David Gleeson and Mary Mihelic, founders of the art collective T.Rutt, wanted to go home on November 8 and never have to ride around in a shitty Trump campaign bus–turned–rolling anti-Trump art project ever again. The pair purchased the bus for $14,000 on Craigslist in late 2015 and spent the better part of this year driving the subtly transformed vehicle to rallies around the country, protesting the racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic bile emanating from the business magnate’s presidential campaign.
By November, they were tired of egging attacks in Walmart parking lots from confused liberals who mistook their satirical project for earnest Trump campaigning. They were tired of trying to reason with the teenage girls selling confederate flags and wearing “Make America Great Again” hats at rallies in North Carolina. They were tired of the bus’s stripper pole, a relic from its days hosting bachelor parties that had been left intact by the Trump campaign. But now that the election is over — now that Donald Trump is our President-elect — Gleeson and Mihelic can’t go home.
It looks like the duo may be stuck riding around in that shitty Trump bus for the next four years. The project doesn’t seem like a very funny joke anymore, but Gleeson and Mihelic’s work as protest artists seems more vital than ever. We talked to T.Rutt about where the bus is going in the future, how art can foster communication across party lines, and why they were devastated, but not surprised, by the election’s results.
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Carey Dunne: What was your reaction to the results of the election?
David Gleeson: It’s been a big downer. As we’ve been telling each other, I wish I could say it was a surprise, but for the last several months, we’ve seen so many closeted Trump supporters. We saw this coming, partly because we were on the front lines talking with the people who ultimately decided the election.
Mary Mihelic: We’ve been in a lot of these rural areas that were not picked up by the polls at all. Women of all stripes would walk up to the bus in excitement, saying they’re voting for Trump and they hoped we could give them bumper stickers. Some of them said, “Hey, I don’t really share this with a lot of people, but I’m voting for him.” I don’t think they would’ve told their friends. They didn’t look like the people you’d see at his rallies. One well-dressed African American woman in a nice Lexus drove up to us saying, “I’m a Trumper, I’m a Trumper,” giving me a big thumbs up. It was one of these things where a lot of people were keeping it to themselves.
DG: We saw lots of Latinos supporting Trump. There were a couple of Nigerian cab drivers in a Walmart parking lot saying they love Trump. We were telling them, “If he was president you’d not be allowed in the country. He’d help you the least.” It was crazy to me.
MM: I was particularly surprised to see all the protests going around after the election. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Where were you before the election?” In Selma, North Carolina, we were the only two protesters at a Trump rally. We were staring at each other, like, “where is everybody?” After-the-fact protesting was beyond frustrating. Now you’re gonna come out and protest? What, are they kidding? They’re gonna stop him from becoming president? It’s not gonna happen. You didn’t care enough to try to get out there and prevent it? It’s too late.
DG: For a while, there were pretty good, reliable protests at rallies. But in Selma, there wasn’t another soul protesting.
CD: Why do you think that was?
DG: It may that be in the South, protesters felt more intimidated. At the Selma rally, we were right across from these two women selling confederate flags with “Donald Trump 2016” written on them. There may have been a tacit intimidation in that part of the country.
MM: We felt intimidated ourselves. I was really nervous there to open the flag we made, with his hot mic quotes stitched to it from the Billy Bush tape — the quote begins with “I did try and fuck her” and ends with “grab ’em by the pussy.” People break out in fights over that flag in front of us. But we like to put what he’s saying on the flag.
CD: There’s been a lot of talk in liberal circles recently about “bridging the gap” between polarized groups and the need to get out of our “bubbles” and “echo chambers” to communicate across party lines. For the past year, you’ve been talking to Trump supporters across the country. What have you learned, if anything, about how to effectively communicate with people who disagree with your political views, who might not be interested in having a conversation, and whose values you might find reprehensible?
MM: We successfully used humor to do it. Comedians did, too, during the election cycle. They bridged the gap through humor. Because the bus is funny, we connected with [Trump supporters] in a fun way the majority of the time. We had a lot of laughs with Trump supporters. It’s really important to find something in common. It’s important to be approachable.
DG: Having a physical art piece was a tool to help mediate and moderate the nature of the dialogue. The physical objects in the conversation became very helpful, with the bus being the biggest and most dramatic of all. The fact that we had a flag that we had sewn Trump’s quotes on and could use in a conversation — discussing the flag with veterans, many of whom have an incredibly romantic dedication to the idea of the purity of the flag … Art needs to be part of how we engage all situations. Politics and economics are ripe for art to be much more present to help people think about things differently.
CD: Do you think you challenged anyone’s thinking or convinced anyone to vote Democrat?
MM: I think we definitely got into a lot of people’s heads and hearts. I think we made people think twice about Trump. We did hear a lot of people walk away saying, “Oh, I’m really not sure who I’m voting for.” But judging from the election results, maybe we swayed no one.
CD: Where does the T. Rutt bus go from here? Will you be driving it off a cliff?
MM: We are still in shock and don’t have a clue what we are going to do next, but are sure tossing all sorts of wild ideas around. There’s always the option to just drive it around and keep protesting Trump the next four years. We are lamenting the state of the world.
The bus is now safely hidden in Miami. Before the election, Red Dot Art Fair in Miami had offered to show the bus and the flag, but after Tuesday [November 8], they emailed us, saying that “in light of the surprising results,” they no longer wanted to show it. He said, “I trust you understand.” I was like, “No, I don’t think I understand.”
CD: Once he becomes president, do you think Trump and his administration will go after his critics?
MM: I’m a little nervous that with the new Supreme Court, the flag desecration artwork will become against the law. Desecrating the flag used to be a felony. But why couldn’t you possibly sew the quotes of your president into the flag? It was done with Betsy Ross in mind.
DG: I think free speech is gonna get cracked down on. He’s really got it in for the press, for sure. I don’t know where he’ll come down on artists. Things are not gonna be pretty.