WILDWOOD — It felt like Senior Week, but for the MAGA crowd.
Instead of Wildwood’s iconic post-prom crowd of underage drinkers, it was the pre-rally crowd of Trump diehards, like Richard Snowden of Buffalo, who said he’d been to 63 previous Trump rallies.
Or Tony Grenada of Staten Island, New York City, who parked his traveling RV of Trump merchandise in the Walmart parking lot in nearby Rio Grande.
Motels hung Trump banners, and red-hatted Make America Great Again revelers filled local bars and waved from balconies. Others milled around nearby streets disparaging their local Democratic elected officials. Black SUVs with U.S. Government plates sped down the Garden State Parkway toward Wildwood.
As dusk fell, more than 1,000 people settled in for a cold overnight wait in a growing line outside the Wildwoods Convention Center, where President Donald Trump will speak at a rally Tuesday night, a reward to local Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the newly minted Republican from South Jersey.
At the front of the line was Duke Reale of Galloway, Atlantic County, who wore a “Watch the Trump Car” button, a Trump take on the town’s signature yellow tram cars’ recorded announcement.
He was saving a spot, he said, for Harry Hurley, Atlantic City’s own conservative talk-radio personality, who once worked for Trump in his Atlantic City casinos.
Indeed, several people said their ties to the president date back to before he was in the White House.
“He’s a New York boss, and you better do it his way,” said Joe DiDonato, approvingly. DiDonato’s a contractor from North Jersey who delivered Sheetrock to Trump back in the day and said he never had any trouble getting paid (unlike what many have recounted).
He recalled meeting Trump at his New York headquarters, where the mogul shook everyone’s hand. “I’m camping out tonight because I like what [Trump] did,” DiDonato said. “Everybody should be happy. Everybody has jobs.”
On the Boardwalk, T-shirt seller Shawn Keoughan acknowledged that Trump merchandise was a hot seller all summer long in Wildwood. Most of the stock was already on hand, he said.
“We had it all summer,” he said.
The shop had one T-shirt with “I Support LGBTQ,” with the words “Liberty, Guns, Bible, Trump and BBQ” underneath. The LGBTQ banners and T-shirts had caused some consternation in Facebook groups, and Keough and the others allowed that they might offend some people. But the joke was sound, they said.
On the line, many said they’d also rented hotel rooms and planned to swap out their spot with friends. “We’re all going to watch out for each other,” said one man toward the back of the line.
There were some signs of counter-programming, with much more expected Tuesday, as big buses of protesters will be arriving to stage hours of protests outside the Convention Center, including a keynote speech by Martin Luther King III.
Bob Patterson, another Republican running for the Second Congressional District seat, hung red “RealVanDrew.com” banners around town, which pointed people to a site that purported to expose Van Drew as a “Republican in Name Only” or RINO. Van Drew previously was labeled a DINO (Democrat in Name Only).
But on Monday, the town belonged to the boisterous Trump crowd. The Oceanic Bar’s marquee read “Welcome President Trump and Rep. Van Drew.” Around the bar, Barbara from Buena (who didn’t want to give her last name) was debating whether to stay overnight or try for a spot in the morning.
“I think Trump has delivered everything I wanted him to,” she said. “I wanted the wall and the wall’s going up.”
Locals were split between trying to sell merchandise or otherwise take advantage of the mid-winter boom in people and trying to get into the rally themselves.
C.J. Scully, a local builder whose family has been in Wildwood since 1902, wore a new Trump 2020 hat and noted a big Trump bus on the street where he parked his construction truck. He said he’d start his day working as usual.
“I’m going to work in the morning and then I’m going to go down, get in line, and watch the rally,” he said. “Support our president. It’s exciting.”
He said he also supported Van Drew and frowned at the question of impeachment.