The Creeping Weirdness of a Trump Town in a Pandemic

I’ve come to discover that suddenly I’m the stranger in the place I’ve called home.

About a year ago, while riding bikes to the nearest park with my two daughters, the first flag went up. Fluttering in the wind, just below the U.S. and Texas flags that it shared a pole with outside the home, there it was: Trump 2020.

“It’s a little early for that,” I thought to myself.

It really shouldn’t have surprised me. Although I spent most of my working career in Austin, often called the political blueberry in the red soup that is Texas, I now live about 45 minutes south of there in a quickly growing town called New Braunfels. It’s home to Schlitterbahn, a gargantuan set of three water parks; every fall, a massive 10-day salute to sausage called Wurstfest draws 100,000 people to the town; parks and rivers seem to be everywhere. Since 2004, the year that I moved here, the tourist-friendly city has accumulated craft beer pubs, a hip Alamo Drafthouse cinema, and endless new housing subdivisions where Texans from smaller towns and transplants have settled.

I figured the town leaned conservative — all of the state and U.S. representatives and senators for the area chosen by voters are Republican, from Ted Cruz to State Board of Education member Ken Mercer — but local politics haven’t been on my radar. I don’t go to city council meetings; I tend to ignore the election-season yard signs. So I wasn’t troubled when I saw the Trump flag. I was just surprised that it was there so early in the election cycle, before the campaigning on any side had begun, with so much left to happen and figure out.

It was under those circumstances, under those dark clouds, that we rode our bikes through a neighborhood about a mile away from ours, a neighborhood where we saw a guy in his twenties mounting a Trump 2020 flag above his house’s garage.

It struck me as a little bold; this was a resident of the town where I lived announcing that they’d already chosen the candidate they would back, and it didn’t matter who came along to run against them. It didn’t matter what Trump did or didn’t do between then and the election. He could make mistakes, and it probably wouldn’t bring that flag down. This was a faithful supporter, unafraid to announce it 15 feet high and 18 months early for all to see.

Fast forward to the present; we’re in a pandemic now. In the space of just a few short days in March, New Braunfels went from a sleepy BBQ town ready for spring breakers to a locked-down city of uncertainty. That’s not to say everyone takes it seriously. My girlfriend and I see college-age White shoppers look bemusedly at elderly shoppers and couples like us who bother to wear masks in public or who keep a distance down the wide store aisles. They whisper behind cupped, unprotected hands and giggle together. The virus won’t get them, these whispers suggest, and if it does, so what? It’s a sentiment I see echoed a lot lately on my local Facebook groups; people fed up with staying home, ready to get back to work, and wanting to dine in at their favorite restaurants in the name of American freedom. Enough is enough, they say. It’s time to stop being afraid.

Whether it’s fear or respect, the shape of our lives have changed significantly. My girlfriend, my kids, and I aren’t tubing the Comal and Guadalupe rivers as temperatures get warmer. Instead, we’ve been watching Lego Masters and learning to plant vegetables in the backyard. Our weekend outings to San Antonio and Austin have been replaced with evening walks, runs, or bicycle rides. We don’t dine out; we just cook a lot and do very careful takeout once or twice a week.

It’s on these ventures outside, away from our home sanctuary, that we’ve begun to see more of the Trump 2020 flags, more bumper stickers, even people further down the street walking around in T-shirts pushing the president’s “Keep America Great” slogan. When I leave my house now, I wonder if I know New Braunfels at all.

It’s an election year, so maybe I shouldn’t be taken aback, but the timing is interesting. Is it that the stay-at-home orders have given people more time to put up flags and consider their bare truck bumpers, or has Covid-19 caused people in my town to double down on Trump?

During one of the first weeks — a horrible week — we started to understand the magnitude of the virus. The president began his disastrous series of incoherent daily press briefings. Italy was imploding, and we were being told that we were only about a week behind their dire situation. It was under those circumstances, under dark clouds, that we rode our bikes through a neighborhood about a mile away from ours, where we saw a guy in his twenties mounting a Trump 2020 flag above his garage.

Impulsively, I called out, “Really?” as we rode past. In my mind, I wondered how anyone could keep supporting the guy who seemed to be completely failing at keeping the country safe, the one who’d been downplaying the threat that was suddenly so great. I regret it now, but calling it out was, at that moment, an expression of disbelief. Who in their right mind thought Trump had such a good week that it was worth honoring by raising a flag?

I wasn’t sure if he heard me, but after taking a moment, the man yelled back angrily, “Really!?” Now when we ride past that house, I wonder if he’ll see us and chase us down the street. I think about how many guns there are in town and how easy it would be to get into a truck and follow us home. I know I’m ascribing bad behavior to a person who was minding his own business in his own yard when I called him out; I don’t feel good about what I said, but I feel much worse about the absurd set of circumstances that led me to say it.

I can’t pretend that being people of color (I’m Latino; my girlfriend is Korean) in a town that is doubling down on Trump doesn’t fill me with some anxiety. When Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, my kids were scared they’d be teased by other students at school who’d made their allegiance to Trump well known. I told them to say, “I hope he does a good job” and leave it at that.

That same week, students in the school district chanted “Build the wall!” while on a bus. These are things I remember now, stuff I filed away and ascribed to isolated incidents at the time. I think about them a lot now, every time we leave the bubble of our home.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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