FRONT ROYAL – Protesters have gathered at the gazebo in Front Royal every Wednesday since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.
“I honestly don’t know what motivates them,” said Tom McFadden, organizer of the Front Royal Political Action Group counter-protesters. “The election’s been over for over a year, what is it they want?”
To Len Sherp, the protest organizer, the demonstrations are a response to an unprecedented threat to American democracy.
“(The protests) call attention to issues that I think threaten the very principles of our democratic republic,” Sherp said. “I think that we are in a period in which both constitutional principles and foundational elements, as well as societal norms, are both at risk of being abused.”
Christine Ilich, owner of the Heirloom Kitchen, said she comes week after week because of the steady stream of news from Washington.
“It’s one thing after another. It seems like every day there’s something else that’s literally going to affect me and my friends,” Ilich said.
The protestors did a brief call and response Wednesday to show their disgruntlement with the tax bill the Senate passed on Dec. 2. In the past, rallies have focused on attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, rule of law, Trump’s alleged violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, the accusations of sexual misconduct against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, and other issues.
Sherp and his fellow protesters celebrated the Virginia November elections when the Democrats won elections for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and at least 14 seats in the House of Delegates.
One of the protesters, Elaine Wolff, pointed to these Democratic victories as evidence of the protest’s impact.
“We turned the tide. Not just us, but the entire resistance movement turned the tide in the Virginia elections,” Wolff said. “There’s way too many Democrats that think, ‘Well, my one vote’s not going to matter.’ And, you know, if enough people think that, then, you know, they’ll get voted out. I’ve got a sign that says, ‘Democrats elect Republicans every time they stay home.'”
Rick Tagg, local vineyard owner, marched on Washington in protest of the Vietnam War when he was younger, but said, “Nothing woke me up like this past election.”
“I never thought that I would be standing in front of the gazebo in Front Royal with a sign in my hand because of an idiot that we have for our president,” Tagg said.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Gloria Rickel, who immigrated from Barbados in 1949 and has volunteered for every presidential campaign since. “I’ve never seen the anger and the pain … It’s too much. It’s not good for the nation.”
Most of the protestors are self-employed, retired or semi-retired, granting them schedules that allow them to take to the streets every Wednesday at noon. About 15 protesters in total show up each week.
Across the street, the counter-protesters were divided into two distinct groups: Half of them belonged to the Front Royal Political Action Group, a primarily Catholic organization, and the other half was loosely affiliated with Main Street Pawn Brokers, located just across the street from the gazebo. Their combined total hovers around six demonstrators weekly.
The counter-protest signs have a more ideological tint than their neighbors across the street. “STOP violence against Republicans,” read one sign. Another read, “Obama – Wrecker of America. Trump – Builder Patriot AmeriCan-Do,” and a third read, “Liberals are the ‘termites’ in govt. Destructors of good godly moral order.”
McFadden held a life-size cardboard cutout of Donald Trump giving two thumbs up.
“We just want to let them know that there’s people that … think differently than they do,” said Ralph Waller, who runs the pawn shop. “I actually think they’re causing trouble in the country. They won’t let the man (Trump) do his job. He’s the president. The people elected him, let him do it … Obama did 1,000 things I didn’t like, but, hey, he’s the president, he had a right to do them.”
Distancing the Catholic group from the pawn shop group, McFadden said, “A couple of us just come here and pray. These guys here in the pawn shop, they’ll usually come out and hold up some signs, but we’re not really with them.”
The two groups of counter-protestors agreed on one idea, though: If the anti-Trump demonstrators stopped showing up, so would they. “Only reason we’re protesting now is cause they’re protesting,” Waller said.
Despite their contradicting messages, the animosity between the groups doesn’t always run deep. One time, when a supporter donated cups of coffee to the anti-Trump demonstrators, they had too many and passed off the extra cups to their pro-Trump counterparts.
Sherp and a fellow anti-Trump protester drifted over to the counter-protesters Wednesday and began discussing the Senate race in Alabama when the Ten Commandments came up in conversation.
“You know them?” Waller asked Sherp, referring to the commandments.
“Number one: Thou shalt not vote for Donald Trump,” Sherp quipped.
“Hey, number two is: Don’t hang around with liberals!” Waller fired back.
The men laughed and Sherp patted Waller on the shoulder. After a few more good-spirited political volleys, Sherp and his protesting counterpart returned to the gazebo.
The relationships between the two sides, however, is not always so congenial.
“I have the feeling that their leader is being paid on a regular basis by George Soros,” said Sandra O’Gorman of the Front Royal Political Action Group. “I mean, this is my opinion, can’t prove it. I’ll be protesting George and his communist ways until he’s in jail, or dead.”
Some residents not involved with either side have taken to Facebook to vent their frustration over the noise generated by the protests.
“We’re getting a lot of complaints about honking horns and stuff like that,” said Steve Foreman, a semi-retired anti-Trump protestor. “People that live in apartments try to sleep during the day, and so we’re just trying to tone it down a little bit, keep it on the level it’s supposed to be on.”
But the honks keep coming. Even after almost a year of protesting, plenty of drivers were willing to honk for both camps Wednesday. “Honk 3 Times For Trump!” read one sign held by a Catholic counter-protester. And although the anti-Trump picketers have stopped holding signs requesting honks favoring their cause, passing cars still blast their horns in support.
Ilich, who lived in New York before coming to Warren County, felt out of place when she first moved to town.
“I rarely would come into Front Royal, because I just felt really uncomfortable,” Ilich said. “I just feel like there’s Trump stickers everywhere, there’s a serious religious element in this town. They’re very, very conservative, I just didn’t feel like I really — you know, I felt like a fish out of water.
“Finding out about this, it’s been so nice to get a sense of community in this area. I didn’t think there was one other Democrat.”
This was not the first time Sherp heard that same story.
“In the early weeks of the protest, people would say, ‘I didn’t know there were people who thought this way, like me, in Warren County,'” he said. “That in itself is something that I think is important.”