Report — From the June 2016 issue

Trump’s People

Among the fans in Florida, New Hampshire, and Iowa

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Pro- and anti-Trump demonstrators are facing off noisily outside the convention center in Tampa, Florida. A short woman with frizzy gray hair holds a Bible in one hand and a bullhorn in the other: WE PRAY . . . FATHER GOD . . . THAT YOU . . . WILL MAKE . . . AMERICA . . . GREAT AGAIN. Nose to nose, screaming, are a middle-aged white man with a goatee and a skinny black kid with a backward baseball cap that reads comme des fuckdown. “The Koran teaches: Smite the infidel above the neck,” Goatee yells. WE PRAY . . . WE PRAY LORD JESUS . . . THAT NO ONE . . . COMES INTO THIS NATION . . . THAT YOU!!! . . . DO NOT WANT HERE. Comme des FuckDown bellows back: “I see a cop roll down the street, some racist cop having a bad day, I’m in fear for my life.” WE PRAY . . . FATHER GOD . . . THAT NO WEAPON . . . FORMED AGAINST THIS NATION . . . SHALL PROSPER.

Heads turn as a black stretch limo with trump 2016 in gold letters on the side glides slowly past. It stops down the street, then a mop of blond hair and a dark suit gets out. I had first seen the owner of the limo months earlier in New Hampshire. He was negotiating. “It’s twenty dollars,” he told a woman who wanted a make america great again hat. “They cost me money. I gotta charge.” They haggled; ten dollars. Half price, not the most brilliant business deal, but then this wasn’t the real Donald Trump. He used to be Gary Shipko. He changed his name to “Donald Trump” as an homage. If you don’t believe him, he’ll get out his driver’s license and credit cards, all bearing the famous name. He has been “Trump” for four years. When the real Trump began his run for the presidency, Shipko — Donald Trump Junior, as he sometimes calls himself — decided to help.

Donald Trump speaking at a press conference in Milford, New Hampshire, before a rally; a fence enclosing a housing community in Homestead, Florida, home to a large number of undocumented immigrants. All multiple-exposure photographs by Mark Abramson for Harper’s Magazine, from his series Two Face

Donald Trump speaking at a press conference in Milford, New Hampshire, before a rally; a fence enclosing a housing community in Homestead, Florida, home to a large number of undocumented immigrants. All multiple-exposure photographs by Mark Abramson for Harper’s Magazine, from his series Two Face

When I first met Trump Junior, in New Hampshire, it seemed to me that going with him to some Trump rallies would be an interesting lens through which to view the presidential race. Back then, he was driving an old police cruiser he had covered in Trump stickers, the passenger seat occupied by a female mannequin in police uniform. “She’s got the gun, the bullets, everything. I put lipstick on her. Everybody says she’s hot looking. Ivanka Trump: that’s her name.”

Donald, formerly Gary, looks the part: the jowls, the glare, the furrowed brow, the dyed blond comb-over. Now sixty, he was by his account a successful businessman once, running a company that made superglue. “Because of that I met a lot of presidents, politicians, superstars. I was worth eight million dollars. I had a mansion. I had a yacht in Florida. I had more money than all my friends. They started calling me Donald Trump Junior because I had the bucks.” Then his marriage fell apart. “We got divorced back in ’09. She got my house. She got my yacht. I had a quarter-million-dollar slot-machine collection. She got everything. I ended up in a homeless shelter. I tried committing suicide. She probably got a boyfriend, this fat, ugly drunken bum. What I got was girls half my age: models, drop-dead gorgeous, gold-digger types.” Just like Donald Trump, I remark. “Yeah,” Donald Junior says, “he likes those.”

This was not the whole story of how he became Trump. He would tell me that later. As with the real Trump, it was difficult to know how much to believe, truth blending easily with fiction, though there are some records on the Internet that suggest he once held a trademark for Super Glue International. Following him around, I found that a lot of Trump supporters had hard-luck stories. In New Hampshire, for instance, I met Linda Hall, a thin woman in her fifties with peroxided hair the same shade as Donald’s (both of them). In a rasping two-pack-a-day voice, she told me that she was born in New Hampshire but went to Texas when she was eighteen, “and after I got kidnapped. . . . Oh yeah. I was kidnapped. They put a great big gun in my mouth. I was sold for three hundred dollars. They told me I was going to Mexico, to a private island with Doberman pinschers. They said, ‘You cooperate or else they’ll make you suffer. You’ll never get off the island, ever.’ I called the police. They couldn’t do anything. They told me that somebody runs Texas and everyone has to go by whoever’s running Texas. The only thing the cop could do was take me to the border line, and I took off for Florida.”

She spent thirty-five years in Florida, but after her marriage went bad she returned to New Hampshire. One daughter was taken into custody by the state; another daughter was in a methadone clinic. She’d had a tragic life, but when Donald Junior came over to talk politics, she got to what was really worrying her. “ISIS is in every frickin’ state right now,” she said. “Oh yeah, every state. I’ve heard that most of the people who are running Florida . . . a lot of them are part of ISIS.” She cocked her head in the direction of Littleton, her hometown. “Littleton’s an easy target. They’re already here. Oh yeah. They buy a place and then they buy like five houses right there. The families are moving in. And they don’t rent out to normal people like us. Some of them are running the stores.”

She was talking about the Lebanese-owned shop nearby, which had been there, a sign proudly proclaimed, for forty years. But Linda said she slept with a gun under her pillow, a .38 with hollow-point bullets, and that she’d bought a .45 for her eighty-two-year-old mother. She also had a ten-year supply of canned goods in her basement, ready, she said, for when President Obama left office. “I guess that’s when it’s all gonna blow. Stores are gonna be wiped out. Everyone I know, they all got weapons. They’re all stocked on food. You got to protect yourself . . . me and Mom. All our friends are saying, load up with plenty of ammunition, because after the stores don’t have no food they’re gonna be hitting houses. They’re going to take over America, put their flag on the Capitol.” “Who?” I asked. “ISIS. Oh yeah.”

Trump’s supporters believe that he is the only one “out there telling the real story” about the Islamic State, as a Florida man named Richard Sherman told me. He was retired, in his sixties, wearing white shorts and a white cutoff T-shirt that called for jihadists to be fed to pigs. “I designed it myself,” he said. “Every time we kill a jihadist, we should chop him up on the White House lawn, on worldwide television, and have pigs eat him. They like to chop off heads. You have to treat terror with terror. That’s the only thing they understand. The Koran tells them to kill Jews, kill Christians, to die in the process, and they will get seventy-two virgins. Okay, we can say: ‘You’re going to be eaten and excreted by pigs. Do you want that?’ If you can get the seventy-two virgins after that, God bless you.”

Of the race for the Republican nomination, he said, “We’re tired of the people who say they’re against Obama and then they do everything Obama wants. The Muslims are slaughtering us — in San Bernardino, in Boston, in Chattanooga. They’re coming to this country and slaughtering us. The immigration people are not keeping them out. All you’re finding is dead Americans all over America. We want somebody who’s going to stop that.”

As we drove around Florida, Trump Junior offered his services to negotiate a peace deal with the Islamic State. There was no limit to what he could do for the Trump campaign, he said, though he was forced to acknowledge that his role was unofficial. He told me he had written about the Islamic State on his website. The address — — was on the side of his limo, right above a large presidential seal, the use of which was possibly illegal. People leaned out of passing vehicles to take pictures as we made stately progress up the highway. He told me that everyone loved the car, and he never paid for tolls. I soon knew why. The toll collector refused Donald’s proffered million-dollar note, and I paid the $1.75. We did, however, get free fried-alligator nuggets at the gas station. The manager, a woman from Bombay, had fond memories of being a croupier in a Trump casino.

The limo was one part of a larger mystery. How was he paying for all this? The last time I had seen him, a few months earlier in New Hampshire, he was flat broke. Now, in addition to the limo, he had a huge SUV, onto which he had stuck more Trump decals and, on the rear, a notice that warned, secret service. stay 100 ft back. machine guns on board! There were several other vehicles, including a Trump-branded Jet Ski, and a new Florida home, a trailer on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. His former wife had the same questions. “Last time I talked to my ex-wife she said, ‘You’re fucking broke. You couldn’t buy a cheeseburger. You asked me for two dollars. And now you’re driving around in fancy cars? Where’d you get the money?’ ”

The explanation might have come from the real Trump’s own lips. “Once you’ve been there, it’s not that hard getting back. After you’ve been a millionaire, you know a lot of people, you have a lot of friends, a lot of contacts. You just put it all together and do it again. My whole life is amazing. Everything about my life is just a nonstop thrill ride on a roller coaster.” The real Trump had managed to conjure even greater wealth out of even greater debt, his companies bankrupted four times. If Donald Junior was living a fantasy, so was Trump himself, just one in which reality had, improbably, aligned with his imagination.

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has been a foreign correspondent for the BBC for twenty years, most recently covering the Syrian civil war.

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October 2018


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