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Revolt of the masses

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This New Yorker profile of Trump supporters in western Colorado is yet another entry into the quasi-anthropological task of trying to figure out how an astonishingly ignorant and increasingly demented old man who is a raging narcissist etc. etc. etc. could be elected president of the United States. It draws a picture of Trump’s base as made up in large part of people who harbor a deep sense of alienation and marginalization, and who see themselves as revolting against The Establishment, especially the media establishment:

Last October, three weeks before the election, Donald Trump visited Grand Junction for a rally in an airport hangar. Along with other members of the press, I was escorted into a pen near the back, where a metal fence separated us from the crowd. At that time, some prominent polls showed Clinton leading by more than ten percentage points, and Trump often claimed that the election might be rigged. During the rally he said, “There’s a voter fraud also with the media, because they so poison the minds of the people by writing false stories.” He pointed in our direction, describing us as “criminals,” among other things: “They’re lying, they’re cheating, they’re stealing! They’re doing everything, these people right back here!”

The attacks came every few minutes, and they served as a kind of tether to the speech. The material could have drifted off into abstraction—e-mails, Benghazi, the Washington swamp. But every time Trump pointed at the media, the crowd turned, and by the end people were screaming and cursing at us. One man tried to climb over the barrier, and security guards had to drag him away.

Such behavior is out of character for residents of rural Colorado, where politeness and public decency are highly valued. Erin McIntyre, a Grand Junction native who works for the Daily Sentinel, the local paper, stood in the crowd, where the people around her screamed at the journalists: “Lock them up!” “Hang them all!” “Electric chair!” Afterward, McIntyre posted a description of the event on Facebook. “I thought I knew Mesa County,” she wrote. “That’s not what I saw yesterday. And it scared me.”

Before Trump took office, people I met in Grand Junction emphasized pragmatic reasons for supporting him. The economy was in trouble, and Trump was a businessman who knew how to make rational, profit-oriented decisions. Supporters almost always complained about some aspect of his character, but they also believed that these flaws were likely to help him succeed in Washington. “I’m not voting for him to be my pastor,” Kathy Rehberg, a local real-estate agent, said. “I’m voting for him to be President. If I have rats in my basement, I’m going to try to find the best rat killer out there. I don’t care if he’s ugly or if he’s sociable. All I care about is if he kills rats.”

After the turbulent first two months of the Administration, I met again with Kathy Rehberg and her husband, Ron. They were satisfied with Trump’s performance, and their complaints about his behavior were mild. “I think some of it is funny, how he doesn’t let people push him around,” Ron Rehberg said. Over time, such remarks became more common. “I hate to say it, but I wake up in the morning looking forward to what else is coming,” Ray Scott, a Republican state senator who had campaigned for Trump, told me in June. One lawyer said bluntly, “I get a kick in the ass out of him.” The calculus seemed to have shifted: Trump’s negative qualities, which once had been described as a means to an end, now had value of their own. The point wasn’t necessarily to get things done; it was to retaliate against the media and other enemies. This had always seemed fundamental to Trump’s appeal, but people had been less likely to express it so starkly before he entered office. “For those of us who believe that the media has been corrupt for a lot of years, it’s a way of poking at the jellyfish,” Karen Kulp told me in late April. “Just to make them mad.”

Grand Junction, like a lot of places, has been ravaged by the sort of hyper-capitalism shading off into outright grifting that Donald Trump’s whole career exemplifies perfectly. (I suppose this is what people who munch in quiet self-satisfaction on sopressata sandwiches while listening to NPR would call “irony.”). Voting for Trump because you sense (often correctly) that the system is in many ways rigged against people like you is the political equivalent of mailing yourself a letter bomb, but at least it makes the liberals mad. And striking back against people who, in your view, dedicate their lives to making you feel bad about yourself is an eminently predictable behavior.

A friend of mine explains it like this:

People resent being told they are stupid, and that their long-held values are silly and wrong.

There are a huge number of people in this country, in all parts but certainly more heavily concentrated in the middle, that believe in “traditional American values.” This is set of views that has gone largely unchallenged for most of their lives, and upon which they honestly believe this country is based. The key tenet is being “normal”:

-Christianity is normal, and so is quiet agnosticism. All the different kinds of Muslims (Muslim Muslims, Hindu Muslims, Sikh Muslims) are not normal and are maybe violent. Jews are not normal, but are smart and non-threatening, although you need to watch them. They have never actually met a Muslim or a Jew.

-They don’t believe they are racist at all. They judge people by how they act, not how they look. If all blacks dressed and acted like the ones in the Olive Garden commercials, they would be totally fine with them. But the saggy pants and all the jewelry and bright colors and filthy rap music and whatnot – that isn’t normal. If they want to be accepted, why don’t they just act normal? They don’t know any black people, beyond maybe someone they say “hi” to at work.

-They know some people are gay, but it isn’t normal. It’s fine if they want to do that, but they shouldn’t flaunt it in public and make everyone uncomfortable. And they shouldn’t be putting it on tv or movies like it is normal and just as good as regular relationships, because it isn’t. They know some gays, but they aren’t invited to the bbq this weekend because there are going to be kids there.

-They think the whole trans “debate” is the silliest thing they have ever heard. What, boys are girls now, or vice versa, or whatever they want? And that’s supposed to be normal? And my daughter is going to see some weirdo’s dick waggling out in the bathroom because he feels like he is a girl? Not normal. Not fucking ok.

Especially over the past decade or so, these people have increasingly been told that their deeply-held views are not only wrong, but make them bad people. And, being humans, their reaction isn’t to rethink their lifelong worldview and change their attitude, but rather to dig in and say “fuck you.” They know they are “supposed to say” that they are ok with gay marriage, and black lives matter, and all that, because if they don’t they are going to be called stupid, redneck racists by people on TV and in print media. So they have changed what they’ll say out loud, or at least to whom they will say it, but haven’t changed their beliefs. And Hillary and the democrats are exactly the kind of people that would judge them harshly for their views, and Donald Trump and the republicans are the kind of people who don’t. So they are voting republican, no matter how big of a clown Trump is, because at least those people don’t piss all over my fundamental sense of self.

For such people, a culturally conservative white Christian is what sociologists call an “unmarked category,” and what they themselves think of as a real American. And a lot of real Americans are mad as hell, and they aren’t going to take it any more — even if it means voting for Donald Trump.

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