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Hours before Donald Trump arrived at the Manhattan criminal courthouse Tuesday, hundreds of his most ardent supporters gathered at a park just across the street. The New York Young Republican Club had organized the protest, inviting Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and conservative influencers like Jack Posobiec to speak.
The block-size park was sectioned into two parts -- pro-Trump protesters on one side and anti-Trump on the other. The mainstream press had its own section, largely covered by tents and hidden behind a wall of television cameras. Between these barricades, protesters shouted at each other. "Y'all identify as some weird shit," yelled a man wearing an Iron Man shirt and white contact lenses. "There are only two pronouns!"
On Truth Social last month, Trump warned the world of the potential for "death & destruction" should he face charges for an alleged 2016 hush-money deal. After weeks of uncertainty, the moment had come due: Trump had flown up from Florida to turn himself in for arraignment. New York City took the possibility of violent retaliation seriously, putting 35,000 NYPD officers on standby should the protest, advertised as "peaceful and patriotic," spark violence. The goal was averting a repeat of Trump's attempt to stop the election in 2021 -- when thousands of protestors, motivated by false claims about the election, stormed the Capitol.
But walking through the park, I noticed more hands holding phones than signs or Trump flags. Despite the massive police presence and angry shouting, the roughest physical contact I experienced involved people pacing around with their eyes glued to their phone screens. At least a half-dozen times, I was elbow-checked by a teenager filming an Instagram story or a middle-age man with a goatee wandering around livestreaming from two separate phones, AirPods in his ears. Multiple news outlets reported there were more journalists than protesters on the ground, but the line between the two could be blurry -- it's hard to pick out credentialed press when everyone's got a camera.
If someone wasn't streaming, they were holding a microphone in someone else's face
Almost every crowd member I spoke to said they were there to protest the former president's imminent arrest. (He's charged with 34 felony counts that include falsifying business records to cover up an alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels.) But there was little protesting being done. Greene opened the rally that morning to palpable energy, decrying "the injustice, the corruption, and the communist Democrats." But after she left, 15 minutes into the event, the mood deflated. Later, embattled Republican Rep. George Santos (NY) made a brief appearance to greet protesters but quickly vanished. One man tried to start a "fuck antifa" chant, repeating the slogan alone twice before realizing it wasn't catching on. Across the barriers, the anti-Trump protest had dwindled to a handful of people, none identifiable as antifa. The man muttered it one last time in a whisper before walking away.
What there was, however, was content. If someone wasn't streaming, they were holding a microphone in someone else's face. Outside of the protest, conservative pundits like Benny Johnson and Steve Bannon were hosting their in-studio shows. Their guests applauded the protesters, claiming that the day was a success. Posobiec, who famously pushed the Pizzagate conspiracy in 2016, left with Greene and the other speakers. He retweeted the same clip of himself saying "they can gag Donald Trump, but they can't gag all of us" multiple times throughout the day.
As the protest stretched into the early afternoon, I began joking with Josh Schneider, a writer who was -- unsuccessfully -- trying to trick some of a dozen or so citizen journalists into interviewing each other.
"There are more people shooting TikToks than protesting."
"There are more people shooting TikToks than protesting," Schneider told me with a laugh.
Trump carved out an entirely new online media ecosystem with his 2016 campaign. He leveraged his significant social media following to become president, launching the careers of a whole generation of right-wing internet stars. For Trump, the mainstream media and the "fake news" would never give him a fair shake. Fighting this grievance online by sharing memes and trolling the libs became the right's most honored force for political activism.
After Greene was whisked away for a day filled with media hits that would end at Trump's lavish arrest party at Mar-a-Lago that evening, it was as if posting was all Trump's supporters had left.
As the day progressed, it became increasingly impossible for me to upload any photos or videos from the protest to Twitter. Cell service can be spotty in downtown Manhattan due to the density of skyscrapers, but it only worsened as more people arrived. The goateed man, who goes by Freedom Jeffrey 1776 online, told me he had been streaming on and off all day, dealing with the spotty service.
Surprisingly, Jeffrey was the only person who spoke to me who was streaming to Rumble or some other well-known conservative-friendly social media network. After Trump was banned from platforms like Facebook and Twitter following the January 6th insurrection, a crop of alternative platforms grew in users. But over the last six months, most have collapsed. App store owners banned Parler, cratering its ability to grow. Sources told me last month that Gettr, another platform, had laid off most of its employees. Jason Miller, a Trump adviser, resigned as the company's CEO in February to join the former president's 2024 reelection campaign. Gettr's layoffs came after the Justice Department seized $2.7 million from a company bank account with alleged ties to a fugitive Chinese billionaire.
Some of these services are holding on. One younger protester, wearing a blue America First hat, said he was recording for a private chat. His friend leaned over to me, saying he was actually on Cozy.tv, a streaming service founded by white supremacist Nick Fuentes in 2021.
It was as if posting was all Trump's supporters had left
Despite the initial excitement around conservative platforms, any hopes of maintaining an audience, even with Trump's biggest supporters, seems to have largely fizzled out. Ariel Kohane, an older man who asked me to interview him and take his picture, said he mostly uses Facebook. He recognized Truth Social, Parler, and Gettr but didn't use them much himself.
Jeffrey, like the other streamers I spoke to, primarily uses mainstream platforms because they "can't get the numbers" on alternative sites like they do on Instagram or YouTube. Like Jeffrey, everyone else I met was streaming to either YouTube, Facebook, or Instagram. Jeffrey said sites like Rumble are for people who had already been deplatformed. No one seemed scared of having their Instagram accounts banned.
Without cell service, I noticed more and more people walking around with their camera apps open. Some were recording, but it wasn't entirely clear what they were filming. Some protesters had been rolling for minutes, phones pointed in one direction where nothing was really happening. Only a handful of people were pressed against the barricades to catch a glimpse of the first criminally indicted president in history.
One man, who declined to speak with me, circled around the crowd at least three times holding out his phone on a selfie stick. Asked where he was streaming, he waved me off, simply saying "everywhere." I saw him once again on my way out of the park, now filming his same path on a GoPro instead of his phone.
Toward the end of the afternoon, I noticed one man dressed in yellow repeating the phrase "Trump's a felon." He had stood in the same spot for most of the day, saying the same thing. But after Trump had arrived at the courthouse around 1:30PM, he was nearly the only thing left to film. A woman who'd been pacing the park for hours started streaming herself yelling at him, pointing her selfie stick in his face. In a few seconds, yet another man rolled up to the scene pointing his phone at the woman, trying to engage her in some sort of debate. Suddenly, the crowd looked toward the streaming circle that had opened up in the park, filming it themselves.
Then, after a minute, the streamers at the center of the circle dispersed. A Trump protester seamlessly slid into their place -- asking what looked like a friend to take a picture of her holding a commemorative flag.