MANHATTAN—“So what commie rag are you writing for?” jokes John Mcteague, a wiry middle-aged New Yorker whom I meet after I overhear him talking to his friend about how to get to the anti-Trump rally. He identifies himself to me as a full-time legal marijuana activist and sucks on his vape as we head west. A few blocks away on the Hudson River, in his first post-inauguration return home, President Donald Trump will soon board the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum aircraft carrier for a 7 p.m. black tie dinner with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, just hours after he congratulated the House of Representatives for voting through the Republican-led American Health Care Act. To the disappointment of protesters, he’d cancelled plans to swing by Trump Tower which has been barricaded with bomb-proofing dump trucks. Later, he plans to spend the weekend on a Trump golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey (a typically Republican district which voted for Clinton in the 2016 election).
Mcteague and his friend and I walk together as though resigned to a ritually mediocre music festival we’ve been to many times before. On the west side of 10th Avenue, the costumes emerge: a gas mask, American flags, anti-Trump versions of Princess Leia. It’s National Star Wars Day, but the fight against the Dark Side has been a running motif at Trump protests. An older woman named Diane with lots of buttons had come from New Jersey for this and has been making the rounds at the major marches.
The police have barricaded off 46th Street which leads to the Intrepid on the West Side Highway, but it’s easy to go around via 42nd Street, and they’re not trying particularly hard to prevent people from getting there. The NYPD estimates that it costs the city around $308,000 per day to protect Trump Tower alone on presidential visits. (Security for Trump Tower on election and inauguration days alone has already cost the city $25.7 million, twice the amount that the mayor allotted in the preliminary budget to install bullet-proof windows in every police car.) The police, bike cops, and secret service, who stand on corners and line up the stretch of three blocks across from the Intrepid look bored, hands in their pockets, talking and occasionally laughing at the more flamboyant protesters.
About 20 journalists swarm a group of about 40 red-striped Trump supporters in a small half-block barricade. They spar with the much larger anti-Trump barricade which has been placed beyond spitting distance apart. The Anti-Trump zone, which stretches along the highway from 43rd to the end of 45th Street, is characterized by pussy hats, ANTIFA signs, drums, tambourines, whistles, and some creative photoshopping of Trump and butts and poop. Dozens of men circle the perimeter with press badges and cameras. Everybody’s watching for the convoy, and a wave of boos, waving of flags, and cheers erupt every time a group of black SUVs drive by.
There was a range of people in the Trump area, from unkempt guys with sticky hands to a chic woman in a white linen pantsuit. A man in an orange “Chinese Americans Love Trump” T-shirt has styled a red yarmulke with an image of Donald Trump in the Oval Office. He’d come to show the range of Trump supporter backgrounds, which exists: a black educator for disabled children, a Brazilian immigrant (“legal” is stressed), a white Brooklyn artist who’s fed up with pro-Muslim anti-white patriarchy sentiments and came because it’s “liberalville” around here. I recognize a handful of the same diehards I’d seen outside Trump Tower throughout late October: the middle aged white man who shouts “U-S-A! U-S-A! We’re gonna frack-frack-frack all day!” The platinum blonde woman who waves an American flag and sings “We are the Champions” at the ANTIFA crowd in anti-Trump barricade. A short elderly black man with wide eyes grabs my arm to tell me, “The prodigal son has come home.” A bro tells a passing anti-fascist kid to wrap his face in a plastic Home Depot bag rather than a bandana. An opposition group forms near the perimeter and shouts about healthcare, and there’s a back-and-forth in which a man in his thirties wraps a flag around his head like a hijab and says “Look, I’m enjoying my feminism!” The police are amused. It’s the same old.
Trump’s celebrity is also a draw. A 17-year-old Hasidic Flatbush kid Amos Sivan tells me that he and his buddies just come to see the president. “He became president of the United States, that’s a very big accomplishment,” he observes. “I probably won’t get a chance to see him now.”
Sivan admires Trump’s “psychological tricks.”
“If he has an argument, he’s going to decide what the argument is about, and the other person has to defend themself [sic] from that,” he says. “Fake news? Where did that come from? Now everybody’s defending themselves from fake news.”
But the anti-Trump crowds drown out the fans with slogans like “No ban, no wall!” and banging on tupperware bins. After the election last year, a block of condos about twenty blocks north had removed the gold letters spelling “TRUMP” from an old licensing deal, without much protest. People say “fuck that fascist” in chants and signs and casual conversation.
The sun sets, and the lights glow from the Intrepid’s tower. The northbound side of the highway reopens and fills with school buses and taxis.
The opposition crowd thins, and an older woman and a man who looks like her son, both wearing earplugs, stare at nothing. Newscasters eat take-out in news vans. A leftover election huckster sells anti-Trump buttons for two or three dollars each, with more expensive images of Michelle Obama. I ask a female NYPD officer who’s been standing around for hours if she can talk, which, of course, she refuses. But I still remark that it costs a lot of money to stand around. She nods and laughs.
The anti-Trump area goes quiet, and it becomes clear that a sighting isn’t going to happen. Janet Broughton, a young Midwesterner wearing an “I’m with Planned Parenthood” sticker, looks tired. “He’s disconnected from the people,” she observes. “We’re here, and he probably won’t hear us.”
“It feels so offensive,” she adds. She is a sexual assault survivor and was devastated that the people felt that people could put their faith in a man who brags about sexual assault. “Having gone to college and worked my whole life and to have my personhood denied–that’s how it feels.”
She and a friend look tired. “He’s disconnected from the people,” she observes. “We’re here, and he probably won’t hear us.”
And yet, whether it’s going to hell or not, everyone I speak with on either side of the barricades still professes to love this country. “America is great because the law works,” says an immigrant software developer who refuses to share his birthplace because it doesn’t matter; he’s a citizen. He claims to be a Wall Street whistleblower and says that he was able to do that because he was sure that America’s legal apparatus would protect him from getting shot. That’s something.
Whitney Kimball is a freelance writer covering fringe politics and culture from New York City.