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Bismarck boat parade of Trump supporters draws hundreds onto the Missouri River

Arranged in under a week by an impromptu Facebook event, the parade drew upwards of five hundred boats and a few notable faces, like Mayor Steve Bakken and Senator Kevin Cramer.

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The boat parade passes beneath the Memorial Bridge in Bismarck/Mandan, N.D. Kyle Martin / Special to the Forum
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BISMARCK — For over an hour, an uninterrupted stream of boats passed beneath the Memorial Bridge in Bismarck on Saturday, Aug. 22, advancing at idle speeds up the Missouri River.

Blaring country radio hits like "Proud to be an American" and "Old Town Road," the flotilla of several hundred boats showcased thousands of Trump 2020 flags.

The parade, dubbed Trump 2020 Boat Run and organized in support of President Donald Trump's campaign, was arranged by two Bismarck locals: financier Brad Balerud and realtor John Evanson.

The idea started as a small Facebook event, posted on Sunday, Aug. 16, but quickly gained steam. By Saturday, the online page had drawn almost 700 confirmed attendees, while another two thousand people had indicated interest in coming.

"We will exercise our Constitutional First Amendment right to display our Trump flags proud," said the Facebook event page, adding, "GOD BLESS AMERICA AND PRESIDENT TRUMP!"

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Upwards of five hundred boats showed up Saturday morning, and several hundred more people gathered on Memorial Bridge with flags and Make America Great Again hats to show support.

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Spectators gathered on Bismarck and Mandan's Memorial Bridge to watch the parade pass by on Saturday afternoon. Kyle Martin / Special to the Forum

"This is a first," said Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken, who rode on a boat near the front of the parade. "This is absolutely a phenomenal event. What a demonstration of patriotism. This is absolutely unbelievable."

This summer, boat parades in support of Trump's presidential campaign have taken off in many conservative parts of the country. A new phenomenon, boaters at many events have aimed to raise the bar for the world's largest boat parade. Last week, an event off the coast of Clearwater, Fla., is suspected to have set a new world record for the largest boat parade ever.

Beginning Saturday morning, boaters gathered around a sandbar across from Fox Island in south Bismarck. Pontoon boats dominated the scene, but a handful of fishing boats and personal watercraft darted between wakes.

Around noon, the crowds went quiet as one pontoon broadcast the national anthem. Two North American T-6 Texans, World War II-era planes from the Mandan Airport, flew over the river as boaters cheered them on.

"We almost looked like an NFL production with the national anthem," Balerud said.

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Once the music stopped, the boats began the drive at idle speed up the Missouri River. Balerud's boat, a cabin cruiser called "Bankrupt Sea," led the fleet, and a full hour passed before the last boat in the flotilla crossed the starting line, according to Balerud.

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Boats gather at a sandbar near Fox Island, in south Bismarck, ahead of Saturday's boat parade in support of President Trump. Kyle Martin / Special to the Forum

Organizers of Saturday's event pointed to last weekend's record-setting event in Clearwater as their inspiration.

"We thought, how in the world could we do one of these?" Balerud said. And while Clearwater was on their minds, he and Evanson said they never expected to draw the interest they did.

"It started out as a little grassroots Facebook event, and it blew up," Bakken said. "It is the biggest event I have seen on the Missouri river."

While local records were on the minds of many parade participants, Balerud and Evanson said the event was "unorganized," since it took place without an official permit.

"It's not our fault we have a lot of friends," Evanson joked.

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Apart from Bakken, the event drew at least one more noteworthy face. Sen. Kevin Cramer appeared near the front of the parade, riding a family pontoon that brandished an assortment of American flags, Trump flags and "Back the Blue" flags.

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Kevin and Kris Cramer on their family boat at Misty Waters Marina in Bismarck. Kyle Martin / Special to the Forum

Rep. Kelly Armstrong planned to attend the event but was called to Washington for a Congressional vote.

The president's name was visible on nearly every boat that took to the river Saturday morning, but attendees stressed that the event was about more than the coming election.

"This isn't only about Trump. This is about our love for freedom and our love for law enforcement," Balerud said, adding he hoped the event would be a show of support for local police departments in response to the national movement for police reform. "We do not agree with defunding our police department because we love our police department."


A small crowd of around 20 protesters also turned out to the Memorial Bridge. The group carried signs reading "Black Lives Matter" and "I can't breathe," as well as the names of victims in recent police killings, like Breonna Taylor and Bismarck's Ryan Gipp.

While exchanges between protesters and Trump supporters on Memorial Bridge grew heated at times, the day remained largely peaceful.

"We just want them to know that we're not going anywhere," said Michelle LaPoint, a Bismarck activist who has helped organize several Black Lives Matter protests in town since the killing of George Floyd in May. "Even if it's just a few of us, as long as they can read our signs — the children especially, or people who don't know. They can ask questions."

Boaters who came out for the parade expressed unwavering support for Trump, and many said they expect he will win November's election handily.

"When it comes down to it, it's really disappointing that a president has to endure so much hatred towards trying to put America first," said Bismarck local Al Meyer as he piloted his pontoon into line at the start of the parade. Meyer's boat was near the back of the flotilla and, surveying the hundreds of boats in front of him, he guessed Clearwater's record probably wouldn't fall on Saturday.

"Maybe we should set the record for a river boat parade," Meyer said. "I mean it's one thing to set the record in the ocean, but what about on the river?"

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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