Five years ago, Donald Trump met the tea party in Florida and saw the path to 2016
Donald Trump hurried off the 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 taken for suckers by China and other countries, condemnations of illegal immigrants and conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama.
“The world is laughing at us,” Trump said, wearing a blue suit, white shirt and pink tie, the wind tossing his mane. (“At least you know it’s my real hair, right?”) “We have to take our country back.”
In the outsized saga 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 who had long craved legitimacy in politics, the unconquered chapter of his quintessentially American life.
The tea party spoke to Trump, too. He was a political outsider eager to take on the machine and the media, which dismissed him as a huckster. Trump ultimately took a pass on running for president in 2012 but the experience showed him a path he is now barreling 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.”