At a rally in Montana last week, the crowd cheered for President Trump as he gave a freewheeling speech that touched on the economy, his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton and his success as “your favorite of all time president.”
Online, the cheers were for a teenager in a plaid shirt.
The teenager, who was standing behind the president in the camera’s view, could be seen raising his eyebrows, grimacing and shaking his head throughout much of the event, in Billings, Mont. At one point, he widened his eyes and mouthed a word of confusion: “What?”
Eventually, a woman approached him, gestured for his exit and replaced him in the crowd.
He gained widespread attention and on social media came to be known as Plaid Shirt Guy.
As his online persona took off, so did the questions: Who was he? What was he doing there? And how did he, of all people, manage to get such prime seating?
Who is Plaid Shirt Guy?
Internet, meet Tyler Linfesty.
He’s a 17-year-old high school senior at Billings West High School. Though he identifies as a social democrat, he said he didn’t want to miss the chance to see a speech by the president of the United States. So he and some friends signed up to attend Mr. Trump’s rally on Thursday.
That morning, Mr. Linfesty said, he got an email saying that he had been selected for V.I.P. status, which meant that he would get to meet the president and have access to premier seating. He said that he did not apply for the status and that he believed he was chosen by chance.
He got to take a brief picture with the president before the rally and asked organizers whether he and his friends could sit together behind the stage. In fact, their seats could not have been more prominent.
“I think it was basically random that we got placed right behind him and on television,” Mr. Linfesty said on Saturday.
Mr. Linfesty said organizers instructed the crowd to clap and cheer, but he said he could not bring himself to applaud for things that he did not agree with. He said he did not know he was so visible until friends texted him in the middle of the speech.
“That was not me trying to protest,” Mr. Linfesty said. “That was just my honest reactions to the things that he was saying.”
At one point during the speech, he put on a pin showing support for the Democratic Socialists of America. Finally, a woman slid into the aisle and whispered something to him. He walked off and she replaced him in the crowd: a new face, now smiling pleasantly in the background.
Shortly afterward, his friends were replaced, too.
Backstage, Mr. Linfesty said he was pulled aside while police officers and Secret Service officials checked his identification. After about 10 minutes, he said, “they respectfully told me to just leave and not come back.”
How to sit up front at a rally
Mr. Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment about Mr. Linfesty’s removal.
In general, not anyone can stand behind political candidates at rallies, campaign experts said. That area is tightly controlled and often reserved for notable people, local politicians and campaign volunteers. Sometimes, campaigns may invite community members to convey a sense of local authenticity.
“The question is, What is it you want to have people think when they look at the picture?” said Jennifer Cunningham of SKDKnickerbocker, a political consulting firm that has worked on presidential campaigns.
Most people don’t need encouragement to behave appropriately, but to prevent slip-ups, campaigns typically vet people who will be near the president and instruct them on how to avoid being a distraction, experts said.
“For a presidential campaign to fail to do even a cursory vetting — the guy was wearing a Democratic Socialists of America sticker, for heaven’ sake — is unprecedented,” said Ms. Cunningham, whose firm works with Democratic campaigns. “The rule is that you vet everything and everyone so there are no surprises.”
Mr. Linfesty said that his parents were told that a background check was conducted before he was offered his seating, but it’s unclear what that entailed or whether Mr. Trump’s campaign was aware of his political views.
For those who don’t have V.I.P. access, there’s another way to get front and center at a rally: Show up early.
The first people in line can often grab front row seats facing the podium. While those seats may not be on camera during the president’s speech, super fans of Mr. Trump have had success with this strategy: One ended up being called on stage at a rally, and another said he managed to sneak into the on-camera area, where he positioned himself in view behind the president.
As for Mr. Linfesty, he has done what any teenager would do in a moment of online fame: He changed his Twitter profile photo to show his now-famous eyebrow raise. He will turn 18 next month, and he plans to vote for the first time in November.