When Donald Trump mocked John McCain for being captured in Vietnam, John Di Domenico feared his glory days were over.
Who would want to hang out with a blustery, insult-happy mogul now?
"I thought, oh well, less than a month, that was a good run," said Di Domenico, the highest-paid Donald Trump impersonator in the country. "But it didn't stick. His popularity just went up."
And up, and up, and up, no matter how often Trump spouted off or how many people he offended or how much the political elite wrote him off. The nation’s professional Donald Trump impersonators (yes, there’s more than one) were overjoyed. The real-life version of their alter ego seemed bulletproof
, unstoppable, on track to win it all — and provide them with at least four years of job security.
On caucus night
, Di Domenico didn’t even bother to watch the news. He was positive that he and Donald would wake up as winners.
"Then as I was going to bed," he said, "my friend texted me that Trump lost. And I was like, Whaaaaat?!?"
This hiccup in Trump's rise is devastating to his impersonators because a vote for Donald is a vote for them. Ever since "The Apprentice," they had been popular with event planners — who hired them to emcee team-building game shows at annual conferences or to "fire" the executives at a corporate dinner — but after his presidential campaign took off, Di Domenico's agents have been getting six calls a day asking for Fake Trump.
"He's status, he's glamour, he's prestige. People either love him or they hate him, but there's a lot more lovers than haters in my world," said Tim Beasley, a Trump impersonator from Virginia Beach.
"The more I insult people, the more they go, 'Oh my god, he's just like him!' They want Trump to come in, say what is on his mind, and insult the guests," said Robert Heck, Baltimore's Trump.
"The man is power and the man is presidency," said Robert Ensler, a Trump in Vegas.
For $1,500 to $10,000, depending on the performer and the event, the Trump impersonators will make a entrance, shout at the crowd, then take selfies with star-struck guests. Some are better than others, but the whole scene is not unlike a Trump campaign event. Often, the performers just use material straight from The Donald's mouth. If it seems too offensive, they ramp it up just a bit to make it more unrealistic, thus easier to laugh at.
Like this Di Domenico favorite: I'm gonna built a wall, a great wall, and on top of it there's going to be a fantastic Trump hotel! All the windows will only face the American side. The other side will be made of plywood, and every few yards there will be signs that say, "You've been TRUMPED, suckers!"
For most of these impersonators, Trump is one of many characters in their repertoires of Austin Powers, Dean Martin, Jay Leno, among others. They've spent hours watching "The Apprentice" reruns and YouTube clips to study up on the elements that make Trump Trump: flared lips, nasally voice ("like a taxi driver who's been educated," Beasley says), fat ties and coiffed hair that looks just ever so slightly off.
Ensler, 65, grew his white hair longer, then figured out how to turn it that particular butterscotch yellow with makeup instead of permanent dye.
"I can't tell you my trade secret," he said. "But I don't want to be Donald Trump 24-7. The only thing I've got 24-7 is my license plate."
The license plate on his Hyundai says TRUMP. He was surprised it wasn't taken, considering he lives in Las Vegas, where Trump's casinos certainly own a few cars. According to Ensler, the casinos claimed TRUMP1, TRUMP2 and TRUMP3, but forgot about just TRUMP.
"My only worry is that people will [see the license plate] and start shooting at me, but that hasn't happened yet," he said.
Ensler also switched
his political allegiance for Trump. Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., he was once a “conservative Democrat.” More recently he had started describing himself as Libertarian, but when Trump announced, he registered as Republican. He plans to cast his vote for Trump in the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 23.
All the Trumps we talked to for this story, in fact, said they'll be voting for Trump.
Either portraying another man has made them sympathetic to his cause, or perhaps they've just started living through him vicariously even when not in costume. But admittedly, a Trump presidency would be very good for business. They point to the success of Reggie Brown, "The World's #1 Barack Obama Impersonator." TV shows, viral videos, international trips — he's had eight years of solid work.
So Trump's loss in Iowa is a seriously worrisome blow.
"I am going to hold off judgment for another eight states," Ensler said. "Even after eight states, you never know. Things could turn around."
Di Domenico is working the loss while he can. On the day after the Iowa caucus, he booked gigs on a a Hartford, Conn. radio station and Fox News's 3 a.m. show, then scored a voice role on "Conan." Trump's "I love the people of Iowa" concession speech, Di Domenico said, was so un-Trump like, that it would have been a waste to go a day without joking about it. He was thinking of telling Fox News how much he loves all the people of Fox, especially Megyn Kelly.
Beasley is waiting on his next gig, confident the call will come. He said Trump's "winner's attitude" probably made him assume he would win, so he didn't try as hard as he could. Now, Beasley said, his man needs to use that winner's attitude to actually do some winning.
"As long as he wins, everything will be fine and dandy," Beasley said. "If he loses, at that point, he becomes a has-been. If he loses, well, I'll just go back to doing more of my Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond shows."