As soon as I got out of my car, two masked men wearing campaign shirts for a local Republican candidate noticed my gray T-shirt underneath my black jacket.
“Nice shirt!” one of them told me.
“Go Trump!” the other one cheered.
I didn’t even put my mask on yet. And I forgot which shirt I was wearing first that day — TRUMP-PENCE or BIDEN-HARRIS. I looked down to see TRUMP peeking through my half-zippered jacket.
“Oh, yeah, OK, thanks,” I replied while walking toward Central Park Plaza in downtown Valparaiso.
I was headed to the “Freedom Rally” at that park on Saturday, where hundreds of supporters of “unity, liberty and freedom” would soon be converging for the three-hour political event. What better place to wear my two shirts, I figured.
Last month, I purchased the shirts to conduct a small-sampled experiment as Election Day nears. I wondered if people treated me differently depending on which shirt I wore in public. And they do. But not how I expected.
On Saturday, I wore my TRUMP-PENCE: KEEP AMERICA GREAT! shirt, and I brought my BIDEN-HARRIS 2020 shirt for later. For an added touch of red, white and true authenticity, I slapped on my “I VOTED” sticker that I received after voting early last week. I felt quite patriotic in both shirts.
“Cool shirt,” an older man told me when I got to the park. “Where’d you get it?”
“Trump rally in 2016,” I replied.
“Really?” he asked.
“No, just kidding,” I fessed up. “I got it online. Just like I got this one.”
I unfurled my BIDEN shirt like a Fourth of July flag and showed it to him. He shot me a quizzical look. I explained my T-shirt experiment. He didn’t like it. No one has liked it after I revealed what I was up to.
“You’re asking for trouble,” one person told me. “You could get shot or hurt for wearing that shirt in public.”
Can you guess which political camp told me that? Both camps. This was my first takeaway.
Trump supporters suggest that left-leaning, liberal-minded Democrats may attack me, verbally or physically, for wearing my TRUMP-PENCE shirt. Biden supporters suggest that right-leaning, conservative-minded Republicans would attack me for sporting my BIDEN-HARRIS shirt. Neither allegation played out. Yet supporters from both camps did react contrarily, just in different ways.
Trump supporters have been more vocal for their support. Most didn’t hesitate to praise my TRUMP shirt, or to encourage my decision to wear it, or to strike up a conversation. Other more covert Trump supporters gave me a silent nod of approval or a thumbs up.
In a grocery store parking lot, one employee went out of his way to point to my TRUMP shirt with an approving look on his face. I looked down at my shirt and responded with a similar look. He coyly smiled, as if we were members of a secret fraternity.
Biden supporters have been less demonstrative in their approval or interest in my BIDEN shirt. Most of them would notice it and a pleasant conversation would ensue. Nothing too inflammatory or accusatory. Just a meeting of the minds, politically speaking, triggered by that shirt. My TRUMP shirt seemed to repel them.
I’ve never worn any shirts, hats or buttons for political candidates, locally or nationally. I don’t even sport a Chicago Bears shirt, hat or button though they’ve been my favorite team for more than 50 years. I simply don’t do it. Rah, rah, cheer, cheer, whatever. Ugh.
It took a lot for me to wear these two polarizing shirts in public. Both drew unwanted attention beyond the results for this column. I won’t be wearing either shirt again. I prefer to not be labeled as conveniently and categorically as a shirt. Politics is too paint-by-numbers for me. Good versus evil. Righteousness versus treacherousness. Patriotism versus nationalism. It can be as nuanced as a tweet from the president.
On Saturday at that park, I met Jerry Hager, a resident who proudly wore a Biden campaign button on his purposely bright blue shirt. Outside a walk-up pizza eatery, a worker behind the counter noticed Hager’s campaign button He asked if he could borrow it to wear during the pro-Trump rally.
“You can have it if I can get an order of those delicious looking breadsticks,” Hager replied.
The deal was made. I would choose breadsticks, every time, over any campaign button.
An hour later, the rally began cooking with gas. Trump flags waved to American flags. Campaign signs screamed for the attention of passersby. Motorists honked their horns to cheer or jeer the rally’s heroes. A group of teens stood outside the fenced event hoisting Biden signs and their freedom to publicly protest against the rally.
I recorded it, posting two videos on my “Talking Points” Facebook page, at https://www.facebook.com/jerryrdavich/.
“Support for Trump is authentic, organic and crosses social, racial and cultural divides,” one attendee, Chadwick Bukur, told me on Facebook. “The truth is… we see through it and more and more people daily are waking up and seeing through it — the false left-right, divide-and-conquer BS.”
That same day, Trump held a large rally in Wisconsin, where he downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic in a state recording a record-high surge of cases. Facial masks there were as popular as Biden shirts. It was a similar scene at the rally in Valparaiso, where I bicycled past without entering or wearing a mask.
I didn’t care to wait for any public speakers or political rhetoric. Instead, I elected to leave and enjoy my day anywhere but there. I also couldn’t wait to take off both shirts and replace them with my usual black one. No more looks from opinionated strangers. No more political conversations. No more convenient assumptions.
People want to belong to something — a political party, a social movement, or what they believe is the right side of history. I get it. I don’t want to join it. Not even through a shirt.