Donald Trump faithful stand by their man during his trial
Washington may be consumed by the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump but Bruce Wilmoth could hardly care less.
“We believe he was put here by God to end abortion,” Mr Wilmoth, a Catholic from Wilmington, Delaware, said of Mr Trump, who had just wrapped up one of his signature political rallies at a convention centre in Wildwood, a seaside town in New Jersey.
The Wilmoths had left their Wilmington home at 4.30am on Tuesday, just for a chance to see the president, and then happily spent hours standing in line on a wintry January day. They cared nothing about a matter convulsing the Senate: whether John Bolton, the former national security adviser, might offer first-hand testimony about Mr Trump’s alleged malfeasance in Ukraine.
It is a sentiment Mr Trump and his political team are counting on as the four-month impeachment process heads into its final stretch.
Throughout the two-week Senate trial, the president has waged a frenetic counter-programming campaign that has included a transatlantic trip to Davos, a signing of a new North American trade deal, the unveiling of a long-awaited Middle East peace proposal and a thundering “Make America Great Again” rally before some of the president’s most fervent — and ornery — supporters, who showered their leader with affirmation and approval at a time when his job was looking vulnerable.
As with much of Mr Trump’s presidency, the former reality TV host’s schedule was intended for show as much as substance — all aimed at his political base. In Davos, for example, he made sure to remind anyone watching back in the US that “America’s thriving, America’s flourishing, and yes, America’s winning like never before!”
At the trade deal signing ceremony, Mr Trump claimed the agreement was “a colossal victory for our farmers and ranchers” that he had achieved against all odds.
And while any other president might have followed a historic diplomatic initiative like a plan for Arab-Israeli peace with a tour of major allied capitals, Mr Trump instead ventured to a resort town on the Jersey shore, 45 miles from his old stamping ground of Atlantic City.
Wildwood’s heyday was in the 1950s. These days its poverty rate is twice the national average and its seaside motels look worn — even more so on a grey afternoon in January.
What lured Mr Trump was Jeff Van Drew, a congressman who in December, at the height of the House’s impeachment battle, quit the Democratic party — his home of almost three decades — to become a Republican and support the president.
Less memorable than anything Mr Van Drew said during his brief time on the podium on Tuesday evening was the thunderous applause that the president stirred on his behalf from the 7,000 or so Trump supporters filling an auditorium that more commonly plays host to high-school basketball games and professional wrestling.
Several thousand more were outside. Among their ranks was an unusual political coalition that has coalesced around Mr Trump: fans of the Philadelphia Eagles football team; Orthodox Jewish men from nearby communities in central New Jersey; and hunters clad in their camouflaged gear.
In an hour-long speech, Mr Trump boasted about “creating jobs and killing terrorists”, taunted the media — prompting shrieks from the crowd — and pledged to defend gun rights. He ignored climate change, even though a recent UN report warned that Wildwood and other Jersey shore towns could be under water by the end of the century.
But for a few oblique mentions, the president also largely skirted the impeachment drama raging back in Washington.
That was fine with Bob Patterson, who is challenging Mr Van Drew in the Republican primary, and was camped out across the street in a motel room that doubled as a campaign office.
“I don’t think people are glued to their TV sets,” Mr Patterson said of the impeachment trial [which was then playing on the television in his room]. “They look at it as a dog-and-pony show.”
Mr Trump’s policies, he acknowledged, had yet to reverse the sense of decline in an area that has more in common with rural Pennsylvania than it does New York City.
Mr Patterson’s own idea to make Wildwood Great Again is a sort of Buy America on steroids. He proposes to restore manufacturing by requiring the US military to buy all of its equipment — and all the tools used to make that equipment — from US suppliers.
Still, Mr Patterson credited the president with at least recognising the plight of residents. In impeachment, he saw nothing more than “a scam” to remove him from office.
“If I were in the Senate,” Mr Patterson said, “I wouldn’t call any more witnesses.”