better than Hillary Clinton — is a Republican state committee member and a lobbyist.

As a delegate for Mitt Romney four years ago, Carnevale was involved in some intra-delegation drama that resulted in the booting of a Ron Paul delegate from the convention. So some longtime conservative activists in the Sixth District found it deeply disconcerting, and deeply suspicious, that they and Carnevale were on the same side in 2016 — and that she'd been endorsed by the Trump campaign to represent them in Cleveland.

"That's just amazing. I would like to know what's going on," said activist Larry Way as the votes were tallied. "I think we know what they're trying to do. I think they're part of the 'stop Trump' movement."

Some conservative activists had tried to mount a "Liberty" slate of delegates as an alternative to insiders like Carnevale — to save the Trump candidacy (they believed) from its own endorsed delegates. "Can you trust Amy Carnevale to support Donald Trump?" asked Liberty delegate Evan Kenney.

Ultimately the answer was that, yes, they did.

The pro-Trump caucus-goers suspected the Liberty slate of having another agenda — some thought they were Ted Cruz supporters, others thought they were Paul types (who were agreed to be okay on some issues, but dangerous on others).

In the end, the candidates who won were endorsed by the Trump campaign itself. Nothing else mattered.

Donald Trump dallas rally
(Tom Pennington/Getty)
Tom Pennington/Getty

Even when Trump supporters didn't agree with the campaign's decisions, they obeyed its instructions. Scott Hayes, the last Trump-endorsed candidate of the day (for the alternate for the Rubio-pledged slot) was a last-minute substitution for another, presumably better-vetted candidate. His speech veered into allegations that "ISIS has completely infiltrated the US" and the Saudis are "so successful in our colleges that now they're in our K through 5!"

Some of the Trump supporters in the room looked askance at Hayes. But his comments didn't matter. They'd written the name down before Hayes even got up to speak. They weren't here to make their own judgments; they were here for Donald Trump.

The first-time caucus attendees had no interest whatsoever in intra-Republican infighting — and it wasn't at all clear how much interest they had in the Republican party beyond its presidential frontrunner. But in Wakefield, and in the rest of Massachusetts — and, as the party unites around Trump, in other places throughout the country as well — Republicans aren't looking a gift horse in the mouth.

They've learned to love Trump supporters. They've learned to love Donald Trump.

Watch: Why Donald Trump can't win a general election

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