REEDVILLE, Virginia—It is a breezy fall afternoon, and I’m standing on the bow of a 48-foot catamaran near the mouth of the Great Wicomico River. From this privileged position, I count the boats coming up from the marina: a cobbled-together collection of dinghies, cabin cruisers, runabouts, and a lone jet ski—all parading for the greater glory of President Donald Trump.
There are exactly 120 of them, bobbing in the chop. Most are decorated with the Stars and Stripes, the Gadsden, and Make America Great Again flags. A few rebels hoist the Confederate flag. My own vessel, Mojo, is flying several custom-made Boaters for Trump banners. Their designer, Dan Draper, helms her, making him the de facto leader of this fleet.
Draper is one of the original boaters for Trump. A Georgia resident in his mid-50s who spends his free time in the Virgin Islands, he and his wife, Lauren, found themselves caught stateside earlier this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was an ordeal (and in Draper’s opinion, a “crock of shit”), but like nearly everyone else, they bore lockdown through the spring with a grimace.
In late April, a Florida incident caught Draper’s eye. Carlos Gavidia, a boat owner in Palm Beach County, held a 1,500-boat Trump rally near the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort. It was flashy, fun, and totally a fluke. Gavidia only planned the event to stick it to his homeowner’s association, which did not allow flag-flying—including the gigantic MAGA flag waving off the back of his 42-foot center console. So he rebelled. He renamed his vessel “Trump,” wrapped it in patriotic colors, and invited anyone with a boat and MAGA flags to take over the Intracoastal Waterway.
As Draper watched Gavidia’s saga unfold, he sensed opportunity. What started as a one-off event was quickly becoming a movement. Parades were happening in any state with water and the carnivalesque scenes were going viral. Even Trump caught on and tweeted approvingly. For Draper, this was the natural release of energy pent-up during lockdowns. After hosting his own 400-boat parade on Lake Lanier, he created Boaters for Trump, a Facebook group where all boat-owning Trump-believers can vibe out and plan their festivities.
Draper is an aggressive recruiter and minor celebrity in the boating community. A few weeks before this event, he was fresh off the success of Lake Lanier’s 3,800-boat Great American Boat Parade, and decided to take a quiet cruise up the Chesapeake Bay. Tom Kimmitt, one of the roughly 14,500 members of Boaters for Trump, took notice, and asked him to help lead the Reedville efforts. Draper gladly assented to the honor.
“We’ve got nothing else to do but float around,” he chuckled.
And now, as we plow down the river, Draper tries to induct me into the movement. Boaters for Trump, he explains, is for everyone. You don’t even have to own a boat, or have access to a boat. Just loving the president is enough for membership.
I volunteer that I actually do have part ownership in a 14-foot Sunfish with a torn sail and bent mast.
“That’s perfect!” he says, urging me to join up.
Throughout our exchange, Kimmitt’s voice cuts in and out of the boat’s VHF radio, directing the parade. He invites a woman to sing the national anthem and “America the Beautiful.” He delivers a brief, patriotic speech. At one point he spies a bald eagle and remarks that, surely, this is good omen.
“All right, everybody, let’s let our president know how much we love him,” Kimmitt declares as the boats make their slow way down the river.
And they do. Draper throws anchor and from our perch, we survey the scene. Big boats, small boats, all festooned with the message of MAGA. Cigar smoke and classic rock. Shirtless guys and girls in bikinis. Corona Extra. I have heard it said that to skeptical eyes, these events are rather like Cormac McCarthy’s “legion of horribles” in Blood Meridian. That’s not quite right: This is still just Hillary Clinton’s basket of deplorables, reliving their unprecedented 2016 victory—and loving every minute of it.
Eventually the boats disperse, and Draper and I retire to the cabin to talk politics. He fields some familiar opinions. The racial justice protests after the George Floyd killings are out of control. The coronavirus response was botched at the state level. Joe Biden doesn’t have a chance. Trump is undoubtedly going to win in 2020.
It’s only when we’ve cracked open a couple beers that Draper begins to get serious. This Boaters for Trump thing, he says, is not just about trolling the left and making America great again. Of course, Draper loves all that—he thinks it’s hilarious how Trump enrages his critics—but he knows that the fun will soon pass. At the end of the season, he plans to sell his catamaran, buy an RV, and disappear into the heartland.
Draper does not know what will come after that. And he’s not concerned. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma. He thought he had only months to live. Friends called to say goodbye. His doctor told him to “make yourself comfortable” for the inevitable. The news stopped everything.
But through what Draper believes is a miracle, he is in remission. And he’s not about to waste the time that’s been given back to him. The thought of death compels him to squeeze whatever he can out of life.
“We don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he says. “We do everything we can. We enjoy everything we can. And we thank God every day.”
He glances out the window as one last MAGA boater speeds by, six flags flapping in the wind. It is getting dark. Draper looks down the neck of his beer and sighs.
“We still got boats coming through?” he says. “We still got boats coming through. I’m about ready to pull anchor.”
Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.