It was about an hour before the start of presidential debate when a tatted-up waiter snaked through a modest crowd at Trump Bar inside Trump Tower.
“Would you like some Skittles?” he asked, offering patrons a bowl of what has become America’s rawest political metaphor.
The message from the waitstaff on the biggest night of Donald Trump’s life was clear: there would be no apologizing for the street-fighter theater that brought to life an unlikely political movement and further polarized an already fractured America. Not on debate night. Most of the 35 or so patrons grabbed handfuls of Skittles.
Though some wore “Make America Great Again” hats, most at the dimly-lit bar on Fifth Avenue came in business-casual Manhattan office garb. During the pre-debate cocktail hour countdown, two men in their late 20s lightly discussed the finer points of the decision they would make in November. “I really want a hardcore social conservative on the Supreme Court, though…” one, in light-brown loafers and American flag socks, told his companion. The friend, in a fleece sweater vest with a gold Trump sticker stuck on it, offered his own reflections on the race. “They said there was no way Trump wins the primary, he wins. I was so happy about that. Like in their face, man,” he said, slowly sipping on a bloody mary, which, unlike some other menu items, was not sold at debate-night discount. Vodka martinis were $10, Budweisers in aluminum Statue of Liberty bottles were $5, and a bottle of Trump Blanc de Blanc sparkling wine was $40. Trump sure loves good deals.
Nearby, two middle-aged women struck up conversation with fellow supporters. “People say things to me like ‘You’re a woman and you support Trump?’ What’s that supposed to mean?” one pondered aloud. The other woman expressed harsh words for Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. “She is not even a she,” the woman grumbled. “She is sad to be called a woman.”
Once the debate began, what was mostly civil and low-volume chatter subsided. The audience — almost entirely composed of Trump Train riders and evenly mixed by gender — was glued to a pair of flatscreen televisions on either side of Trump Bar, both tuned to Fox News.
It took less than a minute into the debate for the boos to rain down — they filled the red and gold barroom as soon as moderator Lester Holt uttered the enemy’s name.
“Pant suit!” bellowed one man in a Trump t-shirt, still munching on Skittles.
But further boos and jeers were few and far between. The audience’s most marked reaction to the debate came through laughter, not so much at Clinton or her responses, but at Trump’s, as they cheered on the quips and jabs the 70-year-old real estate developer leveled at his Democratic opponent.
The greatest shots included Trump’s interjectory line that not paying federal income taxes “makes me smart,” as well as his offer to release his tax returns when Clinton releases 33,000 emails her staff deleted from a private email server while she served as Secretary of State. The crowd went wild for Trump’s frequent interjections — more than 50 of them — into Clinton’s speaking time. When Clinton described her use of a private email server as “my mistake,” Trump was on top of the mic, quick to blurt out “That’s for sure!” His admirers burst with laughter.
Some of the strongest audience endorsements came after Trump’s statements on the military and the police. When Trump cited New York City’s policy of warrantless stop-and-frisk searches under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations, the crowd reacted with nearly unanimous applause. When Trump announced that he recently received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, it was equally received.
Clinton did manage to collect at least one clap from a Trump Bar spectator on the issue of denying second amendment rights to people on no fly-lists. However, when Trump declared basically the same policy position, a younger man next to him in a “Make America Great Again” cap quite audibly objected.
Trump also took time Monday night to discuss his real estate record. He claimed that his portfolio of buildings — which includes Trump Bar’s very own mothership, Trump Tower — was worth $3.9 billion, proof that the $650 million of outstanding debt on those properties recently reported by the New York Times made him “extremely underleveraged.” Clinton had her own bit to say on Trump’s property ventures. She noted that Trump and his father were sued by the federal government in the 1970s for racially discriminating against potential renters at buildings the Trump Organization — then Trump Management — owned in the outerboroughs. Judging from the lack of reactions, some onlookers were perhaps unfamiliar with the case. (Trump settled that suit without admitting guilt.)
The bar began signaling for last call just over the half-way mark of the debate, but nearly everyone stayed through the 90-minute finish.
At the bar’s exit stood four or five policemen on watch at the well-secured Trump Tower. Most of the crowd on Fifth Avenue cleared out in good spirits, and quickly, as the hour approached 11. Those who stayed did so perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of the Donald making his way back to his namesake tower later that night.