Palm Beach County did not vote for Donald Trump. Outsiders find that odd because there is so much wealth here—the prejudice runs that rich people are conservative. In fact, my county holds a complicated mix of old money, working stiffs, and fair-weather retirees like me. We come in many sizes and colors but we mostly vote blue.
Palm Beach itself is one of those Florida cities dreamed up by Henry Flagler. He founded it at the turn of the twentieth century, building two luxury hotels, including the famous Breakers, as well as mansions for himself and others. The city soon became a winter playground for the very rich and very white, with an established “season” of endless parties and social events. This was the Gilded Age, the years before the First World War—imagine Downton Abbey, Season One, with Yankee accents and fewer money worries.
Marjorie Merriweather Post (“Post” as in she was the owner of General Foods) had the sumptuous Mar-a-Lago built in the 1920s and filled it with glitterati. She and her daughters married and divorced a few of the notables from time to time, ranging from E.F. Hutton to Cary Grant and Cliff Robertson.
Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 and the culture-clash began. He was different—brash, needy, and not quite rich enough. He had tiffs with the City over various zoning issues, including his giant American flag (he wanted to fly the biggest), his plans for an inappropriate division of the property and, after he made Mar-a-Lago into a private club, concerts that violated noise ordinance.
Trump did manage to achieve some positive changes in a backhanded way. Anyone could join Mar-a-Lago, regardless of race, as long as they had the money. By Palm Beach standards, this was wildly democratic and it obliged places like the WASPS-only Bath and Tennis Club to re-think their admissions policies. But he also knew how to use his multi-cultural membership as a weapon in lawsuits against the city, charging discrimination. He was definitely an irritant but, inadvertently, he’s been good for Palm Beach, like spinach. He helped bring it into the modern world, “Youthenizing” it as one resident commented. But he doesn’t go for classy—the club’s parties were often flagrantly louche, sprinkled with beauty pageant winners and other special guests, salting the ambiance.
No matter what, Palm Beachers despise him personally. There are a lot of New Yorkers here and they know too much about him. They despise his cruel divorces, serialized by the tabloids, and they deem his casino connections decidedly shady.
Upper-crust Palm Beachers loathe him for his bankruptcies—many were on the boards of the banks that lost their investments. Middle class Palm Beachers loathe him for not paying his bills and daring them to sue. Or we just hate his policies, his dalliance with the KKK, his misogyny, bragging, bullying, and everything else.
We assembled at Trump Plaza on Flagler Drive at around five o’clock. Hundreds were expected. We numbered three thousand.
The march began at sunset—it’s hot in Florida, so we march in the evening. People got very creative about this, recycling Christmas lights to wrap hand-lettered signs. “Resist” was spelled out in blue LEDs. There were a few pussy hats, but it was too hot. We preferred headbands with ears, lighted Liberty crowns, and princess tiaras. We chanted, “Tell me what America looks like? This is what America looks like!” “Hands too small to build a wall!” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here.”
The immigration ban had emboldened new people to march. There were a relatively high percentage of Latinos and particularly Muslims in our crowd. One tired woman in a hijab sat on the wall of the Intracoastal with a friend and their children, holding a sign that read, “Thank you Mr. Trump for finally bringing us together.” She got a lot of cheers and thumbs up, as well as regretful acknowledgements that we need to do a better job standing up for all our sisters. A short woman walking behind me carried a large piece of foamcore that read, “THIS Jewish grandmother is not afraid of Muslim immigrants! LOVE TRUMPS HATE.”
People who did not feel up to the walk stood along the road waving their signs. One held up “Humanity is on trial in America.” Cars drove by and honked their support. Bicyclists waved. Glow sticks were given out freely by marchers who cautioned others to “Stay safe.” It all had a sweet feeling as though Mom was nearby, challenging your efforts but urging prudence. And you were Mom. Marchers looked out for marchers.
There were a few Trump people booing as we walked. A shiny black pickup with young men in the back holding a large American flag circled us a couple of times before giving up. We had our own American flags—if anyone’s, it’s our country. We voted with the majority.
The only discouraging thing was that some residents along the route were afraid of us. Unexpected! Disturbing! And the sheriff’s department was ready for violence. Who did they think we were? Some property owners felt the need to stand guard on their lawns across the street, their arms folded, four traffic lanes away. One man held a shotgun in his hands. We laughed and called out “Love trumps hate,” but it was weird. After a while, some of the defenders looked abashed. Random people offered us bottles of cold water. Others—Trump voters? Trump-regretters?—invited their neighbors over for a “march-watching” party and fired up the blender. We strode on.
My companion and I did not make it over the bridge to Palm Beach Island, where Mar-a-Lago is situated. We had both heard that marchers would not be allowed across and, when we got to what we thought was the end of the march, the crowd seemed to be dissipating.
We watched for a while until the sheriff’s department, whose members had just been standing around, suddenly moved in and appeared to be taking on a burly role. We could hear bullhorns on the bridge. I feel weak for not having challenged all this. Another friend, whom I had not seen but spoke to later, did push on. She told me that the bullhorns turned out to be manned by Trump supporters and the sheriffs were just nervous that there would be a confrontation.
To some extent there was. As my friend, who is white, walked over the bridge, Trumpsters shouted rude and racist slurs at any non-white people around her, yelling “Go home.” They quailed slightly. My friend, who is in her fifties and describes herself as a “big girl with broad shoulders,” decided to accompany anyone across who wanted to go. She made several trips. The Trumpsters noticed her doing this and one guy spotted that she (as is her habit) was braless. “Get a bra!” he shouted. She laughed at him. “Is that the best shot you have for me?”
About three hundred people made it over the bridge, where not just sheriffs but a SWAT team guarded Mar-a-Lago, complete with a portable gun turret. It seemed like overkill but my bridge-crossing friend was not surprised. Trump is the President after all, and Palm Beach is new territory for security forces. She was told that there were a hundred Trump supporters there during the day but, by the time she got there, she saw only about thirty, mostly men.
Mostly men. Somehow we all seemed to know that, yet again, ours was a women’s protest. Frankly, this strikes me as odd, sad even, but it’s highly significant. My friend who walked the bridge told me that her husband dropped her off and picked her up afterwards. There would be room for me in their car next time, she offered. Like many men, her husband sees himself in a supporters’ role. It was the same thing I saw in D.C. a month ago, where someone told me that her niece and a group of pals drove from Maine to march while their menfolk got together and babysat. It’s not that men aren’t just as mad as anyone else, it’s that an important dynamic has shifted.
Thank you, Mr. Trump, for bringing us together? I’m sorry, I can’t call him President Trump. I just can’t.