At almost 10 o’clock on Saturday night in the ornate dining room of Trump International Golf Course in West Palm Beach, the oak tables had been removed and replaced with rows of chairs facing a freshly painted gold-and-white podium that the club’s namesake would soon stand behind.
But where was Donald Trump? The press conference was scheduled to start an hour ago. While the reporters watched returns come in from Kentucky and posted pictures on Twitter, most of the crowd was getting antsy.
“When’s Donald coming out? When he’s good and ready,” said Ken Beer, a West Palm Beach dermatologist, reassuring friends and defending his candidate.
Beer, along with most of the others in attendance, is a dues-paying member at one of a trio of lavish clubs Trump owns in Palm Beach County. As has become Trump's habit in South Florida, he invited club members to the news conference, and seated them in the first few rows. For all the huge rallies and talk of angry outsiders, this small, expensively dressed group is Trump’s real base. There are CEOs, insurance brokers, health-care executives, former debutantes, trophy wives, and a woman in a short, sparkling silver dress (and thick bracelet to match) with an animal fur wrapped around her like a sash. There’s Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel Comics boss who gave $2 million to Marco Rubio’s presidential cause many months ago; Tova Leidesdorf, a former Miss Israel; and, another guest informs me, Patrick Swayze’s widow is in the room, too.
“I was supposed to go to New York Prime,” said Lisa Hersch, the owner of a home health agency. “But we got invited here tonight. And I said, you know, why not come out and show our support, because he’s getting beat up.”
Hersch, in a bright pink, low-cut dress with three-quarter sleeves, accessorized with a jewel-encrusted gold necklace, said she wanted to look vibrant for the occasion. “It’s very Palm Beach,” she said of her outfit, adding that it was part of a shopping spree the day before, just ahead of her 51st birthday. “I bought myself three bathing suits, three dresses, a massage, lunch at the Yacht Club. It was a great day. It was a girls’ day.”
Anjani Sinha, an orthopedic surgeon from Wellington, offered to make introductions to others in the crowd, which earlier was sipping champagne and cocktails at an open bar on the back patio, but transitioned to Trump-brand water and “Trump chocolates,” which look like gold coins imprinted with the Trump family seal. “Who do you want to interview?” he asked me. “I know everybody here. Boy, there are a lot of famous people. A lot of billionaires here.”
If you can get your mind around the idea of Donald Trump becoming the 45th president of the U.S., it’s easy to imagine him using his sprawling South Florida holdings as a series of White House Souths: tropical versions of the Bush family's Kennebunkport, Hyannis Port in pastels, Martha’s Vineyard with more hairspray, royal palms and white wine. He’s been working that meme all fall. Trump’s first campaign rally in the state was at Trump National Doral, a golf resort outside of Miami, in October, when he launched his first unprompted attack on Ben Carson (who had just overtaken him in Iowa polls). Wearing a pink tie and blue suit, Trump bragged about negotiating the purchase price of his Miami-area golf course down from $170 million to $145 million, and promised to win the Latino vote despite a round of controversial comments about immigrants. “I love the Hispanics,” he told his crowd.
Last week, Trump held a news conference at the lavish Mar-a-Lago Club, his trademark property in the state—if not the world—where rooms rent for more than $1,000, and come with a promise of an “incomparable, royal lifestyle.” At the Mar-a-Lago event, Trump reserved the first two rows for members of his clubs, a characteristic display of marketing and showmanship that gave his VIPs—many of them club board members—an actual front seat to the most talked-about story in America. It's a first-class perk.
And Tuesday night, as results rolled in from Michigan, Mississippi, Idaho, and Hawaii, the scene was repeated at Trump National Golf Club Jupiter. Guests sipped martinis at an open bar on the patio as waitresses dressed in tuxedoes served cocktail weenies, Beef Wellington, and mini-lobster rolls to ravenous reporters. “I like Mr. Trump a lot,” said Paul O'Neill, the former New York Yankee who, dressed in a open-collar shirt and dark suit, was among the 200 or so club members in attendance on Tuesday. “We play golf together. I belong to his club. I hope he does well.”
The upscale scene in Jupiter, lit by a sea of chandeliers, was very different than the rawness of his public rallies, where trails of port-a-potties point the masses toward the event site. And just in case you missed the blatant marketing ploy of featuring his Florida properties on election nights, Trump was flanked Tuesday night in Jupiter by stacks of his Trump-branded wine (red, white and rosé), Trump water and a pile of Trump steaks.
“You've been touring my properties,” Trump joked with reporters on Tuesday. “We've been giving you the Trump tour. Very impressive, right?”
Back at the West Palm Beach golf course, another doctor introduced himself, in distinctively Trumpian cadences. “Who are you?” he asked. “I’m Dr. Eric Kaplan. I have 346,000 Twitter followers. Bigger than any other. Dr. Oz has bigger than I have. Do you want to ask me a question? Why am I here supporting Donald?”
Kaplan, who has authored several books, including one about the time he and his wife together fell into a coma from a Botox treatment gone bad, had plenty of thoughts on the question. “People have to ask themselves, why is he running for the job? He doesn’t need the job. He doesn’t need to the money. And stress? When everybody calls you an ass, you need that?” Kaplan says. “After you’ve had a whole life of invincibility, who needs that?”
Kaplan reflected the sense of the room: In more than two hours of interviews, as Trump waited in the back room for the election results, the attendees spoke, at times emotionally, about the sacrifice Trump was making in running for president.
To a person, they were surprised and impressed that Trump was putting himself through the grind of a national political race when he could be doing almost literally anything else. Amazement that the detail-oriented Donald they know—have you seen the greens lately!?—is mocked on stage as a know-nothing brute.
The club members and other Palm Beach denizens were not without criticism of their standard-bearer. Many were upset with the name-calling and demagoguery, unfit for the normal parameters of a presidential campaign and certainly for the rarified air of the rich, where such takedowns are more easily digested in private conversations, or at least whispered.
“He should no longer make fun of the silly things—Little Marco and Lying Ted—just don’t do that,” said Hinda Snyder. A fiery Palm Beach resident with blonde, pulled-back hair, Snyder is a full-time executive at a real estate firm, and part-time matchmaker for her daughter. “This is bullshit what’s going on. I think it’s awful. Rise above it. That’s the only thing he needs to do. It’s not going to change anyone’s mind.”
But the quibbles were minor. Mostly, the club members were amazed, along with much of the rest of the country, at how the man with gold-plated seat belts on his private 757, who hires foreign workers at his resorts while blaming a broken immigration system for costing Americans their jobs, and who tried to have a woman's house condemned to expand his Atlantic City property, has become a populist hero.
“I’ll just give you an example, just my daily life,” Robin Bernstein, a real estate agent and Palm Beach political gadfly, said in an attempt to explain the Trump phenomenon.
“I had two Spanish guys laying tile for me—they were cleaning my tile. I thought they’d be for Cruz or Rubio,” she said, referring to the two presidential candidates with Cuban parents. “And they saw my pictures—I have a picture with Donald—and they said is that Mr. Trump? And I said yeah.
“And they said, we’re supporting Mr. Trump. And I said really?” she continued, making a point to exaggerate her disbelief. “And they said, ‘It’s because I think he’ll do better for people like us.’”
Just then, Kaplan scurried past, desperate for updated results from the Kentucky caucuses, and a Diet Coke.
The open bar had been closed for about an hour, and the people were getting thirsty.
“Rosie,” Kaplan barked to the woman handing out “Trump” water to guests. “I want a Diet Coke. Give me a Diet Coke, c’mon.”
“Don’t you raise your voice to my Rosie,” his wife shot back to him.
“No, I love Rosie. Rosie, give me a Diet Coke,” he said, then, to no one in particular. “Why won’t they let me have soda? What, the Secret Service won’t allow it?”
A common theme among the club members was Trump's excellence as a manager, about which they were more than happy to supply testimonials. “We’ve been members of his clubs for 15 years. He’s probably one of the best managers I’ve ever seen,” John Snyder, who oversees corporate operations for Simon Companies, a Boston-based real estate firm, said.
“He attends to detail. No detail is too small for him,” Snyder continued. “You watch him do this, and you see he really believes it. He doesn’t have to do this. He’s doing it because he believes in what he’s doing, and believes it’s for a bigger purpose, and believes it’s right for America."
Snyder said that Trump “cares about every aspect of whatever he does, whether it be the carpet that is selected or his staff.”
“Despite what people think about his perspective and positions on non-Americans, his staff loves him,” Snyder said.
“He has not only caddies, but lower-level people,” said his wife, Hinda. “And they’re from a mix,” she said. “One of his employees here was hit by a bus. He visited her. She’s a minority. He doesn’t discriminate.”
On Tuesday, the press event was held at the Trump National Golf Club Jupiter, a 285-acre gated community selling “a true luxury lifestyle” with a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus and certified by Audubon International as an environmentally sound habitat.
Kaplan, who also belongs to the Jupiter club, told me that Trump continues to be involved the club’s operations despite running a presidential campaign, and recalls this story from last month.
“I’m on the board. We wanted to re-do the grass. In between everything, Donald comes in, walks the place, says you know what, $450,000? Do it,” Kaplan said. “The guy’s running for president. He’s such a hard-working guy. His work ethic. People don’t understand. Rubio and Cruz are not running a business. This is their whole life.”
Kaplan, a former president and chief operating officer of Nutrisystem, told me that “as a working guy, I respect that.”
“People that aren’t from the special sperm club, like myself, I’ve watched my net worth drop as the market has dropped, as oil has dropped. I mean, what do you do?” Kaplan said. “I think he’ll do whatever it takes to reduce the debt. He’ll do whatever it takes to improve homeland security. Because he’s not going to be influenced by lobbyists.”
Hersch told me a similar story about Trump that, to her, reflects his ability to lead the world’s most powerful military and preside over the country’s $19 trillion economy.
“Everybody complained about the greens at the club,” she says. “Trump says to the greenskeeper: 120 days, you need to do something. He came back and says what did you do? He says, well, I’ve been getting bids, I’ve been doing that. He says but you didn’t do anything? You’re done.”
“People don’t understand,” she said. “He will hire the best candidate and he holds you accountable. You own that position. And if you don’t, he talks to you once and you’re done. There’s no second chance. You are done.”
It was almost 11 p.m. when Trump finally emerged into the ballroom, and everyone filed into their rows and looked back to watch him enter the room through their screens of their smartphones. Trump gave them a two-fingered peace sign.
“Nice to have you all at Trump International,” Trump said. “It’s been a great club and a great success. We appreciate, and have so many of our members. It’s beautiful.”
Trump framed his victories that night in terms the crowd can understand. “Winning deals or winning club championships, or whatever you want to say, there is nothing like this. It is really exciting stuff,” he said.
The crowd reacts to his applause lines—jokes about Cruz’s Canadian birth, calls for Rubio to quit—with the same hoots and hollers you hear at his rallies in 10,000-seat arenas. And they similarly defend him against the press, quickly booing a reporter who dared to ask Trump about the tone of the campaign, a question that many of them were discussing themselves earlier in the night.
“I just want to thank all of my friends, all of my members, all of my everything,” Trump tells his audience. “You have been so supportive and so great. You’re very, very special people.”