Tossed from the White House, banished from Facebook and Twitter, Trump has never seemed more distant from public consciousness. But while he can’t broadcast out, those same platforms offer a surprisingly intimate glimpse into his new life, thanks to the prolific posting of the club’s guests. At every moment of his day, Trump is bathed in adulation. When he enters the dining room, people stand and applaud. When he returns from golf, he’s met with squeals and selfie requests. When he leaves Mar-a-Lago, he often encounters flag-waving throngs organized by Willy Guardiola, a former professional harmonica player and anti-abortion activist who runs weekly pro-Trump rallies in Palm Beach. “Give me four hours and I can pull together 500 people,” Guardiola says. Trump recently invited the self-proclaimed “biggest Trump supporter in the country” for a private consultation at his club.
In this gilded Biosphere, Trump encounters no one who isn’t vocally gratified by his presence. When he speaks extemporaneously, so many guests post footage that you can watch the same weird scene unfold from multiple vantage points, like the Japanese film Rashomon. Trump seems so comfortable, the journalist and Instagram sleuth Ashley Feinberg has noted, that he’s taken to wearing the same outfit for days on end. Blue slacks, white golf shirt, and red MAGA cap are to the former president what the black Mao suit is to his old frenemy Kim Jong Un. Club members say his new lifestyle agrees with him. “Presidents when they finish always look so much older,” says Thomas Peterffy, the billionaire founder of Interactive Brokers LLC, who lives three doors down from Mar-a-Lago.
“Not true for Trump.” He’ll show up to anything.
In recent weeks, Trump has popped into engagement parties and memorial services. A Mar-a-Lago member who recently attended a club gathering for a deceased friend was surprised when Trump sauntered in to deliver remarks and then hung around, apparently enjoying himself. This insular feedback loop, amplified by the worshipful validation he gets for doing Newsmax or OAN TV hits, doesn’t appear likely to diminish as he settles into his New Jersey golf club for the summer and prepares to resume his trademark rallies. “Donald Trump needs the adulation of the crowd the way you or I need oxygen to breathe,” says Michael Cohen, his estranged former lawyer. By all accounts, Trump’s life after the White House doesn’t resemble that of a typical ex-president so much as a foreign monarch cast into exile—like Napoleon at Elba, but with golf and a bigger buffet.
When Trump left Washington, people wondered whether he’d maintain his iron grip on the Republican Party or dwindle into colorful insignificance, like Sarah Palin. Now we know: Trump isn’t dwindling. As shown by the defenestration of Representative Liz Cheney, the blocking of a Jan. 6 commission in Congress, and the wave of new voter restrictions Republicans across the country are pushing in the name of “election integrity,” Trump’s grip is stronger than ever. He’s used it to force elected Republicans to bend to his warped version of reality.
Anyone who refuses risks banishment. As a recent trip to Florida revealed, every segment of the party—activists, donors, ex-staffers, local pols—has come to accommodate and, to one degree or another, depend on this reality. Together, these party actors form a power structure that extends and reinforces Trump’s primacy, even as he faces the looming threat (real, not fake) of indictment in New York’s criminal investigation of his business empire. If Trump feels entitled to dominate the GOP as if he were still president, it may be because so many of the same people still surround him and treat him as if he is. Instead of moving beyond Trump, much of the party moved to Florida to join him.
Some components of Trump World were already waiting for him there. Just south of Mar-a-Lago in Boca Raton, Newsmax, the tiny right-wing cable channel that blew past Fox News in the race to tout Trump’s election conspiracies—earning a defamation suit from a Dominion Voting Systems employee (dropped after Newsmax apologized)—pumps out a steady stream of Trump-friendly propaganda. In Fort Lauderdale, his ex-campaign manager Brad Parscale’s new firm, Campaign Nucleus, services Trump’s political operations. Parscale, who retreated to Florida after Trump fired him from the reelection campaign, suggested that his old boss establish permanent residency with a pitch that went beyond golf and sunshine. “You’ve got a great governor who’s friendly to conservatives, a fair conservative judicial system, low taxes, and great airports,” Parscale says.
When Trump ventured south, a stream of family members (literal and figurative) followed. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner bought a $32 million waterfront lot in Miami from the Latin crooner Julio Iglesias and enrolled their kids at a nearby Jewish day school. Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, bought a $9.7 million mansion in Jupiter, Fla. In December, Sean Hannity sold his penthouse not far from former House speaker—and Trump critic—John Boehner’s place along the Gulf of Mexico and bought a $5.3 million seaside home two miles from Mar-a-Lago, symbolically swapping the Boehner Coast for the Trump Coast. Hannity’s Fox News colleague Neil Cavuto joined him, buying a $7.5 million place nearby. “Think about how utterly bizarre that is,” says Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist. “It’s like if Rachel Maddow and the Pod Save America guys all bought condos in Chicago because they wanted to be close to Barack Obama.”
For Republicans, going to Florida carries added delight because it lets them do something almost as thrilling as being close to Trump: own the libs. Every person interviewed for this story mentioned, without prompting, how well the “Free State of Florida” has fared in flouting Covid-19 restrictions under its Trump-endorsed Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. “You’ve got no masks, no lockdowns, good restaurants, and great beaches,” says Andy Surabian, a former Trump official. “Trump being there is a cherry on top.”
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