MANHEIM, Pa.—We are gathered here in a place called Spooky Nook Sports, which is an actual place called Spooky Nook Sports, and which evidently maintains its “spooky” modifier even in months that are not October. It is a recreation center that on this rainy Wednesday night has been mostly closed, leaving the arcade in front deserted and dark. In the cavernous space, all is silent save for one small room upstairs, where a hundred or so people, outfitted in bright-orange hats with jack-o’-lantern faces and the words Keep America Great, are singing “Happy Birthday” to one Ivanka Trump.
According to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, however, this is not the scene that should haunt you. Rather, as the former White House official Mercedes Schlapp would go on to explain, you should fear “the Democrat nightmare that we’re living in.”
“It is very clear that the Democrats are out to threaten our family, threaten our faith, and threaten our country,” Schlapp, standing on a makeshift stage flanked by two inflatable green witches, warns the room. “They’re going after our families. They want to get rid of the Trump tax cuts. They want to take away private health insurance. They want to make sure that our electricity bills skyrocket because of this great big Green New Deal they’re pushing.”
“They want”—and Schlapp cannot stress this enough—“ultimate control.”
Schlapp and her husband, Matt, who is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, are here in rural Pennsylvania to headline the Trump campaign’s “Halloween Witch Hunt Party.” Joining them are the pro-Trump video bloggers Diamond and Silk, who are dressed in judges’ robes, with Silk carrying a gavel and block to bang at random intervals. (The Schlapps, for their part, have attended the costume party as themselves, and poll the crowd on what they should dress up as the next night. “How about I’m Peter Strzok,” Matt says, “and”—he points to his wife—“Lisa Page?” The crowd cackles. “Or,” he continues, “how about I’m Hunter Biden?” Mercedes then vamps for the room: “And I’m the Ukrainian model.”)
The Trump campaign, which won Pennsylvania in 2016, has identified the swing state as key to its reelection efforts. Yet the purpose of this gathering is unclear both before it begins and after it’s over. The Schlapps and Diamond and Silk are big names in Trumpland, but you wouldn’t know it based on the crowd, which fills less than half the room, excluding a taped-off section for reporters. Barbara Augustine, a 69-year-old retired nurse from Lancaster County, tells me she showed up to Spooky Nook Sports five hours before the event’s start time. “But I didn’t have to line up,” she says. “Nobody was here.” It is Mischief Night, and it’s as if everyone involved got tricked.
If the event is about anything, it is less about promoting Trump than about demonizing the opposition—certainly a hobby of many of the Trump voters I’ve spoken with over the past few years, but one that at this particular function doesn’t make much sense. Diamond and Silk, for instance, implore the locals-heavy crowd to vote out Democratic representatives from places other than Pennsylvania. Diamond: “You know what we’re gonna have to do with Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff? “We’re gonna have to”—and here the crowd shouts in unison—“VOTE THEM OUT!”
“And ol’ mean Maxine,” Diamond continues, referring to Representative Maxine Waters of California, “y’all know what we gotta do?” All together now: “VOTE HER OUT!” The Schlapps call for the crowd to send Diamond and Silk themselves to Washington. “I would say Diamond and Silk for Congress, don’t you think?” Mercedes says. “Let’s take out AOC! Let’s take out the swamp! Let’s put in Diamond and Silk!”
The Schlapps quickly outline in grave tones what will happen if they don’t send Trumpists to Washington. They remind the room that Democrats are “telling us we’re racist, they’re telling us we’re bad, they’re telling us that we’re destroying the environment, that our plastic straws are killing turtles”; that the country is “teetering” on the brink of “all that socialism and secularism”; and that the House’s ongoing impeachment inquiry is “fake,” “faux,” and “not real.”
The speeches made for a bizarre contrast with the event’s kitschy Halloween vibe, painting a dark portrait of America in the event that Trump is defeated in 2020. But the speakers also invoked images of an America that is dark even today, with “frightening things going through our politics,” a democracy that is “fragile,” and a “Congress hiding … from the American people.” In other words, the inadvertent message of an event that had no point seemed to be this: Only Donald Trump can save America from Donald Trump’s America.
For Diamond and Silk, this is apparently as meaningful a reason as any to get on “the Trump train.” They conclude their speech with a final call-and-response. “When I say ‘all aboard,’ you say ‘choo choo,’” Diamond directs the crowd.
“All aboard!” she yells.
“Choo choo!” the crowd yells back, their orange hats bobbing.