Earlier in the day, a forlorn Ron Wheatbrook, his red Trump hat soaked with rain, sat on a bench staring at a chain-link fence, far from the stage where the president would speak. He couldn’t snag a ticket. He tried and failed to find one online. “I see people going in,” Wheatbrook, 58, who hauls steel for a living back home in Indiana, told me in an interview. “Who are these people, and where did they get their tickets? I’m a Trump supporter. I voted for Trump. And now I can’t get on the other side of that fence.”
A Mall celebration that is normally “come one, come all” was split into haves and have-nots, as the choicest spots to watch Trump’s speech were off-limits to anyone without a VIP ticket. Scoring one depended on who you were and whom you knew: Distribution was controlled by the White House, the Trump reelection campaign, and the Republican National Committee.
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When I stepped onto the Mall at the Smithsonian Metro stop yesterday afternoon, the first thing I saw was a National Park Service volunteer showing a map to a group of tourists. He pointed to the real estate nearest to the Lincoln Memorial, the backdrop for Trump’s address. “If you’re a major RNC donor, you go here,” he said, smiling. As I entered that VIP section from Constitution Avenue a few hours later with my press pass, I asked a young woman how she got her ticket. “I work at the White House,” she told me.
The Resistance was on the case, clustered farther east on the Mall, near the World War II Memorial. A mechanical statue of a speaking, flatulating Trump was the rallying point. Sitting on a toilet, phone in hand, the Trump statue would periodically blurt out a few familiar phrases: “You are fake news” … “I’m a very stable genius” … “No collusion!” Organizers had hoped to loft into the air the “Trump baby balloon”—a rotund Trump wearing a diaper—but told me they couldn’t get a permit for helium.
After singing with protesters, Roland Gutierrez, 56, headed home before Trump spoke. He said he was a Navy veteran who suffered from PTSD and told me the vibe from Trump supporters made him anxious. “A lot of hate,” he said. “I don’t like to be around hate. I’m not a hater. Every single person has value, even the ones wearing the MAGA hats.”
Selling MAGA hats for $20 apiece was John Lang, standing beneath a canopy of trees that partially shielded people from a steady rain. Lang had driven nine hours from Lexington, Kentucky, to come to the Mall. Seeing his hats, a few people gave him a sideways look, he told me, but nothing abusive. “We’re starting to speak up,” he said of Trump voters, “instead of sitting back and taking it. We were feeling like we didn’t have a voice anymore. That’s why we’re behind this guy.” He said he’ll vote for Trump for reelection and “maybe in 2024!” Trump’s critics fear he won’t leave office if he’s defeated next year, or even at the end of a second term, should he win. Trump himself has been nourishing that constitutional nightmare, teasing that he’ll stay president in perpetuity.