There is no actual pond in Collect Pond Park, which sits across from the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, but on Tuesday morning—Trump Indictment Day!—the sunlight reflecting off of what seemed to be every available camera lens in Manhattan made it look, from a distance, as if it were shimmering. The leafless trees locked inside the park’s environs stand haplessly, thoroughly upstaged by two rival factions and their flags of fury, one on either side of the no-man’s-land of metal barricades that divides the park diagonally. On one side: “Fuck Trump And Fuck You For Voting For Him.” On the other: “Trump or Death.”
No birds could possibly find a place to sing in all this racket, and so we must make do with a powerfully built man in a red shirt, red hat, and close-shaven black beard, relentlessly pacing the protest enclosure and singing out, again and again, “There are two genders! Two genders!”
It is, at first blush, unclear to me what gender has to do with anything about why we are gathered here on the day of Trump’s arraignment on hush money payments that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has likened to election crimes—a day that former Pizzagate enthusiast and current loudmouth Jack Posobiec has deemed “THE FUNERAL PROCESSION OF THE REPUBLIC.” Donald Trump will become the first former president to be indicted, arrested, and arraigned, but somehow, through some physics-defying stretch of the imagination, gender is on trial. That’s the way things would go today: Crowds gathered to react to an indictment; somehow it would all become about the culture war.
As some readers of The New Republic might recall, we did this protest/media circus combination two weeks ago, when Trump prematurely predicted his arrest. Today feels like a gritty reboot: There’s a larger cast and some recycled plot points, but it’s pointedly lacking the madcap joy of the original. Unlike the first iteration of this carnival, there are far more real protesters here today, though their numbers are still not overwhelming. They have arrived with their flags and costumes and generic, formless rage.
Trump’s theoretical legal troubles have become reality at last. Today is not about the words or social media posts of a man who infamously plays fast and loose with the facts. Here, at long last, there is an actual goddamn arrest. But January 6, The Sequel, this (still) is not.
We have been promised celebrities: Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has dared to set foot into the drug-infested crime-ridden den of debauchery that is lower Manhattan to support the man who, I am told repeatedly, is the only person standing between the godless communist liberal fascists and you—yes, you, a good, hardworking American who is also, somehow, in mortal danger of being arraigned for paying hundreds of thousand dollars in hush money to a porn star.
MTG was scheduled to speak at 10:30 a.m. When I arrived an hour prior to her appearance, the pro-Trump side of the park was filled almost to bursting with … uhh, reporters. As I struggled to get my bearings, I looked up to see a tsunami bearing down upon me—a frenzied crowd of at least 200 members of the press screaming questions at someone who I eventually realize is George Santos. The feeding frenzy is intense: The crest of the Santos wave crashes down on me and I am shoved aside by a man with a camera desperate to get his shot of the fabulist-turned Congressman. Somehow, I come nearly face to face with the disgraced-slash-embattled New York representative; he is smiling a smug little smile and saying nothing. New York Magazine was right: He truly is the ‘It’ girl of the moment, and no one can get enough. The press scream questions, and Santos perhaps answers. It’s hard to tell whether he’s offering up content or merely basking in the obscene celebrity he has earned by lying about everything, all the time, for years.
Nonpress have questions too. Two outraged women scream, “Jew-ish? Jew-ish?” They are referring to his claim that his grandparents survived the Holocaust. They badger him: “Are you going to visit the 9/11 memorial?” Santos once claimed his mother died that day.
A few men have things to say as well. “Gay for pay!” one of them shouts repeatedly. “Where’s your dress?” the other demands. Ah, so this is the uncrossable line: homosexuality.
Santos moves to leave and the press follows: pushing, shoving, shouting. A fight breaks out between two people as Santos leaves the park—a screaming match that nearly comes to blows. As fast as he appeared, the enigmatic liar with the Mona Lisa smirk is gone.
As the clock ticks down to 10:30 a.m., actual protesters begin to fill the space between the cameras. A rotund man wearing American Flag overalls, patriotic shoes and socks, and nothing else grants interviews. A woman in a MAGA hat burns sage and—between interviews with reporters—holds court about the evils of the media. She lives in New York City, but plans to move away as soon as she can. “This is Babylon,” she says. Later, a man will mutter that the counterprotesters across the barricades are the embodiment of the antichrist.
These counterprotesters—hundreds of them, this time—seem less like hell’s own soldiers and more like a largely middle-aged crowd having a really good time. Activists use cowbells and drums and tambourines to create a beat for assorted chants. Two hold an enormous cloth sign strung within a PVC-pipe frame: “FINALLY TRUMP ARRESTED.” There are at least two people in Trump masks and prison uniforms. One of them leans over the metal guardrails and bangs on a pan while the others shout at the pro-Trumpers, who shout back.
Everyone on that side is happy Trump is getting arrested. It’s a street party; few if any seem focused on why Trump has ended up on the wrong side of the law. Amid the signs and chants, I see only two acknowledgments of that which has brought us here today: There is a carefully drawn Stormy Daniels holding a flogger with the words “Someone is going to get spanked” in the background, and a sign with a checklist of all the criminal charges currently hanging over the former president’s head. “Hush money. Tax fraud. Classified Documents. January 6. Election Interference.” The hush money is checked. The rest, of course, are not. They’re coming, the man with the checklist assures us. They’re all coming.
A little after 10:30 a.m., the street next to the park explodes with a deafening cacophony of cheap whistles. I am told later this is all for Marjorie Taylor Greene, who did not even make it to the park before turning tail a few minutes after arriving. The woman that 60 Minutes recently called “smart and fearless”—the woman who claims the J6 rioters would have won if she’d been operationally involved—opted to conduct interviews from the safety of her car.
History is happening here, in New York City. As the Watergate scandal unfolded, Richard Nixon faced potential charges for bribery, conspiracy, and various counts of obstruction. But he resigned, and Gerald Ford pardoned him. Today, Trump stands accused of a cobbled-together felony that may not manage to wobble, let alone stand up in court. Other charges may be on the wind, but this—this will always be the first; the cherry popped for La Résistance at last. Precedent has shifted today. The legacy of that shift will likely impact far more politicians than just Trump.
But nothing about this protest feels like History. The counterprotesters are celebrating in a way that feels no different from the celebrations that kicked off after Trump lost the 2020 election. Periodically, chants of “Lock Him Up!” break out; many signs say it too. I am thinking of an election seven years ago, when this kind of rhetoric shocked people.
There is, of course, no comparison between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump; one stands accused of multitudinous felonies spanning several jurisdictions, and the other, for all her corruption, stood accused of having an email server. Nevertheless, the tropes of American politics have forever changed. Impossible things have become possible, shocking things are mundane. So many precedents have been shattered. The overhang of the chaos of these past few years will linger long after Trump himself is gone.
Across the barricades, the Trump supporters display the same sullen fury they always have. It’s just another rally. Another day to yell in the sun.
“Two genders! Two genders!” the man in the red shirt screams, again and again. And suddenly, more shouts ring out—a maelstrom of fury focusing in on a single point, crushed as tightly around it as the press crushed into George Santos hours ago. It is, at first, difficult to see at whom this anger is being directed. It turns out that two men, one of whom wears a brown jacket with a stained-glass bird pin on his lapel have run afoul of this faction. Later, I’ll be told that the men provoked this reaction because one was displaying pins on his backpack—small buttons supporting various liberal causes.
By the time I get there, the pro-Trump folks are chanting, in unison: “F*ggot.” The men, who are queer, happily confirm this, which sends a ripple of disgusted glee through the crowd. “You suck dick!” they scream: loudly, furiously, endlessly. Someone tells him to keep his hands off their children. “Andrew Tate will help you!” another yells. The protesters at the front of the scrum are losing their minds. Others tell them to calm down. “It’s J6!” someone yells; not as encouragement but as a warning. Someone screams that the man with the bird pin started this, asked for this, made them do it. Someone else screams that the feds are the ones escalating things. Everyone is screaming.
Everywhere I go in this crowd, someone is talking about drag queen story hour. Or the trans agenda. Or just, gender. “Two genders!” The man in the red shirt is keeping at it. Others occasionally join in.
Finally, during a lull, I approach the shouting man. Why do you keep saying this? What does this have to do with the indictment? His eyes meet mine. I notice a small earring in his left ear; a tiny cross dangles from it. “It pisses them off the most,” he says, quietly, then turns around and continues his work.
At some point in the middle of this mess, Trump will enter the courthouse through the back, beyond the reach of all these cameras. He will plead not guilty to 34 felony counts, then quietly leave the way he came, travel back to LaGuardia, and fly home to Mar-a-Lago.
Collect Pond Park really was a pond once, the man with the bird pin tells me. He’s a researcher, doing a project that intersects with the history of this place. The pond was a source of drinking water for the town, but people used it to dispose of industrial waste and dead animals, with predictable results. It became a symbol of corruption in the nineteenth century. And here we are today, he says excitedly, with the bridge that used to span the pond serving as a barrier between left and right.
It has always been a rotten place. A monument to shortsightedness. Above us, the flag still waves: Trump, it says, or death.