TAMPA, Florida — The president’s coronavirus infection has brought the early arrival of a question vital to the future of the Republican Party: Can the MAGA movement exist without Donald Trump?
The answer for the party is: Maybe. At least if the president’s family is involved.
With Trump confined to the White House this past week after becoming sick with COVID-19, the mega MAGA rallies have been reduced to smaller vignettes, including one held with his eldest son in a tow truck yard.
The event was just one of a half-dozen as the campaign tries to regain its foothold in Florida, which polling shows is a tight race with Joe Biden in the lead. Trump’s campaign is being explicit about the state’s importance for the president’s reelection chances: Trump announced he’ll make his first campaign stop since contracting COVID-19 in Sanford, Florida, on Monday.
In the president’s absence, however, Eric Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Karen Pence, and surrogates are making appearances across Florida over the next three days. The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is going all out in the state with his father ailing, including with a particularly on-brand bus tour featuring celebrities from the world of ultimate fighting.
The Trump campaign announced “Operation MAGA” while the president was being treated at Walter Reed Hospital. It’s a new trail strategy meant to push the campaign forward while the president recovers. The lineup looks different. It’s filled with made-for-TV characters all hoping to turn the president’s polling around, with speeches peppered with clichés about the need for Republicans to “hold the line just like the 300 did," referring to the Spartans made popular by a 2006 Zack Snyder movie. Even the venues are different, as evidenced by the 20-by-36-foot American and “thin blue line” flags that met attendees who filed into the tow truck yard in Tampa to see Donald Trump Jr.
“Just to come and see the president’s son would be excellent for me,” John Amato who attended the event told BuzzFeed News. “I mean, I’m a big supporter of the president, wholeheartedly, and just hope and pray he can pull it through this year.”
Since the fallout from the June rally in Tulsa — an event where the campaign shirked local social distancing guidelines by holding an indoor event for thousands of people — the campaign’s rallies have mostly moved outdoors.
But missing from this event and others this week was the moment when Air Force One creeks into an airport hangar while eager supporters try to capture the moment the president deplanes to the song “God Bless the USA.” Instead, Trump Jr. climbed a few wooden steps Thursday night onto a flatbed meant to act as the stage for the evening. Rather than Air Force One — a government plane the president has been using as a backdrop for his rallies during the pandemic — Trump Jr. stood in front of a large red and white truck where a Stepp's Towing Service decal floated side-by-side with a Trump 2020 sign.
Trump Jr.’s walkout song? Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold.” And the tune began seconds after his girlfriend and former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle repeated her now-famous rally cry: “The best is yet to come.”
Trump Jr. mostly denounced Trump’s presidential opponent Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. One attendee described it as “kind of a comic relief.” And then there were the attacks on Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, where Trump Jr., incorrectly stated that Harris called Biden a racist. In between all of it, the president’s son assailed the media while enlisting Rogan O’Handley, a MAGA social media influencer who goes by @DC_Draino and who also spoke at the rally, to chime in. There was little mention of the coronavirus, except to say Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close family ally, has “done a significantly better job” than the country’s other governors, even though Florida has the third-largest number of cases in the US.
“I don’t personally like him,” Randy Walters told BuzzFeed News of Trump Jr. before he spoke. “I like his sister — she’s got brains. He and his brother are just like angry birds.”
Others weren’t as offended by Trump Jr.’s showboat persona.
“I thought it was entertaining,” Wade Williams told BuzzFeed News. “I thought it was comical. I also thought he brought all the facts.” Trump Jr. made several incorrect claims during his speech that lasted nearly 40 minutes.
Members of the Trump family have always sold their father as part of a package deal. Last month at an indoor event in Georgia, Eric Trump spoke about his father making the crucial decision to run for office.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” he began. “He goes, You know, kids, you know, let's do this. I’m going to give this thing a chance. Let's do it. Let’s do this as a family. Everything we've ever done, we’ve done as a family. Whether it was business, whether it was a little crazy show called The Apprentice.”
Ahead of the Republican National Convention, where all of the Trump children had key primetime speaking slots, Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York told BuzzFeed News he wasn’t surprised by how visible they were through the program.
"I would have been much more surprised if that wasn't happening," said Zeldin. "The president has the strong support of many in his immediate family, especially his children. They are very active and passionate and have a lot to say in their own right."
Priti Shukla, who travels the country for Trump events, had planned to see Trump before the campaign canceled several events after he’d contracted the coronavirus. In Tampa Thursday, she said she was “heartbroken” when she learned the president tested positive for COVID-19.
“I was so looking forward to seeing him in Sanford and then I got the tweet around midnight saying he got COVID-19…the first lady,” Shukla said.
Most people just came to support the president by way of his surrogates. There was big support for law enforcement. About 60 pro-police bikers showed up, many of them wearing all black with a T-shirt that read “BLUE THUNDER, BACK THE BLUE.”
“The only reason we’re here and behind Trump is he’s behind law enforcement,” said Eric Harris, president of the Blue Thunder Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club. “And the alternative right now doesn’t seem to be standing up for them.”
For Josephine Sullivan-Smith, it was important to hear what’s ahead for the next four years, and she’s “praying” for Trump “to get better.”
“I understand the situation being what it is,” she said. “I mean, it would have been nice,” she added.
“I would love to see the president,” said Bailey Phillips of Tampa. “Yeah, I’m disappointed, but I still love Trump Jr.”
At the end of the night, supporters, most of them maskless, swarmed Trump Jr. for selfies. Smiling, the president’s son obliged, also maskless.