When staunch Bernie Sanders supporter Miles Chilson received Donald Trump’s “Empire” cologne as a joke from a Hartsbrook School classmate last year, he had no idea that gift would become the winning ticket to his national stage performance.
Or that the Trump campaign would use him in its ads.
Chilson, of Florence, chose to attend a Trump event after meeting Sanders during a January rally at University of Massachusetts Amherst.
“Being a liberal pretty much my entire life, I didn’t think it was fair to decide that I wanted one candidate without seeing the other side,” he said.
Half for self-education, half as a practical joke, Chilson arrived at Trump’s Jan. 5 rally in Claremont, New Hampshire, doused in the Republican nominee’s cologne.
“It was basically going to be comedy for me,” he said.
After passing through security, Chilson was given Trump signs to hold by campaign staff and wound up in a spot close to the stage.
“He went through all of his speech and said stuff that appalled me, but I stayed quiet,” Chilson said of Trump. He said the rhetoric included allegations of China building warships and negative remarks about Muslims from crowd members.
“It was just this feeling I got from the crowd that was kind of sick,” he said. “People wanting to hear [Trump] speak and build on that anger.”
When the floor was opened up for a question-and-answer session, Chilson couldn’t resist. “I didn’t really have any questions, per se, but I had this drive to get his attention,” he said of the candidate.
He raised his hand high, and, in return, was called on to speak from the audience.
Chilson said to Trump: “I’m wearing your cologne and you have good energy on stage.”
“That’s all I was going to say,” Chilson said. “I didn’t want to compliment him in any great way.”
Trump responded by calling the recent high school graduate “a handsome guy” and directing four Secret Service staff to escort him up onto the stage.
“I don’t like being on the stage with a guy who’s better looking than me,” said Trump as Chilson was brought up. “I hate it,” he added.”
The crowd cheered as the young man entered the stage area, but Chilson said he felt they “wanted more from him,” such as hoisting up his signs.
Chilson had other plans.
“As I was approaching him I kind of got this idea in my head of three things I could do right now: ask for an autograph, touch his hair or get a selfie.”
He requested a selfie with the Republican nominee and Trump obliged.
“He likes Trump cologne; I do, too,” said Trump. The on-stage exchange lasted about a minute.
On the way home from the rally, Chilson said he realized how “huge” the moment was.
“My family was going to be blowing up about this,” he said of his thoughts that day. “Not in a bad way, but that it was funny that it had to happen to likely the most liberal person in that audience.”
But the story was far from over, Chilson soon realized. In the weeks to come, he found footage of the selfie moment with Trump plastered across the internet — in major news articles, featured prominently in a Slate.com article titled “Trump’s Supporters in New Hampshire Really Do Exist” and used in a Trump campaign video.
Both of Chilson’s sisters congratulated him on the experience, telling him “not many people can say they took a selfie with the worst man in the world.”
The irony of his newfound fame ran deep, Chilson said, as his personal Facebook page is “littered with Bernie paraphernalia.”
He spoke about the experience in school classes and received an influx of commentary from friends and family. In February, a stranger to Chilson identified him in a grocery store as “that guy from the Trump video.”
In full disclosure, Chilson said, he was “the most ethnic-looking person in the audience,” and that Trump had picked up on that.
The half-West Indian man said it “felt like there was a plug there and that was a little bit awkward, but it was an experience that I couldn’t really pass up.”
Each time Chilson thought that attention to the incident had died down, the photo of him resurfaced. So much so, that a friend of his living in Germany sent him a reproduction of that photo featured prominently in a German newspaper.
Six months later, Chilson was watching the Republic National Convention with his family on Monday when his likeness appeared on TV.
“The craziest thing about it is that he used me in so many different ads, and the truth behind it is I’m not a supporter of his, at all,” Chilson said.
“There was no reason to bring me up there unless he wanted to have me be an image.”
Contact Sarah Crosby at firstname.lastname@example.org.