WILDWOOD — No one seemed to understand the gestalt of what became 2020′s Trumpstock better than 61-year-old Joe Marchetti, who grabbed a primo spot on the outdoor deck at Kelly’s Cafe on Atlantic Avenue. It offered a clear view of the Jumbotron, a bar free-flowing with draft beer just 10 feet behind him, and women in their “Make America Great Again” winter caps on either side. Who needed to actually attend President Donald Trump’s rally?
“I came down here with no realistic expectations" of getting inside the Wildwoods Convention Center, he said. “I just wanted to be with people who share the same philosophy that I do. We all support the president, and there’s probably tens of thousands of people, and it’s like a lovefest, man." He gushed with I-love-you-man brio about all the diverse people he’d found among a crowd that sure looked overwhelmingly white, including two Gays for Trump.
“I was like, hey, man, go for it.”
To the masses in their MAGA hats who just kept coming and coming down the Wildwood boardwalk, and the several thousand who spent a January night in the whipping winds of the New Jersey Shore to actually get inside, the rally scene was a nudist camp for Trumpists. Why? Because they could finally let it all hang out with their own kind, where they could tell each other that Trumpism is all about love, inside their Potemkin village that had just been a completely empty beach town — a Trumptopia where the liberals and the haters in the media didn’t even exist.
It was a land of make-believe where Trump’s impeachment trial, the third in American history, was happening on another planet and not in Washington on this very same day. “It’s political,” Joe Cisciato, a hospital executive from Roxborough, shrugged, and his wife, Carol, added, “It began the day that he was elected, and it’s throw everything against the wall to see what sticks.” She was wearing a button someone had handed her at a bar: “Adorable Deplorable.”
In 1960, a year after I was born, Norman Mailer wrote a seminal essay about the arrival of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot called “Superman Goes to the Supermarket” — the birth of a modern, charismatic presidency. Mailer didn’t predict that an actual actor would capture the White House a generation later, and he’d be spinning in his grave if he’d taken a literary shopping trip to Wildwood and witnessed this: a campground of cultists waiting for an American demagogue who’d sprung with short-fingered vulgarity from a TV reality show to bless their political incorrectness.
Crude T-Shirt Man Goes to the T-Shirt Shop.
Somehow, I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. It was exactly half a lifetime ago, in the summer of 1989, that I was brought to Wildwood for the first time by my future wife, telling tales of 1970s teenage decadence under the boardwalk. In spite of that, we watched our two kids grow up from the balcony of my father-in-law’s condo at 1900 Boardwalk, whacking moles and spinning the wheel of fortune, where they learned that life occasionally, but rarely, rewards you with a panda doll.
There was something alluring then about Wildwood and its we-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-beach-tags egalitarian attytood — with a boardwalk that discovered political incorrectness a decade or two before the rest of America, peddling T-shirts with the message that fat, dumb, and stupid actually is a way to go through life ... you gotta problem wit’ that? Every morning at 11, Kate Smith’s “God Bless America” blared from loudspeakers, the daily call to prayer, not so much because of patriotism but because it celebrated a hockey team that beat the living crap out of people.
If you swam out far enough into the brackish ocean, maybe you’d catch a faint glimpse of Atlantic City and the working-class American dream machine of Donald Trump’s casinos, of hitting the slots and scarfing a $35 New York strip steak. Now it was 2020, and the slayer of political correctness, a Broad Street Bully, the T-shirt prophecy, had finally come to Wildwood, a conquering hero.
A couple blocks from the convention center, Dominic Mazza, a 52-year-old vendor from Broomall, Pa., who grew up hating the graft he saw in nearby Philadelphia and insists that Trump is a corruption fighter, still had a few T-shirts left but no more of the one he was wearing that read “Fake News Sucks” and showed a little boy in a Trump hat urinating on the CNN logo.
There were pockets of resistance. A block away from Mazza, Bill Keller, a veteran of both the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, and his wife, Betty, both 72 and of Sea Isle City, stood in the middle of the street with a large sign that read simply, “REMOVE." He said he wanted the Senate to vote Trump out “because he broke the law. He’s not trustworthy. He’s a pathological liar.” His wife said a few Trumpsters were nice to them but others called them “scum.”
Such encounters were rare during this Trump lovefest, in which even those who loathe the president could sense the growing confidence from the president’s fanatics that he will beat both impeachment and whoever emerges to challenge him in November. A few said it was all about the economy, like 31-year-old Joe Hullihen of Vineland, who told me his 401(k) had just had its best year ever. As he spoke, a worker in a North Wildwood store was printing him up a T-shirt — which showed Trump astride a large tank, with explosions and a huge American flag behind him.