BY: M. TOMOSKI
On the night of the New York primary, the Empire State Building shed its red, white, and blue colours to signal Trump’s absolute victory over the state with what might only be described as a terrifying crimson glow. From Wall Street to Columbus Circle, Manhattan is certainly used to seeing the Trump brand towering over the island, but even the most devout supporters of the Donald would have to admit that the sight of an American icon radiating in blood-red above the city looked more like an Orwellian nightmare than a celebration.
The next morning, I left that frightful scene behind and made my way south on the New Jersey Turnpike knowing Pennsylvania and Maryland could be the last states standing between Trump and the Republican nomination. Like every other pundit and reporter in the country, I followed the national Freak Show to the next stop on the tour and rode into Philadelphia grinning like a fool because I’d seen what was parked behind the Crane Arts Building in Fishtown.
Mary Mihelic and David Gleeson, a team of artists known as t.Rutt, had purchased Trump’s old campaign bus and transformed it into a rolling artwork in protest against the billionaire who once rode that same bus across Iowa.
In the Fall of 2015, the Des Moines Register reported that an old Greyhound, which made an appearance at the state fair in August, was for sale.
“You just shake your head; you think that’s impossible,” David said in disbelief that the campaign would allow its bus, still branded with the TRUMP logo and the words: “Paid for by Donald J Trump for President” to end up on Craigslist of all places. The bus had been left behind in favor of a private jet. The owner who leased it to the campaign claimed that Trump had ridden it on at least three occasions while testing the waters in Iowa.
Mary first came across the bus when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reported it was being sold for $175,000, but when David flew to Des Moines to check it out, he found that the reported price had jumped a decimal place or two and was soon on the road back to Philly behind the wheel of what would become an evolving art project.
“For us it was a fortuitous mistake,” Mary said, “because a lot of people might have responded if they had the right price.”
Since then t.Rutt have been following Trump around the East Coast from New Hampshire to Florida and are now planning a cross-country trip to California. With each stop they add their own subtle flavor to the bus, which now reads: “T.RUMP” on both sides accompanied by the hashtags, #MakeFruitPunchGreatAgain and #WomenTrumpTrump.
Mary Mihelic and David Gleeson, the artists of the bus, have written #MakeFruitPunchGreatAgain and #WomenTrumpTrump on its sides
On the face of this blue beast are the words “Hasta La Vista Donny” and “The Scrotal Majority Stands with Trump,” as references to his remarks about Mexicans and his shaky relationship with female voters. On the rear end the words “Birthed in the USA” are written under the Arabic translation of his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
After having been off the road for nearly a month, Mary and David were excited get back at it and invited me along for a ride to Ocean City Maryland, where Trump was scheduled to appear at a local high school.
While the outside of the bus might give the senses a jolt, its creaking door opens up to a broken speedometer, a faulty gas gauge, and an odometer boasting over a million miles.
The interior acts as a living record of the campaign with a Catholic shrine on the dash as a reminder of the Donald’s scuffle with the Pope, a double wide seat draped in black for the late Justice Scalia, a bathroom lined with degrees from Trump University, and a shrine-like exhibit dedicated to Trump’s discarded wives placed at the back of the bus.
But the true character of the T.RUMPmobile comes from the castaway treasures that the campaign left behind. Time-worn playing cards and air fresheners with the Iowa Hawkeye logo, slogan branded t-shirts, and even a stripper pole. For all the flash and pomp of the Trump brand painted across the exterior, the Republican front runner spent the early days of his campaign in a seedy, secondhand party bus.
“I’m kind of mortified that a presidential candidate would not have removed [the stripper pole],” Mary said, “I mean, it’s just common sense,” though neither of the artists seemed surprised.
“I’m sure if the bus could talk, they’re not stories we want to hear,” David quipped.
As we made the rounds through Independence Park, we peered through the windows at the tourists and their children as they surrounded the bus while carriage drivers, afternoon commuters, and street-meat vendors looked on in awe and anger with a range of rude gestures that only a name like Trump can stir.
“We both feel very strongly about art’s social importance,” David told me. Both he and Mary have a history of producing socially critical art taking on greed in the financial industry, where David once worked, and the African terror group Boko Haram’s horrifying treatment of women.
“I think it’s the responsibility of artists to be socially engaged,” Mary said, pointing out that Trump has encouraged thousands to become politically active while the bus has allowed t.Rutt to engage with people all over the country.
Not long after we took to the highway a police cruiser pulled in front of the bus then sped up and out of sight only to appear again on the side of the road waiting for a chance to snap a photo. And so it went for the next 150 miles to Ocean City where everyone from school bus drivers to bikers slowed down to have a look and honk with excitement or scream in frustration at the sight of us. One riled up driver even pulled over to spit on the bus after firmly committing his middle finger to the air for the entire duration of a traffic light stop.
David assured me that it was not an unusual sight to see the bus bring out some serious road rage. He laughed as he remembered the words of a woman in New Hampshire who found the bus particularly offensive: “You should be ashamed,” he heard her say through the driver’s window, “that’s un-American!”
The art gets a lot of love and hate on the road, with one driver even spitting on the bus and sticking his middle finger up to the bus during a traffic stop.
While some refuse to see the humor in the bus, others, like the construction workers we met at a gas stop, see it as a chance to engage in debate. “When people learn we’re anti-Trump, we still most often have good conversations,” David said. “Even though we don’t agree on a ton, it’s fairly civilized.”
“Because it’s opened up through humor,” Mary added, “they’re really open to talking to you.” Some even went out of their way to see the bus, following us into a gas station or causing a traffic jam in the back of a pit stop parking lot. For whatever the reason, the bus is a truly hypnotizing sight. As we made our way back onto the road, I watched a transfixed driver nearly run down an equally dazed pedestrian who had stopped to take a picture. I had never seen a man so casually dodge a vehicle without breaking stride or taking his eye off the ball.
As for the campaign, Mary and David say that the Secret Service have been on board, but the press office has refused requests for comment from everyone who’s asked (including The Plaid Zebra). “I think they don’t know what to do about it,” Mary said, “so they ignore it.”
After four hours on the road, at speeds that could only be determined by gut, we finally arrived in Ocean City with traffic at a standstill and a mob of glaring eyes nudging their neighbors to turn their attention to the bus. According to one jammed-up driver, there were rumors that the crowd was expected to exceed twenty thousand, which was either an extreme overstatement or a major miscalculation on the part of the campaign. After all, how many people did they think could be packed into a high school auditorium?
It was hard to believe that any more attention could be drawn to the bus, until we finally managed a parking spot across the street and David pulled a ladder from the cargo hatch to climb onto the roof with a pair of golf clubs. The real show was about to begin.
At rallies across the country (and even in the driving snow of New Hampshire) David would climb to the top of the bus and practice his swing before launching a ball with Donald’s face printed on one side and “t.Rutt xoxo” written in sharpie on the other.
Inside the bus, Mary set up a sewing machine that she used to embroider Trump’s most offensive quotes onto American flags before putting them on display through the windows. The flag installation is the newest addition to the bus, which they unveiled for the first time just days before the rally at an impromptu performance in front of the Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia.
“With these statements, he’s representing our country, and I think putting them on the flag really makes it hit home a little harder,” Mary said. “It makes you think twice about what he’s saying when you see his quotes on the American flag.”
As David swung away outside, Mary embroidered Trumps latest verbal blunder from a speech in Buffalo, New York, in which he confused September eleventh with the convenience store chain 7-Eleven. I watched as the machine tapped away at the flag with the words:
“I wrote this out, and it’s very close to my heart, because I was down there, and I watched our police and our firemen down at 7-Eleven, down at the World Trade Center right after it came down.”
With the windows open we could hear a mother encouraging her daughter to pose for pictures until the child finally shouted, “Mom it says T. RUMP!” leaving her mother to look on in confusion.
Mary embroiders Trump’s offensive quotes onto American flags before putting them in the bus’ windows to make people think twice about his statements.
“It’s also an artwork about the power of the brand,” Mary said, speaking of the bus and those who mistook t.Rutt for Trump supporters. “Trump’s brand is so strong, and the visual is so strong, that people don’t even bother to read what it says.”
Even those who oppose Trump see the brand before the satire, which made it difficult to know whether people on the road were reacting to the critique or just the name on the side of the bus.
“The Hillary people were giving us the finger and calling us Nazis,” Mary said. “[They] hate us, until they realize that it’s an anti-Trump bus, then they love us.”
The spectacle was beginning to draw the curiosity of the crowd and, after the event had filled to the brim, those who had been turned away at the door began to make their way to the bus. Others confronted the protesters who could be heard shouting slogans from across the street. We reeled in all sorts of people, from those who thought we were there to sell flags, to those who admired the satire of the bus and even some who believed we could offer special access to the event.
The crowd across the street was getting out of hand. I was beginning to think that someone had actually handed out twenty thousand tickets to this thing. Reporters who came to check out the bus, and had every intention of entering the building, opted to stay on the lawn where the rally’s overflow met with protesters from local teachers unions, the Black Lives Matter movement, and others who couldn’t stand the sight of Donald Trump in Ocean City. The speech he gave at Stephen Decatur High School that day was nothing new and felt like a sideshow to the scene outside where supporters and protesters were eventually forced onto opposite sides of the street by riot police.
Before heading back out onto the road, David and Mary decided to drive the bus between the crowds who screamed at each other from across the street. As the bus barreled down the centre, the riot police turned away from their posts to see just what was getting the crowed so riled up, then formed up to follow the bus down the street. To my surprise, the protesters were the ones who booed while the Trump supporters cheered for a piece of art that was meant to skewer their candidate. All anyone chose to see was the brand.
The reactions that the bus has produced on the road have shown exactly why Trump’s campaign has been so successful. Pundits, experts, and political gurus across the country have spent months in awe of Trump’s ability to defy all natural political logic, but there’s nothing more natural than an image and that’s exactly what Trump and other celebrities like him have built entire careers on.
Much like t.Rutt, who have come to know the power of the brand, Trump understands that it’s the only thing that matters. It’s an image that stirs love, hatred, and confusion with no need to look below the surface. It inspires the emotions and knee-jerk reactions that stop us from taking a good look – from a distance – at what’s really there.
“We’ll go as far as Trump does,” t.Rutt said, pledging to follow the Donald all the way to Inauguration Day and collect every bit of his persona for the record. Like the campaign, they know that this project will soon come to an end. But when the show is finally over, Trump will still be Trump and those who see the bus will remember what that means.