Election Denial and $16 Spritzers: Welcome to Florida’s Trump Coast
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Since he left Washington in turmoil in January, Donald Trump has spent the bulk of his brief, contentious post-presidency holed up in what Karl Rove calls his “Fortress of Solitude”—Mar‑a‑Lago, his private club in Palm Beach. It’s an odd sort of isolation: Although he’s largely cut off from the outside world, Trump is hardly alone.
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.”
Because the state mostly remained open during the crisis, it became a haven for Republicans seeking to gather and raise money. This activity was helped along by the procession of supplicants, led by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, arriving at Mar-a-Lago to bend the knee and try to curry favor with the boss. The stampede grew larger when the Conservative Political Action Conference, traditionally held outside Washington, moved to Orlando in February, drawing many of the 2024 Republican presidential hopefuls, top consultants, and big donors. Whether they were setting up residency like Trump, riding out the winter in the sun, or just swinging through for a business trip, just about every Republican punched a ticket to Florida. “It’s crazy,” says Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary. “It’s a full-on migration.”
One of the new arrivals is Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman. “It’s the amenities, the beaches, the weather, the open spaces,” he says, peering through his Oakleys as he spins Florida’s emergence as the center of the GOP universe. “It’s also a lot of people converging on this state with deep pockets and a deep concern for the future of the country.”
Tanned and shirtless, wearing an Ole Miss baseball cap flipped backward, Gidley is sipping a $16 virgin berry spritzer at the poolside bar at the Breakers, the luxury Palm Beach resort. Like so many professional Republicans, he’s on message because he has to be. He’s one of many Trump staffers who hasn’t fallen far from the tree. He’s come to Florida, from his home in D.C., to sweet-talk donors at a conservative gathering in Naples—on the other side of the state—about his new nonprofit, the Voter Protection Alliance, which aims to advance the Trumpian cause of “going into states and making sure the legislature is protecting every legally cast vote.” But he’s detoured through Palm Beach, taking up temporary residence in the beach-side home of a local socialite, because if you’re a made man in the land of Trump, well, why wouldn’t you?
Veterans of Trump’s White House have had a famously hard time landing the kind of high-powered corporate gigs at places like Amazon, McDonald’s, and Uber that awaited top officials from the previous administration. Many struggle to get any private-sector job at all, especially after the Capitol insurrection. Some, like former cabinet secretary Ben Carson and senior adviser Stephen Miller, have joined Gidley in starting their own organizations, falling back on their chief credential and remaining tightly locked in Trump’s orbit. In this way, Trump functions as his own economy, providing livelihoods for his former aides. In exchange, they trumpet his gospel of stolen elections and Democratic conspiracies.
“They have nowhere else to go, these people,” says Sam Nunberg, an early Trump campaign aide who’s been fully deprogrammed and left politics a few years ago. “What else are they going to do?”
Traveling among the Florida Trumpers, however, it’s apparent money isn’t the only draw. A powerful psychological gratification comes with living free of censure among one’s own kind—with being celebrated for the very thing that makes you toxic in bluer environs. Palm Beach offers a Trump-friendly social circuit from morning till night: brunch at Le Bilboquet or Ta-boo; a late lunch, perhaps with a prospective donor, at the Breakers; dinner and selfies on the Mar-a-Lago patio; watermelon martinis at Buccan and more late-night fun at the Colony Hotel. You’re in for an especially good time if, like Gidley, you spent a lot of time on TV talking up Trump, and if—again like Gidley—your affect is “amiable Southerner” rather than, say, “bullet-headed nativist.”
When he isn’t wooing Florida grandees or touting Trump on Fox News, Gidley has been modeling designer loafers on Instagram with ex-Queer Eye host Carson Kressley and showing up in double-breasted Ralph Lauren suits on the arm of local socialites in Palm Beach magazines (sample headline: “Party Animals Return to Palm Beach to Support Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League”). Along the Trump Coast, his credentials guarantee a certain celebrity. As Comic-Con does for actors past their prime, South Florida offers hardcore Trump fans a way to indulge their nostalgia and fawn over their favorite characters from the extended Trump Universe. Even bit players are big attractions. Gidley was looking forward to his next gig as a celebrity guest at a Memorial Day Trump boat parade in Jupiter.
Spicer, who now hosts a Newsmax show, has the most Florida-appropriate take on the Republican exodus to what might be called Greater Mar-a-Lago. “It’s like Disney World—that’s just one ride at the amusement park,” says Spicer, a regular visitor. “I can shoot the show in Boca, go to see the president, go to a fundraiser, and do eight other things while I’m down there. There’s a lot of attractions.”
Gidley says that’s a big reason Florida’s appeal has endured. “A lot of locals tell me the season has extended quite a bit because of Trump bringing a spotlight to Palm Beach,” he says. “People are still here, networking and extending their projects.” He grins. “And you never take your line out of the water while the fish are still biting.”
Trump’s dominance of the GOP isn’t driven only by opportunistic tourists and transplants. He’s embedded himself deep into the fabric of local politics, in South Florida and elsewhere. Republicans have grown to depend on him, as much in his post-presidency as when he lived in the White House.
Joe Budd’s awakening came even before Trump was the Republican nominee. It was March 15, 2016, and Budd, a Palm Beach County state committeeman, watched in awe as Trump smoked two of Florida’s favorite sons, Senator Marco Rubio and ex-Governor Jeb Bush, to win the state’s presidential primary.
It wasn’t the victory that most impressed Budd. It was the charge Trump put into Florida voters—turnout in Palm Beach County shot up 52% over 2012. Budd, a Boca Raton financial planner, decided he couldn’t risk letting this electricity fizzle. He joined the Trump campaign, then started Club 45 USA, an outfit designed to keep Trump’s fans involved in local politics and “support future endeavors of Donald Trump!” as its website puts it. “It all stemmed from that primary,” says Budd. “I’m thinking, ‘Who are these 52%, and how do I keep them engaged?’ ”
The answer to those questions turned out to be “Trump fans” and “Donald Trump.” So long as he was driving the national political drama, Republican voters stayed involved and engaged, even when Trump wasn’t on the ballot. His endorsement of DeSantis sealed the Florida governor’s race in 2018. And of course, he steamrolled Joe Biden in Florida last November, winning the state by almost 400,000 votes.
But in March, something happened that jarred Budd and other local Republican leaders. Palm Beach County held its municipal elections—and this time, practically nobody showed up. “It was alarming,” Budd says. “People just didn’t go out and vote.”
Budd thinks he knows why. “There was no draw,” he says. “They were discouraged that there was obviously nothing [on the ballot] to do with the president.” He suspects that the post-Jan. 6 hangover and the intraparty bickering over Cheney’s leadership post in the House further dampened Republican enthusiasm.
One of the changes Budd has witnessed in local politics over the past several years is the gradual eclipse by the Trump faction of the power centers that once made up Florida’s Republican coalition. “Back in 2016, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and even Rick Scott would have all had presidential aspirations and represented three different wings of the party,” he says. But all were pale pastels compared to Trump’s bold color. “Suddenly, there’s a fourth wing and it’s wrested full control of the party, relegating Jeb Bush Republicans to the past.”
That same dynamic is unfolding in Republican circles across the country. In Texas, Jeb Bush’s son, George P. Bush, just launched a campaign for attorney general. But being a scion of the Bush family is no longer a winning credential, even in the home of the Bush dynasty. To broadcast his allegiance to the new order, the younger Bush performed a remarkable act of abasement, producing beer koozies that depict him shaking hands with Trump and feature this quote: “ ‘This is the only Bush that likes me! This is the Bush that got it right. I like him.’—DONALD J. TRUMP.”
Budd’s suspicion about what ails his party and how to fix it gained credence shortly after the disappointing municipal elections, when Club 45—now devoted to reelecting DeSantis next year—started up again. He booked a Trump-friendly roster of speakers, including conservative provocateur James O’Keefe and General Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, who recently made headlines for suggesting the U.S. military should stage a coup. The crowds came rushing back. “Flynn tickets sold out in 15 minutes,” he says.
To Budd, the lesson is clear: The party needs Trump and there’s no two ways about it. His experience in Palm Beach backs up South Carolina GOP Senator Lindsey Graham’s assertion, “If you tried to run him out of the party, he’d take half the party with him.”
The enduring hope of Republicans who loathe Trump and wish to move on is that the party’s major donors, whose support of Trump was always instrumental, will finally shut him out of power now that he’s gone from the White House. When Republicans have this fantasy, they’re imagining donors like Thomas Peterffy, the Interactive Brokers founder and Palm Beach resident.
“I did not support Trump until he became the Republican nominee,” says Peterffy. “I didn’t vote for him in the primaries. I am actually not a Trump fan at all. I hope he won’t run again.”
Peterffy, 76, may sound like a #NeverTrumper. In fact, he’s the furthest thing from it—he donated $250,000 to Trump’s reelection effort. Over an al fresco lunch of cold asparagus soup at the Trump hot spot Le Bilboquet, Peterffy, an émigré from socialist Hungary who amassed a $22 billion fortune, laid out the cold logic of his thinking.
“Ideologically,” he says, “I am very committed to antisocialism, anticollectivism, because I grew up with it. I understand what it is and what it inevitably leads to, and I will do whatever I can to try to get this country to not end up there.”
In 2012, when President Obama was running for reelection, Peterffy spent $10 million on ads he narrated himself warning that Obama was a socialist menace. In 2016 the specter of Hillary Clinton was enough to tilt him, reluctantly, toward Trump. In business, as in politics, Peterffy’s operating mode is a kind of hyperrational efficiency. Despite his distaste for Trump, he’s a member of Mar-a-Lago: “I live three houses away. It’s very convenient for business lunches. Certainly, the people who are more refined go to other clubs.”
Peterffy has a tragic view of the Republican Party (“completely adrift”), which makes the threat he perceives in Biden and the Democrats all the more scary. In May, driven partly by the prospect of runaway inflation, Interactive Brokers began offering spot gold futures, including the ability for customers to take physical delivery of their gold positions. “It was my idea,” Peterffy says. He thinks the spending binges under Trump and Biden will “absolutely” lead to Weimar-level inflation that will drive investors to gold.
That’s enough for Peterffy to wave off what others view as a far graver threat to the country’s well-being: Trump’s refusal to concede the election and the violence that flowed from that stance. “Was there a little speck of hope in him that the crowd at the Capitol would hand him back the presidency? That’s possible,” he says. “But I do not believe that he premeditated the whole thing. If somebody told me that he did, I would be stunned and would be very, very upset. But I don’t think he did. I think it was spontaneous.” Nor does he believe Trump is dangerous. “He’s more childish than dangerous,” Peterffy says, with a laugh. “He’s going to kick me out of Mar-a-Lago, heh, heh!”
Most Republicans have a favorite candidate they’re hoping runs for president in 2024. For many, it isn’t Trump, because they don’t believe he can win. Peterffy is eyeing DeSantis, Mike Pompeo, and Tucker Carlson (“That would be interesting, no?”). But he accepts Trump’s high-profile role for the same reason that Budd, Gidley, and so many Republicans do: He believes it’s necessary for Republicans to regain power. “I think [Republicans] believe that for ’22, it is important Trump be active because he can bring in a lot of voters,” he says. “What they’re trying to do is elect a sufficient number of Republicans to get the House back.”
In this view, Trump—like a business lunch at a tacky club—is a practical necessity. Peterffy-the-ideologist can rationalize the party’s indulgence of Trump as a bulwark against socialism. But Peterffy-the-Mar-a-Lago-member has an up-close view of the guy, and, well, it gives him pause. “It’s such a screwy thing, because Trump can also screw it all up,” he points out. “We lost the Georgia [Senate] elections because he wasn’t down there to campaign.”
And that’s the catch. Trump is a uniquely unreliable ally, whose main source of power isn’t that he can attract a majority coalition to a GOP that’s lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections; it’s that, on a whim, he can deny them the voters who have turned out, and will need to do so again for Republicans to reclaim power.
For all Republicans’ certainty about his instrumental value next year, no one has a convincing story about how the party will choose a successor and gracefully usher Trump from center stage once his usefulness has expired. The thinking is that it’ll just … happen.
“He’s so relaxed and having a great time,” says Budd. “He’s doing what somebody of his age and success probably should be doing at this stage of life: enjoying himself, playing some golf. I think falling into that role is something he’s going to find satisfying. To be the kingmaker, but not have to be the king, I think is going to be OK with him.”
Even Guardiola, Trump’s flag marshal, has a roving eye: “A ticket of DeSantis and Tim Scott would be unbeatable.”
Peterffy, too, has no answer for how Republicans can rid themselves of Trump before 2024. “I am most hopeful that he is going to give up his hold on the party,” he says. That is, voluntarily.
Saying it out loud underscores just how implausible it is. Trump is endlessly feted and indulged by all who surround him. He’s vanquished his enemies. In Republican circles, he’s more powerful than ever. If they win next year, he’ll get the credit—and the attention that comes with it. Would Trump, at that point, choose to quietly recede? Or would he do exactly the opposite?
Peterffy ponders this for a moment. He frowns. Finally, he puts down his spoon and throws up his hands. “I have to admit, there is rationality to that view,” he says with a deep sigh and a chuckle. “I just really don’t like it!”
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