People stand for the Pledge of Allegiance before the arrival of US president Donald Trump for ‘The Great American Comeback Rally’ at Cecil Airport, Florida on 24 September. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Decisions in this vital swing state are made in two different realities, one adherent to facts and science, the other rooted in conspiracies and political dogma
by Oliver Laughland in Florida – The Guardian
If you wanted a symbol for Donald Trump’s complete takeover of the Republican party, you could do little better than a nondescript shopping mall on the outskirts of Largo in west Florida.
This is a usually quiet intersection in Florida’s quintessential bellwether county, Pinellas, which has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1980 (bar the disputed 2000 race won by George W Bush).
But eight months ago Cliff Gephart, an enthusiastic Trump supporter and local entrepreneur, transformed a vacant lot – formerly a strip club – into a thriving coffee shop devoted to the president. Business at Conservative Grounds is roaring, despite the pandemic, with hundreds and, they claim, occasionally over a thousand customers, dropping by each day for a cup of coffee, a chat about politics and to purchase from a plethora of Trump themed merchandise. No-one is social distancing or wearing a facemask.
In 2016, the narrative of the so-called “secretive Trump voter” went part of the way to explaining the billionaire property magnate’s unexpected pathway to the White House. But now, in Pinellas as in many parts of the country, Trump supporters are out in force, unafraid, empowered and organised.
Every section inside this place is designed for social media posting – there’s a second amendment wall filled with decommissioned firearms, a gumball machine stocked with spent ammunition (it doesn’t vend), and a coffee machine decorated with slurs against Democrats. At the back is a scaled reproduction of the Oval Office itself, complete with a replica Resolute Desk, cardboard cutouts of the President and first lady, and a Martin Luther King bust, wearing a red Trump 2020 cap.
I ask Gephart, a heavily built, stubbled 50-year-old, whether he thinks people might be offended by the latter. (Martin Luther King’s children are staunch critics of the president, and Trump declined to celebrate the life of civil rights icon John Lewis after his death in July.)
“Everything offends everybody these days,” he says.
This coffee house is not just a business proposition, it is a marker of the political capital now held by grassroots Trump activists around the country. The business threw its weight behind an outsider candidate in this congressional district’s Republican primary who went on to win the race against an establishment conservative. It was the driving force behind a Trump flotilla that saw over 1,000 people take to the waters last month, drawing praise from the president himself.
But Gephart is coy about his newfound political power and organising capacity.
“We didn’t intend for it to be that, we just intended for it to become a place where people could come and socialise and have a cup of coffee, we often call it a camaraderie shop. And that camaraderie is bleeding into campaigns now too.”
There is little camaraderie when a customer labels me “fake news” and, despite his outwardly friendly demeanor, Gephart’s public Facebook page is littered with vitriolic memes, sometimes laced with Islamophobia and misogyny, which are mainstream in conservative online culture these days.
Conservative Grounds felt like a poignant place to start a road trip around America, six weeks before an election that both sides agree is the most important in a generation. This is the opening chapter of the Guardian’s Anywhere But Washington 2020 series, in which I travel to various swing states with filmmaker Tom Silverstone. Donald Trump won Pinellas County by a tiny 1% margin in 2016, and if Joe Biden wants to win back this vital swing state, he’ll need this county to turn Democrat again as it did twice for Barack Obama.
There are few pathways back to the White House for Donald Trump without winning Florida, a perennial swing state holding a critical 29 electoral college votes. A month ago Joe Biden held a commanding lead in the polls here, but that has tightened to an average of just 1.9% in recent days. At this stage it seems likely that Florida will once again go down to the wire, a daunting prospect as Trump last week declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election.
The pandemic has curtailed official campaigning on both sides, but the election feels very alive here, particularly on the Republican side where toxic politics can often bubble over into overt racism on the turn of a dime.
The day after our visit to the coffee shop we head to a Trump flag-waving event at the recommendation of Gephart. It’s being held next to a drawbridge that connects the city to the white sands of Madeira Beach, and it takes only a few minutes for things to turn dark.
As the drawbridge lifts, the flag wavers, numbering around 50, flood out onto the road and confront a car of four young Latina women who tell me they are all Biden supporters.
“How do you like trying to find things in the grocery store?” shouts one flag waver at the women. “Because that is socialism my dear.” The women have their windows down and blare out the radio in an attempt to drown the flag wavers out.
“You ungrateful pieces of crap,” the flag waver, who is white, continues. “Get out of our country.”
As we move to question her, we’re met with chants of “shame on you” from others in the group who accuse us of being “agitators”. We decide to leave, and we’re followed back to our car by a man carrying a sign that says: “Democrats support mobs”. .
Biden made his first trip to the state as the Democratic nominee earlier in the month, seeking to bolster support among Latino voters by slamming Trump’s botched handling of the response to Hurricane Maria, the storm that decimated the US territory of Puerto Rico in 2017 leading thousands to leave the island for refuge here.
Trump visited the state again last Thursday, shortly before announcing Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to fill the seat on the Supreme Court after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Despite both candidates outwardly chasing diverse voting constituents amid Florida’s rapidly changing racial demographics, this state is still 54% white and Trump’s core voter here in 2016 was overwhelmingly white and older. Biden’s campaign is looking to draw away a portion of those who went for Trump last time around.
Pinellas County’s incumbent congressman, Democrat Charlie Crist, has a rich history in Florida politics and knows from experience about the difficulty of swinging Republican voters the other way. Crist, a slick operator with a head of perfectly trimmed silver hair, served as the Republican governor of Florida between 2007 and 2011. But the party abandoned him, so the story goes, after he hugged president Obama during a public event in 2009, an image which infuriated the conservative base. He became a Democrat in 2012, after a failed run for the US senate as an independent and was one of the first Democrats in Congress to endorse Biden’s campaign. The former vice president is a personal friend whom he describes as “medicine for America”.
“There is more of a coarseness to politics in America today,” says Crist as he canvases among Black voters in a neighbourhood, south St Petersburg, hit hard by the pandemic. “It’s no different here than anywhere else. And I think people are tired of it. I know they are. They are thirsting for change.”
The congressman claims to have spoken to many people who voted for Trump in 2016 who now regret it.
“They voted for Trump because they wanted change and radical change. And then they would say to me: ‘but not this radical, this is out of control.’”
But despite his optimism, neither Crist’s campaign staff nor the Pinellas County Democrat party can point me to a single person willing to talk about a change of heart. It underlines the reality: only a small percentage of Florida’s electorate, around 4-5% are really up for grabs according analysts, with the rest deeply loyal to their respective party, and it’s that critical mass that is likely to swing the vote in a tight race.
We head 100 miles inland to the solid Republican heartlands in Florida’s centre for a visit to a sprawling retirement community called The Villages. It is home to 120,000 retirees who refer to it as “Disneyland for the elderly”. It’s a labyrinth of gated communities, golf courses and public squares. 98% of residents here are white, and Trump won by a huge margin in 2016.
A sign at the entrance describes this place as “Florida’s friendliest hometown” but it’s clear right away that things have changed over the past four years.
In July, a pro-Trump golfcart rally became an infamous symbol of the deep division and racism, not just here but around the country, when a Trump supporter was captured on video during a confrontation shouting “white power”. The president himself retweeted the video, before deleting it after an online backlash.
It was shocking but not surprising, says Chris Stanley, president of the Villages Democratic Club. Outwardly supporting Joe Biden has become transgression here, she says. Her members have had their property damaged, their golf carts blocked and many have lost friendship groups when declaring their political affiliation. We’re talking as she drives her golf cart, daubed in Biden signs, down a lane. Another driver gives her the middle finger as she whizzes by.
“I think it’s the way that they view Trump because he’s a bully, because he is full of really violent rhetoric,” she says. “It frees up his supporters to use the same kind of violent language.”
I tell her we’re looking for people who have switched their allegiances from Trump to Biden and she laughs. “Every journalist that comes here is looking for the same thing,” she says, “but no-one will talk to you.” She has a long list of names, but no-one is willing to talk on the record. “Even if you grant them anonymity they won’t speak.”
It’s a sobering reminder of the times we’re in, but after two days of trying we finally find one former Trump voter willing to speak his mind.
Dan Goerdt, a 70 year-old retiree who has lived here for five years regretted his 2016 ballot as he watched community relations unravel.
“I thought that [by] voting for him, he’d come in and make some changes that needed to be made, but there’s no rule of law now, it’s just rule of Trump,” he says, “He’s accomplished very little in office, he’s lied, he’s cheated. I just can’t vote for him.” Our interview is once again interrupted by a resident who drives by chanting “Go Trump!”.
“Go get in an accident,” Goerdt retorts, sarcastically.
If this new 2020 adage of the “secret Joe Biden voter” is to be believed, Trump may well be in trouble in Florida. Polling continues to indicate Biden out performing Trump with voters over 65 nationally, a recent Florida specific poll had him ahead by double digits.
But Democratic organizing efforts in the Villages, just as elsewhere in the country, continue to be hampered by the pandemic. The party here is rarely holding in-person events and is not knocking on doors to drum up support for fear of spreading the virus. There are concerns that the message is simply not getting out enough.
It’s in marked contrast to Republican outreach here, which often flies in the face of public health guidance.
I headed a few miles down the road to a local country club to watch an organizing event held by Villagers For Trump, another grassroots group deeply loyal to the president but not affiliated with the Republican party itself. It’s the same people that organized the infamous “white power” golf cart rally. But today’s occasion is a little more low key, a Hawaiian night featuring a keynote speech by the conservative radio host Malcolm Out Loud.
There are two sittings of around 150 guests, most of whom appear to be well over the age of 65. There is no social distancing and no-one is wearing masks. Out Loud (he has legally changed his surname) begins his speech after a group of women dressed in grass skirts perform a Hula dance to the theme of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”.
Almost immediately it turns to dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus. “This was never any more dangerous than any other virus,” he says, as he disputes the official death toll using discredited arguments that are now mainstream in Republican talking points. “This thing has been politicised for obvious reasons so that they can retake their power and reclaim the White House. What has their goal been since the escalator [a reference to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign announcement]? To get Donald Trump out of office.”
Everyone in the crowd nods along and applauds, as thunder clouds amass and lightning cracks over a nearby golf course.
I pull him aside after the speech to ask him if he feels comfortable delivering such a message in front of a group of at-risk people. Over 14,000 people have died from Covid-19 in this state alone, one of the worst rates in the country. 82% of those are over 65.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he says. “I’m an opinion guy, I’m a commentary guy. But then again, all your news today is opinion and commentary. There is no more news. That’s gone.”
Out Loud perhaps has a point here. Throughout my time in Florida it felt like I was witnessing two different realities, one adherent to facts and science, the other rooted in conspiracies and political dogma. It’s increasingly difficult to see which will triumph in November.