Men with bullhorns walked around, calling for “eight more years,” praying to God, needling journalists and the handful of protesters across the street, at the intersection of the pike and South Wood Road. A spry older woman ran up and down the two-foot-wide median as “Eye of the Tiger” played on a portable speaker. She had a white Trump flag tied around her waist and a blue Trump flag aloft in her wriggling arms. Her purse swung into the path of BMWs and minivans whooshing by. “TRUMP FOREVER,” the woman on the median shrieked. “TRUMP FOREVER. TRUMP FOREVER.”
Four years ago, this might’ve sounded like a prescription. On Sunday it felt like a diagnosis.
Trump is sick, so the rally has come to him, with all the hallmarks: relentless noise, cultish fervor glazed with folksy politeness, and general masklessness despite the virus that sent a U.S. president to the hospital for the most concerning medical episode since a .22-caliber slug lodged in Ronald Reagan’s chest 39 years ago. Trump was always there for the people, his people say, so the people are here for him now, as he recovers from the coronavirus some 1,000 feet northeast. He probably cannot see them from his window, given the trees, but perhaps he hears them. They are very loud.
On Sunday there were camping chairs, takeout from Panera, coffee from 7-Eleven. There were bouquets of roses and sunflowers heaped on the Walter Reed sign, next to burning candles scented like fresh linen. It was a perfect day: a gentle sun, a cool breeze, a reason to congregate outside and feel a part of something as everything falls apart.
John and Carri drove separately from Pennsylvania, he from Scranton starting at 10:30 Saturday night, she from outside of Philadelphia starting at 3:30 Sunday morning. John slept in his car. Neither would give their last names, out of a combination of bashfulness and distrust in the media.
“My heart pulled me here,” Carri said.
“I wanted to see the emotion,” John said.
John wondered why all of Trump’s people suddenly got the virus — his campaign manager, the chairwoman of the party, a few Republican senators — all in quick succession.
“Sounds like a conspiracy,” John said.
“Well I don’t conspire,” Carri said. “We don’t know when it entered his body. It happened at a microscopic level. We could be passing it to each other right now.”
This is the awful undercurrent of reality. We could be passing it to each other, just as someone passed it to Trump, and Trump surely passed it to others. The president’s cavalier obfuscation of the pandemic was always going to put us in this exact predicament: Legions of Americans are dead and the White House itself is a hot spot. The intersection here in Bethesda is the predicament in miniature: two sides living different realities, separated by six lanes of rubbernecking and honking motorists, underlined by a grass knoll of journalists training their cameras on the spectacle.
The other side here was meager. Gaithersburg resident Madison Williams, 24, stood on the southbound side of the pike with signs that said “Change is coming” and “Mr. Trump: Can you even say ‘Black lives matter’?”
A woman named Nancy saw Williams standing there alone, went back home to get her sign, and doubled the protest.
“They’re scary people,” says Nancy, a semiretired consultant from Bethesda, looking at the Trump vigil from across the street. “They don’t all have masks on. I hope that President Trump recovers because I’m afraid that, if he dies, there’ll be a martyr thing going on.”
Trump himself feels a sense of martyrdom, according to a statement he allegedly dictated to Rudy Giuliani, who then gave it to the New York Post.
“I had to confront [the virus] so the American people stopped being afraid of it,” Trump said Saturday afternoon, according to Giuliani.
The vigil at Walter Reed started popping Saturday night, after supporters trickled up from a Trump rally in downtown D.C. Gay Trump supporters said he has done more for gay people than any president; Black Trump supporters said he has done more for Black people than any president. Neither is true, but truth is not the point anymore. Belief is. On Saturday, Christians at the vigil prayed for Jesus to heal their highly favored president. Trump released a video on Twitter talking about “miracles coming down from God.” Trump family members and Fox News hosts described the president’s relentless virility, like he is some sort of mutant horse on a rabid race to serve the public. Online a commemorative “Donald J. Trump Defeats Covid” coin became available for preorder for $100; it ships Nov. 14, after Trump is perhaps defeated by something else.
“God help us,” said a mom in Lululemon, walking her children and dog on the pike’s southbound side Sunday. A Jeep full of teenage girls shouted “F--- Trump!” as they danced by in their seats. The Trump supporter operating the speakers put on Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend,” perhaps by mistake. Eventually a grim reaper joined the small protest, but the vigil was slowly growing, spilling into the busy pike, conquesting the median, venturing toward the other side.
“He lies all the time,” a cyclist said, arguing with a man named Randy, who had crossed the pike with a “Trump Pence 2020” sign.
“You have to look past what he’s done,” said Randy, who came down from Buffalo for the Saturday Trump rally.
“Look past what he’s done?!” the cyclist said incredulously.
“He’s trying to look out for the people,” Randy insisted.
“By telling us not to worry about this virus?” the cyclist said, gesturing toward Walter Reed. Visible across the front lawn, as white dots on the green, were all the president’s doctors. Trump’s personal physician, when trying to explain Saturday’s sugarcoating of the president’s condition, said he was trying to reflect the “upbeat attitude” of his patient — which is its own kind of belief. But the news was good, particularly if you ignored Sunday’s NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, which showed Joe Biden expanding his national lead among registered voters from 8 to 14 points.
An evangelist named Shane Brown, up from Tampa, grabbed a megaphone and communicated the good news at 12:24 p.m.: Their prayers had worked.
“He might be back in the White House as soon as tomorrow!” Brown said, as cheering began. “Thank you, Jesus, for healing the president!”
The crowd chanted their version of amen: “Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump.”
Trump heard them. In the 5 o’clock hour, the pike closed for his motorcade. As people screamed, the president waved, pointed and gave a thumbs up from a Chevy Suburban, its windows closed, with at least two other masked people inside, breathing the belief, the oxygen of adoration.