Big Lie at the El Curtola Overpass: A Reporter Enters Trumpworld


Photo Courtesy of Thefreepressproject on Instagram

Anthony Bernasconi, Editor

LAFAYETTE, Calif. – The man asked me sharply, “Have you served our country?”

It was clear from Glen’s voice that he didn’t think I had, and I don’t blame him. Still relatively young, skinny, with long curly hair escaping the back of my hat, I don’t look like the typical veteran. 

“I was in the Marines,” I replied. 

“Oh,” he said with some satisfaction. “So you get what I’m saying then!”

That was all it took: I was in. For the next hour, I interviewed Glen among a handful of other Donald Trump supporters, out protesting in March at the El Curtola overpass on Highway 24. They’ve been regularly demonstrating there since the summer of 2020. 

Just 10 minutes prior, I had parked on Old Tunnel Road next to El Curtola Boulevard, two miles southwest of Walnut Creek. Traffic rushed below on the freeway as a motley assortment of flags, afixed to poles and lashed to the chain link barrier of the overpass, whipped in the late afternoon breeze:

“Trump 2020.” ”Recall Gavin.” “Blue Lives Matter.” “Stop the Steal.” One flag showed Trump’s head photoshopped onto Rambo’s body with an M-60 belt-fed machine gun in hand. 

About a dozen people lined the narrow sidewalks on either side of the bridge. I was nervous going to talk with die-hard Trump supporters, so I approached casually, offering just a few head nods and friendly waves. One guy had a dog with him. Country music blared over the humming freeway. 

After introducing myself as a writer for The Inquirer, I started talking with Glen Gulick, an Army veteran in his early 70s, and Lisa Disbrow, the protest’s organizer. Glen wore sunglasses and a blue “Trump 2020” hat with a bald eagle on it. Lisa, also concealed behind a pair of dark shades, sported a red MAGA hat. 

Moments after we’d met, a car stopped to offer well wishes to the group. “Hey, thank you! Thank you, girl!” Lisa hollered back to the driver. But shortly after, another driver slowed down to share a different opinion, yelling “F*ck you!” as the front passenger glared at me.

Five months after the November presidential election, in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump 306-232 in the Electoral College to become the 46th U.S. president, our nation’s political divide was on full display at El Curtola. As blaring horns and occasional yells made their way up from Highway 24, multiple vehicles stopped on the bridge to offer both words of encouragement and honk-filled expletives. The mix of responses, like the country itself, seemed almost evenly split.

The question that was most on my mind when I visited the demonstration on March 15 was: Why were all these people still protesting nearly two months after Joe Biden’s inauguration?

For Lisa, the answer was simple. “An investigation of the election results in those five battleground states needs to happen,” she told me, in reference to Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, all of which Biden won. “And it’s being suppressed.”

Lisa’s laundry list of what she called “irregularities” in the 2020 election included underage people voting, lack of signature confirmation, suitcases of hidden ballots, shredded ballots in Arizona and a truck in New York that disappeared – all gleaned from a variety of news sources ranging from Trump rallies to Youtube conspiracy videos to right-wing media reports.

I asked her if she thought those potentially real but isolated incidents were enough to swing an election that Biden had won by more than 7 million popular votes. Credible claims of voter fraud were nearly non-existent and the Trump legal team had been trounced in post-election litigation, with more than 60 lawsuits dismissed by state and federal judges. But none of that seemed to factor into Lisa’s interpretation of events.

Having maintained steady eye contact with me up to that point, she diverted her gaze toward the concrete and thought carefully about her answer. “If you look at categories of underage voters in Georgia, simply that number plus those who were registered at the same domicile” had proved the election was rigged, she said. 

“You think there’s enough of that to–”

“We do.”

After about 10 minutes of banter, the discussion shifted. I brought up the events of January 6 and that’s when Lisa and Glen countered with a throwback to 2016: Russian collusion.

“Remember ‘Russia, Russia, Russia?’” Lisa asked, mimicking one of Trump’s favorite speech patterns. 

“The deep state. It’s called the deep state,” Glen added as he criticized FBI, CIA and DOJ involvement in the Mueller investigation. 

I tried to steer the conversation back toward as factual a realm as possible. Toby Keith’s 2002 ultra-nationalist ballad, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)played in the background, a fitting track for what became my heated rebuke.

“The idea that there’s a ‘deep state,’ that there’s this conspiracy within the government, that the election was stolen from Donald Trump,” I said, “all of those things contributed to the Capitol insurrection.”

Lisa laughed. “The Capitol insurrection–”

“It was not an insurrection,” Glen interrupted, “it takes weapons. You’ve got to have guns for an insurrection.”

“Right,” Lisa agreed.

I couldn’t let it go. “It was an assault on a joint session of Congress. An attempt to overthrow the results of the election,” I replied. 

“No, they were trying to go in there and have their voices heard,” Glen insisted.

The absence of a shared set of facts was evident. We had experienced different realities on January 6, and I could see Glen getting worked up. He launched into a rant about Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Trump supporter and Air Force veteran who was shot and killed by police inside the Capitol Building during the attack.

“So it’s okay to kill an unarmed woman?” he yelled. “It’s okay to shoot her in the head and kill her because she was an insurrectionist?”

His words running together, he frantically continued: “All she was wanting to do was go into the Congress to let those people know that she was upset about the results, that they didn’t want to hear about the allegations, that this was a fraudulent election. She was 12 years Air Force [but] you haven’t heard anything about her in the news. If she was Black you’d never hear the end of it,” he added, “but she’s white, so it’s all brushed under the rug.”

Lisa took a deep breath, “So, I just want to go back to the insurrection,” she said. “Trump asked for 10,000 troops.”  

Suddenly the Jan. 6 attack was back to being an insurrection. Just then a car drove by. “Hey you f*cking bastards! F*ck youuuuuu!” the driver yelled at our group. 

“Nancy Pelosi had a conversation with the Capitol Police,” Lisa continued, unphased by the cursing. “We want to know what Nancy said to them. The idea that they were so poorly prepared is shocking.”

For Lisa and Glen, just like for so many other Trump supporters, the Capitol insurrection was just another conspiracy organized by Democratic leadership to take down a president who they’d had it in for from the start. I followed up by mentioning the term “white supremacy” in describing a core base of Trump’s support. 

“Trumpers, people who are pro-MAGA, don’t care what color you are,” Lisa replied. “Nobody out here is a white supremecist. Many of us have wanted these policies for a long time. Trump happened to come forward with them. So we like the policies that we think are good for all Americans.”

I wasn’t sure which policies she was talking about, but her final line stuck with me:

“We’re tired of being suppressed, ignored, shut down. Oppressed. We’re being oppressed. And we’re done with it.” 

Another Trump supporter I spoke with out on the El Curtola overpass was Ian Kearns. Like Glen, Ian was a vet; in his case, a former machine gunner and infantryman. A burly man with a goatee, he wore a scarlet shirt emblazoned with a yellow eagle, globe and anchor emblem of the Marine Corps.

Wearing his red hat backwards and peering at me through transition sunglass lenses, Ian said he was fed up with the Bay Area and was considering running for local government.

“I’m tired of what’s going on. And this state, especially this area, is the worst state to be in, in contemporary America,” he said. “There are other areas in California where you actually feel America. Like, what you think America is, that’s not here.”

“What do you think of when you think of America?” I asked. 

“I don’t think of this county. I don’t think of the Bay Area.”

The conversation then ranged from Big Tech’s “censorship” of politicians to the $1,400 stimulus checks that got mailed out to most Americans as part of the American Recovery Plan, which  Biden signed into law in March. Glen, who was still participating, turned the focus to the media and what’s next for the former president.

“What I would suggest to Trump, he’s got enough money to start his own network. It would be a direct communication to you and me. I could go on the radio or TV and tune into his station and get the information directly from him,” Glen said. “He should have his own network, he doesn’t need Twitter.” 

Sensing that I was unconvinced, Ian played a reverse card on me. “What do you not like about Donald Trump?” he asked. 

The question put me suddenly on the defensive, no longer in control as the interviewer. At this point I couldn’t exactly decline to answer, so I took the bait. As a student practicing real-world journalism, I went for the low-hanging fruit. 

“Well, to start, his attacks on the free press,” I said. 

“Ok, what else?” he said. Some other people walked up and now the group of two had turned into five or six.

“The free press is really the foundation of a strong democracy,” I continued, feeling the tension start to mount. Someone interrupted, which caused me to lose my train of thought. “So attacks on the free press–” 

“Yea you said that,” Ian jumped in. It was like he had smelled blood. I could see anger building in his furrowed brow. I took a step back. The small crowd stepped forward. What was happening? I wondered. For four years I had thought and talked about the many ways I resented Donald Trump. Yet here I was, in the moment of discourse when it mattered most, drawing a blank. 

“Maybe something about the leaders?” said an older woman who had become part of the group as it pressed in around me. I seized on the gentle interruption and took a moment to recover my sense of confidence, then launched into a diatribe about Trump’s love affair with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his embrace of Turkey’s strongman Recep Erdoğan and the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and his alienation of America from its European allies. I told them that I hated how Trump had waged a disinformation campaign against the American people and how his divisive rhetoric had brought out the worst in all of us.

It wasn’t everything I had wanted to say, but it was enough. I had averted a crisis of my own making. Soon the small crowd dispersed and Ian stomped off, his face reflecting disappointment from our conversation. I remained speaking for some time with a handful of the others as the protest tapered to a close. Things ended relatively amicably. Glen even invited me to dinner. 

To me, Donald Trump and the Big Lie represent the opposite of everything the protestors seemed to believe they were propping up. After all, nothing could be less “American” than the rejection and attempted undoing of a free and fair election. 

My service in the Marine Corps had kept the El Curtola Trump supporters from questioning my patriotism. Consequently, as I walked away from the bridge, I found myself thinking about the difference between patriotism and nationalism. The former can be positive, the latter rarely is.