About thirty minutes into Donald Trump’s speech Saturday night at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Conroe, north of Houston, the former president stopped playing the familiar rhetorical hits and a curious thing happened: many in the crowd began to leave. For the first half of his speech, Trump had kept the tens of thousands in his audience enraptured. He had been railing against Biden administration border policy and vaccine mandates (while extolling his administration’s program to expedite vaccine development), when he suddenly turned to the ostensible purpose of his visit: endorsing a dozen or so Texas GOP candidates ahead of their March 1 primaries. But as he began to talk about the first recipient of his blessing, Governor Greg Abbott, the energy of the audience waned. The bleachers flanking the former president thinned, like the throngs of festivalgoers in 1965 had when Bob Dylan went electric. The crowd had come for something else. 

One man wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” sweat shirt remarked to his friend, who’d donned a “Let’s Go Brandon” ball cap, that they knew what Trump was going to say from here on out and should try to beat the traffic out. An elderly woman, who had been sitting in a folding seat about fifty yards from where Trump loomed on the stage, remarked that she had been waiting to use the bathroom for more than six hours in order to save her seat, and now was the time to make her break. They’d come to celebrate their devotion to Trump, after all. Texas has primaries coming up on March 1, but those were earthly matters; Trump could speak to their souls. 

Indeed, the event was a reaffirmation of the hold Trump has on Texas politics. The whole grounds had the feel of a music festival, as Houston Chronicle writer Jeremy Wallace noted. Those attendees who had not, like some, started camping at the festival grounds 36 hours before Trump took the stage shared snacks and chargers with one another, and lit up cigars to pass the time in the two-hour line of vehicles to get in. Merch tables lined the entrance to the grounds, with items bearing messages ranging from the messianic (images of Trump alongside Jesus) to the action-heroic (the forty-fifth president as Sly Stallone’s Rambo or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator). Parents brought toddlers, and teddy bears with Trumpian haircuts for them to play with; truck decals on countless autos warned of both the Q revolution and “baby cowboys” on board. One grandparent got up from his seat when Trump took the stage so that his elementary-school-age granddaughter could stand on it and “see something she’ll remember for the rest of her life.” Only a few were not there to worship: outside the entrance gates, an evangelical preacher warned that the crowd was forsaking God in its complete devotion to Trump—and received a chorus of heckles and curse words.

A merch table outside the entrance gates
A merch table outside the entrance gates. Photograph by Ben Rowen
Trump addresses the crowd.
Trump addresses the crowd. Photograph by Ben Rowen

As much as the event was a celebration of Trump, it also threatened to be a rejection of the governor. Many right-wingers in the audience felt betrayed by his border policy, which they view as too migrant-friendly; a few opposing campaigns had plans to stir up audience members to heckle him. At the head of the main road to the festival grounds, a Trump 2024 broadside was obscured by a hand-painted canvas reading “Abbott Is a Lying RINO.” And outside the entrance gates, the audience could pose for photos with a handful of cardboard cutouts—MyPillow CEO and election conspiracist Mike Lindell, Melania Trump, and Florida governor Ron DeSantis—but not Texas’s leader. 

About an hour before Trump arrived, when Abbott warmed the crowd for him, the governor took the stage to a smattering of boos. He had a vaccine against the jeering, however: repeating the name “Donald J. Trump” without much flair or expounding, ad nauseam—six times in the first 45 seconds of his address, and nearly thirty times in his six minutes, to be exact—as if he were Ben Stein calling for Ferris Bueller. “Are you ready for Donald J. Trump?” Abbott asked. “Donald J. Trump is ready for you. Donald J. Trump loves the great state of Texas, and Texas loves President Donald J. Trump. He is getting ready to come out here and he wants to see you show your support for our President Donald J. Trump. Now Donald J. Trump . . .” Abbott began, before launching into a speech touting the former president’s support of the oil industry, and taking credit for working to finish the Trump border wall. Fittingly, he ended his remarks by leading a chant of “Let’s go Trump!”

While Abbott faced the most opposition, he wasn’t the only Texas politician to find the crowd restless and hard to control. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who took the stage before Abbott, briefly lost his listeners when he said Trump would win in 2024; audience members angrily chanted back that he should “fix 2020”—in other words, reverse the election results. In a short address before Patrick’s, state attorney general Ken Paxton spoke of Trump in near-spiritual terms. Paxton, of course, had filed a doomed lawsuit to try to overturn other states’ election results in Trump’s favor. He sought to highlight another round of lawsuits, his dozens brought against the Biden administration. Citing the Declaration of Independence, which he promised to protect, Paxton reminded the crowd members their rights “don’t come from Biden” since they are “God-given.” He quickly added, “They don’t even come from Trump.” 

When the former president finally took the stage, at around 7:30, his speech, aided by a teleprompter, hit all the familiar notes, with some news pegs sprinkled in to keep things fresh. Even as Trump stuck to a well-trod script, with few of the meandering jests that characterize many of his speeches, the audience remained engaged and loud. The crowd roared as he called migration into the country an “invasion” and criticized Joe Biden for considering moving troops to the border of Ukraine but not to the U.S.’s southern border. Laughs erupted when he mocked Biden as dementia-riddled and rhapsodized about Hunter Biden’s “laptop from hell,” opining on how it might be influencing Russian diplomatic relations. And he received rapturous applause when he claimed that the 2020 election was fixed (earlier, Donald Trump Jr. had said it was the only thing Biden “had fixed”), and promised to pardon January 6 rioters if he’s elected in 2024. The closest thing to news on this evening was Trump’s dire warning that, if prosecutors take action against him, he’d unleash a series of protests.

“If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal,” he said, “I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protests we have ever had in Washington, D.C., in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a rally, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Conroe, Texas.
Governor Greg Abbott speaks at a rally, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Conroe, Texas. Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via AP

When it came time to endorse candidates, Trump sped through a who’s who of Texas politicians in the crowd: Abbott (again to scattered boos), Patrick, Paxton, former governor Rick Perry, agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, seven congressmen, and two members of the state legislature. Other than a paean to Congressman Ronny Jackson, his former White House physician, Trump kept the shout-outs brief and they were met with polite applause. Superstar pitcher Roger Clemens elicited a few cheers, as did Catherine Engelbrecht, head of the right-wing poll-monitoring group True the Vote, which was founded to seek out “voter fraud” in Houston’s majority-minority neighborhoods. No one in the crowd received a warmer welcome than Mike Lindell, who was present in the flesh as well as via cardboard cutout.

It wasn’t just the politicians formally receiving Trump’s endorsements who made their presence felt. So fully does Trump dominate the GOP in Texas that even campaigns that didn’t win his backing showed up to solicit voters. Promoters of Abbott challenger Allen West proselytized outside the gate, citing an internal poll that found that nearly 75 percent of likely GOP primary voters thought Trump should reverse his endorsement of the governor. Former state senator Don Huffines, who is also running for governor, walked the festival grounds before Trump arrived, attracting crowds of anti-Abbott ralliers. (Many candidates who have not received Trump’s endorsement coyly intimate palace intrigue; “Let’s just say that I’m not sure the president is real happy with that endorsement,” Huffines told me last week. Meanwhile, A.J. Louderback, running for a congressional seat in southeast Texas against Trump-endorsed Michael Cloud, who attended the rally, told Texas Monthly that Trump’s endorsement was “something I can’t talk about. I have access, and I know what happened.”)

During his speech, the former president seemed surprised to spot attorney general candidate Louie Gohmert moments after he had affirmed his “complete and total” endorsement of Gohmert’s primary opponent Paxton. “He’s very distinctive with the beautiful face,” Trump quipped about how he had made Gohmert out in the crowd.  

The campaign of a second Paxton challenger, land commissioner George P. Bush, also circled the fringe of the event. On the farm-to-market road where traffic was backed up for hours to get into the festival grounds, hundreds of tiny P. Bush lawn signs lined the shoulder, like progress markers on a marathon trail. Despite Trump’s years of berating the Bushes, and P.’s father Jeb in particular, the land commissioner had gone to embarrassing lengths to win his endorsement, even touting on campaign beer koozies the former president’s quote that he was “the only Bush that got it right.” If Trump hadn’t given Paxton the nod, the event might have been the perfect place for Bush to appear—his grandfather is widely credited with helping flip Montgomery County from a Democratic stronghold to one of the largest red counties in the nation, and just twenty minutes away an airport bears his family’s name. No matter: after the rally, as attendees ambled back to their cars, his flyers were waiting on their windshields like parking tickets.