The gap is growing wider and wider between Trump supporters and those who don't understand them. Here, we peer out across the gap, into the unknown shadowlands of the Trumpian psyche.
Studying the perspectives of Trump supporters can feel like researching the psychology of serial killers. Of course, Americans are naturally fascinated by serial killers—a fact that could potentially tell us something about the people who love Trump.
In today's political environment, it can feel like there are two Americas existing parallel to each other. To dwellers in both, the other side can feel as foreign and sinister as the Upside Down in Stranger Things, inhabited by ghoulish, many-armed monsters, hell-bent on mindless destruction.
This certainly rings true today, in light of recent videos of Trump supporters chanting "Send her back" in Greensboro, North Carolina.
The chant was referring to Representative Ilhan Omar, a freshman Congresswoman and Somali refugee who was the object of a Trump Twitter rant on Saturday, along with three other progressive freshmen congresswomen.
While the other three—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—were all U.S.-born, Omar is not; and so she quickly became the primary subject of Trump's ire. At the North Carolina rally, he criticized her for her purported "un-Americanness," repeating the false claim that she has supported Al-Qaeda.
Trump's actions this past week have been widely criticized. Nancy Pelosi described Trump's statements as "racist." On Tuesday, the House voted to officially denounce his tweets, and everyone from the mayor of London to a variety of conservative commentators have expressed their disapproval and shock. The conservative radio commentator Guy Benson said, "I'm very tough on Omar [because] she deserves it, on the merits. I am sickened by the hate-laced 'send her back' chants. Shame on every person who participated. POTUS has a responsibility to put an end to it. He alone has the ability to do so."
Yet Trump's staunchest supporters apparently disagreed. They approved of the president's actions, so much so that they decided to chant, "Send her back."
It's tempting to try to understand what Trump supporters are thinking, if only to locate them in some context that makes them more compatible with reality. This exercise feels similar to attempting to tap into a serial killer's mind, as sometimes the mentality of Trump's followers, particularly the alt-right sect, can seem too utterly depraved to ever comprehend.
In some ways, trying to analyze the Trump supporters squeezed together at his rallies feels reminiscent of trying to understand all the women that filed in to attend Ted Bundy's final trial. There's a similar relentless ignorance of truth, a similarly toxic sense of spectacle and groupthink implicit in their love for him.
Still, it's undeniably fascinating to try to understand serial killers and the people who love them.
Always, there's that burning question: how could this happen? What were they thinking?
In terms of Trump supporters, all roads lead to one ideology in particular—but race has always played a major part along the way.
White Supremacy, Veiled by a Misunderstanding of Racism
Hiding behind illusory ideas like "reverse racism," Trump supporters tend to believe that "whiteness" is somehow under attack. Nevermind that on average, white households have 6.5 times the wealth of black households, or that black and Latino applicants are still 60% more likely to be turned down for a loan than white families, or any of the other statistics that prove that whiteness is still very much in power in America. Trump supporters tend to take measures like affirmative action and phenomenons like political correctness on campuses as proof that white liberty is under siege.
On the other hand, many Trump supporters will insist that they are "not racist" and that Trump himself is "not racist"—nevermind the fact that his comments were explicitly reminiscent of 19th century racial politics. "In many ways, this is the most insidious kind of racial demagoguery," said Douglas A. Blackmon, the author of Slavery by Another Name, a history of racial attitudes in America in the late 18th and early 19th century. "The president has moved beyond invoking the obvious racial slanders of 50 years ago — clichés like black neighborhoods 'on fire' — and is now invoking the white supremacist mentality of the early 1900s, when anyone who looked 'not white' could be labeled as unwelcome in America."
But for Trump supporters, all this talk is just overly aggressive.
Mitch McConnell, who said that the President is "onto something" with his comments against the congresswomen, added that he thinks Trump is "not a racist" and it's "about time we lowered the temperature across the board."
This statement—that it's "about time we lowered the temperature across the board"—is telling. In some ways, it's a form of gaslighting, a way of minimizing people's righteous anger at Trump's actions by framing their anger as a weakness or character flaw. Similar to the "special snowflake" diatribes thrown at online social justice warriors, this is a tactic that's worked well for Trump since the beginning of his campaign.
From many Trump supporters' perspectives, it seems that they just want America to calm down.
Of course, what they really want is for people of color to calm down, for poor people to calm down, for everyone except all-American upper and middle class white people to calm down. Gaslighting is ultimately a power play, and by its Trumpian logic, only people who have always been in power have the right to make policy and protest change.
Few will admit this, though; instead, supporters hide behind the delusion that those who dislike Trump are merely overreacting, blowing his actions out of proportion in order to facilitate a liberal agenda. This creates a loop that effectively insulates Trump supporters against any hope of hearing the other side.
Many of them do, however, hear the other side. The truth is that many simply don't care.
Image via Fox News
Inflammatory Rhetoric, Blatant Lies, Corruption: They Just Don't Care
Many Trump supporters see the flaws in Trump's rhetoric and policies. Many recognize that he's racist. Many of them admit that they themselves are racist. And they don't care.
They don't care that he lies constantly. One study presented Trump supporters with a false statement of his and then corrected it. Though people largely accepted the corrections, this didn't change their views about Trump. "People were willing to say Trump was wrong, but it didn't have much of an effect on what they felt about him," said one of the researchers. Apparently, sometimes fact checks can even backfire, somehow making people even more convinced of a false story; but even when the evidence is irrefutable, it seems that Trump supporters simply could care less.
They don't care about the way Trump tweets or conducts himself. They don't mind his attitudes towards women or minorities. This is the reason that summits like Women for Trump occur; this is the reason why people of color and queer people have supported Trump. Either they refuse to see who he really is, or they don't care about his conduct. Regardless, there is nothing that anyone could say or do that could change this.
Image via WHYY.org
All this may stem from the bulletproof cult mentality Trump has built around himself. "What might look like corruption or cronyism to neutral observers is seen by the supporters of populists as doing the right thing for the right people, the "real people," said political theorist Jan-Werner Müller. "This is why the tribal appeal of populism is so crucial. Populist leaders thrive on distinctions between 'us' and 'them,' between 'the people' and 'the establishment.'"
On the other hand, some people don't even care that Trump has built a cult around himself, just like they don't care that Trump is a racist cult leader, just like they don't care that he's breeding hatred and distrust and fear.
What do they care about?
The answer is surprisingly simple.
Money, Money, Money
The number one thing that Trump has going for him, right now, is the U.S. economy. Unemployment is at its lowest in years, and this alone is the reason that many of his supporters have resolutely stuck by him. Nevermind that the seeds for this economic growth were planted by the Obama presidency—or that we are at risk of another recession—or that Trump has threatened to cut life-saving benefits, like welfare for poor people—or that climate change threatens to present the largest economic catastrophe in the history of the world—or that 2.2 million Americans are making minimum wage or less ($7.25 per hour), and only 0.1% of those 2.2 million can afford housing.
All that matters is that Americans are working their 9 to 5's, right?
Not exactly. Under Trump, the U.S.'s five largest banks earned tens of billions of dollars in the first half of 2019. Nevermind that Trump's policies led Rand Paul to block a funding bill for 9/11 victims and first responders—though Paul supported Trump's 2017 tax bill, which cut taxes drastically for mega-corporations. Nevermind that the number of corporations paying no taxes has increased from 30 to 60 percent since Trump's tax bill, which has been widely panned as a bust. Nevermind that Trump is still planning more tax cuts for the 1%.
At least he's not threatening us with socialism, right?
Why Are We So Obsessed With Money?
At the core of the division between Trump supporters and everyone else is that Trump supporters are married to a fundamental ideology of Republicanism, which recoils from any semblance of government interference. This division stems from the age-old battle between freedom and control that defines the Democratic-Republican split. This is the same divide that separates communism and capitalism and that stems from the division between collectivism and individualism.
Naturally, each side has positive points; neither is implicitly ill-intentioned. Each can be blown out of proportion, however, particularly when they're implemented by a demagogue.
And at the core of Republican free market values is an individualist mentality, one that proclaims that every person should be left alone to fend and fight for his or herself. This mentality has been so successfully drilled into the American psyche that it is successfully drowning out cries of racism, corruption, and evil. It's why Trump supporters are calling for Rep. Ilhan Omar to be shipped back home: her presence, and the rising prominence of progressive Democrats, represents a fundamental and very real threat to this ideology.
Nevermind that Trump is facilitating this ideology through cultish tactics, is warping America's legacy beyond belief, is imprisoning children, is threatening the world's future, is deepening economic divides, is spreading hatred, is an overt racist. The "right" to own guns—and what it symbolizes—overshadows all of this.
This is the truth: An archaic construct of "liberty" is more important to Trump supporters than any and everything else. It's more important than equality. It's more important than reality. It's more important than taxing the massive corporations and banks that rake in billions each month. It appears that this form of "liberty" is more important than life itself.
If you're not a Trump supporter, then looking out into this alternate reality feels like peering over the edge of another dimension. And it should remain that way. We should not try to empathize with Trump supporters, should not humanize or normalize his actions, should not ever apologize for standing up for human decency, compassion, and the true meaning of American freedom, which is supposed to mean that everyone has the right to the same opportunities.
What we can do is deepen our understanding of this construct of "liberty," so we can effectively identify the holes in it. The gaps and cracks in this terrible freedom are visible, if you know where to look—trace the tapestry of time, trace modern income inequality to slavery to Columbus's genocidal attack on indigenous Americans, and you'll see that America has never been the land of the free. Perhaps it was the land of the free for upper and middle class white people, once upon a time..Perhaps the ideology that fostered that era has been twisted out of shape by relentless corporate greed, twisted into some strange, gilded god, lording over an America where the wealthy are able to grow wealthier and the poor are kept poor, where hatred reigns supreme, where the government is a smiling mask over the ugly corporate bone structure that really runs this nation.
Perhaps the only thing that most of us can agree on is a hatred of corporations and Wall Street companies. (Of course, Trump took $72 million from superPACs during the 2016 election, against his word).
But for Trump supporters, none of this matters.
Similarly, people who love serial killers will often make excuses for their murderous beloveds until the bitter end. They'll insist on the killer's innocence, even if the confession has already been delivered and the footage of the crime scene has been discovered.
The blood has been tested; the fingerprints are there for all to see. And yet, just like hundreds of girls who showed up at Ted Bundy's trial, Trump supporters will keep on flocking to the rallies—and the polls—just to see their star.