If you wanted a symbol for Donald Trump’s complete takeover of the Republican party, you could do little better than a nondescript shopping mall on the outskirts of Largo in west Florida.
This is a usually quiet intersection in Florida’s quintessential bellwether county, Pinellas, which has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1980 (bar the disputed 2000 race won by George W Bush).
But eight months ago Cliff Gephart, an enthusiastic Trump supporter and local entrepreneur, transformed a vacant lot – formerly a strip club – into a thriving coffee shop devoted to the president. Business at Conservative Grounds is roaring, despite the pandemic, with hundreds and, they claim, occasionally over a thousand customers, dropping by each day for a cup of coffee, a chat about politics and to purchase from a plethora of Trump themed merchandise. No-one is social distancing or wearing a facemask.
In 2016, the narrative of the so-called “secretive Trump voter” went part of the way to explaining the billionaire property magnate’s unexpected pathway to the White House. But now, in Pinellas as in many parts of the country, Trump supporters are out in force, unafraid, empowered and organised.
Every section inside this place is designed for social media posting – there’s a second amendment wall filled with decommissioned firearms, a gumball machine stocked with spent ammunition (it doesn’t vend), and a coffee machine decorated with slurs against Democrats. At the back is a scaled reproduction of the Oval Office itself, complete with a replica Resolute Desk, cardboard cutouts of the President and first lady, and a Martin Luther King bust, wearing a red Trump 2020 cap.
I ask Gephart, a heavily built, stubbled 50-year-old, whether he thinks