On Thursday night, inside Manhattan's Grand Hyatt Hotel, a ballroom full of wealthy Republican bigwigs poked at their $1,000 plates of Parmesan-loaded salads and mozzarella balls, and listened as Donald J. Trump told them about his life.
It was a classic, Trumpian dose of incoherency and braggadocio perfectly tailored for the night's event, an annual fundraising dinner known as the New York Republican Gala. In story after rambling story, Trump regaled the audience with tales of early childhood dreams of condos, explained how he deals with his foes ("I won't say his name—but his name was Richard Ravitch."), and listed off his many, many business accomplishments, beginning with his 1976 renovation of the very hotel they were all sitting in.
"Who the hell wants to talk about politics?" the Rpublican presidential frontrunner asked the audience. "Politics is boring."After going on like this for a while, Trump then turned to his notes—a rare move for the reality-TV star turned populist crusader. "I want to just talk, just for a second, about New York values," he began, before launching into a lengthy, semi-scripted tangent about his home state and its many attributes. Everyone in the room knew he was attacking Ted Cruz, reappropriating the dog-whistle criticism the Texas Senator has used to imply Trump's blue-state Otherness.
"When we talk about values, what do we see in NY values?" Trump asked the audience, waxing poetic. "Honesty and straight talk. It's a work ethic: hard-working people. New York—believe it—is about family. It's about the energy to get things done." Then, because he couldn't help himself, he added, "If Jeb Bush came here, I'm telling you, he would have much more energy to get things done."
The crowd, sitting at tables decorated with chocolate elephants, gave a soft round of applause, apparently eating it up. Ohio Governor John Kasich, who had just received an endorsement from New York's former Republican Governor George Pataki, was up next, and so was Cruz. But the real show was over. More importantly, dinner was served.
The mood belied the scene outside, where earlier in the night, thousands of New Yorkers had taken to the streets around the Grand Hyatt to protest the 2016 Republican candidate's speech—a demonstration that, in hindsight, seemed like an outsized reaction to the otherwise subdued event.
The protest had started off in a small, barricaded pen on 42nd Street, and ballooned into a massive crowd, stretching between Lexington and Park Avenues, smack dab in the middle of midtown Manhattan during rush hour. It was a special New York type of crazy; a showy display of the values both Trump and Cruz were talking about: Specifically, the New York value of saying—and being—whatever the fuck you want.
"He owns everything in New York, and now he wants to own America," said Johnny Pierce, a 63-year-old New York native who had shown up to the protest in a vest covered with "Dump Trump" buttons. "Trump's a joke," Pierce added. "Racism is alive and well in this country. Even in New York City."
Pulling in activists from the Black Lives Matter, Anonymous, and eventually, Fight for 15 movements, the anti-Trump confab looked like a cross between a march against police brutality, and a Berning Man campaign rally. There were signs with slogans like "New York is a No-Trump Zone" and "Jail Killer Cops." There were protesters everywhere, chanting that Trump is anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, a white supremacist, that "Immigrants are welcome here!" Somewhere in the crowd, a 15-year-old Republican Latino from the Bronx was protesting to save his identified party.
"Trump's ideas are unachievable," said Daniel Flores, the unexpected young Republican. "Building walls, banning Muslims— how is this going to help our future?" Flores explained that he used to support Trump, but changed his mind after one of the Republican debates, after hearing Senator Marco Rubio's attack the frontrunner for "scamming people."
"I started doing my research after that," he said. "Trump Steaks. Trump, the board game. Trump Water. Trump Air. They were all failures!" Though he won't be able to vote until 2020, the teen says he's now a Kasich guy.
Across Lexington Avenue, in another holding pen, a handful of Trump supporters—mostly retirees, but a few younger fans as well—clutched their own signs, which read things like "Build the Wall!" and "New York <3 Trump." Every so often, the anti-Trump protesters would make a foray into their opponents area, and spark a screaming match; there were rumors of physical fights, but mostly, everyone was just loud.
Inside the pro-Trump pen, one demonstrator, 37-year-old Dominic Fuscellaro, told me he took the bus up from Philadelphia to show his solidarity with the Republican frontrunner. Though he identified himself as a Democrat and former Occupy activist, Fuscellaro said that the negative media coverage of Trump—and the fear that he seemed to instill in the political establishment—had convinced him that the billionaire populist "must be doing something right." His back-up choice, he said, is Bernie Sanders.
"The union workers, like myself, know they're getting screwed," Fuscellaro told me. "And it's the Democrats who signed the trade deals, not the Republicans."
Another counter-protester—who identified himself as Donald, but declined to give a last name "because he has a job"—had come out to show his support for Trump. he also brought along a talking Donald Trump doll, from the days of The Apprentice, that told me to "think big and live large"—one of 17 catchphrases it can recite
"I came here to offer a different perspective," Donald said, as protesters shouted at the Trump supporters from across the street. "They can have their dissenting voice, but we're gonna be here." Later, as I walked toward the Grand Hyatt for the gala, someone yelled "Donald Trump has a small penis!"
Inside the hotel, cops were hauling out a group of protesters in handcuffs for draping a banner across the lobby balcony that read "NYC Rejects the Party of Hate." A long line of older white people stood nearby, waiting to go through the Secret Service security check. They had the look of people who ask other people if they "are going to the fundraiser tomorrow in Scarsdale," and brag about their kids' "first Republican dinner." One woman in the crowd told me to "not cover those morons outside."
Hordes of reporters swarmed the ballroom—according to volunteers for the event, it was the biggest media presence the New York GOP had ever seen at the annual gala. Elected officials and party donors trickled in slowly, taking their seats, giddy with the anticipated arrival of their frontrunner friend. A trio of adult women in matching dresses sang the national anthem. A Jewish rabbi gave a blessing. Then Ed Cox, chairman of the New York state Republican Party—who's also Richard Nixon's son-in-law—took the stage to introduce Trump.
"The biggest political show on Earth," Cox announced proudly, "has come to New York."