Hours before Donald Trump arrived at the Manhattan courthouse on Tuesday, hundreds of his most fervent supporters gathered in a park across the street. The New York Young Republican Club organized the protest and invited Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and conservative influencers like Jack Posobiec to speak.
The block-sized park was divided into two sections: pro-Trump protesters on one side and anti-Trump protesters on the other. The mainstream press had its own section, mostly covered by tents and hidden behind a wall of television cameras. Between these barricades, protesters shouted at each other. “You guys identify as some weird shit,” yelled a man in an Iron Man shirt and white contact lenses. “There are only two pronouns!”
On Truth Social last month, Trump warned the world about the potential for “death & destruction” should he be charged with an alleged hush money deal from 2016. After weeks of uncertainty, the time had come: Trump had flown in from Florida to turn himself in for arraignment. New York City took seriously the possibility of violent retaliation, Putting 35,000 NYPD officers on standby in case of the protest, advertised as “peaceful and patriotic”, lead to violence. The goal was to prevent a repeat of Trump’s attempt to halt the 2021 election — when thousands of protesters, motivated by false claims about the election, stormed the Capitol.
But as I walked through the park, I saw more hands holding phones than signs or Trump flags. Despite the massive police presence and angry yelling, the roughest physical contact I’ve experienced was people walking around with their eyes glued to their phone screens. At least half a dozen times I was checked by a teenager filming an Instagram story or a middle-aged man with a goatee livestreaming from two separate phones, AirPods in his ears. Several news channels reported this there were more journalists than protesters on the groundbut the line between the two can be blurred – it’s hard to distinguish a certified press when everyone has a camera.
When someone wasn’t streaming, they held a microphone in someone else’s face
Nearly every member of the public I spoke to said they were there to protest the imminent arrest of the former president. (He faces 34 felony counts, including falsifying company records to cover up an alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels.) But there was little protest. Greene opened the rally that morning with palpable energy, dismissive “the injustice, the corruption and the communist democrats.” But after she left, 15 minutes into the event, the mood sank. Later, embattled Republican Representative George Santos (NY) appeared briefly to greet protesters, but quickly disappeared. A man tried to start a “fuck antifa” chant, only repeating the slogan twice before realizing it didn’t catch on. On the other side of the barriers, the anti-Trump protest had dwindled to a handful of people, none identifiable as antifa. The man mumbled it one last time in a whisper before walking away.
What was there was content. When someone wasn’t streaming, they held a microphone in someone else’s face. Outside of the protest, conservative pundits such as Benny Johnson and Steve Bannon staged their shows at the studio. Their guests applauded the protesters and claimed the day was a success. Posobiec, who made the Pizzagate conspiracy famous in 2016, left with Greene and the other speakers. He retweeted the same clip of himself saying “they can shut up Donald Trump, but they can’t shut up all of us” several times a day.
As the protest continued into the early afternoon, I began joking with Josh Schneider, a writer who tried – unsuccessfully – to trick a dozen citizen journalists into interviewing each other.
“More people are shooting at TikToks than protesting.”
“More people are shooting at TikToks than protesting,” Schneider told me with a laugh.
Trump created an entirely new online media ecosystem with his 2016 campaign. He leveraged his sizable social media following to run for president, launching the careers of an entire generation of right-wing internet stars. For Trump, the mainstream media and “fake news” would never give him a fair shot. Fighting this complaint online by sharing memes and trolling the libs became the right’s most revered force for political activism.
After Greene was whisked away for a day of media hits that would end that evening at Trump’s lavish arrest party at Mar-a-Lago, it was as if posting was all Trump’s supporters had left.
As the day progressed, it became more and more difficult for me to upload photos or videos of the protest to Twitter. Cell service can be spotty in midtown Manhattan due to the density of skyscrapers, but it only got worse as more people arrived. The man with the goatee, who goes through Freedom Jeffrey 1776 online, told me he had been streaming on and off all day, dealing with the spotty service.
Surprisingly, the only person who spoke to me was Jeffrey who streamed to Rumble or another well-known conservative-friendly social media network. After Trump was banned from platforms like Facebook and Twitter following the January 6 uprising, the number of users of alternative platforms grew. But in the past six months, most of them have collapsed. App store owners banned Parler, collapsing 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 participate in the former president’s 2024 reelection campaign. Gettr’s firings 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 will continue. A younger protester, wearing a blue America First hat, said he was recording for a private chat. His friend leaned over and said he was actually on Cozy.tv, a streaming service founded in 2021 by white supremacist Nick Fuentes.
It was as if posting was all Trump supporters had left
Despite the initial excitement around conservative platforms, any hope of retaining an audience, even with Trump’s biggest supporters, seems largely gone. Ariel Kohane, an older man who asked me to interview him and take a picture of him, said he mainly uses Facebook. He recognized Truth Social, Parler, and Gettr, but didn’t use them much himself.
Jeffrey, like the other streamers I spoke to, mainly uses regular platforms because they “can’t get the numbers” on alternative sites like on Instagram or YouTube. Like Jeffrey, everyone I met streamed to YouTube, Facebook or Instagram. Jeffrey said sites like Rumble are for people who have already been removed from the platform. No one seemed afraid of having their Instagram accounts banned.
With no 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 pointing in one direction where nothing actually happened. Only a handful of people were pressed against the barricades to get a glimpse of the first indicted president in history.
One man, who refused to talk to me, circled the crowd at least three times with his phone on a selfie stick. When asked where he was streaming, he waved me off and simply said “everywhere”. I saw him again as I walked out of the park, now filming his same path on a GoPro instead of his phone.
Towards the end of the afternoon, I saw a man dressed in yellow repeat the phrase “Trump is a thug.” He had stood in the same place for most of the day and said the same thing. But after Trump arrived at the courthouse around 1:30 p.m., he was almost the only thing left to film. A woman who had been pacing the park for hours started streaming as she yelled at him and pointed her selfie stick in his face. Within seconds, yet another man rolled onto the scene, pointing his phone at the woman, trying to engage her in some sort of debate. Suddenly the crowd looked at the flowing circle that had opened up in the park and filmed it themselves.
Then, after a minute, the garlands in the center of the circle scattered. A Trump protester seamlessly slid into their seats and asked what appeared to be a friend to take a picture of her holding a commemorative flag.