WILDWOOD — They took jitneys down from Atlantic City, pre-gamed with Yuenglings and flags at a local Irish bar, and tailgated in the Wildwoods Convention Center parking lot overnight.
If this were summer, the crowd that buzzed Tuesday around the Wildwood boardwalk — with provocative T-shirts and slogans, flashes of defiant patriotism, and generally elevated exuberance just to be there — might have simply blended in with the town’s usual Jersey Shore vibe.
But on this otherwise dormant Wildwood winter day, thousands of rally-goers massed in a determined line that zig-zagged around streets throughout town. They were there for President Donald Trump, who came to town in part to gin up support for local Rep. Jeff Van Drew, the longtime Democrat who rocked the political world last month by defecting to the GOP after his opposition to impeachment alienated Democrats.
As the day wore on, pro- and anti-Trump groups sparred with each other on the boardwalk, like warring seagulls dive bombing for the same french fry. They squawked at each other as if they believed the future of the republic depended on it. Perhaps it did.
“This is what democracy looks like!” shouted protesters, who organized under the banner of the group Cape May County Indivisible. They were gathered in a parking lot a few blocks south of the Convention Center, where they had a permit.
Above, from the boardwalk, Trump fans began lining up to heckle them.
“Where’s Hunter?” they yelled back, referring to Hunter Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden whom Republicans have floated calling as a witness in Trump’s impeachment trial.
Dawn Liston of Williamstown said protesters were spit on by Trump rally goers when they arrived with signs. “I’m sad,” she said. “I’m sad our country is so divided.”
“Lock him up!" protesters shouted about Trump.
“Lock her up!” Trump fans shouted back, a refrain from the 2016 campaign about Hillary Clinton, as the boardwalk standoff continued in a cold wind. “Go back to your s—hole countries!”
From balconies above the protesters and from the boardwalk, the Trump fans tried to drown out the speakers, who portrayed Trump as uncaring and Van Drew as a turncoat.
“Do not think for one moment that this president cares about you at all,” said Kyle Aldrich of the national Indivisible group. “This is not the time to seek common ground. Because I can tell you that the common ground is not there.”
Several Trump fans shouted “Fake news!” at reporters filming them, and one shouted “the media is run by Jews” at a Reuters photographer.
Shayla Woolfort, a protest organizer, said she was not surprised by the reaction. They did decide to move the lectern for speakers — who included Martin Luther King III and four Democratic challengers to Van Drew — to the rear of the parking lot from its place next to the boardwalk.
“We’re used to it," she said. “It’s fine.”
King, eldest son of the late civil rights leader, told the protesters: ”We need to look at the soul of America to determine what direction we are going to go in the future."
“How do we bring out the best of America?” King asked in the wind-whipped chill of the darkened parking lot, with Wildwood motels as his backdrop. "That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. talked about, making America what it ought to be.”
And Amy Kennedy, one of the Democrats running against Van Drew and the wife of former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, urged the protesters she had helped organize to “stay unified in civility and hope.”
For many who came down the Shore on Tuesday, fighting for parking spots like it was a peak summer weekend, the rally was as much a social gathering as a political one, or the perfect blending of both. “Trump Hell Yeah!” banners were hung from empty houses along the causeways.
People crowded into nearby bars, sharing laughs, buying each other beers, and sporting matching MAGA hats. Jeff Bottari, 58, and Scott Wistar, 56, took off work early and drove from Landenberg, Pa., to witness their first Trump rally.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” Bottari said. “We’re all in here buying each other beers.”
“It’s not divisive like people try to say,” Wistar added.
The two friends had tickets to the event but said they didn’t want to wait in line. They wanted to meet other Trump fans and show their support for a president who they said has been the “only candidate ... that has delivered on all campaign promises.”
“[Trump’s] kind of an asshole, but so is my dad, and he’s the best person in the world,” Wistar said. Bottari nudged him and added, “And so are we!"
Donald and Melania Trump look-alikes made the rounds, amping up bars full of supporters.
In the thick of the line, an announcement warned people that if they saw a protester in the rally, “do not touch or harm the protester.” The announcement advised they should instead hold their sign over their head and chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Then a security person would come and remove the protester.
Thousands of people who couldn’t get into the rally stood in the courtyard outside the convention center, in parking lots, in a nearby park, and on a motel balcony across from the park, waiting to watch Trump on a massive screen.
Earlier, the pop-up merchandise arms race was intense, with Trump beach towels and souvenir Wildwood Trump beach tags selling for $5 apiece. (Wildwood beaches are free.) T-shirts emblazoned with “Watch the Trump Car,” referring to the tram message, competed with Trump socks and hand warmers.
Many were there just to mill around, like Phil Thompson of Bucks County, who came with his daughter Regina “for the memories.” Another family member was involved in the protests, but Thompson did not yell at her when he saw her.
Rich Duranto also enjoyed the camaraderie that Trump supporters share.
“It’s like an Eagles tailgate,” said the Philadelphian, who walked through the crowds in a bright green Eagles track suit wearing a Trump mask he bought from CVS two years ago.
“It’s fun, it’s an event,” he said. “I’ll definitely be back.”
Duranto said Trump lies sometimes, which bothers him. But, Duranto said, they’re usually “just little lies.”
“We all tell little lies. They all lie,” he said of politicians. “[Trump] is just the most entertaining liar."