Illustration by Claudine Hellmuth
The food at a recent dinner party I attended in Kensington was fantastic. The company was smart and fun. Wine and laughter flowed as the conversation veered from vegetable gardening to Eastern mysticism to an organization that fosters world peace. Then a new topic landed on the table like a Scud missile: GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.
One charming couple—liberals unhappy with the Democratic National Committee’s treatment of their preferred candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont—said they expected to vote for Trump in November. I said that my elderly mother, a lifelong Democrat and ardent Sanders fan, was threatening every DNC fundraiser who telephoned her that she’d vote for Trump in protest if Sanders wasn’t on the ticket.
Our lovely hostess, who supports Hillary Clinton for president and often works for Democratic campaigns, was apoplectic. She couldn’t have looked or sounded more shocked if her dinner guests had announced that they worship Satan.
In liberal, politically-correct Montgomery County, Trump supporters can feel as unwelcome as a Black Lives Matter protestor at a Trump rally. I know because after that dinner party I went looking for Trump supporters in the county to find out why they like him, and whether they tell their neighbors about their political leanings. I started by calling a Republican neighbor for advice on how to find them. “Look for a white guy driving a truck,” he quipped.
Well, not exactly. Gail Weiss, 55, of Bethesda, drives a Volvo. The things Trump says that shock and offend so many give her hope. She loves that Trump said he’d combat terrorism by closing U.S. borders temporarily to all Muslim immigrants. Americans are tired of feeling afraid, says Weiss, who grew up in Bethesda and is married to a former U.S. Marine who served in Afghanistan. “If Americans don’t say ‘America first,’ who is going to?
“Trump has really broken open the calcifications of our current national political process,” Weiss says. “It’s making a lot of people on both sides who are part of the entrenched political class very uncomfortable—and that suits me just fine.”
Even so, Weiss isn’t sure she’ll slap a “Trump For President” bumper sticker onto her car. “Not that it is a Ferrari,” she says, “but I don’t want anyone to key it.”
I tracked down a few local Trump supporters who hosted early campaign events for him in Montgomery County and now have official roles with the campaign, including a female physician and a man who owns a six-bedroom home on a large wooded lot in Bethesda. Neither wanted to be interviewed and named for this column, saying they didn’t have permission from the Trump campaign. The doctor, who practices in Rockville, also said she didn’t expect her support for Trump to become public and was concerned that she could lose patients.
Alirio Martinez Jr., 40, of Germantown, will be a Trump delegate to the Republican National Convention this summer. Martinez works for Rentals Unlimited, delivering construction machines and equipment all over the county. His family came to the United States legally from El Salvador when he was 14, he says. A cousin has been waiting for years to join them legally. Martinez says he wants Trump to clamp down on illegal immigration because it’s unfair for undocumented people to “jump the line.”
Trump’s statements characterizing some Hispanic immigrants as rapists or murderers don’t bother Martinez, he says. “I knew what he was talking about,” Martinez says. “There are a lot of people who come here who are doing bad things. Not everybody. He didn’t intend to say everybody. That’s the way he talks.
“That’s another thing I like about Trump,” says Martinez, a member of the county’s Republican Central Committee. “In the Republican Party, they are afraid to speak the truth. They are so afraid people will call them racists. That’s why Trump is winning so big, even with some on the Democrat side—he is saying what people are thinking.”
Even before Trump launched his presidential bid, it was tough for some Republicans to feel comfortable touting their political views in Democrat-controlled Montgomery County. “It’s hard to get a date in Montgomery County being a Republican,” says Dan McHugh, vice president of the Montgomery County Young Republicans. “I’m 34 years old and I’m still single.”
Kat O’Connor, 48, communications chair for the Montgomery County GOP, says it’s long been a challenge to convince Republican homeowners in Potomac and the close-in neighborhoods of Chevy Chase and Bethesda to put signs on their front lawn supporting Republican candidates. “They are afraid to put up signs in their neighborhood,” she says. “They will be ostracized. They will be ridiculed. They will be shunned.”
Party activists say that in the run-up to the Maryland Republican primary this spring, which Trump won, Trump campaign signs were the only Republican signs vandalized in the county. “There are a lot of very angry people who don’t like Trump,” McHugh says. “I am going to vote for Trump. I am going to support him. I might wear a Trump T-shirt, but I don’t want to put a sticker on my car. They won’t shoot me for supporting Trump. But they might damage my car.”
O’Connor lives on a farm in Damascus with her lawyer husband. A munitions manufacturer and licensed arms dealer, she is not anybody’s idea of a typical suburban mom. But she has at least one thing in common with many longtime Montgomery County homeowners: She’s afraid her kids won’t be able to afford to live here when they grow up. “Trump not having a track record as an elected official, that’s a plus for me,” she says. “The people in D.C. right now have really let us down.”
Jeff Brown, a Trump supporter who grew up in Montgomery County, says he and his wife can’t afford to retire here. He is 64. He’s run a small wallpaper and painting business since his undergraduate days at the University of Maryland. He says his business, J.A. Brown Associates, has been hurt by illegal immigrants who don’t pay taxes and underbid him for work. At the same time, he says, his county taxes have risen in part to educate and to provide social services for illegal immigrants. He is hopeful that Trump will reverse trends that make his family less economically secure.
Brown expects to work hard to try to elect Trump, but doubts he’ll stick a Trump sign in front of his townhouse. He lives in a Gaithersburg neighborhood that is seeing a big influx of Hispanics. Brown is president of his homeowners association. He worries that a Trump sign would “stir up a lot of animosity,” he says.
Weiss, the Volvo-driving Trump supporter from Bethesda, says she has an idea for the perfect, vandal-proof suburban lawn sign for the 2016 election season: “Our Candidate Might Suck, But Yours Sucks Worse.”
April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.