Donald Trump hurried off stage, leaving a sweltering, pumped-up crowd, and slid into the air-conditioned shelter of a black limousine.
“Wow! That was unbelievable,” he said to longtime aide Roger Stone. “There’s something here.”
Trump’s raw and freewheeling message captivated 2,000 tea party activists gathered in Boca Raton on April 16, 2011. While many came for the spectacle, they left energized by his blow-up-politics-as-usual style, a contention that America was being played for suckers by China and other countries, condemnations of illegal immigration and conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birthplace.
“The world is laughing at us,” Trump said, wearing a blue suit, white shirt and pink tie, the wind tossing his signature mane. (“At least you know it’s my real hair, right?”) “We have to take our country back.”
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In the annals of Trump — developer, playboy, author, Apprentice star, Republican presidential nominee — what happened that day has been largely overlooked. It was an awakening for a man, now 70, who long craved legitimacy in politics, the unconquered chapter of his quintessentially American life.
A political outsider eager to take on the machine and the media, the tea party spoke to Trump, too. Ultimately he took a pass on running for president in 2012, but the experience showed Trump a path he now barrels down.
“That was the only way he could get in the door, if he was anti-establishment,” said Pam Wohlschlegel, a tea party leader who helped organize the event. “I think it was sincere and brilliant. He planted the seeds.”
The tea party is not as visible today but its ideals — and anger — have consumed the GOP, and Trump.
“We saw fringe back then; today it’s mainstream and has absolutely rocked the political establishment,” said Robert Watson, a professor at Lynn University who worked the Boca event as an analyst for a local TV station.
“I saw it as a sideshow publicity event. Little did we know he would tap into a movement.”
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Trump 2011 carried all the stagecraft of Trump 2016, and the message was largely similar.
James Brown’s Living in America blasted from loudspeakers as Trump walked to the podium. There was a shoutout to Gov. Rick Scott (“Doing a hell of a job”) and Florida (“I love Florida. I love it”) and bragging over how Trump was told a couple hundred people would attend, not a couple thousand. “What happened? What happened?”
Other speakers were on the lineup, including then-U.S. Rep. Allen West, a tea party hero, but Trump’s team insisted he be the main attraction, a condition that rankled some organizers. West gave a brief introduction, calling Trump a “cheeky fellow.”
Trump read from notes but often freelanced. He said America had been taken advantage of by countries that rely on our protection but do not pay. The United States should have seized oil resources in Iraq and used it to pay off the cost of war and give money to wounded soldiers or the families of the fallen, he said. Obamacare? A “total disaster.”
He lamented how “smart people” struggle to enter the country legally while “sadly, if you’re a criminal, a sex offender, a rapist, a murderer or quite frankly somebody who’s never ever achieved anything and you’re able to cross the border, you stay in our country, in some cases with benefits, and never leave. What’s going on?”
Merely mentioning the word president triggered a shower of boos. “They all want me to say 'You’re fired,’ ” Trump said, teasing the audience. “We’ve got a long way to go before I start using that. It’s too early and to be honest, it’s too trivial. But I have it in the back of my mind.”
The audience, some wearing T-shirts that read Draftthedonald.com, reveled in his blunt delivery, boasts about wealth and intelligence and a gloomy assessment that America was on the decline, in good part because of weak and incompetent political leaders.
“He infused in us an enthusiasm,” said Mel Grossman, a tea party leader in Palm Beach County. “He’s a very powerful figure and I admire him. In five years, he hasn’t changed a bit.”
Watson, the TV analyst, said he was struck by how enthralled and aggressive the crowd became. As he reported into the camera, Trump still speaking, a man shouted, “F- - - you, commie.” Watson, a former college football player, was not intimidated but asked the crew to go back to their van.
At the time, the rowdiness seemed inappropriate for TV. Today, Watson said, he would turn the camera on. “I don’t know what that says about me or where we are politically.”
It wasn’t long before Trump got to the issue that had catapulted him to the front of hypothetical GOP polls: A contention that Obama was not born in the United States. “All I want to do is see this guy’s birth certificate,” he said to cheers.
Obama had already made the document public, but with Trump using his celebrity to keep the issue in the news, he released the long-form document from Hawaii on April 27, 11 days after the Boca rally.
“We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers,” Obama said from the White House.
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The fringe talk sidelined Trump among mainstream Republicans, even as they sought his attention and money, and had the media dismissing him as not serious about running for president.
Two weeks after the Florida rally, Trump attended the White House Correspondents’ dinner. “I know that he’s taken some flack lately — no one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than the Donald,” Obama said in his speech that night. “And that’s because he can finally get back to the issues that matter, like: Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And — where are Biggie and Tupac?”
Reporters wrote that Trump was humiliated, though Trump claimed otherwise. “I loved that dinner,” Trump told the New York Times earlier this year. “I can handle criticism.” Still he acknowledged doubt about his intentions. “I realized that unless I actually ran, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.”
Trump flirted with runs as far back as 1987, when he swooped into New Hampshire in a black helicopter and delivered a speech at the Portsmouth Rotary Club. In November 1999 he dropped into Miami for a speech that was a run-up to his exploratory campaign for the Reform Party, when he first began to rail against trade deals. A 2004 campaign never materialized, Trump absorbed in his reality TV show.
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By early 2011, Trump was making noise again and drawing usual skepticism. “He very seriously wanted to run. He never understood why people in the media didn’t take him seriously. It aggravated him,” said Stone, the longtime adviser.
Trump summoned to his New York headquarters top Republican strategists and pollsters as well as grassroots leaders in key states. He courted the conservative press, including NewsMax and Breitbart News. When Gov. Scott stopped by to promote Florida tourism, Scott gave him the number of his pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who now works for Trump’s campaign.
In February, Trump gave a speech at CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. He revved up a large crowd with populist vows to restore America’s greatness and a vague plan to take back “hundreds of billions of dollars from other countries that are screwing us.”
A couple of weeks later he was in Boca Raton, his first appearance before a tea party group. “They’re great,” Trump said. “They’re great because they made Washington start thinking.”
Event organizers were saddled with a $6,000 bill from the city to cover policing and barricades, but Trump picked up the check, inflating the crowd size to 5,000 from 2,000 in a June news release. By then he had already announced he would not run. “Business is my great passion,” he said, “and I am not ready to leave the private sector.”
But Florida showed him a way. “When I saw the effect he had on the crowd, I thought he’s got it, whatever it is,” said Joyce Kaufman, a conservative South Florida radio host.
As Mitt Romney struggled against Obama, Trump and his tea party fans lay in wait. Six days after the election, Trump applied for a trademark on the phrase “Make America Great Again.”
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.