We beat on, boats against the libs, borne ceaselessly into the future. Photo: Joseph Prezioso / AFP.
Artillery Row

The buoyed spirits of Boaters for Trump

A day on the high seas with an armada of Donald Trump supporters

INDIAN RIVER, DELAWARE

“Awesome. Just awesome,” Dell says as the anchor of Blue Bye U, his 30-foot fishing boat, hits the bottom of Indian River, a body of water in Delaware protected from the Atlantic Ocean by a barrier beach. As we bob near a sandbar and other boats park alongside us, his face is a picture of “mission accomplished” contentment.

Depending on who you ask, Dell has either just pulled off an innovative exercise in waterborne democracy, or led an absurd and irresponsible demonstration of mindless political fandom. Either way, he is a participant in one of the few instances of in-person campaigning in 2020’s pandemic-hit presidential race.

The coronavirus might have stopped Donald Trump from holding the raucous rallies from which he drew so much energy on the campaign trail in 2016 but it hasn’t stopped the Boaters for Trump. One exception to the almost entirely virtual 2020 campaign trail are pro-Trump boat parades that have popped up across the country— events at which boat owners crowd America’s waterways from the Florida Keys to the Great Lakes to express their support for the President.

The feeling is mutual: Trump’s “beautiful boaters” appear to serve both as a welcome distraction from the President’s dire poll numbers and as a physical manifestation of the silent majority that he says will deliver him four more years in the White House. “Nobody has seen anything like it ever,” he has said of the parades. They are one of the few things he can point to when asked about his re-election chances. In a recent White House press briefing, Trump said he thinks there is “more enthusiasm for 2020 than there was even for 2016” citing “thousands of boats in lakes, rivers and oceans, thousands and thousands.”

The event in Indian River draws Trump supporters from across the Delmarva peninsula, which separates the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic and is shared by three states, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. As the boats gather at the agreed starting point, Dell — my ride for the day and captain of the pilot vessel designated to lead the parade — seems genuinely surprised by the turnout. “All of Delaware is here,” he exclaims to a friend over his boat’s radio.

The official count is just over 300 vessels, and it’s an eclectic flotilla — sleek fishing boats, squat pontoon cruisers, unstable-looking camouflaged duck-hunting watercraft, jet skis with racing stripes. They are all decked out in MAGA regalia, with everyone flying at least one Trump flag. The campaign-approved “Trump 2020: Keep America Great!” is the most popular choice, though “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit!” is a close second. One boater has stencilled the President’s name in large white lettering on the side of his dark blue speedboat. Above another boat, a banner depicting Trump as Rambo flaps in the wind, the President’s head photoshopped onto the bulging body of Sylvester Stallone.

Blue Bye U is sailing under four flags: “Trump 2020”, a pink “Women for Trump” banner, the stars and stripes and a pro-police “thin blue line” reworking of the American flag. The other piece of MAGA merch on board is around Dell’s wife Stacey’s waist: an inflatable Trump float with protruding thumbs-up hands and a cartoonish rendering of POTUS’s face. Stacey swings her hips from side to side, showing off “Uncle Donald” to the other boats.

When an airhorn sounds to mark the start of the parade, the opening snare drum of “America, The Beautiful” bursts from the speakers of the boats. (A local conservative radio station has lent some pageantry to proceedings by broadcasting “twenty minutes of patriotic music”.)

As Dell leads the procession around the estuary, and supporters on dry land cheer and clap in support, clips from Trump speeches play over the top of a playlist of military anthems and jingoistic country and rock classics.

The result is a gaudy, unsubtle expression American patriotism. It is identifiably Republican and most definitely Trumpy but, for what is supposed to be a campaign event, oddly apolitical. The rhetorical highlight reel chosen by the station is largely free from specifics about 2020. Instead, it is heavy on Trump slogans that, like the lyrics to your favourite band’s greatest hits, you long ago stopped considering the meaning of. The lines that standout are political aphorisms packaged in the empowering, self-affirming style of self-help writing.

You’re going to remember this time, and you’re going to remember it as when America became great again.

A jet skier bombs past us before circling back and bouncing against the waves, one hand on the handlebars, one hand holding an American flag above his head. The boaters whoop and honk in approval.

If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. If you want peace, love your nation.

It’s a far cry from the bitter tone of the national conversation — a tone that Trump himself has done more than anyone else to create. And it is a reminder that the same president capable of whipping up his supporters with racially-charged promises to “protect the suburbs” and calls for non-white congresswomen to “go back to where they came from” also has an under-appreciated talent for making his people feel good — about themselves and about their country.

This isn’t a campaign event. It’s a party

Trump may be a man of few fixed beliefs or deeply held convictions, but he is a longstanding disciple of Norman Vincent Peale, the author of the midcentury bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale, who officiated at the President’s first wedding, was an evangelist for an individual’s ability to will themselves to success. His mantras are there in the way Trump talks about himself, in the way he sold luxury flats and in the way he dreams political realities then wills them into being. In the midst of pandemic and recession, and with the Democratic Party issuing grim prognoses about America’s future, permission to think positive thoughts can be politically potent.

By the end of the parade, the mood is boisterous. The boats pull up next to one another for a low-tide after-party at a sandbar in the middle of the estuary. It’s 11AM on a blustery Saturday in the middle of a pandemic, but that doesn’t stop the boaters, many of whom are soon waist-deep in water, clinking beers and congratulating one another on their public display of admiration for DJT. Suddenly, the soundtrack is less “Battle Hymn of the Republic” more Spring Break: poppy hip hop, EDM and upbeat country.

This isn’t a campaign event. It’s a party.

A boat called Fish ’n’ Chicks anchors alongside us. Rob Arlett, a Republican politician who failed to take one of Delaware’s US Senate seats from Democratic incumbent Tom Carper in 2018, is aboard. This year he is the Trump campaign’s state chairman. Tanned, with a Cheshire-cat grin and fond of a thumbs up, Arlett is one of the many mini-Trumps who have popped up in Republican politics since 2016. 

“It’s not a rally. It’s an anti-Biden peaceful protest,” he jokes, lampooning those who dropped their insistence on social-distancing when it came to the demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd.

This being Joe Biden’s home state, I ask Arlett about the Democratic nominee. “We know Biden best,” he tells me, before rattling off a familiar rap sheet: the charges of phoniness, corruption and senility that have formed the GOP line of attack since the start of the primaries.

But no one, Arlett included, seems especially interested in talking about politics. Shortly after our conversation he wades over to a crowd of twenty-somethings, does a shot and pumps his fists in the air.

When I ask about the election, the boaters I speak to say they are worried about the radical left, and calls to defund the police. “It’s scary what is happening out there,” says one before returning to the party. “I wouldn’t trust voting by mail,” says another in a vague tone before swinging his beer, suggesting that he hasn’t thought especially hard about it.

Of Trump’s chances of victory, the boaters were more optimistic than the polls, but not delusionally so. One told me he thought the predictions of defeat were wrong four years ago and might be wrong again. Another reminded me never to count Trump out. A third feared defeat, but explained how unlucky Trump had been for the “Chinese virus” to arrive in an election year.

Did they think Trump was perfect? “Of course not!”

What do the boaters and their parade prove? Contrary to Trump’s assertions, I don’t think they demonstrate anything especially useful about a vast silent majority or a fired up base delivering him to re-election.

Instead, they are a rebuttal to the myths we have told ourselves about Trump support: in the majority of cases, it doesn’t involve a romanticised forgotten man, robbed of their livelihood by globalisation, or a sinister tiki-torch carrying white supremacist in chinos; or a Q Anon keyboard warrior.

The truth is generally more banal, and in the case of Trump support, the archetypal Boater for Trump — a member of the white petite bourgeoisie whose love of America is uncomplicated, who isn’t especially interested in the racial reckoning they are told their country is going through, who hates political correctness and its peddlers, and whose priority on a Saturday in August is to enjoy themselves on the water, not answer questions about politics — might be more representative.

The Indian River boat parade was plainly absurd and fundamentally unserious. But then that was something its participants seemed to realise. There’s political power in permission to have fun. And it was the most fun I’d seen anyone have in five months.

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