The Republican National Convention loomed and Donald Trump wasn’t having much luck getting prime airtime at the GOP fête. Meanwhile, Joe Gruters needed a big draw for the Sarasota Republican Party’s annual fundraiser.
Maybe they could help each other out.
And so it came to be that the reality television star headlined the Sarasota GOP’s Statesman Dinner on Aug. 23, 2012 — the eve of the Republican convention in nearby Tampa. If the party brass wouldn’t guarantee him a prominent spot at convention, then he would make his sideshow the unofficial kickoff to the festivities from neighboring Sarasota County.
Tonight, Trump returns to Florida for another Statesman Dinner, this one held by the Republican Party of Florida in Aventura. This time, there’s no pretext to his visit: Trump is the Republican Party.
In hindsight, the Sarasota event was a harbinger, if not a launching pad, for what might transpire in the years that followed.
Trump’s ascension wasn’t the only to begin that night. Gruters, heralded for the evening’s success, would go on to become the chairman of the state GOP after he helped elect Trump in Florida four years later. Gov. Ron DeSantis, then an unknown congressional candidate, sat in the Sarasota audience, just another curious Republican intrigued by Trump.
About 1,200 people bought tickets to hear Trump that night, an unprecedented turnout for a local party event.
Trump’s forays into national politics had been the occasional flirtation with a presidential bid, his drive-by punditry via Twitter and a can’t stop, won’t stop campaign to discredit President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Yet his celebrity at the time transcended politics, as hundreds of people waited in line to get their picture taken with him or shake his hand.
Sixty miles north at the convention, Republicans could barely muster the same enthusiasm for their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
“There was no big energy from the Republican side that Romney was the right person that week. He was just going to go up there and be the party’s figure head,” said Jesse Biter, a Rick Santorum-Republican who attended the Sarasota fundraiser. “Trump had much more energy that night.”
If Trump’s treatment by the Republican establishment up until that point had turned him away from presidential politics, Gruters thinks the Sarasota event began to change his calculus.
“The 1,200 people there that night on the eve of the RNC convention, I think all of that may have contributed to giving him confidence and momentum that he needed to actually pull the trigger," said Gruters, who chaired Trump’s Florida campaign in 2016.
It almost didn’t happen.
Hurricane Isaac was projected to thrash into Florida’s west coast that week. Rain and wind were already on the way, and the convention organizers decided to cancel the first day of festivities, including a rumored last-minute appearance by Trump (since he was already going to be nearby anyway).
But Trump landed in Florida that day. Issac’s gusts whipped his famous mop of hair as he exited his plane. He later said it was proof it wasn’t “a rug."
Some of what he said that night he wouldn’t repeat today. Of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Trump said “who I happened to like a lot.” And John McCain, “who I also like.” Romney? “He’s really good.” All would become Trump’s political foes.
One line from Trump’s remarks that night especially stands out now, in light of his premature exit from the London NATO summit after a hot mic caught a gaggle of foreign leaders making fun of the U.S. president.
“I look at how the world is laughing at us,” Trump said at the 2012 fundraiser. “I look at how the world is taking advantage and just say, ‘so stupid.’ ”
But the rest of his 2012 speech in Sarasota more closely aligned in substance, if not style, with the campaign stump speeches that he built his 2016 campaign around and continues throughout his presidency. “I love Florida, I have a lot of things in Florida, a lot of businesses in Florida,” a line he still repeats when he’s in the Sunshine State.
China manipulated its currency, he said. He maligned the decline of coal. Reporters who gave him negative publicity were “really, really dishonest people” — a claim that earned big applause. So did: “You gotta not be so politically correct.”
He didn’t say it was time to “Make America Great Again,” but he came close.
“We are in a country that is in decline. We can say ‘That’s not so,’ and we can say ‘Oh we’re doing great,’ Trump said. "If we have four more years of Barack Obama we’re not going to have a country left.”
Confounding. Mesmerizing. Unscripted. Crude. Authentic. Unlike any other politician who would speak at the convention in the days to follow.
Before Trump, the Sarasota Republican party handed out its Statesman of the Year award to a local politician hitting a milestone in public office. In a good year, a statewide leader like Jeb Bush would make an appearance. Trump in 2012 was not a statesman by any definition of the word. But that’s what made him compelling, said Eric Robinson, a former Sarasota GOP chairman.
“Everyone before him, they spoke very carefully, very thoughtfully,” Robinson said. “Donald Trump was different. He was joking around. He was casual."
Added Robinson: "You see it now at rallies and the way he talks and the rhythms. It was all there that night.”