President Donald Trump during a campaign rally at Miami-Opa locka Executive Airport in Opa-locka, Fla., Nov. 1, 2020. (Doug Mills © 2020 The New York Times Company) Photograph:( The New York Times )
It was still summer when Nick Rocco got kicked off his town’s community Facebook page for his pugnacious pro-Trump posts. When someone stole the Trump sign from his yard, he replaced it with half a dozen new ones, one featuring an expletive.
WILMINGTON, Mass. — Nick Rocco went into Election Day amped up. A 26-year-old hair stylist, he spent the past few months campaigning for President Donald Trump, taking special satisfaction in offending Biden supporters.
It was still summer when he got kicked off his town’s community Facebook page for his pugnacious pro-Trump posts. When someone stole the Trump sign from his yard, he replaced it with half a dozen new ones, one featuring an expletive.
At his wedding last month, guests sauntered out in oversize Donald and Melania masks, and he savored the discomfort of his wife’s Democratic relatives.
“The thing is, we don’t care,” Rocco said. He is looking forward to many years of Trump presidencies. “I hope Don, Ivanka and Eric all run eventually,” he said last week.
Rocco represents a notable category: young voters drawn into politics for the first time by Trump. He did not go to college and prides himself on his independent thinking; he puts himself in the category of street-smart, not book-smart.
He had never bothered to register to vote until 2016, when he first heard Trump debate on television, and saw a political figure who reminded him of himself.
“He doesn’t speak like a politician, he speaks like I do,” he said. “I can understand what this guy is saying. He’s talking like an American person talks. He’s not talking like a robot.”
He and his wife, Jenna, a 27-year-old nurse, went all in, organizing rallies and standing on roadsides. As the election and vote counting neared an end, daily check-ins with the Roccos found their moods shifting from excitement to foreboding.
Sunday, Nov. 1
The family — Nick, Jenna and their two daughters — spent the afternoon at a rally beside Main Street in Wilmington, where passing motorists responded with honks and obscene gestures. Across the street, at a Trump pop-up store, a T-shirt cheerfully boasted, “I’m a deplorable.”
The abuse did not bother Nick Rocco; it seemed to energize him. (“I like to be the center of attention,” he explained.) When a distraught woman with a curly ponytail flipped him off through her window, he bounded to the curb and danced a jig, cheerfully shouting obscenities back.
The Roccos had not paid much attention to the polls because they were convinced that Trump was going to win. This was based on attendance at rallies, and because of their circle of acquaintances: With the exception of his brother, Nick Rocco said, he had never met anyone who supported Joe Biden.
When Fox News began reporting polls showing Biden in the lead, Jenna Rocco tried tuning into One America News, the right-wing cable network, which predicted a convincing victory for the president. The Roccos got news from a variety of sources — TikTok, QAnon, pro-Trump comedian Terrence K. Williams, YouTube mystic Clif High. “I’m a conspiracy theorist, I guess, if you want to call it that,” Jenna Rocco said.
These sources cheered them up. They held out hope that Trump could win in Massachusetts. Or at least in Wilmington.
Jenna Rocco confessed that she was exhausted with the months of public confrontation. Nick Rocco, she complains, sits on Facebook and argues with strangers for hours.
“I want him to win,” she said of the president. “But I want it to be over.”
She was worried that their in-your-face support for Trump, in a state so hostile to him, would end up hurting their daughters.
“I’m just tired of all the arguing that people are doing,” she said. “I wish sometimes Trump would just say — he doesn’t even have to mean it — that he would be the president for everybody. Just say those words.”
In the last hours of the campaign, Jenna Rocco’s confidence in Trump’s victory had begun to buckle. Late into the night, when he gave his final speech at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, she was surprised to find herself weeping. “It was sad that it could be his last rally,” she said. “It could be that he could not be president anymore.”
At 7 on election night, the Roccos settled themselves on the sofa to watch the returns. Jenna Rocco was stress-eating Halloween candy, Kit Kats and Smarties.
They had passed the last hours of the campaign on a dark roadside outside a polling station, fingers frozen, waving Trump flags at passing vehicles. Nick Rocco muttered to himself, “Me standing out here is kind of pointless.”
But then he reminded himself what kept him out there all these months: People had disrespected him. The Facebook group manager who had kicked him off. The neighbor who took his yard sign. Teachers who responded to his daughter’s enthusiasm about Trump with awkward silence.
“People who don’t like Trump, I honestly think they are very soft people,” he said. “That is why the world is becoming so sensitive today. Back in the day, you could throw a snowball at someone at school and everything was fine. Nowadays, a letter gets sent home: Your child is being mean.”
Trump, by contrast, “lives the way people used to live.”
Nick Rocco has tried to do the same. His older brother, who he describes as the brainy one, took the other path, winning a scholarship to college. (He is the Biden voter.) But Nick Rocco’s aspirations were staunchly blue-collar; he chose trade school and went to work at 17.
When he won $1 million in the lottery in 2018 — his scratch-ticket hobby cost him $200 to $300 a day at its peak — he channeled his winnings, a lump sum of $650,000, into low-cost multifamily rental properties that he hopes will allow him to retire at 40.
The job market, he feels, has justified his choices, leaving many college graduates twisting in the wind.
“A plumber goes to my house, he fixes a clogged toilet, he makes $200,” he said. “The most paying jobs are the people who are fixing things. You’re going to school, and you’re paying $500,000 to go to school, and you might not be able to get a job.”
By 9:30 p.m., Massachusetts was a lost cause, but Trump seemed to have a commanding lead in Florida and Pennsylvania. The Roccos were run down, probably from the hours spent at rallies, and they drifted off around 11 p.m. with a warm, spreading certainty that their candidate was going to win.
It was sweet, and it felt like vindication.
At 2:30 in the morning, Jenna Rocco awoke with a start. When she checked her news feed, she discovered that Biden was leading in several Western states, and Trump’s advantage in states like Wisconsin and Michigan was melting away. Now she could no longer sleep.
“I’m about 100% sure there’s fraud going on,” she said, although there was no evidence of fraud.
When he woke up, Nick Rocco shared her outrage. “Who knows whether these numbers are correct or not?” he asked. “Who are the people counting those votes?”
He wondered whether civil unrest would now break out. Over the summer, watching the Black Lives Matter protests, he had applied for a gun license, but he had been refused: Massachusetts, he grumbled.
When he saw the pro-Trump crowds gathering outside counting locations in Michigan and Arizona, he wished he could join them.
“It’s not ending,” he said. “I would love to see Trump supporters come out and take a stand.”
By Thursday morning, the Roccos had given up on Fox. “There’s definitely people at Fox who don’t like Trump,” Nick Rocco said. “The commentators, they are normally aggressive. I think they got a leash put on them somehow, some way.”
He took the position that the vote count should have ended Tuesday. He reassured his wife that the decision would finally lie in the hands of the Supreme Court.
“They’re doing anything they can to stop him from becoming president,” he said. “It’s not over yet. He’s going to win. It’s just a matter of who has the balls to close down first.”
But an alternative path was beginning to take shape in his mind, in case Biden prevailed.
Maybe the Republicans could impeach Biden. Maybe a Republican Senate could tie his hands for four years. Maybe, after a long-planned Caribbean vacation, Rocco would fly out to Arizona and join the protesters. Maybe he would post new yard signs.
“Like I told you, I hate to lose,” he said. “If he loses, I’ll feel like I’ve lost.”
When Trump delivered remarks at the White House, Nick Rocco was struck by his appearance. The president looked drained and serious, no longer a happy warrior. The message the president conveyed was grave: that American democracy is a farce.
“He’s been telling us about that for months, and I think it’s actually happening now,” he said. “How are we ever going to be able to vote for a president again, now that we know that fraud has been going on?”
The news Friday morning was no surprise. Officials in states that had not been called had spent much of the night meticulously counting ballots, in the presence of observers from both parties.
Biden was a hair’s breadth from the presidency, on course to win at least 270 electoral votes.
“Every time I went to bed, it was the same,” Nick Rocco said. “I go to bed, he was winning, I wake up, he was losing.”
Jenna Rocco sounded resigned. “I think that basically it’s pretty much done,” she said. “But they cheated. But it’s done.”
The people she had spent the summer with, the Trump activists, she could see them packing it in, returning to normal life.
“They’re just going to want to move on,” she said. “My aunt’s already saying, ‘Stop being a crybaby.’”
Nick Rocco was not ready to give up, though. The president would not concede, he was sure of that. “I’d be pissed at him if he did because I would never do that,” he said. “He’s not that type of person. He doesn’t give up easily. I see a lot of myself in him.”
Casting his mind into the future, past this election, he could imagine any number of outcomes.
He could imagine the United States splitting into two countries, one governed by Trump and one not. He could imagine suspending elections so Trump and his family could rule without interruption for 20 years.
“I guarantee you, Trump supporters would not care,” he said. “I guarantee you, if you got 69 million Trump supporters, and you said, ‘Would you be good with Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump as president?’ a lot of people would be 100% behind that.”
He was gathering his things — he had a shift at the salon — and his tone was calm. He is only 26. There is plenty of time. He was waiting for cues from his leader.
“In Trump we trust, and as far as everything else, it’s all going to fall into place,” he said. “It’s not happening today, and it’s not happening tomorrow.”