About 50 Donald Trump-supporting motorcyclists rolled out of the parking lot of the Rock-n-Roll City Harley-Davidson dealership this morning in Cleveland, headed to a rally where speakers such as the conspiracist radio host Alex Jones and right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos would extoll the virtues of the candidate later in the afternoon. Whether in an effort to better understand the Trump phenomenon or the Biker phenomenon, I can’t really say, but, I spoke with several of them before they departed for the event.
Bikers huddled together in small groups, pumping each other up like football players in a locker room going into a big game. Bikers for Trump, a loose, quasi-formal organization, had pledged to provide volunteer security for their candidate against protesters. In my mind at least, the proposition evoked Altamont, where Hell’s Angels worked security for a free Rolling Stones concert in 1969, and one member beat and stabbed to death an attendee who was carrying a pistol.
But most Bikers for Trump I talked to were amiable. Some were local, others came from far and wide. Talking to them, it was easy to get swept up in the jubilant mood, and forget that the man they’d congregated to support ran on a campaign of racial hatred, promising to build a wall on the Mexican border and ban all Muslims from entering the U.S.
Brian and Carol-Ann Calderone of Effort, PA
The Calderones were riding a Suzuki scooter, which they’d put in a trailer and towed on the eight-hour drive from their hometown. Brian Calderone said that because of problems with his left leg, he was no longer able to shift an ordinary motorcycle, but that he wanted to make the trip nonetheless.
“At 58 years old, I can’t get a job anymore. It’s been like that since about two seconds after the real estate bubble burst. Now I call myself a junkologist. We clean out houses and property that are full of junk,” he told me when I asked why he supported Trump. “My biggest heartache is cleaning out a foreclosed house. It breaks my heart. If we can put America back to work, I think we can end these kinds of foreclosures.”
He took off his glasses. “If you could make these glasses in the U.S., I think you could still make a profit. Now, you just make a blueprint of the glasses and send it to China, and they make it there, no offense to China.”
“If you go to New York and elsewhere, you can look at Trump’s employees. They’re happy; they have benefits; they have the American dream,” he said.
That may be true of some of Trump’s employees, but others are less satisfied. Hundreds of employees and contractors at the Trump Organization’s various ventures have sued over allegedly unpaid wages and bills, a USA Today investigation from last month revealed. Part-time workers at a Trump casino spoke with Salon about their lack of healthcare and limited opportunities for advancement to a full-time job, and a group of women Trump employees alleged in the New York Times that he was a sexist, domineering boss.
I asked Carol-Ann Calderone what drew her to Trump and she told me that when she was a teenager, in the 1960s, her parents were strict, and did not allow her to participate in the social upheavals of that era. The Bikers for Trump event “felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to recapture the energy of that decade, she said.
I was struck by the idealism of her answer, and surprised when, checking Twitter on the way back to my apartment, I saw a photo of her smiling next to a sign that read “Trump’s Wall Brigade” at the America First rally, a rifle cradled in her arms.
Jack, of North Dakota
Jack was sitting atop his Indian bike, staring into his cell phone, when I asked him if he’d talk to me about Trump. Like the Calderones, he sported one of the Bikers for Trump t-shirts that were being sold out the back of a Bikers for Trump-branded flatbed truck, which, for reasons unknown to me, also carried an enormous wooden Tiki head.
“While I do support Donald Trump, and have since he announced, if find it’s more important to defend the Democratic process than it is to support any one candidate,” he said. “I’m worried about our society, our country, the foundations it sits on and its future.”
I asked what made him worried. “Martin Luther King walked hand-in-hand with white congressmen in the 1960s, and won civil rights for the black man,” he told me. “Today we have Malik Shabazz saying there will be violence, there are cops getting shot, you have Black Lives Matter saying they’re going to shut down the convention.”
Malik Shabazz, a former chairman of the black nationalist New Black Panther Party, in fact said at a press conference that he anticipated leftist protesters would shut down highways, and that police would respond by making mass arrests and using tear gas, a prediction that right-wing blogs labeled as a call for violence.
I asked Jack whether it was possible that the presence of the Bikers for Trump might exacerbate violence and agitation, rather than tamper it. “We’re here on a peacekeeping mission. We’re not here to pick a fight,” he said. “All we can do is put ourselves between the innocent victims and the harm. We’re here to back the police, not be the police.”
He ended with a warning: “With a group of bikers, though, you have to understand. If somebody starts a fight, a biker usually finishes it.”
Brian, of downtown Cleveland
Brian rode a black Harley-Davidson and wore earrings in the shape of the Harley logo in each of his ears. Our conversation carried a harder edge than those I had with other bikers.
“I live downtown, I could walk to this crap,” he said, meaning the hubbub surrounding the convention. Initially, he had planned to leave the city for the week, like several other Clevelanders I talked to, but decided to stay when he saw a news segment about Bikers for Trump on TV. He stayed because he thought clashes between protesters and Trump supporters might become chaotic.
“I think Obama’s a racist,” he said. “He goes out of his way to deal with minorities. The other day on TV, right after those cops got killed in Dallas, and he had more to say about the other two guys who got killed than the cops.”
I asked whether he had any sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement or those who protested the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “No, that’s all bullshit. I’ve known black people my whole life and a lot of them are as well off or better off than the whites. I don’t have any problem with any groups. But I think Black Lives Matter goes out of its way to irritate me,” he answered. He added that his daughter, a Cornell graduate who works in New York City, often argues with him about his political views.
Dennis, of Harrisburg, PA
Dennis, an amiable guy in a Make America Great Again cap, expressed trepidation about speaking on behalf of his fellow bikers, and as such our conversation was pretty short. He said that he likes Trump because of his support for the movement to “take back our country,” but declined to elaborate about what needed taking back, or from whom.
“I’m here until the end of the week, or until I end up in the hospital,” he said, which was a joke, because he doesn’t anticipate any battles with protesters.
“They can have their side, and we can have our side,” he said. “I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
He concluded by asking me if I wanted to buy a t-shirt from the Tiki truck. I said yes, and got one as an RNC souvenir.
Steve, of Philadelphia, PA
I thought Dennis was the mellowest Biker for Trump I’d meet, but Steve, with his Rick Rubin beard and Ray-Bans, proved me wrong. He said that he’d never been to a convention before, and that the event gave him an opportunity to show support for Trump and see what the hubbub was all about, so he rode the 430 miles from Philadelphia.
“For about three-quarters of the way, it was great,” he said. “But I went through a bunch of rain as soon as I crossed over into Ohio. I’m drying out now.”
Steve’s Trump support was full-throated, but he seemed more drawn to the candidate’s personality than his politics. “I just like his attitude,” he told me, sounding like he was describing a friendly bartender he’d just met, rather than the prospective leader of the free world. “And I think if he’s elected he’ll do a great job.”
I asked him whether, like other bikers, he was steeling himself for violence. “It might happen, but if it does, I don’t want any part of it,” he said with a laugh. “I’m my own person. I’m walking away.”
Does he feel like Trump supporters have been misunderstood? Does he have anything he wants to get out to the media? “No, I don’t really have a message.”
So you’re just kind of doing your own thing, I asked. “Yep. That’s correct.”