I wouldn’t be asking that question if I could answer it. So I asked around.
I just read President Obama’s interview in the Atlantic, where he says:
“I would not have expected someone who has complete disdain for ordinary people to be able to get attention and then the following from those very same people.”
And I’d written this story a couple of days ago, but I’ve been sitting with it, because I wasn’t quite sure where it fit.
Maybe it fits somewhere in there…
4 years ago, the conventional wisdom was that Trump won because he tapped into a deep vein of people in America who were deeply angry.
So since then, did he make life better for his supporters and help those people in the pursuit of happiness?
From where I stand, even with all the great things Trump says he does for them, Trump supporters never seem to get any less angry. Not at any point during his term. If anything, they’ve gotten more angry. And in many ways, the President needs them to stay angry.
So when people call Trump followers—including the Republican Party—a cult, yeah, I guess they’re right.
Except most people I’ve encountered who are in cults seem fulfilled, confident, even joyous; seem to have the answers to everything, even if to me it’s obviously illusory.
So I went back through notes I’d taken after conversations with Trump supporters over the last 4 years. And got in touch with a few this weekend who are among my friends, family and acquaintances.
And asked them what about Trump makes them happy.
Just to try to piece it together In my mind. Because there has to be some kind of gratification, or there wouldn’t be so many, willing to love him so hard, right?
None of the people I talked to say they’ve attended a Trump rally, or a pro-Trump protest. And I make no claim they’re representative of the Trump base as a whole. They’re just people I know, or have just a degree or two of separation with.
The first thing I find among the people I do know is an extreme sameness in messaging, and the language they use in talking about the election. Which is exactly the same as most of the comments we’ve gotten in response to this newsletter and blog from strangers online. At least the polite ones.
They are—somewhat surprisingly to me—resigned to the notion that Trump would not be in the White House come January. But not all of them believe it’s necessarily because Biden actually won. Rather, some say, it’s because Democrats are so “power hungry they no longer care about freedom and Democracy.” When I point out many or most of the swing states have Republican legislatures and that’s who sets rules for elections, they don’t care. They just go on talking the same stuff.
“Trump isn’t perfect…”
Which is what a lot of people, I’ve noticed, say to me when they know or think I don’t support him…
“But he has been the most anti-abortion President this country has ever had.”
OK. I don’t agree. But this person is clearly happy. Because in their view, Trump helped them save babies.
“What? You want the country to be taken over by Socialists? You know the Nazis were Socialists?!”
This is a familiar Trump supporter trope by now. But I guess not all that familiar because when Alabama’s newly elected Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville referred to the U.S. fighting socialism in World War II, he was widely ridiculed for not knowing his history. But I don’t think this was a singular instance of inanity on his part.
And yes, the eventual official name of the Nazi party was “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”
I challenge this person’s assertion by saying not only is Joe Biden not a socialist, but if you just go by what people call themselves, then North Korea is a Democracy.
They don’t care.
A former teacher. Goes on a long rant about how, in his telling, a former co-worker who was highly incompetent, but because he was Black, couldn’t be fired, and then got promoted and became an administrator, leaving this person behind. And etc.
And Trump’s not letting that kind of thing go on anymore.
A recent immigrant. Supporting Trump because “I don’t want ‘them’ coming in and stealing my job.”
When I point out they were “them” just a short time ago, they clarify:
“I mean Mexicans.”
“Biden wants to give all the health insurance to illegals.”
Except perhaps for “Person #1”, do these sound like happy people? I sincerely can’t know, I realize, because I can’t see inside their minds.
Yet every one of them (and arguably the first person as well), gave me a reason why Trump made them happy that involved not Trump lifting them up, but rather Trump stomping down on other people.
I really did expect at least one of the people to say, maybe, “I got a great new job because the economy was so good”, or even “I was able to buy a house because interest rates are so low”, or even “my company was able to hire many more people because they didn’t have to spend so much money conforming to pollution regulations”, or even “Trump makes me feel like no one’s going to push me around.” But nothing like that from this small group at least.
I remember way back when I was still pretty much a kid, an incident where one person’s sole purpose became to force a popular couple to break up. Everyone knew this is what they were up to. And no one knew why. And eventually it worked. The strain of the incessant outside pressure on the relationship became just too much. Later, when I asked the instigator why they did it—especially with such relentless verve and zeal—they said, simply:
“I wasn’t happy, so I didn’t want them to be happy either.”
Is there really a happiness in achieving something like that? Even if the President hasn’t actually changed your life for the better at all? Or am I unfair in judging that isn’t changing one’s life for the better?
Actually, I don’t think I know too many people who are super-rich, but can imagine maybe they are genuinely happy for a positive reason, because Trump has slashed their taxes a lot and given them a lot more loopholes.
But when I go through social media postings, I find a lot of his supporters mostly talking about how Trump’s an advocate for the “little guy”, and is somehow against the super-rich, and it’s Democrats who want to line their pockets and make bankers wealthier. And that’s why they unfairly are always out to get him. Just like he says.
Another Trump supporter acquaintance who I didn’t talk to this recent go-round, has taken to prefacing most of their social media posts with something like this:
“If by posting this you no longer want to be my friend, you were never my friend. I’m tired of hiding.”
Which is also something I don’t get. Like, if I was going to unfollow you, wouldn’t I just do that anyway? Do I really need your permission?
So really, it’s just a way of calling attention to the fact that they feel they’ve got carte blanche to amplify ideas they know will be unpopular to many. But they did already anyway! And they never really made a secret of it, it was just never before the central defining part of their identity. Which I guess is their point.
So here’s how my mind is piecing it all together: I keep coming back to when I was training to be a lifeguard back in college. And one of the things that was drilled into our heads over and over again was to take extreme caution approaching a drowning person who’s still conscious. Because as soon as you make contact with that person, they will push you down, because they’re actually trying to climb up on you, and then they can end up drowning you both.