Not Another Trump Voter Puff Piece
This is a disturbing inside look at the Trump supporter echo chamber
I have an immigrant’s faith in the goodness of America, and a liberal’s faith in the power of engagement. But Trump’s election was a wake-up call. How could a sizable chunk of the country vote for a know-nothing conman who made racist appeals the mainstay of his campaign? How could we know so little about the country that his victory came as a surprise?
To be sure, I had gotten hints about the benighted nature of the far-right’s fever swamps during Obama’s presidency— the myths of a Kenyan birth that wouldn’t die; the emailed memes showing Obama as a tribal warlord, or worse, a monkey, that even some elected officials trafficked in.
Rather than turning away, I yearned to understand and engage. Last fall, I finally found a way to do so: I stumbled across pro-Trump groups on Facebook, where die-hard Trump true-believers congregate. You might think these are political groups, but no policy ever gets discussed. Instead, the mode is racist memes, fake news, conspiracy theories, and affirmations of support for Trump.
Trump Troopers is one such very active group with over 70,000 members. It is a febrile collection of Trump supporters, liberal trolls, and a few earnest seekers like myself. Supporters post messages of affirmation for Trump. Trolls heckle and jeer at the supporters, calling them racist and stupid, while supporters throw expletives back. Each thread ends in mother-fucking and turd-based insults. At intervals, fed-up supporters plead with the admins to block the trolls, but the admins apparently see this as entertainment and pour fuel on the fire instead.
Some time ago I got accepted as a member, and my journey began. I wanted to engage, not just throw stones as if at animals in a zoo. I guess I approached it naively; I figured they saw Trump as a confident winner because they simply weren’t exposed to reporting that the rest of us are. Therefore I posted two articles: one that highlighted a Morning Consult poll showing his approval ratings going down in every state; and another from Vanity Fair reporting his staff’s fears that he is ‘unraveling.’
I’m not sure what I expected but what I got was instant vituperation. Comment after comment called it “Fake News!” Gun-toting men threw expletives at me, such as “liberal ho bag crack whore tramp” and “ladyboy,” while grandmas were satisfied by merely calling me “evil.” Some prayed at me. Some asked why I wasn’t being reported to the authorities. Some blocked me. Some, having clearly explored my profile, called into question my right to judge Trump based on my Indian name, even though they routinely like pro-Trump posts from other foreigners who don’t even live here. Some condemned me as paid by Soros. One threatened me: “[you] are going to be mowed down in a fusillade of US Army bullets. Those who survive will be hanged for treason.”
My posts got over a hundred comments within a couple of hours, all uniformly angry.
It took a deeper engagement for me to change my tactic. I had commented on one of the posts that compared Obama with Trump: my comment contrasted Obama’s competence and decency with Trump’s. It was like dipping my toe in filth: the entire thread was full of conspiracy theories, both before and after my comment. There was the Obama IS Osama bin Laden theory, with doctored pictures showing Obama’s face with a bin Laden-style beard; and the Michelle has a penis one, also using doctored images. Some called me an illegal alien and asked me to go back to my ‘shithole’ country.
Then I heard from a Trump Trooper named Dixie (rest of the name redacted for her privacy) in my inbox.
As surprising as this was, her message to me was much in line with the public responses I had been reading. “If you don’t like our country,” she said, “you should go back to yours.” She called into question my right to disrespect the president; and said I should be grateful for making US dollars and having a comfortable life instead.
I had hit pay dirt. Finally, I could engage one-on-one with a Trump supporter and understand why they conflated loyalty to the country with loyalty to Trump, a man who hadn’t even been president for a year. Could one of them be convinced to accept a vision of America that did not place Trump and his supporters at the center?
I assured her that I had the deepest respect for America and its values; that this was not just my reason for being here, but also why it distressed me to see it led by an incompetent narcissist.
Only slightly mollified, she continued, in one long run-on sentence:
She accused liberals of trying to start a race war. She welcomed people of other races and religions, but she didn’t want to be made to reject the president, their flag, their statues, or give up their culture?—?why did people insist on making it about race, when people like her had mixed race families themselves?
Now I ask you to turn everything you know about race relations in this country inside out: how does it feel, to be one of the white, Christian majority, and to believe that your culture is being eroded in order to mollify newcomers who do not even like America? And to be accused of being a racist due to this self-protective stance? Leaving aside the factual basis for this emotion?—?I suddenly understood that this is the emotional space that Dixie, and other Trump supporters like her, inhabit.
Dixie had put herself in a fortress of defensiveness, where a simple statement in support of Obama can be seen as ‘trying to start a race war.’
I had no interest in starting a race war, I told her. That we weren’t North Korea where one owes personal loyalty to the Leader. I said that Trump was a ‘shitty human being,’ and I didn’t respect him in the slightest. That I, and every immigrant and every liberal that I knew, just wanted to live in peace and did not want to blow things up. And, most importantly, I absolved her. “I believe that most Americans are not racist.”
At this point, Dixie’s tone changed. She apologized to me for having misunderstood, saying, “it is easy to get caught up in all this.” Could it be that Trump supporters identify so thoroughly with Trump that they personally feel attacked as ‘racist’ when they hear liberals attacking him? This is why, once I had absolved her from the sin of racism, she was able to hear me again.
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I realized that I was not going to be able to engage fruitfully while sporting my Indian name; that it was like a red rag to a bull for Trump supporters to hear critique coming from an outsider. So I went incognito and chose an American name for my new fake Facebook profile. Armed with this new persona, I was able to have more productive conversations.
The first topic I broached was one of genuine confusion: how could they support the Republican policy of lowering taxes for the ultra-wealthy, when probably none of them fell into that bracket? How could they vote for the likes of Paul Ryan, given his agenda of pushing lower taxes for the rich?
Paul Ryan is intensely loathed among Trump supporters if these groups are representative at all. A day after I had asked the question: “what do you think of Paul Ryan?,” I had 180 comments, all uniformly negative. Some of the insults were rather creative: ‘cut-throat,’ ‘disgraceful idiot,’ ‘deep state shill,’ ‘backyard weasel,’ ‘traitor to the conservative cause,’ ‘drowns kittens,’ ‘an Obama man,’ ‘globalist peter-smoker,’ ‘douche canoe liberal,’ ‘snake in the grass,’ ‘more shady than the shade of an oak,’ ‘swamp critter,’ the ever popular ‘rhino,’ and the startling?—?‘monkey minion to the ZioNazi cabal’ (it took me a while to understand that this last was anti-Semitic).
As a naive liberal, you might be inclined to wonder if this means that they favor populist, tax-the-wealthy policies that the Bannonite wing pushed during the campaign; that being the case, perhaps they might be inclined to support a populist like Bernie Sanders? The answer: an emphatic no. Despite my leading questions, not a single person brought up low taxes for the wealthy at all. Tax policy did not appear to be a topic that flitted even lightly across their minds. In fact, one person faulted Paul Ryan for not being libertarian enough.
As I tried to make sense of this, I came to realize that the ‘libertarian’ label for these folks is merely a symbol for the culture war that powers their engines, rather than any policy goal. Comment after comment made it abundantly clear that despite Paul Ryan’s complete capitulation at the shrine of Trump, real Trump supporters see through him, and do not trust his loyalty to their cause?—?neither to Trump, personally, nor do they see him as one of their own. They can tell that his fealty is to business, not to racial grievance.
While a liberal might laugh themselves silly at the suggestion that anyone would see Paul Ryan as an ‘Obama man,’ it is probably true that neither are culture warriors, unlike their man, Trump. Paul Ryan lost them the minute he wavered in his support for Trump during the campaign. “A useless person,” one commenter said, “he does not really support the President.”
And that was that.
My Conversations With Eric
On one of these threads, I was informed by a Trump supporter named Eric that as a liberal, I surely hated America, God, morality, the military, law enforcement, unborn children, and even children that were fortunate enough not to be aborted. Did I ever stop to think, he asked in sorrowful tones, why my life had brought me to this unbalanced stage where these wholesome notions made me see red?
That opening salvo actually led me to a new understanding. Years of propaganda and polarization have led conservatives to buy into laughably Manichean caricatures of what liberals are like. Finding it absurd that I even had to state this, I assured him (as I had with Dixie earlier)?—?that I hated none of these things, not even the notion of God, though I was an atheist.
But there is a strain, I think, in the Trump supporter’s mind, that insists on simplistic generalizations, and sees life as a series of team sports with zero-sum victors and losers. Any loss for any liberal icon is seen as a goal scored by the conservative team. The downfall of Harvey Weinstein meant that liberals, as a group, had been ‘exposed,’ and would be defeated. “Your side is literally self-destructing as evidenced by what’s going on in Hollywood,” Eric told me; and not even reminding him that it was also the liberal media that outed Weinstein would shake his belief.
Eric also demonstrated something else: a feeling that conservatives like himself were under siege by the liberal media. With Hollywood attempting wokeness, and most journalism happening on the coasts and inevitably reflecting the cultural biases of liberals, I had underestimated how much conservatives resent not being at the center of our cultural narrative.
So Eric and others like him turn to Fox News with relief and unfettered tribalism. “Fox News is the ONLY conservative outlet on television,” he told me, “yet even though the rest of the news organizations are ALL liberal, leftists act as if it’s a crime against humanity for conservatives to have even ONE voice of conservatism on television.”
So, for Eric, objectivity, in-depth reporting, reliability, and other values take a back seat to a single criterion: are they conservative? The credulousness with which Eric and other Trump supporters approach any media that is self-proclaimed as ‘conservative’ makes them susceptible to propaganda, as Eric went on to demonstrate.
“I was horrified,” he said, regarding the recent Las Vegas massacre, “to see CNN reporters dismiss it with variations on ‘Well they were just Trump supporters,’ as it that made their deaths less tragic somehow.”
Now I know the pieties of liberal media as well as anyone, and this did not ring true at all. At all! I asked him for clips demonstrating such callousness on the part of CNN, and in response, he provided a clip from The Five talk show on Fox News. In the clip, the hosts discuss CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny’s commentary on the Vegas shooting. Perhaps, Zeleny speculates, in the clip within the clip, Trump is visiting the site because there were many Trump supporters among the country music fans who were victims of the shooting.
There isn’t even the hint of a suggestion from Zeleny that since they were Trump supporters, their deaths were in any way less tragic. And yet, Fox News hosts put their conspiratorial, paranoid cast on Zeleny’s statement: with his classic curled smirk, Greg Gutfield floated the notion that this was a derogatory comment. Wasn’t CNN actually saying that these victims were targeted due to being Trump supporters?
Subsequently, Fox News watcher Eric came away with an even darker interpretation: that CNN was, in fact, suggesting that it was not a huge tragedy?—?since these country music fans were probably Trump supporters and their deaths didn’t matter.
This explains a lot. Fox News and other conservative media feed their audiences paranoid conspiracy theories about liberals, but it is also true that their audiences are greedy for them and have come to expect Fox News to provide nothing less.
New World Order
Paranoid, literal-minded, and unable to discern news from propaganda, I was feeling the absurdity of trying to engage. But one puzzle remained: Trump supporters frequently brought up the ‘New World Order’ as a real thing that Trump was fighting against. I didn’t feel like I would understand their mindset without delving into what they meant when they invoked it.
What is the New World Order? For most of us, it is a post-WWII, aspirational politics of resolving global disputes through negotiations rather than war. For the conspiratorial right wing in America, it is the concrete plan of global elites such as the Bilderberg group, the Rothschild family, and others, to create a single world government with no national borders.
It is simultaneously a global conspiracy and something that George HW Bush openly admitted to in his speech. It is simultaneously a concrete plan and a bogeyman that everything from Islam to Hillary to Jewish bankers gets rolled into. It is simultaneously political and foretold in the Bible; Islamic and atheist. It is simultaneously capitalist, incorporating cross-border free-trade agreements, and communist. It is always ‘approaching’ but never here. Just like a liberal might anxiously look up the worst effects of climate change, these folks are anxiously watching YouTube videos to judge when the Rothschilds will make their move.
“The last 5 presidents have acknowledged it,” Jim said matter-of-factly.
“Hillary was to be the next and last American President,” another informed me.
“The Rothschild family doesn’t deny the plan, in fact, they have openly talked about it,” Richard said, adding, “it’s very, very real.”
“They plan to knock down the population of the Earth by 6 billion people,” Donald said, “it is all about control.”
“Muslim rule run by the United Nations, and the end of the free world,” Linda summarized.
“One leader, one government, one currency,” Gwen warned, “the Anti-Christ!”
And what role did Trump play in all this? Trump foiled the globalists’ plans?—?with the help of his supporters, people like themselves. Globalists did not want him to win; they did not expect him to win. “Trump knows what’s going on and that’s why the UN is not getting our funding,” Lee said, “your comrades are being booked into Gitmo.”
Like children who take metaphors literally and personify their fears as the monster in the closet, the conspiratorial far-right have created the ‘New World Order’ to personify their panic at a world that seems perpetually to spin out of control.
Conservatives have come a long way from the time their idol Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire. In a prior age any hint of working with Russians, let alone clandestine meetings with representatives of the Russian government, would have irretrievably poisoned a presidency.
Why did Donald Trump, reality show star from Manhattan, garner such blind loyalty from them instead of causing consternation at his Russian connections? An interesting thread proceeded from a simple question posted by a self-proclaimed Never-Trump conservative: “If Trump’s collusion with Russia was proven, would you still support him?”
At first, the answers were as expected.
“I voted I won and I will win again,” one said simply.
“A patriot sticks with his President through thick and thin,” another said, “period! I’m not bailing on him.”
Some were angry to even be asked to entertain such a hypothetical. Trump supporters have swallowed the narrative pushed by Trump-friendly media that actually it was Hillary Clinton who colluded with Russia: any news that had any resonance with that theory found instant, unquestioning acceptance, like the Uranium One conspiracy theory. Some seemed genuinely confused: the fact that all of Special Counsel Mueller’s evidence hasn’t been made public yet was treated as proof that collusion is never going to be proven.
But the originator of the thread prodded them. Sure, but what if it was proven? Can we be more mature, he asked pointlessly, and stop talking about crimes and murders committed by Hillary when no such thing has been proven? “Do you find the US legal system to be a farce?” he asked.
Some became defensive. “It would mean 60 million odd Americans were idiots and I don’t think that’s right,” Jim said.
They came up with extenuating rationales that can make one cross-eyed at the sophistry. How could collusion be a crime? Doesn’t it just mean accepting help? Do I ‘collude’ with my neighbor or my carpenter if they help me out? How could receiving help be against the law?
“So you’re saying,” the questioner prodded further, “it is fine to accept any election help, as long as the voting was free and fair?” What if the Trump campaign accepted direct?—?even financial?—?assistance from a hostile foreign power while knowing they were Russian government agents? Was that patriotic?
That’s where, past the denial and obfuscation, the thread uncovered the kernel that explains, I believe, the lack of concern among Trump supporters regarding Russian collusion.
Why would it be wrong for a foreign government to help uncover corruption??—?John asked, imagining a scene of how it might have gone down: “Dear Mr. Trump: My crack KGB guys have been reading all the mail from Hillary’s server since they found the blue dress…. I have sent them all as an enclosure, and the trucks will be arriving with them later today. Happy reading. Your Friend, Vlad Putin.”
“Hostile foreign powers ran our country for eight years,” Bobby said. “I’d rather be a Rooskie than a fanatical Islamic terrorist. Don’t talk to me about patriotism!”
“Russia is our ally,” another commented, “I hope that Putin liberates the West from liberals/progressives!”
For these folks, any Democratic government was self-evidently illegitimate. Either they were corrupt, like Hillary, or foreign, like Obama. Trump, on the other hand, was the one true, legitimate leader of the true, legitimate Americans; thus it wasn’t important if he broke a few laws or accepted foreign help. His vociferous culture war and racialist appeals cemented his status. It showed he understood who the true Americans are. He, being the one true legitimate leader, could not, by definition, collude: he could only make deals on behalf of the true Americans.
MAGA And The Psychic Wound
Sometimes, Trump’s presidency appeared to be a salve for a psychic wound rather than merely a politician these folks voted for. I saw it in the pleasure they took in ‘liberal tears’?—?inevitably, each thread produced at least a few such memes?—?retribution in the person of Trump. I saw it in their words: “finally, we have found our spokesman.” I saw it in their blinding faith in him: on the collusion question, one woman said that the only way she would accept his guilt would be if he said to do so. I saw it in the constant proclamations of adoration for Trump and his family. I saw it in the hundreds of memes of Trump himself: those where he is made to look younger, slimmer, more alpha; the motorbike Trump; the Trump flipping the bird; the Super Trump. I saw it in the rage with which they attacked anyone who questioned him.
What was the void that Trump filled? There was no better way to delve into that than to ask: what did Making America Great Again mean to them? The answers came in thick and fast. Trump clearly tapped into a massive emotional wellspring that existed before he came along.
Responses suggested a longing for simpler times. Economically, those were times when a family could have a nice living on one blue-collar income. Socially, one could make certain assumptions, such as everyone in their circle would be a church-going Christian in a traditional marriage; “when men were men and women were women,” one said.
Culturally, the media was not so focused on calling out racism (some called it ‘race-baiting’), and highlighting non-traditional lifestyles (some called it ‘parading’). Politically, America was seen as an exceptional nation, a unique force for good, and a fount of innovation; not indebted to foreign nations. God and prayer in schools was encouraged.
Law and order was unquestioned and middle-class enclaves felt safer. “Not questioning” is a phrase that came up often, as in not questioning authority figures such as the police, the military, the president.
I noted a primal distaste for immigrants and Islam. Any concrete reasons were almost beside the point: they resented being asked to take foreign beliefs and cultures into account and did not trust that these newcomers would return the favor. They contrasted themselves as the ‘true Americans’, and felt like they had lost their place in the center. “Honoring True Americans,” one said, “the Back Bone of our Country!”
MAGA was also held up as a talisman: it would bring the good stuff: the constitution, God, and the second amendment; it would ward off the bad stuff: the New World Order, the globalists, handouts, the Democrats.
Trump supporters live with a palpable sense of loss. When they heard Trump promise to Make America Great Again, most heard that he would make them whole again. In him, they saw a reflection of their own narcissistic injury at having lost their place at the heart of the culture. They resonated with his resentment of Obama, the elite, the liberals; his willingness to give voice to white racial grievance. He is their sage of resentment.
They found deep vindication in his victory. America is beside the point: Trump would make these true Americans great again.
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