SANDUSKY, Ohio — The parade of boats was decked out in flags and banners screaming support for President Trump, led by a barge that had been used in previous summers for bikini-tops-optional parties on Sandusky Bay but was now laden with 10 cannons and a crane holding up a 22-by-15-foot American flag. It flapped in the wind as the cannons fired.
There were motorcycles and pickup trucks on the shore, and an antique military plane in the sky. Trump flags seemed to far outnumber American ones; at least one Confederate flag flew among them. The dozen or so men firing the cannons wore red hats embroidered with Trump’s name and praise for the president. They shouted strings of excited obscenities as they marveled at the hundreds of boats behind them.
“There are still people coming to get into the parade!” exclaimed Shaun Bickley, 54, the barge owner who organized the parade and would later change into a black tank top with “Trump 2020” and an expletive written around an American flag-patterned skull. “Man, do you see all of these people?”
“Act like we’re being fired on!” yelled Jeff Karr, 59, who dropped out of high school to join the Ohio National Guard and spent 36 years in the military, including the Army Reserve, with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Another volley of explosions sounded.
Blue-collar men such as Bickley, Karr and their buddies on the barge are the core of Trump’s base of support, and their enthusiasm for the president has only deepened since they first voted for him, even as Trump has driven away some voters, especially college graduates and women. As illustrated by the masculinity-oozing boat parade, the Trump Party is largely a party of men — especially White men without college degrees and especially those over the age of 40.
A majority of White men have long sided with Republican presidential nominees, and they voted for Trump at about the same rates as in previous years, according to exit polls — but Trump won the votes of White men without college degrees by the highest rate in at least 36 years, or as long as comparable exit polling has existed. Four years into a tumultuous presidency, these men consistently give the president his highest approval ratings, and polls show they’re happier with the economy and the direction of the country than White women or voters of color.
Their connection with Trump is cultural and emotional as much as political, closely intertwined with their lives and identities. His enemies are their enemies, his grievances are their grievances. They live by the rules he lives by: that concepts such as White male privilege or structural racism and sexism are to be scoffed at, that the working class, Christians and Trump supporters have been victimized, that it’s okay to be moved to tears by a love for the country and its president but that liberals are crybabies and snowflakes. They pride themselves on being self-made and see Trump, whose life has been nothing like their own, as a once-in-a-lifetime leader.
Bickley, who owns two marinas and a shoreline construction company, gets frustrated by the suggestion that White men such as him were born more powerful, or with advantages.
“There’s 8 billion of us on the planet. There’s only 780 million White people. . . . So I’m personally really tired of hearing that I’m a majority, that I’m a superpower White privilege kid,” Bickley said. “My mom and dad had nothing. . . . I have been working my whole life.
“Now, here I am, 54, and I’ve got a lot of stuff. . . . Somebody says: ‘Look at all of this stuff you have, you must have been privileged.’ Oh, really? Really? I’ve been working since I was 10.”
Bickley says that while he’s now “on the top of the food chain,” he remembers the years he spent as a lowly worker, helping make other people millions of dollars. He thinks Trump has that same mentality. Trump’s strategy for winning reelection relies on finding more White men who support him but didn’t vote in 2016, as well as pulling in more votes from Black and Latino men.
“The people who love Trump can’t be swayed by anything,” Bickley said. “If you love Trump, you’re all in. There’s nobody on the fence. You’re in.”
Those on the barge on the Saturday before Labor Day are labeled as “White working-class men” by journalists, political strategists and university researchers — people in professions that some of these Ohio men don’t consider real work, as they define it: the sort that’s physical and might get your hands dirty. That’s the work most of them have been doing since they were children and will continue to do until they die.
Many have done well for themselves without a college diploma, and they’re living a version of the American Dream that involves owning a boat and a truck to haul it.
Bickley has deep experience organizing large events on the water. For many summers, he hosted the Sandusky Bay Barge Party, which featured live music and bikini-clad women dancing around stripper poles. Bickley likes to circulate a video compilation of women’s jiggling bodies from these parties, set to an off-color song.
He lost his enthusiasm for it in 2015 when his father — a Navy veteran, former police officer and Democrat — died. He started paying attention to the Republican presidential primary and gleefully watched as Trump trounced established politicians — especially former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
“So in typical Bickley fashion, I started liking Trump a lot,” he said.
For much of his life, Bickley was an independent, although he mostly voted for Republicans, even during the decade that he worked at a quarry and was involved with a union. He’s staunchly conservative on nearly all issues except for those related to the environment, on which he’s aligned with liberals, worried about factory pollution and the health of the nation’s waterways. This is one area where he says he hasn’t studied Trump’s record.
Bickley loves that Trump puts “America first,” especially when that offends the educated elites. He supports building a wall along the southern border and forcing immigrants who arrive legally to learn English. And he agrees with Trump “constantly backing our men and women in blue,” although he says he has had a few run-ins with law enforcement himself.
Someone on Facebook recently suggested that Trump hasn’t accomplished much and Bickley responded, in part: “46 days away to your absolute pain. Perhaps you could stick a red hot fork in your eye. Or better yet, cut off your little buddy in despair.”
Even as Bickley’s businesses have prospered, he still considers himself blue-collar. He recently added an image of Trump’s profile to the window of the back seat of his white SUV, so that it looks as if he is chauffeuring the president around town.
“Sometimes my wife will be like: ‘More attention? You just need more attention, Shaun?’ ” he said of his wife of 31 years.
There was something about Trump that transcended both political parties — which is also a big reason Karr voted for him after voting for Barack Obama in 2008 and Ron Paul in 2012.
Karr retired from the Army a few years ago, disgusted with most politicians, military leaders, government contractors and federal workers, who he said put their pursuit of wealth and power above all else, including keeping their word. For years, he has struggled with serious digestive issues that he believes were caused by burn pits in the Middle East, and he was frustrated by Veterans Affairs doctors who seemed unable to accurately diagnose him or ease his pain.
Sometimes, he said, he feels as if the United States has become a nation of victims, even when they’re not — a feeling that has become especially strong amid protests over racial inequality.
“These guys that say: ‘We didn’t get a chance,’ ” he said. “No, you didn’t take a chance.”
Karr says that racism should not be tolerated, but that he doesn’t think the nation’s problems are as bad as the media claims. Slavery was terrible, Karr said, “but that was then and this is now, and we can’t go in a negative direction.”
Trump and Biden have squabbled over who could best serve blue-collar workers, but Bickley and Karr rolled their eyes at the notion that Biden understands them. As they see it, Biden has spent his entire career in elective office with a generous salary, posh benefits and opportunities to become wealthy. Trump is right to call him weak, they said. Although Trump was born into a wealthy family, they see him as someone who knows how to build a business and understands the pressure of trying to make payroll.
Bickley said he feels bad that Biden’s son Beau died of cancer. As a father of three, he can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. But he’s taken aback that Biden has used that pain “as a political crutch.” He assumes campaign staffers suggested doing so.
“He should have punched them in the mouth and said: ‘No, we’re not going there. That’s painful,’ ” Bickley said.
Amy F. Grubbe, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party for Erie County, where Sandusky is located, says her volunteers don’t even bother trying to win over the men who voted for Trump in 2016.
“People tend to go down with the ship. . . . That hardcore group, they’re going to be flying Trump flags at their funerals 30 years from now,” said Rep. Tim Ryan (D), whose eastern Ohio district is heavily blue-collar. While Ryan said he is confident Biden will win Ohio, he has little hope of converting Trump’s strongest supporters. “They’re all in with him, and there’s no way to change their minds.”
The issues Trump has chosen to highlight are, like his cultural positions, attractive to his White male supporters. His focus on law and order, seen by many as a way to scare some suburban women and seniors into voting for him, has also excited and rallied the men who already love him and are willing to follow him anywhere, including into an actual battle.
“We’ll grab my AR and head for Washington and join the police force if they think they’re going to riot and destroy Washington — not under my watch. I will die shoulder-to-shoulder with the cops,” said Karr, the veteran who has three grown sons. “There ain’t no way I am going to accept lawlessness in this country.”
He and Bickley say Trump is right to refuse to accept any blame for the coronavirus pandemic and the nation’s resulting economic problems. Yes, people are getting sick, they said, but they do not believe the death toll is really as high as some claim.
Bickley and Karr blame the pandemic on China and credit Trump for blocking many foreign travelers from China and other countries. Bickley says he spent thousands of dollars stocking up on food and protective gear. When Trump touted the lifesaving potential of hydroxychloroquine, Bickley ordered 90 pills online, along with a bunch of Z-Paks and some zinc pills, also touted by the president. Although federal health officials have strongly warned against using the medications to treat covid-19, especially without the oversight of doctors, Bickley is confident that they work.
“I’m not letting anybody on my team die,” he said.
Karr nodded and added: “He’s a friend who cares.”
“I’m a friend who can get [stuff],” Bickley said with a laugh.
In July, Bickley’s 32-year-old son-in-law became sick and tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Soon his 27-year-old daughter was also sick. Bickley offered them the medication, but they declined, suggesting that it was “quack science.” The two quickly recovered, he said.
At the boat parade, those on the barge wore headphones or earplugs to protect their hearing against the cannon blasts, but they did not wear masks.
Two weeks after the parade, Bickley was invited by the Trump campaign to sit in the bleachers directly behind the president as he spoke at a rally in Swanton, Ohio, just outside of Toledo. He brought along Karr and some others and wore jeans with rhinestones on the pockets and ostrich skin boots. Because they would be in view of television cameras, the campaign asked the group to put on masks. Most of the thousands who gathered outside did not.
As Trump took the stage and marveled at the sprawling crowd before him, Bickley and Karr did the same. Trump assured the crowd that polls showing a tight race in Ohio were “fake,” which is exactly what Bickley and Karr have been telling people. Trump debated aloud if he should nominate a woman to the Supreme Court or a man, as he did with his first two nominations — the sort of joke that Bickley and Karr say the media always takes too seriously.
“I don’t want to make the men too angry,” Trump said as the crowd laughed. “It will be a woman. Is that okay? I don’t want to have a problem with men.”
Trump gave himself credit for saving millions of lives and tens of millions of jobs amid the pandemic. He promised to continue to build up the military, the power of which he said he’s not afraid to use on American soil. He told the crowd that he is “the only thing standing between you and chaos,” and he warned “suburban men and husbands” that if Biden is elected, “you’re not going to have your dream very much longer.”
Trump left the stage to the recorded sounds of the Village People telling men everywhere that “there’s no need to feel down . . . there’s no need to be unhappy.”
Bickley said afterward that the sound system near their group wasn’t working properly, so they couldn’t always understand what Trump was saying. But they applauded anyway.
“We could see what he saw. We could feel what he felt. We could see the laughter and the joy and the excitement,” Bickley said of their front-row seats. “So the couple times I couldn’t hear him, that was okay; I knew I was supposed to clap. I don’t know what I was clapping about, but I clapped.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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