Robert Nevin gathered his two teenage daughters and their friends, powered up his motorboat, and ventured into the Manasquan River. It was a great beach day in Manasquan, on the Jersey Shore, and Main Street was crowded with families enjoying the Labor Day sun. But Nevin’s serenity vanished when two boats of young men raced directly toward him in what felt like the start of a threatening encounter. “All of a sudden I've got two boatloads of guys coming over to my boat,” he told me. “Why are these guys racing over to me? I wasn't sure what their intentions were. I was really concerned about being on a boat with a bunch of teenage girls and protecting them.”
One of the boats stopped and came close. A passenger actually jumped onto Nevin’s boat. Then one of the young men gave him a thumbs up while another yelled, “Can we get a picture with you?” What they were drawn to wasn’t the boat or the girls but the Trump 2020 flag.
If America is increasingly sorted into communities that share political identities both online and in real life, the Jersey Shore is where the red and blue tribes mingle, however awkwardly, especially on weekends. Jersey is clearly a blue state but the Shore is largely a red enclave—the coastal counties of Ocean and Monmouth were two of the seven out of 21 Jersey counties Trump won in 2016. Yet the Shore’s summer and weekend residents, many from “Up North” as they say here, come from New York and northern New Jersey. Among them are many Trump-haters who are often not shy about expressing their disdain for 45.
A Trump sign can inspire a cheer, as Nevins saw, but it can also lead to an argument. Brent Shibla, a history teacher who works as a lifeguard in Manasquan during the summer, has witnessed feuds over Trump in bars and on the beach. “Fortunately it has never escalated to violence,” he said.
While we spoke, he pointed to a beachfront house. “A bunch of white males in their young 20s in the house were waving a Trump flag,” Sibla told me. “People were calling them idiots and they were cursing at people. You can physically see the political division just in the party area of Manasquan period between young 20- and 30-year-olds. I've never noticed that in 18 years working here to find people arguing so much over politics.”
Shibla was in a bar earlier this summer when a woman started screaming at Trump supporters. “You get a mix kind of reaction especially, with your white men wearing Trump T-shirts and Make America Great Again hats, sometimes arguments occur," he said. "And just in general you can see the tension even the small peaceful Shore town.”
Alexa Mills, 27, and Greg Ceruti, 33, a pair of weekenders, were going for ice cream when I soured their moods with a question about Trump.
“Oh, he’s an asshole. What’s your point? Next point,” said Mills, a makeup artist.
“I feel the same way, yeah,” added Ceruti, a paralegal. It was as if I was asking about the color of the sky.
Ceruti owns a house in Manasquan, where the two spend summer weekends. On the Shore, they face a greater chance of running into a real-life Trump supporter than in their hometown of Madison, New Jersey. “Most of the people we know who voted for Trump regret it and most of the people we know want him impeached,” Ceruti told me.
Trump supporters like Nevin point to the booming economy as evidence Trump must be doing something right. He urges Trump-haters to merely take a walk down Main Street and see the “help wanted” signs. “Right now I'm amazed at what's going on with the economy,” said Nevin. "Five years ago, the conversation down at the beach was all about the lack of employment opportunities for the kids right now. It's the opposite. There aren't enough kids looking for jobs to fill all the opportunities.”
But those who oppose Trump don’t buy those arguments and point to the data that shows the economy actually started recovering under Barack Obama. “They’re prejudiced assholes,” said Harry Neil, a white man with an adopted black son. “Well, it's a lot of scared white people. I think this country does a great job of scaring people nowadays and that's really the way people control other people, through fear and they've created a lot of fear. Fear that people of color are going to take over or somehow diminish what they have. Scaring up white people against that dreaded immigrants. They don't inform themselves. They listen to Fox News, which is state-run media practically, and they don't bother to read anything or get educated on the facts.”
Neil, a physics teacher and head lifeguard at Manasquan’s Town Beach, said he and one of his oldest friends in town stopped speaking for over a year because Neil made a comment about Trump supporters being stupid.
Evander Duck Jr, a physician and actor, has lost many friends over Trump signs. Though he lives in Manalapan and grew up in Neptune—both towns in Monmouth County—Duck has deep roots in Asbury Park. “My entire family, including my father, my mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, they all went to Asbury Park High School," he said. "My grandfather was not allowed to have privileges at the Jersey Shore Hospital, so he used to deliver all the black babies there in his home in Asbury Park. He had his private practice there. Black doctors couldn't go into the hospital and provide services. My grandfather delivered my father. He didn’t know that was eventually going to be his son-in-law.”
Duck told me his morning walks say volumes about the differences between the summer, weekend atmosphere and the year-round attitudes. As the liberal summer crowds thin, Duck said, his presence triggers a different response among the almost entirely white Shore crowd.
“You get less of the warm friendly smiles and more of the dismissiveness,” he said. “I get less of the New York guy living in the Upper West Side who came down to the beach for the weekend looking at me and saying, ‘Hey man’ and more of the Monmouth County Trump voter walking past me as if I’m not a member of the human race. You walk past a person and you give them a little nod or something just to acknowledge them, a hello and good morning. Don’t kiss my ass. Just acknowledge my humanity.”
That gulf between Trump supporters and his detractors is obvious when it damages friendships or causes brawls, but it can manifest in quieter ways. One local Shore couple I talked to, Frank and Sue, asked that I not use their last names partially because of their support for Trump, which he hides from coworkers at his Wall Street firm’s New York headquarters.
Sue told me she was just on the beach and happen to end up in a conversation with a woman from “Up North.” Trump entered that conversation and Sue confessed her support. “She looks at me and says, ‘Wow, you are so intelligent. I never would have thought that.’ Of course she wasn’t for Trump,” Sue told me. “They think we’re all idiots and racists.”
“I don’t like everything he says and does, but I did not like everything Obama said,” added Frank, who prides himself with voting for all winners in the last five presidential elections—George W. Bush twice, Obama twice, and then Trump.
However, he added they have relatives “cheating the system and getting food stamps when they should get jobs like everyone else.” He wants to Trump to put an end that and thinks he will. Sue said she’s appreciating the coming of fall. Though the 2018 midterm campaigns are accelerating, she thinks the discussions will dwindle with the declining presence of the summer crowd. In the past, she has easily avoided politics when it drained her by just refusing to watch the news. There was not any true escape this summer. “I’ve got family members who are not speaking anymore over this. It’s crazy,” she said. “I’m tired of it.”
David J. Dent, an author and associate professor at New York University, holds a joint appointment at the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute and in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. He is editor of the blog bushobamaamerica.com and the author of In Search of Black America. Follow him on Twitter.