Politics

“We Don’t Have a Plan”

A photographer who covered five years of Trump rallies on the most disturbing thing he saw—and his fears for the future.

A man wearing a homemade Spartan helmet waves a flag among thousands of Trump loyalists who converged on Washington DC on Saturday for the Million MAGA March.
Thousands of Trump loyalists and and far-right extremists joined forces for the Million MAGA March in Washington over the weekend. Zach D Roberts

Photographer Zach D Roberts has been chronicling Donald Trump’s rallies from the beginning. And he was there last weekend for one of their last gasps during Trump’s presidency, the Million MAGA March in Washington, where he documented a now-familiar sight: Violent far-right groups like the Proud Boys mingling interchangeably with rank-and-file Trump supporters, intent on instigating the protesters and counterprotesters as much as possible.

Roberts kept his nerve for five years. His photos have appeared in both right- and left-leaning publications, which is good, he told me, because it makes it easier to pass himself off as “neutral” when covering groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, and the Boogaloo movement. Roberts was documenting right-wing rallies long before Trump was on the scene—he covered NRA marches back in 2006—but he says he’s never seen marches like the ones he has recently. Over the phone, we talked about what he’s captured in four years of rallies, whether he believes his work might amplify the extreme groups he covers, and what happens once Trump leaves office. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aymann Ismail: What was the scene at the march this weekend?

Zach D Roberts: I just got back, so I’m starting to process everything. I went to the White House just to see what was going on. The MAGA people were in town, and it was Friday night, so you know they were going to be getting drunk. And a bunch of them showed up specifically to start things. I just happened to walk by a place called Harry’s Bar, next to the Hotel Harrington in D.C., which is the hotel Proud Boys typically stay at anytime they’re in town. They were instigating people. They threatened me twice.

What do people do in situations like that?

The real problem is, I have never seen the police ever arrest a Proud Boy. I’ve witnessed multiple fights between Proud Boys and I guess you could call them “antifascists,” but unless you’re willing to walk away after getting shoved and being spit in the face by a Proud Boy, then shit is going to happen. And they’re not the ones getting arrested. In every place I’ve ever covered these fights—in Portland; Columbus, Ohio; Philadelphia; New York City; or Washington—the person that gets arrested is not the Proud Boy. The Republican Club in NYC was a big anomaly, but that’s what generally happens.

Zach D Roberts on assignment
Zach D Roberts on assignment in Ukraine in 2014. C.S. Muncy

You’ve been covering right-wing rallies for a long time. How have you seen them escalate to what you saw this weekend?

I’m old enough to have covered three administrations now. I’m 39. I started when I was 21 and covering the anti-Bush administration protests. It used to be that there was less to cover. Very occasionally, I’d cover a conservative or far-right protest against abortion or something like that. But once Donald Trump became a thing, it took off. The first campaign stop of his that I covered was in New Hampshire. I noticed a big difference between the people at the Hillary Clinton rallies and Trump’s rallies. All those people believed him, and not in the way the media always described. They took him seriously. That was something that I immediately saw. I saw the steps up, when his rallies turned into protests. And I knew even then—I was like, “Oh, crap.”

Then Charlottesville came along in 2017, when Trump was president. I didn’t think it was going to be a huge thing, but I knew that I was going to cover it. At that point, I was becoming frustrated with working as a photojournalist, so that was going to be the last thing I covered. I was planning on moving into a different career.

I ended up getting at least two photos that I think most people would recognize. There was the photo of the tiki torch march that has been used thousands of times. And there was the photo of DeAndre Harris being nearly killed by Proud Boys, which helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for his medical expenses, and to relocate him because he was getting death threats. That photo also helped in getting four of the people who attacked him arrested. And that got me thinking this work can actually bring positive change.

Oh man. Why do the Proud Boys still let you photograph them?

The defining moment was Charlottesville. They realized that if they have public gatherings, people are going to take their photos and find out who they are, and they will probably lose their jobs or whatever. I heard one of the Proud Boys saying, “You need to get out there. And if you lose your jobs, you lose your jobs.” No one from the tiki torch march was arrested that night. But after nearly murdering DeAndre Harris, that was the first time they saw accountability.

When people look me up, my photos are in Huffington Post, but unfortunately also in the American Renaissance, which is a white nationalist publication, or like the Daily Caller. So if people look me up, they go, “Oh, OK. He’s not like, biased”—until they look at my Twitter feed.

Also, now these groups have gotten deplatformed so much that they have to rely on Parler or Telegram, which took a toll on their ability to recruit. But they learned that if they’re out there marching, my photos nine times out of 10 won’t get pulled off Facebook, because in that context, it’s journalism.

Does that give you pause when you continue to cover them?

Yeah, it’s something I worry about. Before Charlottesville, my attitude was: “Don’t talk to them, don’t give them the platform.” But the problem is that we tried that before. That was already the mentality for most people. Ignore them; let them have their little march, and they’ll go away. And then we saw what happened. Heather Heyer was murdered, and DeAndre Harris was nearly murdered. Many people who I know were also very nearly killed. You can’t discount or ignore it. We don’t have a plan to deal with it.

At the Million MAGA March, how did rank-and-file Trump supporters react to the more extreme groups? Is there a clear difference? 

At the Million MAGA March, it was disturbing that the Proud Boys were marching through the main crowd, which included a lot of just ordinary MAGA people, and they cheered the Proud Boys on as part of the Trumpworld and their protectors. That’s extraordinarily worrying that they are starting to be mushed together. Now, some guy who has some right-wing views is welcoming actual far-right groups like Patriot Front, the Proud Boys, or the Groypers.

At a typical Trump rally, half the people who show up are militia, Boogaloo boys, and probably the other half are MAGA people. And they’re just acting like they believe the same things. So to answer your question, I don’t know.

What do you think will happen to these people as Trump leaves office?

We have to hope that a lot of these people decide to just leave politics alone. But now that they’re organized and have Facebook groups, they’re becoming more extreme as they go. The problem is that even without Trump in office, they have a lot of people in Congress that they love. And I’ve seen more mainstream politicians start to play around with their language. The biggest thing is now almost everyone is talking about pedophilia. That is a huge new thing within far-right politics. It’s always been a thing, but now all you have to do is mention it to someone on the right and they have an immediate rant read: Joe Biden being a pedophile. Bill Clinton.

Jan. 20 is when I think some of them will move on, or at least go back to caring more about local politics than the presidency. But we still have three months. Trump is still tweeting. Whether or not he moves on to Newsmax and turns it into Trump TV, you’re going to still keep having these Trump rallies. And even if Trump fades away, they’ll have other people they will cling to. Maybe not as much as Trump, but it can very quickly and easily become worse. And if the local police forces keep looking the other way, I don’t know how to solve this. I know that’s a depressing answer, but it’s one of the most disheartening things about what we cover. Maybe in 2016 there was something we could have done. But they are organizing among college-aged kids, you know? This is generational.