Wildwood appeared deserted except for the cars, parked everywhere within a mile distance of the town’s convention center. Flags sporting the president’s image or campaign branding spotted on the way to the South New Jersey beach town offered a sign of life, but the motels—with themes such as Caribbean, American Safari, Bel Air—looked depressed and empty in the gloomy January afternoon, despite reopening to meet the unusual offseason demand.
Hours before President Donald Trump arrived to headline a campaign rally, the Wildwood Convention Center was filled to capacity at 7,400 people, and estimates put the number of people outside in the thousands. Hundreds camped out the night before. In typical fashion, Trump would grossly exaggerate the crowd size in his speech. “We have tens of thousands of people outside,” Trump said. (Fox News host Sean Hannity, in his segment following the rally, one-upped him, baselessly claiming 100,000 attended.)
Wildwood, a conservative town, typically closes down for the winter, but reopened its businesses for Trump’s arrival on Jan. 28 for a campaign rally on behalf of Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who did the president the favor of being one of two Democrats who voted against both articles of impeachment before changing parties a day later. Just half a mile away, the boardwalk by the convention center was packed with the presidents’ ardent red-hatted supporters, bundled up against the cold wind that whipped across the beach and parking lot and kept Trump flags, stacked on top of each other, flying high. The tables of merchants hawking Trump-themed merchandise lined the boardwalk, featuring shirts brandishing such phrases as “Make Wildwood Great Again” and “Impeach This” above an image of Trump holding up two middle fingers. Another vendor displayed T-shirts with Trump slogans stacked next to gear touting the Q’Anon conspiracy theory.
Trump didn’t need to come to Wildwood, yet he did so for Van Drew, who won New Jersey’s 2nd District as a Democrat in 2018. His impeachment vote and party-switch offered Trump a convenient narrative on impeachment, one that Trump harped on Tuesday night, as his impeachment trial continued in the Senate.
“They’re trying to steal that election,” Trump said, referring to Democrats. “And Jeff had the guts to defy the left-wing fanatics in his own party and to stand tall in defense of our Constitution, our freedom, and democracy itself.”
Trump didn’t win New Jersey in 2016—the state went to Clinton by 14 points—and he’s not likely to win in 2020. But Cape May County, the southernmost part of Van Drew’s district and where Wildwood resides, is solidly red. And Trump’s supporters had no problem turning out for a rally nominally in support of Van Drew, a man some Republicans dismissed as “fake” and “a weasel” just a month before, and they did so in the thousands, demonstrating Trump’s flexed muscles in a state considered a Democratic stronghold.
Outside the convention center, the Trump rally had the feel of a tailgate, with supporters celebrating their favorite teams, some drinking alcohol to fend off the cold. Local politicians, their lackeys, and at least one white nationalist handed out flyers, seeing Trump’s base as a sympathetic audience. As the sky darkened, discarded camp chairs littered the path along the temporary metal barriers that routed the lines, piles of trash overflowed waste bins. Hawkers sold $10 hats bearing the slogan “Keep America Great Again,” promising, tongues in cheeks, that those with red hats would get seated in the first two rows.
The snaking line began to shorten as attendees peeled off to watch the rally from the warmth of their homes or a local bar, while those in line speculated whether they had any hope of getting in. A man leaving the line told those still waiting that he’d been in the queue since 9 am that morning, still failing get in. A row of teenage boys set up camp in abandoned chairs to watch the jumbotron; one, dressed in a sweatshirt and shorts, snoozed, slumped over.
Cheers erupted as an early speaker at the rally, featured on a jumbotron, told attendees, “New Jersey isn’t so blue anymore.”
In his speech, Trump touted his accomplishments and referred to impeachment only briefly in vague terms, condemning Democrats as “obsessed with demented hoaxes.” He made no mention of former national security adviser John Bolton’s bombshell admission directly tying Trump to the president’s reported demand to place a hold on aid appropriated by Congress for Ukraine until Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that his government would investigate Trump’s most feared 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
An attendee who gave his name only as Mark, a resident of New Jersey’s Gloucester County in his 40s, came to attend the rally with his friend and his friend’s teenage son. He was hopeful that Jersey would become “more purple than blue,” and said that in listening to arguments by Trump’s impeachment trial defense attorneys over the weekend, “[retired Harvard professor Alan] Dershowitz really clarified a lot of things for me.” Dershowitz had argued that the president could pretty much do anything he cared to with impunity, as long as he thought it in the public interest. The Fox News segment after the rally, hammered on four key points, with guests Rep. Jim Jordan and Louie Gohmert repeating the arguments they made in the House impeachment inquiry.
“When the other side explained their case, it didn’t make as much sense,” Mark added.
Seeing the writing on the wall—no one else was going to get in—the Right Wing Watch team peeled away from the rally. We were shooed out of a bar packed with Trump supporters where we’d been greeted by a life-size cardboard cutout of the president. (It was at capacity.)
The streets were empty and quiet, save for a few others returning to their cars, and the sound of a helicopter circling overhead.