On the night before Halloween, as congressional Democrats prepared to vote to formalize the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, a small group of the president’s supporters came together 95 miles north of Washington, D.C., for a celebration.
“I need to ask you all for a big favor,” Mercedes Schlapp said. A veteran of Fox News and Trump’s White House communications department, Schlapp, who goes by Mercy, is now a surrogate for the president’s reelection campaign. She was dispatched to Manheim, Pennsylvania, for the “Witch Hunt Party,” an official Trump-Pence 2020 event, the invitation to which contained no description because it is self-explanatory to the believers.
This wasn’t a Trump rally. Trump wasn’t there. And neither was Vice-President Mike Pence, or any of the Trump children or the more famous characters from the administration.
This was an odd afterthought, a bash held in a comically large indoor-sports complex in the middle of a stretch of farmland that featured an arcade, a rock-climbing wall, and facilities for fencing. It sort of felt like a children’s birthday party — but for adult Trump fanatics.
Did you know there are cheese plates at Witch Hunt Parties? Well, I now know this and so you have to know it, too. But toward the front of the room, by the stage, a crowd formed in front of Schlapp. The red Make America Great Again hats of Trump rallies replaced by orange ones, a jack-o’-lantern face illustrated on the front and a modest pledge — KEEP AMERICA GREAT — stitched on back.
“It’s someone’s birthday today, and I want to make sure I capture it on video so I make sure she knows. It’s Ivanka Trump’s birthday!” She lifted her phone in the air as the crowd cheered. On the count of three, they erupted in song for dear Ivanka. Schlapp posted the video on Instagram, where Ivanka does not follow her and was not among the 454 viewers of the video more than 24 hours after it was posted.
Which is more people than appeared to show up in Manheim — and Schlapp even brought a few with her. She was joined onstage by her husband, Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist and the chairman of the American Conservative Union (the group responsible for CPAC), and Diamond and Silk, the virally famous Trump defenders who’ve been around since 2016. They came in costume as judges (complete with gavel). It’s not clear what the Schlapps, who were dressed plainly in business casual, were supposed to be.
“I would say, Diamond and Silk for Congress, don’t you think?” Mercy said. “Let’s take out AOC! Let’s take out the Squad! Let’s put in Diamond and Silk!”
The crowd enjoyed that, but not as much as they enjoyed the Matt and Mercy variety act that came next.
Mulling over the holiday upon us, the couple suggested they dress up in a series of topical political costumes. “How about I’m Peter Strzok,” Matt said. “And I’m Lisa Page!” Mercy said.
Matt: “Or how about I’m Hunter Biden!”
Mercy: “And I’m the Ukrainian model!” (By which I assumed she meant Hunter Biden’s wife, Melissa Cohen, who is a filmmaker from South Africa).
“Here’s another one: I’m wearing Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit,” Mercy said.
“I was thinking,” Matt said, “If you’re Mitt Romney, I’m Pierre Delecto!”
“One more! I have one more!” Mercy said, “If you’re Bernie and I’m Elizabeth Warren, we would be communist comrades!”
Then it was time to get serious. Or spooky. “I think about what’s going on with the country,” Matt said, “and when I think about what’s going on with impeachment up there on Capitol Hill — by the way, it’s not really impeachment, because like everything in Washington, it’s not really not what it — ”
Someone interrupted, yelling out, “It’s fake!”
“It’s fake,” Matt said, in agreement. “This is phony impeachment. They had a phony vote to start the phony impeachment. This is the only impeachment in the history of America that’s in search of a crime! Usually impeachment starts because there is a crime!”
He then appealed to ego, claiming that the people in that room — in a place called Spooky Nook Sports — were more powerful than most politicians in Washington. He urged them to be aggressive. “The Republican flag cannot be the white flag. Too often it’s the white flag,” he said.
But it wasn’t just about impeachment. Every Witch Hunt Party guest I spoke to had little understanding of or interest in the business of Hunter Biden and the president’s impeachable request of the Ukrainian president to start an investigation or not receive military aid. Instead, the animating belief in worldview of the average attendee at “the Witch Hunt” is that Trump is perpetually denied a fair chance — that his every move is automatically turned into a scandal, that anything he tries that’s new and different (and maybe not technically “legal,” but whatever!) is mined for outrage by a dishonest media and a corrupt political establishment, embodied by the Democratic Party.
“They can’t beat him at the ballot box, so what are they doing? Mueller, investigations, scandal. This is their tactic. Don’t let them get away with it,” Matt said.
“It’s a Democrat nightmare that we’re living,” Mercy said, “It is very clear that the Democrats are out to threaten our families, to threaten our faith, and threaten our country.”