The story of summer, 2020 in the United States is one of cancelled plans, pent up energy and existential angst. Whether they think COVID-19 is a threat or not, Americans have been forced to reshape their lives in the face of a pandemic that many of our leaders had said would be over by now.
Inescapably, 2020 is also an election year, and this summer has seen an explosion of political expression.
Left-leaning cities have erupted in protests and uprisings, with tens of thousands outraged over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the broader issue of racial injustice in the US.
But what of the others, many of whom live in rural areas and support Donald Trump’s re-election bid?
Enter the “Trumptilla”.
This summer, all over the country, seafaring supporters of President Donald Trump have taken to the water, staging enormous flotilla boat rallies.
The origin can be traced back to a simple act of defiance in early May, when a Jupiter, Florida resident was banned by the management of his gated community from flying a “MAGA” flag off the end of his dock, referring to Trump’s 2016 election slogan: “Make America Great Again.”
In response, he covered his boat in Trump decals, and when word got out, so-called “Trumptillas” began popping up everywhere, spreading from Florida to North Carolina, Arizona and, most recently, to New York state.
A “MAGA boater” even showed up for the splashdown of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship on Sunday, August 2, making an appearance on NASA’s live stream of the event.
“Boating is American. The communists shut everything else down, but they haven’t been able to shut this down,” explained David Kolakowski that same day on upstate New York’s Oneida Lake.
“At first we supported the [COVID-19] shutdown, but after that, it’s a lie to hurt the economy because they’re doing everything they can to hurt Trump, so we came out to show support,” he said.
‘I love that he puts America first’
The event’s 23-year-old organiser, Tyler was inspired by a July Fourth rally in South Carolina, which drew a reported 3,400 boats, making it a potential Guinness World Records holder for the largest boat parade.
“I saw the [rally] on Lake Norman and thought ‘That would be pretty cool,'” he said.
Tyler did not want his last name used for fear of reprisal against his family’s businesses by anti-Trump community members. He said he has already received negative feedback.
“I got one [Facebook] message, they told me I was a racist and homophobic. I’m like, my girlfriend is Chinese and my twin-brother is gay,” he said.
Fear of Trump haters was a concern for some who gathered at the waterfront Pier in Brewerton, New York on Sunday.
Hundreds of yachts, pontoon boats, speed boats and small aluminium fishing boats decked out in “Trump 2020” flags with colourful slogans like “no more bullsh*t” and “f**k your feelings” floated back and forth on the water, getting ready to head out.
Onlookers sported custom “Oneida Lake Flotilla 2020” T-shirts and face masks, and by 10am were already cracking Twisted Teas and Michelob Ultras.
Shane Mennig was piloting a supercharged Yamaha jet ski, flying a Trump flag, an American flag and a “thin blue line” flag. The latter has become controversial – for nearly a century a symbol to represent law enforcement, in recent years it has also been flown by white supremacists.
Mennig, in his first year as a boater, bought two jet skis with his girlfriend Alisha McLaughlin in November. “I never owned a Trump flag until this, I ordered one online to be ready,” he said.
He is also a relative newcomer to politics and said he never really paid attention before Trump came on the scene. “I love that he puts America first,” he said.
Asked about the “thin blue line” flag, he said lots of his buddies are sheriff’s deputies.
“They’re pretty pro-Trump around here,” said Tyler, referring to the local Oswego and Onondaga county sheriff’s departments. “They called me and asked what I was doing it [the rally] for, and I said if it’s gonna be a problem just call it a protest, can’t stop us then,” he joked.
He said he was easily granted a permit for the flotilla.
As the boats left Brewerton, uniformed deputies smiled and waved from a county sheriff boat flying a large MAGA flag, and the boaters cheered back and shouted, “Thank you.”
‘Everyone’s six feet apart’
In Three Mile Bay, a shallow sheltered cove where Oneida Lake boaters often go to throw anchor and hang out, another contingent of MAGA boaters that launched from Sylvan Beach, on the other side of the lake, had already started the party.
Country music blared from sound systems, people fired up grills and started tossing footballs.
“Absolutely, it’s safe! Look how far away everyone is, everyone’s six feet apart,” yelled David Kolakowski from his aluminium fishing boat, when asked if he thought this was a safe event in light of the pandemic.
The scene resembled something similar to outdoor dining you might see on the streets of Manhattan: Friends and family clustered in pockets, parked up in disparate areas without much intermingling going on. Though no one was wearing a mask, the boaters kept their distance from one another for the most part.
The lake straddles Onondaga and Oswego counties, which have seen a combined 203 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
“Most people stay in their group, they don’t really wander,” said Tyler. “Trump can’t have a rally because of the whole COVID thing, so I imagine people just wanted to come out, have a good time and support the president.”
Though only a few miles from the more diverse city of Syracuse, NY, the rally itself was overwhelmingly white. John, who asked to be identified by his first name only, is Hispanic and an avid boater. He says his politics lean conservative but is by no means a Trump supporter, and came out to Three Mile Bay to spend the day with his family, not knowing the flotilla would be showing up.
“Everyone’s been really nice so far,” he said, in the middle of a game of Polish Horseshoes, where two teams throw a frisbee at each other trying to knock a bottle off a pedestal. “Hey, they’re just out here supporting what they like. What’s wrong with that?”
As the day dragged on and the hot sun took its toll, the boaters began to depart.
“We’re totally hooked,” said Shawn Bartlett, a corrections sergeant with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department, who had a day off. “It’s great to get all the supporters together and show him [Trump] that the silent majority is out there. Don’t follow the polls.”
“‘Wow!’ is all I have to say. Incredible turnout,” said Tyler. He’s already planning the next one for Labor Day holiday weekend on September 5-7, and hopes to get an even higher turnout.
“Maybe one day, I’ll get flown to the White House,” he said, with a chuckle. “I think that’d be pretty cool.”