It isn’t easy to upstage Donald Trump, but Tyler Linfesty — a 17-year old high school student from Billings, Montana — managed to divert attention away from the president at a recent Trump rally in his hometown.
Linfesty became an immediate internet sensation on September 6 as he stood on the stage directly behind Trump and made facial gestures — raising his eyebrows, rolling his eyes, smirking, grimacing, shaking his head, laughing, and doing double takes — while the president ranted and raged for over an hour before a crowd of over 10,000 rabid followers at Billings’ Rimrock Auto Arena.
As Trump entered the stage and stood behind the podium, the approximately 100 people standing behind him (and the rest of the boisterous crowd in the arena) began clapping enthusiastically, holding up Trump signs, and shouting “USA.” Only three people behind the president refrained from cheering — Linfesty and his two high school friends Erik Hovland and Christian Dunlap. A few minutes later, when Trump told the crowd “We have the best economy in history,” the crowd cheered, but Linfesty raised his eyebrows and smirked. After Trump said, “America is now respected again,” Linfesty shook his head — slightly but noticeably — in disagreement. While others cheered, Linfesty visibly grimaced and furrowed his brow when Trump called his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh “truly exceptional.” After Trump praised Matt Rosendale, who is running against incumbent Democrat Jon Tester for the U.S. Senate from Montana, and brought him to the stage, everyone behind the president could be seen applauding — except Linfesty. When Rosendale criticized “politicians who represent themselves and not us,” Linfesty offered a sustained laugh for ten seconds. As the crowd joined Rosendale in shouting “build that wall!” Lifesty remained silent. Later, when Trump claimed that it is harder to win the Electoral College than the popular vote, Linfesty, with a quizzical look, could be seen asking, “What?” to the person standing next to him. When Trump claimed “We’re knocking the hell out of the terrorists,” Linfesty guffawed as if Trump has just said that the earth is flat.
Throughout Trump’s speech, the TV audience saw Linfesty keeping up a running commentary to his friends, occasionally clapping, but mostly revealing his incredulity at the president’s comments, while others cheered and applauded.
Linfesty did applaud avidly at one of Trump’s lines — “I beat Hillary, who stole it from Bernie. Bernie should have won” — but if people wondered why he wasn’t joining the chorus of Trump zealots on stage with him, he provided a big clue. While standing behind the president, Linfesty was wearing a white button with a large red rose on his blue-and-white plaid shirt. It is the logo for Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
As the TV cameras captured Linfesty’s gestures, his instant social media fan club started to identify him as “Plaid Shirt Guy.”
“I don’t know who you are kid, but right now, you’re my hero. #plaidshirtguy,” tweeted one admirer.
Fifty two minutes into Trump’s speech (which lasted an hour and 18 minutes), Linfesty could be seen walking off the stage, replaced by a Trump staffwoman. “She came up to me and just said, ‘I’m going to take your place,’” Linfesty explained. Asked if he considered refusing to leave the stage, the high school senior said, “The thought did cross my mind. Why did I have to leave? I’m not being violent. I’m not being aggressive. But in that moment, I knew that if I refused to leave, that it would have gone viral, everyone in the country would see it. I had no idea that the entire country was watching me. Now that I know that I went viral before that, I might not have gone so willingly.”
In fact, while standing in the third row on the stage directly behind Trump, Linfesty was unaware that he’d become a mini-celebrity on social media. “During the rally, people were texting me. I saw just one text before my phone died. It was from my friend Jack Davies who texted, “Dude, do you know you’re going viral.” When I saw that text, I thought he meant that my friends were watching me. I knew my friends were watching me because my phone was vibrating but I didn’t know that the whole country was watching me. I thought they asked me to leave because I wasn’t clapping enough. Before we went on stage, they told us that we have to look enthusiastic.”
Had the Secret Service done its job, they would have learned that neither Linfesty nor his parents were Trump supporters. Linfesty’s Facebook page was filled with anti-Trump comments. His parents are both registered Democrats. They even have a sign supporting Tester on their front lawn. But in many ways, Linfesty is also a typical high-achieving high school senior. He’s vice president of Billings West High School’s student government. He’s a member of the French club, the debate team, and school’s competitive Science Bowl team. Known among his friends and teachers as a science geek, he spends two afternoons a week after school working as an assistant to a physics professor at Montana State University-Billings, conducting research with lasers to determine the half-life of ozone. In addition to President Franklin Roosevelt, his biggest heroes are the late astronomer Carl Sagan, whose books he started reading at age 12; astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium; and entrepreneur Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX. He thinks it would be “pretty cool” to study physics in college and graduate school and then work for NASA.
“He’s a great student,” said Kim Webber, who taught Linfesty’s AP United States History and World History courses during his sophomore and junior years. “He’s what makes teachers want to teach. He’s so intellectually curious.”
Linfesty’s father Ron served as a physician in the military — including three years with the Marines in the first Gulf War. After retiring from the military in 2010, the family moved from San Diego to Billings, where Dr. Linfesty practices pathology. His wife Jessica is a retired nurse. “We’ve always had dinner together every night and half the time we’re talking about politics,” Linfesty said. The whole family — including Tyler’s two older brothers — attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, but what he mostly recalls was how freezing it was as they stood outside watching the ceremony. “My Dad told me what a great president he was going to be. But I wasn’t that excited. I was only eight years old.”
Tyler’s brother Jacob worked as an intern in Senator Tester’s Billings office. Both Jacob (an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania) and oldest brother Aaron (a graduate student at NYU) are studying political science. But Linfesty says that before the 2016 elections, “I wasn’t interested in politics. I was just interested in science.” It was his scientific bent, he explained, that led him to research the presidential candidates, learn about issues, and evaluate their stances. “Like a scientist, I was trying to be objective. I listened to all the candidates’ speeches and read their platforms. I was just trying to figure out my political views at that time. I liked what Bernie Sanders was talking about, like tuition-free college and Medicare for All. But I was just learning. I didn’t make phone calls or register voters.”
Soon after the election, Linfesty and several friends started a Democratic Club at their high school to promote discussion about issues and candidates. Linfesty, who turned 18 on October 5 — will be voting for the first time in November. He and his Democratic Club friends are supporting Tester’s Senate campaign. But like most people his generation, his political education came mostly from the internet and social media. “I’d go on Twitter and see that lots of people were retweeting stuff from DSA. And I know that Sanders called himself a democratic socialist, which sounded OK to me. So I joined DSA in early 2017.”
Linfesty is also part of a broader trend. A Gallup poll conducted in July and August of this year found that Americans aged 18 to 29 are more positive about socialism (51%) than they are about capitalism (45%). This represents a 12-point decline in positive views about capitalism since 2016 and a 23 point decline since 2010. In the past two years, DSA’s membership has skyrocketed from 6,000 to over 50,000 members.
Montana is often considered a “red” state, but its politics are complicated. The state has a strong “independent streak,” says Webber, Linfesky’s teacher who is also a lifelong Montanan. Although Trump garnered 55.6% of the state’s votes, Montana has a twice-elected its liberal Democratic governor (Steve Bullock). Its Senate delegation is split between Tester, a populist Democrat, and Republican Steve Daines, a Tea Party-backed conservative. Montana’s lone representative in the House of Representatives, Republican Greg Gianforte, is among that body’s most conservative members. Billings, the state’s largest city with a population of 110,323, is in Yellowstone County, which went for Trump with 58.1% of their votes. (Hillary Clinton earned 31.5% of the vote; Libertarian Gary Johnson received 6.1%). But even Billings has a DSA chapter with about 20 members. Denise Joy, a DSA member, was elected to the City Council last year, and the local chapter is actively working to elect several progressive Democratic candidates for the state legislature in November, including Jennifer Merecki, Jade Bahr, and Amelia Marquez.
Linfesty, like many Montanans, enjoys debating and hearing different views. He went to hear Vice President Mike Pence when he came to Billings in July to stump for Rosendale, and when he learned that Trump would be visiting Billings, Linfesty was eager to go. A week before the event, he and his two friends — all members of their high school Democratic club — got tickets to the rally on-line. Around 7 a.m. on the morning of the gathering, he got an email informing him that he’d been selected to be a “VIP Guest,” which meant being able to meet and get a photograph with Trump and stand on the platform behind the president when he spoke to the crowd.
“At first I didn’t believe it,” Linfesty recalled. “I thought it was some kind of scam email. But then my Mom texted me and told me that the Secret Service called her just to tell her that they did an extensive background check on me.”
Once he knew that he was going to meet the president, Linfesty recalls, he “spent all morning in school trying to figure out what I could do to make it funny when I was being photographed with Trump.” One of his friends suggested that he try to get Trump to sign a copy of the Communist Manifesto, which another friend had given him as a joke a year earlier. After leaving school at 1 pm, Linfesty went to a local bookstore, purchased a copy of Trump’s most famous book, The Art of the Deal, tore off the cover, and inserted a pamphlet-sized version of the Communist Manifesto between the covers, intending to ask the president to sign a blank page. Before leaving for the arena, he also created the hand-made DSA pin with the red rose, and when he arrived at the event, he purchased a “Make America Great Again” cap, “so I could blend in with everyone else.”
After going through security, Linfesty was ushered into a room with about 50 other people who were waiting to meet Trump. He asked the Secret Service if the president would sign his MAGA cap and his copy of The Art of the Deal, but they told him that Trump wasn’t going to sign any autographs that day. The teenager stood in line for 45 minutes, wearing his DSA pin. “As soon as they took my photo with the president, a Secret Service man asked me what the pin meant,” Linfesty remembered. “I told him it was a symbol of my Young Conservatives of America club at my high school. He just said ‘OK.’”
What was it like meeting Trump?
“The whole time I was really scared,” Linfesty admitted. “My adrenalin was pumping. When I walked into the room, he was surprisingly orange. And he was a lot taller than I thought he’d be. I’m 6’2’ and he’s taller than me. He’s a pretty big dude. And he had a pretty big meaty hand.”
After the photo op, the event organizers brought Linfesty and his two friends to the rafters behind Trump and reminded them –- and the other roughly 100 people on the platform –- to clap and cheer throughout the president’s remarks. As he walked onto the platform, he removed the DSA pin from his shirt, but he put it back on about 35 minutes into Trump’s speech. As it became clear to viewers that Linfesty was not cheering and not applauding, but was making perplexed and incredulous facial expressions that revealed his skepticism about Trump’s comments, the social media world began asking who he was and created a hashtag that branded him as the “plaid shirt guy.”
Linfesty insists that his body language and expressions were not intentional. He simply couldn’t bring himself to applaud for things he didn’t agree with or to smile at the camera when Trump said something that “seemed absurd or untrue.”
“Tyler’s very honest about how he feels. He doesn’t have a poker face,” explained Kim Webber, his history teacher. “His expressions are just naturally Tyler. His face is like a barometer. I can look at Tyler and know how things are going in class.”
After he was ushered off the stage, a Secret Service agent told him to leave the area and to not come back. “When I was walking out of the auditorium, I saw some of my friends who were outside protesting. They explained to me that I had gone viral on the internet and that I was already being called “plaid shirt guy.” I still didn’t understand the full scope of it. When I got home, my parents showed me all the tweets, and all the comments on my Facebook page, and that’s when I understood.”
The next day, Linfesty did an interview at his high school with the Billings Gazette, which alerted the rest of the news media who the “plaid shirt guy” really was. After that, he received a barrage of requests for media interviews. His parents advised him not to do any more interviews, but his brother Jacob urged him to do it. “You only get to go viral once,” his brother told him. Linfesty did a live interview with CNN’s Don Lemon as well as interviews with the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other media outlets.
At school the next week, “all my friends and teachers were talking about what happened.” Some teachers mentioned it in his classes. Other teachers, as well as the high school principal, took him aside and told him that they were proud of him. Teachers and students gave him high-five and some even wore plaid shirts to school that week. Billings West High School football’s coach invited Linfesty to speak at the pep rally before the next home game. The team made him their honorary captain, so he did the coin toss at the start of the game. While he was on the field, the crowd chanted “Plaid shirt. Plaid shirt.”
Linfesty worried that some people might take advantage of his notoriety and moniker. In fact, about five people set up fake Twitter and Facebook accounts pretending to be him and expressing opinions that weren’t his. Several of them were even selling merchandise, including t-shirts, with Linfesty’s name and face on them. Other than that, Linfesty’s experience “has all been positive,” he said. He soon had 38,600 followers on Twitter. He got fan mail from around the country and thousands of congratulatory messages on Twitter and Instagram. “Most of them just said how funny I was and what a good job I did.”
“For about a week, the phone was ringing off the hook. It makes you realize how powerful social media is,” said Linfesty’s father. “He’s gained experience. It has been a tremendous opportunity for him to grow. But we don’t want him to be remembered as the guy who made faces behind the president. We have no interest in trying to profit from this. It is time to move on.”
“My parents are proud of me. They think it’s funny,” Linfesty said. “They just want to make sure that it doesn’t all go to my head.”
Peter Dreier, is professor of Politics at Occidental College, and the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books: 2012).