The phone rings and a man with a hoarse voice picks up. He’s in Arizona, at a Secret Service field office. I’m in Philadelphia. I ask him if there’s anyone there I can talk to about Secret Service barbecues.
“No clue what you’re talking about,” he says.
I brief him: From what I understand, when a person makes a threat against someone under Secret Service protection, that person is considered a threat. And when a politician of interest comes to town, say a president or a candidate on the campaign trail, if there are enough threatening individuals in the same area, the Secret Service will gather up those individuals in one place, kind of like for safekeeping.
In fact, I explain, what I’ve come to know, or want to know more about, is that the Secret Service hosts barbecues for the threatening individuals. So that when the president is downtown giving a stump speech all those who’ve made threats are on the outskirts, in a park along the promenade, eating hotdogs and watermelon.
“Sorry, what was your name again?” he asks. “Just hold on a minute.”
In Arizona, like in Iowa and Alabama and Mississippi, the field offices all tell me they cannot comment on such matters. Take it up with public relations in Washington.
When I call Washington the man who answers is identically gruff, if with a slightly more acerbic whaddya-want tone of voice. I tell him what I’m trying to understand. Namely, the scope of these Secret Service barbecues. “Look,” he says. “Even if they were something we did, do you really think I’d tell you?”
What I want him to explain to me is who brings the potato salad and who brings napkins. I want to know if the guy who threatened GWB looks at the young upstarts who made Twitter threats against Obama as unserious and lazy, lacking the craftsmanship of scissor-clipping letters from various magazines to Elmer’s glue into snail-mailed diatribes sent to the White House on the weekly. What I want him to tell me is that the barbecue is the place to corral all the misfits, those not in prison or a state hospital, a sad gathering of citizens who feel pushed to the edge and desperate for relief.
But what I really want is to go to a barbecue myself.
The last century-and-a-half has been a dangerous time to occupy political office: Worldwide, nearly 300 assassination attempts have resulted in the murder of 60 political leaders. From Austria to Afghanistan, Panama to Paraguay, on average once every three years another king or prime minister has fallen to the hand of an assassin, either by knife, gun, or explosive device. For example: In Spain, 1897, Prime Minister Canovas was gunned down in a spa; 1921, Prime Minister Hara, knifed in a Tokyo railroad station; in ’43 King Boris the Third popped in Bulgaria; in ’56, President Somoza, shot in Nicaragua; JFK, ’63, Dallas, Texas; in ’77, President Al-Hamdi, shot in North Yemen; his successor, Al-Ghashmi, by bomb in ’78; Palme, Sweden, ’86; Yitzhak Rabin, Israel, ’95; in 2001, in Congo, President Kabila, and in Nepal, King Birendna, both shot dead. It’s the kind of brutal mathematical probability that would keep any leader up at night, especially if your mind bends toward conspiracies and paranoia.
In the United States the phenomenon of assassination is engrained in the political experience. Of our 44 elected presidents, 11 of them, or 25 percent, have been attacked by assassins. Of that cohort, seven have survived an assassination attempt, four have not. For a long time, anyone could wander in off the street and flick the White House china. President John Adams happened to be alone when a would-be murderer made his way into the White House. When the man found Adams, the president was quick-witted enough to talk him down and console him in his office. It wasn’t until after 1901 that a president could reliably count upon full-time protection, a change in protocol that followed the third presidential assassination when in a receiving-line American anarchist and former steelworker Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley twice in the gut. One might thus assume that America is statistically due for another assassination any day now.
Or perhaps our maturing nation, 36 years from its last serious attempt on the life of its leader—when John Hinckley Jr. wounded President Ronald Reagan with a bullet from a cheap pistol—has entered into one of those slices of civilized history when an empire successfully subdues all instances of political murder. In Europe, there were hopeful times for rulers between the 11th and 14th centuries, and again in the late 17th. Greece had a pretty uneventful run in the 5th century BC. And Rome put almost 400 years up on the board with nary a political slaying.
In their current work to keep the president alive, the Secret Service maintains a multilayered perimeter of armed and heavily armed agents around the president at all times. Less visible are the agents who shoulder the burden of enforcing what’s known as the Presidential Threat Statute, which makes it a federal crime to “knowingly and willfully” threaten the life of the president, vice president, or their families. Since that law came onto the books in 1917 legal scholars and judges have waged a nerdy debate about the scope and substance of a “willfully” or “knowingly” made threat, with many conflicting opinions about First Amendment interpretations and threats made in the context of a joke or political commentary. All along, the Secret Service has done well to avoid the parsing of such legal semantics, occupied instead by the messy business of interpreting which threats might presage violence. Which is another way of saying their job is to try to predict the future.
When JFK was murdered in ’63 the perennially underfunded Secret Service was finally allocated resources to expand its arsenal, training regimen, and technical capacity to collect, analyze, and act upon threat intelligence. The agency has since grown into an outfit of about 6,500 employees, with some 3,300 field agents cycling through more than 115 offices foreign and domestic. Each field agent is expected to make the ultimate sacrifice should the moment arise. Qualified candidates willing to take that bullet must first complete 32 weeks of training, a physically and psychologically demanding curriculum including lessons on which pressure points are best to use when separating an assassin from his gun. Seven agents have died in the line of duty, the first of whom, Agent William Craig, threw himself in front of a speeding trolley car just before its accidental collision with President Roosevelt’s horse-drawn carriage. Roosevelt was still tossed from his seat, his shirtsleeve torn, and his glasses lost, but otherwise fine. Craig’s skull was crushed and he died immediately.
At the White House today a full-time Secret Service unit guards the grounds. In the mailroom, a team dusts threatening letters for prints and matches handwriting against the International Ink Library, a depository of 9,500 unique color compositions. If suspects keep sending in anonymous letters with similar inks and threatening content, the service can establish pattern profiles to aid in tracking down the author. The service’s tech division regularly tests the White House air and water for deadly bacteria and radioactivity. On the road, they scan hotel rooms and meeting halls for threats airborne or otherwise invisible.
Required to work long, grueling shifts that get longer and more frequent during longer and longer presidential campaign seasons, the United States Secret Service struggles to retain and recruit high-caliber agents. It’s not uncommon for a candidate to bulk up his or her résumé by completing Secret Service training or just a few years of duty that they then trade in for better pay and plum benefits in the private sector. A 2016 federal workplace-satisfaction survey ranked the Secret Service to be the worst government agency or office out of more than 300 of them, for federal employment.
It’s not insignificant to add that cushier, less-demanding positions in the executive-protection division of financial firms and credit-card companies are made all the more appealing by the Secret Service’s expanding role as an outpatient treatment provider for mental-health patients. In 1955 state hospitals housed, fed, and cared for some 553,000 patients. By 2007 that population shrunk to 50,000 patients with a bed to call their own. Loss of funding, scandal over patient abuse, and the emerging preference for prescription medical treatment led to the closure of scores of facilities that once provided room, board, and refuge for America’s chronically ill, overwhelmed, and incapacitated.
In a pinch, a person with not much else to lose can threaten to kill the president and receive something like a downgraded form of state hospital services provided by the Secret Service. Although that threat will likely prompt an arrest, it’s less likely a prosecutor will pursue the maximum sentence of five years of jail time or the $250,000 fine. Instead, that person will be released but now with what amounts to a case manager in the form of a Secret Service agent. In a given year the Secret Service investigates upward of 5,000 threat cases and maintains active surveillance on up to 400 people they consider to be a potential risk to the service’s mission of zero-failure. Tasked with continually monitoring each of these threats, the agency will keep a close eye on the individuals, making visits to their home, feeding them meals, and listening to their stories, careful to gauge if the threat has progressed to the point of actual danger.
As young as 16 and as old as 73, almost half of the modern American assassins—those who attempt an attack on a public figure or are on the verge of an attack’s execution—complete some college or graduate education. One was a firefighter; two were college professors. One went to law school; another was a med student. (Practically the only profession not accounted for is journalism.) Before they indulged their assassination impulses they got married, had kids, took vacations. In other words, many of the attackers found some level of success and stability in their professional or personal lives. The closest thing to a constant red flag, indeed the only biographical detail that continually threads through the stories of those citizens who began to pursue assassination is feeling a sense of dread. Of life being so overwhelming that they can longer deal with it—a parent dies, a friend moves away, they get fired—rather common problems that suddenly become insurmountable.
In 1974, with Nixon in office, Samuel Byck, a Philadelphian, crafted what he called Operation Pandora’s Box. Byck recorded his action-movie assassination plot to a cassette tape: Hijack a commercial jet, shoot the pilot, steer the plane into the White House. He was 44 at the time, and his life had run into a dead end. He was 70 pounds overweight, divorced, and struggling to make a living selling auto tires. Nixon was the disease destroying the working class. Byck was crashing on the couch of a friend when he woke up and decided that today was going to be the day that he carried out Pandora’s Box. He drove down from Philly to the airport in Baltimore, parked his car, and bum-rushed the departure gate of a plane headed to Atlanta. After shooting his way past a security guard he made it into the plane’s cabin. But before Byck could commandeer the cockpit he was struck down by a pair of sniper bullets. Bleeding profusely as he lay on the plane floor he shot himself in the head with his handgun.
Right this moment the low Florida sun creeps in through a tear in the blackout curtains. I’m in a tiny room on the third floor of a budget hotel a water-gunshot from the Fort Lauderdale International Airport. If there are any Secret Service barbecues happening on the regular, it’s down here, where the Florida antifa movement is strong amongst a state population already teeming with the peculiar and restless. I’ve got a few hours to make my way north to the private airport in West Palm Beach. It’s going to be an afternoon rendezvous with the traveling Air Force One circus and Donald Trump himself.
I’m headed north on I-95 under screensaver storm clouds promising buckets of rain. Heavy winds shake the car until it squeals a discouraging rattle. Only in America could the threat of assassination be neutralized with Oscar Meyer wieners. And that’s why I’m pulling into the parking lot of a large West Palm Beach supermarket. I want to see if the Secret Service has been by to stock up. While I hunt for parking I notice a WPB sheriff cruiser come up from behind. I consider the possibility that the sheriff is keeping an eye on me, sent by the agency after they realized the same guy who’s been calling former agents for weeks is now in Trump’s immediate vicinity.
In the chip/cracker aisle, Allen, the store clerk, eyes me wearily when I politely but maybe too enthusiastically ask him if he’s seen any abnormal retail upticks in the last 24-48 hours. “Specifically buns, hamburger patties, pickles,” I say to him.
“Uh, no,” he tells me with the thinly veiled dismissiveness perfected by workers who must daily suffer the dregs of the public.
“Cool, cool,” I say. And his story checks out. All basic barbecue supplies are fully stocked; relish, ketchup, it’s all there, the circular meat disks in the open-air cooler. I pop over to the Home Depot next store and put the question to Shanelle in the outdoor-grill aisle. Sales? “Pretty normal,” she says.
Maybe she’s in on it, I think, an agent confederate helping to maintain cover. I ask her where she’d go, kind of nearby, not too far, if, say, I had a big group picnic where we wanted some privacy, to keep a low profile but still spread out. Like a pro, she tells me Royal Palm Park but she’s looking at me funny, real funny, and I start to get worried. I make a rapid exit telling her over my shoulder I’ll be back soon. The sheriff’s car is parked one row from my rental, the sheriff just hanging out in the driver seat trying to not look suspicious. I check the time and realize I’m going to miss the press check-in at the airport. I pull out of the parking lot as calmly as I can.
At the private airport, I squeeze my rental in between a glistening white Escalade and a glistening white Range Rover and then walk past a long line of sunglassed white people to find a gaggle of schlubby news cameramen and reporters getting the once over with a magnometer wand by the entrance to the tarmac. A very, very, very chipper White House staffer checks me off, hands me my press pass, and in we go.
The front of the group is escorted by Secret Service agents, and I’m in the rear where the escort’s a tanned and college kid in a crushed-velvet purple suit with patent leather trim and black leather shoes, no socks. He is clearly not law enforcement or White House. Or maybe he’s White House. I ask him if Trump is still on for his scheduled landing at 3:55 p.m. and he says with sharp confidence he’ll either be 10 minutes late or 10 minutes early, and then gives me and my reporter notebook a look in case I didn’t get the message.
Us press are locked into a fenced pit beside which stand two bright white staircases stretching up to the height of a door on a jet. There is no jet there, and the idea that Trump will soon exit Air Force One and descend those stairs fills me with anticipatory bliss.
Secret Service agents are everywhere —dark suits, dark sunglasses — flowing in and out of a big gray hangar a few hundred feet behind the press pit. There are a dozen or so press; they all look to be TV save for one photographer. They set up tripods and expensive-looking cameras. Two snipers with war-grade rifles set up on the roof of the hanger. The snipers look like action figures. They wear combat boots, full fatigues, and ammo packs strapped to their legs and torsos. Every four or five minutes a plane queues up to the runway and roars off into the sky, leaving in its wake a deafening silence.
The very chipper White House staffer is a young woman in a tapered khaki-colored trench coat cinched around her narrow waist; her blond hair is pulled back over her ears; her small white pearls match her perfect white teeth. She whispers to an older woman standing with her at the small opening in the press pit. The staffer informs us that this woman is our security chaperone, which seems like a dubious title if only on account of the already present hundred-plus armed law enforcement, and this woman is in stilettos and carrying a Louis Vuitton clutch.
“Don’t go anywhere, guys,” she says. “I’ve got my eye on you,” laughing manically.
The long line of white people is brought out onto the tarmac into another pit on the other side of the staircases. I realize the token escort and chaperone gig were given out to this group, who one of the press guys tells me are from a local Republican club. There are maybe 40 or 50 of them, in cocktail dresses and heels, blazers and crisp blue shirts open at the collar. The men have the same close-cropped haircuts, suggesting the handiwork of one barber kept on staff at the country club. They are all tan and radiate a palpable health and wellness. I count no fewer than four women wearing sweaters tied over shoulders, two of whom also sport red Make America Great Again caps with ponytails pulled through the back opening.
One woman in a MAGA hat poses for a photo with two children in white oxford shirts and Brooks Brothers ties. The woman bends down to fix the younger boy’s tie. She says something to him and points over to us in the press pit. She sees me see them and I’m almost positive she says, “See what I mean?”
Underneath his little-boy blonde bowl cut his face registers a look of unrestrained disgust and loathing, like he just drank spoiled milk. But something about us fascinates him. He keeps staring while the woman steps away to air kiss another woman who just arrived. The little boy can’t stop looking at us in the press pit while he establishes fresh neural pathways in his brain between right and wrong, us versus them.
In our pen, a neatly dressed man with a baby face speaks into the local CBS camera for a live hit. He gestures to the tarmac with a magician’s wave. They cut, and the young anchor repeats the same info into his phone, which he holds up with his navy blazer arm at full extension. His speech is now more conversational, Television Happy Hour, him and his live-video pals. The winds pick up and his hair remains perfectly spiked at a 45-degree angle from his forehead. “…Hey guys! Here’s the behind the scenes at President Trump’s terminal…”
Young men in fatigues appear at the gate, part of the welcoming committee. Although they remain silent and barely move, the military boys get the Republicans excited. Hoots and laughter rise up from their pit. It starts to drizzle, and a soldier wipes off the brass handle of the presidential stairs with a stack of white napkins.
Suddenly the security presence multiplies by a factor of three. Back behind us, the snipers are lower on the roof and monitoring by binocular. Above the snipers, a helicopter starts doing short laps side to side like a tiger pacing the bars of his cage. The sound of the helicopter is invasive. Pairs of law enforcement sprawl across the tarmac. One of the WPB sheriffs has a dog that looks programmed to inflict mortal neck wounds at the crisp shout of a command in German.
You hear Air Force One before you see it. It’s closer than you think. It’s massive and loud. A palace on wheels. The Republican pen goes buzzer-beater wild. Men cup their hands over their mouths shouting furtively against the machine roar of the jet as it touches rubber to tarmac and rolls down the runway. It gets louder when it circles back. The one near engine is fired to propel it in a curve. It eases to a stop 50 to 60 feet away. The engine is ten feet tall, maybe bigger. I’m fairly certain everyone is going to walk away with irreparable inner-ear damage. The entire scene is an expression of the strength of the presidential machine, and to be in its presence is stupefying. To the right kind of mind, this can all look like a strong predator flexing over territory. It’s the inverse to the barbecue, a fortified expression of political might. It would seem logical to conclude something this powerful is your natural enemy.
Air Force One taxis up to one of the stairs, and a kid soldier wind sprints out with yellow brake shoes he jams under the rubber tires. The second stairs are wheeled by the soldiers to the door in the back of the jet and the onboard press pool and White House staff quickly descend, hustling to get out of the spotlight before the man of the house makes his entrance. The jet’s thick cabin door is opened from the inside. Then a figure appears: Trump Orange. He’s taller than I thought and also significantly more fat. Even under his roomy suit, you can see his pulpy chest mounds, which look like grapefruit halves that have been kneaded under a dish towel. He waves to the Republican pen already going apeshit. Trump half-smiles, then offers a thumbs up, then claps hello. It seems that he’s malfunctioning, unable to decide upon just one opening gesture. Wireless command fixes the glitch and he stops with the thumbs and clapping before slowly stepping down the stairs. His high-sheen red Trump tie flaps violently in the rough wind, like a fish stuck on the floor of a boat.
Halfway down the stairs, he pauses and I remember the rumor circulating after Prime Minister Theresa May visited the White House, that Trump had a fear of descending both ramps and stairs. As he gets to the bottom of the stairs I notice that his skin is an abnormal color, particularly around his neck and chin. There’s a curious texture to his face, like a skinned bird, and the color is a blotchy pale orange, which brings to mind an orange popsicle melting on a hot summer sidewalk.
He gets to the motorcade, and an agent swiftly opens the door. He turns away from the press cameras and waves again at the high-octane supporters, who keep yelling louder and louder in the hopes that he’ll come shake their hands. As he gets into the car Jared and Ivanka appear at the top of the steps with their three young children. They reinvigorate the crowd temporarily deflated by Trump’s lack of human contact. There’s a photo-altered quality to Jared and Ivanka’s comportment. The three kids walk down the stairs oblivious and carefree. Their parents smile so hard it hurts my cheeks. They don’t radiate calm but rather a strained effort to appear calm-esque. It’s as if they’ve studied every YouTube video of first families arriving at an airport and added up all the body language before dividing by a thousand. A couple of retouched pixels and you’d think you’re looking at natural human expression.
The motorcade speeds off along a route a Secret Service jump team would have mapped out days ago. The press pack up. The men in the Republican pit shake hands like they just finished a round of golf. The woman air-smooch each other goodbye.
I head back to my hotel outside of town and hear online the local antifa contingent will be protesting the big-ticket fundraising dinner tonight at the Four Seasons. Trump will be there with his freshly appointed AG, Jeff Sessions, chatting up donations. I wash up and eat a dinner of snack bars. I think I’ll head over to the Four Seasons and meet up with the protesters. It’s possible one or two of them have been to a barbecue.
I walk from a motel parking lot and down the street toward the illuminated entrance to the Four Seasons. Parked along the shoulder are the news vans that each came screeching in at different angles, tire marks behind them. I see a camera and on-air talent interviewing some young poster-holders. I find a tattooed man in a cut-off T-shirt holding a two-sided poster: “Muslims / Refugees Welcome” on one side; “Orwell Writhes in His Grave” on the other. He’s in his late 40s and tells me his name is John Pope. He says he doesn’t usually talk to media but these days he’ll do whatever it takes.
Two older woman wearing sandwich-board signs with the number 45 crossed out wave to Pope and say goodnight. I ask him if there has been more unrest, a more aggressive resistance in this area with Trump making so many trips to town. He says he’s been fighting hate and Nazis for at least a decade down here, but now it’s getting bad. People getting punched, people getting stabbed. I’m about to ask him if anyone in his circle has been picked up by the Secret Service when we’re interrupted by a cranked-up pickup truck, the exhaust modified for maximum mechanical flatulence.
The driver slams on his breaks and yells out at Pope, “Go home! Get a life!”
The truck speeds off, does a U-turn, and comes back toward us, a huge TRUMP flag waving off a pole in the bed of the truck. The driver shouts, “You’re a drain on society!”
Pope yells back, “You know what’s a drain on society!? Oligarchs!”
With can-you-believe-this-guy eyebrows, Pope turns to me. “I see working-class people going to war with working-class people, and it just blows my mind.”
The truck comes and goes every few minutes, and we ignore it while we talk about him and his friends in the Florida resistance. A woman in her late 40s comes up to us and Pope uses his protest sign to block the wind so she can light her cigarette. She’s in town for business, she says. She works in “nuclear sales.” The tension between her and Pope is immediate. She’s polite, a little tipsy. The two of them start to go back and forth about the purpose of protesting. Pope talks about military bases and the inevitable collapse of the American educational system. “Nuclear sales” tells him that she makes more than any man in her company and she doesn’t understand the point of the recent Women’s March. They don’t discuss as much as alternate personal talking points. I’m exhausted and realize I won’t outlast the exchange. I tell Pope I’ll see him at the protest that’s scheduled for tomorrow, an organized affair meant to undercut the Trump-supporter events happening in cities around the nation. He says it’ll be him with the others, ready for a fight.
It’s a beautiful day, sunny, breezy, the wind wrinkling the palm-tree fronds. Against the sky the sun is bright like a struck match-head. There’s a long drawbridge that drops down into a road with sandy parking lots on either side along the water. It runs into a heavily guarded traffic circle, where a barricade and tent serve as a checkpoint that separates the general public from the entrance to Mar-a-Lago.
Some former agents have told me how they take their respective threatening individuals to a restaurant; an executive at a cybersecurity firm told me how a colleague of his, a former Secret Service agent, took one guy to games at Yankee Stadium when the president came to town. But with Trump down here so often I can almost smell the hot dogs on the barbecue grill. Right now, somewhere nearby, I suspect there’s a group of desperate Americans coming together to lessen the feeling of being powerless and alone.
The March-4-Trump is set to begin just down the street from the traffic circle, with the protesters planning to come from the other side to confront them somewhere in the middle.
When I get there the protesters are already gathered at the foot of the bridge, 20 of them so far, holding posters and megaphones. They wear denim and black. A girl in a black tank top and aviator sunglasses warms up with a couple of protester scales, running from chants of “Free Palestine!” to the more guttural “Down with hate!”
I don’t see John Pope yet so I start over the bridge and take in the gorgeous blue water, the palm trees, and lush seaside foliage. The music is loud and the vibe is festive.
It’s supposed to be a march but no one’s going anywhere. Everyone’s dancing, smiling to each other. There’s a mobile Jumbotron on a truck rig flashing a 10-foot image of Trump with pulsating ribbons of red, white, and blue rotating hypnotically around him. There are probably a hundred people waving posters, taking photos, swaying to the nostalgic sounds of Steve and Edie blasting from the PA speakers beside the Jumbotron.
“You’re looking in someone’s eyes/you suddenly realize/that this could be the start of something big!”
Along the road, they hold up the signs to passing cars. A man lifts an Obama face superimposed onto the face of a crying baby. Underneath, in big letters, the crying baby says, “My Legacy.” The passenger of a gold Lexus SUV sticks her arm out the window to get a selfie with the signs and crowd behind her. The sign-holders cheer her long after she drives away.
Near the Jumbotron is a 29-foot four-wheel custom vehicle glistening in chrome and welded tchotchkes. On the windshield there’s a welded chrome angel; below sits a Donald doll soldered to a bar of polished chrome. On every non-tchotchked surface, there are Trump/Pence red, white, and blue posters cut to size. A short plump man hovers around the car in a possessive manner. He tells me it’s the Trump-Mobile. Is it his?
“Nah, nah. It belongs to this Finland guy,big-time guy. His car, yeah, it’s his car, but I manage it, take it out for gigs, on the road, it’s a hit every time, total hit.” He produces a business card out of thin air, like magic. “Yeah, I was Trump’s DJ in Atlantic City, did his 50th birthday party, totally wild.”
The card reads: “DJ RONN ROYCE Performed as Disc Jockey & Master of Ceremonies for 4,000 Guests at DONALD TRUMP’S Spectacular 50th Birthday Celebration at The TRUMP TAJ MAHAL’s Etess Arena In Atlantic, City NJ.”
He ducks behind the Jumbotron and switches up the music to a tune from the emerging genre of Trump Propaganda. This one features a Latin dance beat and a smooth male vocalist.
“I want to be rich, I want a shiny car so that I can cruise / I want to dress elegant like Trump the man / I want to fly a helicopter to Japan / I want to ride jets like Mr. Trump’s so that no one in the world can treat me like a punk / And since I know that Don’s the man, he’s the only one that’s going to make us great again!”
I see more than a few men swing hips with their female companions. The men and women are mainly in their 40s and 50s but plenty of younger supporters in fashionable clothing mill about. Faint lines from a week of dress socks can be seen on the pale calves of the men who now wear golf shorts and casual footwear.
“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! The snowflakes here have to go! Hey, hey! Ho, ho!”
I realize those chants are now directed at the protesters who have crossed the bridge and set up shop with their signs on the other side of the street. A 50-something woman comes to the mic. She’s in a white tennis skirt, tennis shirt, and white tennis visor. Across her front, she wears a sash that says TRUMPETTE in the style of the Miss America competition. This woman has the presence of a leader. She yells, and the crowd listens.
“All right, I need all my Trump supporters right here, right here by this truck.” She starts motioning for everyone to come forward. They do.
“Trump supporters, come here by this truck! Those people came over to try to keep us down, and now the Associated Press is across the street. We’ll come on down here and we’ll show them who we are. They won’t block us, they won’t stop us! The officer will tell you where the line is and you just go right up to the line. And get your signs up! They will not stop us! They will not cover us up! The Associated Press is across the street, and we’re going to show them who we are and why we’re here! Now hold those signs up high!”
A dozen of the supporters, then another dozen, then another dozen come over from the other end of the parking lot to face the protesters. They form a thick wall.
A man with a megaphone starts to shout, “Kick them out! Kick them out!”
In a flash, the TRUMPETTE is on him. She gets right in front of him. “No! No! NO!” she bellows. “They can be wherever they want to be.”
People start to take notice of the scene. The TRUMPETTE capitalizes and yells, “Fake news! This guy is fake news!” She points right in his face. He backs off and while he hangs around suffering his scolding she comes up close and says quietly, “Look, if you want to help, go bring more people down here.”
Up and down Trump’s side the crowd chants “USA! USA! USA!”
The TRUMPETTE goes back to the microphone. Behind her is Trump’s face ten feet tall on the Jumbotron, red, white, and blue pulsing brightly.
“We are here and we’re not going away!” says the TRUMPETTE. “We won, and they lost and they can get over it. And you know what, they’re not going to cover us up any—“her mic picks up some feedback. The crowd jumps in to chant, “USA! USA! USA!”
Across the street, a young woman in a black T-shirt and tattoos up and down her arm fires up her big Air Phone 3600 MAX megaphone. “No Donald Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” Her voice fills the parking lot for the first time, louder and more aggressive than the TRUMPETTE’s.
“Stay behind that white line there with the officers,” the TRUMPETTE says.
The supporters, louder now: “USA! USA! USA!”
Megaphone: “No Donald Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!”
The TRUMPETTE: “Get your signs up! They will not stop us! Show them we’re here!”
A charter bus pulls up to the march-not-a-march side and 50 more red shirts pour out in MAGA hats with TRUMP/PENCE signs. They practically dance out of the bus like it’s Mardi Gras, or spring break, or the greatest party on earth where only the winners are invited. They fill the not-march side and pick up the chants. “USA! USA!”
Rolling Stones blast out of the PA speakers. “You can’t always get what you want / you can’t always get what you want.” A different TRUMPETTE with the same sash gets on her own megaphone and yells over the music. “My fellow citizens of America, we are not the Democrats, we are free Christian Americans who put Donald Trump in office, and if you don’t like it, you can head for Syria. Seriously, get on a plane and head for Syria!”
“And if we don’t have a border we don’t have a country!”
The crowd yells, “Build the wall! Build the wall!”
At the other end of the parking lot, an old military flatbed truck separates the lot from a long grassy strip with a small rocky beach. Another hundred supporters are here, some eating picnic lunches, lounging in the sun, drinking from coolers on this warm, perfect afternoon. Kids run about with white swipes of sun-lotion on their noses and kid-sized TRUMP/PENCE posters in their hands.
The military truck is owned by the manager of a local bait-and-tackle shop. He’s smoking a thin flavored cigar. His hair is combed back and heavily gelled. On the bed of a truck, a DJ plays a mumbo song with Trumpian lyrics. “Mr. Trump you’ve got to build that wall / you’ve got to make it big / you’ve got to make it tall!”
Behind the truck, an enterprising young man with a flimsy card table is selling foot-tall King Trump superhero statues, a large-wing version of Trump with thick armor, a Republican elephant-head staff, and gold painted hair underneath a giant spiked crown. Going rate is a hundred bucks but I divine a willingness on the artist’s part to negotiate a deal.
Suddenly the air is filled with unrestrained shrieks and cries. The grass lot empties. The motorcade is here, on its way back from a nearby golf course.
Agents leap from the cars and flank the street. They frown more than usual as they sweep their heads back and forth looking for suspicious activity. They’re overwhelmed by the surprise of being in front of a crowd that hasn’t been screened. It’s 200 red-shirted undulating, bouncing, ecstatic sign holders going bonkers for Trump, who pokes his head out of the car and stands behind the hood.
He’s in a red MAGA hat and a white golf shirt. He smiles, then waves. Will he come to the fans? Touch them just once? They shout and writhe, they can’t believe this is happening. Now only 15 feet away, he looks unwell. There’s something wooden in his posture and his skin has a plastic sheen to it, like a package wrapper reflecting a supermarket’s bright fluorescents.
He usually does well with his people but he’s ill at ease here, lacking that tour-bus-operator charm he readily deploys at bigger gatherings. When he turns his head the bright sun flashes through his hair, which pokes out his hat. Like the color of straw, it could be the exposed stuffing of an overfilled scarecrow. He doesn’t need to come over. He just has to wave and say thank you.
The crowd replies with a sonorous chant. “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
Then in a blink of an eye, the motorcade is gone. Those in the crowd who were closest to him revel in the encounter. A young boy drops to his knees. A woman starts to cry. Two strangers shout hysterically and then embrace. A woman of 50 throws her arms up and yells, “Thank you, Lord almighty!”
Back up the road by the Jumbotron, the motorcade has galvanized both sides. A bizarre ritual takes place. Supporters run across the road to pick fights. Not physical but rather heated debates. Three minutes, four minutes at a time. I head over to the protesters and find John Pope. He’s in a sleeveless black T-shirt and a flipped-around IMPEACH CHENEY hat bleached white by the Florida sun. There’s a tattoo of a fist exploding out of the words RESIST on his muscular shoulder. He’s having a not-so-polite conversation with two women in MAGA hats who came over to try to collect a protester scalp.
Pope is as good a lead down here as any into the resistance scene, but watching him square off with the supporters leaves me sad and dejected. It’s 15 minutes of waving protest signs in each other’s faces. On not one or two topics but every topic, every lifestyle issue, every facet of our shared national existence. Urban crime, urban rents, rural jobs, guns in school, legal abortion, marriage equality, Muslims in America, health care, military spending, campaign contributions, Israel. America at home, America abroad. I watch all of who we are and what we do being sucked up by the giant apparatus of this burgeoning divide. Moderation is gone, mutual interest eradicated. It’s only one side and the other. Such simplicity of thought offers a way to quell unease about our lack of control, our inability to put back together the pieces of something shattered. This is us now all at the barbecue, the threat to the American project, sipping iced tea while we chat about how great it’d be to lock her up or knock him off.
I’m drawn back to the side of the Jumbotron, the pulsating image of Trump has become oddly comforting and hypnotic. An older woman comes back from her encounter with the other side. Her male companion heaps praise. “That other guy with her, he had no idea what you were talking about! You destroyed him! The girl, she was very intimidated by you! She was scared. And that guy, just clueless. It takes a while for my juices to get going. But you got right in there, right out of the gate, just right up in her face. Incredible! You were incredible!”
The man wears skinny white jeans, a blue polo shirt, and Porsche racing hat. He opens up his fanny pack and hands her a half-sized water bottle like he’s in her pit crew. “Your presence was very intoxicating to watch. She was in total shock, plain and simple.”
A few feet over a young woman wears a MAGA hat with a blonde ponytail and a thick medical-grade back brace. She taps on her male companion’s arm until he looks up from his phone. She points over to the protesters. “That guy is holding the flag upside down.” Which he was, the college kid across the street. “We have to go kick his ass!” A thick band of supporters wrap around the protesters. The two dozen cops who had been enjoying the babysitting gig now have to intervene. A scuffle breaks out and the blended groups are separated, the cops backing the supporters off so that the protesters can take their tiny space by the road. The young woman in the black shirt resumes her megaphone chant, now louder, her voice crystal clear as it rings out in the air.
“No Donald Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!”
A man in his late thirties appears in grey gym shorts, a blue dry-wick T-shirt, and wrap-around sunglasses. Despite the gym clothes, he’s slightly puffy, with a beer gut. He flicks the guy standing beside him to get his attention and then walks up to the megaphone girl. He’s 8 or 9 inches taller than she is and gets as close as he can without making full body contact. He arches his chin down, bends slightly at the knees, and screams, “USA! USA!”
He is vibrating, his hands visibly shaking. Foamy spittle flies from the corners of his mouth into her hair. She is unmoved and restrained, not reacting while she waits for him to run out of steam. He keeps going, louder now, a vein popping to the surface of his forehead. He moves in, not half an inch from the back of her head, hovering, one large body convulsing, “USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!”
Finally, he is done.
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