6 Surprising Things I Learned Talking To Trump Supporters
The Internet is absolutely drowning in articles about Donald Trump, several of them courtesy of other Cracked writers and me. Every hack on the Internet has had a chance to rebut The Donald's flippant racism, ill-researched talking points, and outright lies. But, relatively little digital ink has been spilled in the cause of understanding Trump's supporters. Most articles about Trump voters tend to focus on how they're all Nazis ...
The Nazis were way better at color coordination.
... or how they keep beating people up. And while there are plenty easy laughs to get out of how dumb the stereotypical Trumper is, making fun of that guy and his stupid red hat generally means ignoring the hundreds of thousands of real people who have rallied to his banner. I wanted to know more about the mass of voters who are doing their damnedest to make President freaking Trump a reality, so I went undercover to a massive Trump rally in Dallas and then infiltrated a meeting at his campaign's Austin headquarters.
Here's what I learned.
Trump's Supporters Are Surprisingly Diverse
For many, Donald Trump first went from "sort of beloved crazy-rich TV person" to "mostly hated crazy-rich TV person" when he chose to announce his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans a bunch of criminal rapists.
It's cool, he said some of them are probably good people.
If you're imagining the average Trump rally as a sea of white, angry faces, there is no shortage of articles to help reinforce that belief.
If you hate reading, virtually everything the man actually says is a fine replacement.
But, that certainly wasn't borne out by my experience at the rally. The crowd was reasonably representative of the city of Fort Worth.
We weren't all in cars screaming at each other, but reasonably representative.
I showed up dressed in a blazer, a black shirt, and like ... normal office-person pants and quickly pushed my way as close to the front of the room as I could get. By pure chance, the people who crowded immediately around me included three immigrants: one from Columbia, one from Mexico, and one from the U.K. I asked "Albert," from Columbia when he had decided to support Donald Trump.
"Day one. That first speech. He hit on every single issue this country has ... I'm Hispanic, but the Hispanics who come here illegally ... are MS-13 gang members and drug traffickers and criminals. I used to live in Miami, and they're everywhere!"
You can disagree with Albert all you want (probably by pointing out that illegal immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than regular citizens), but he's not speaking for some tiny sliver of a sliver of Republican Hispanic voters. Donald Trump has consistently proved more popular among them than either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. In Nevada, he got 44 percent of the GOP's Hispanic vote. A poll of Hispanic GOP voters conducted in January gave him 38 percent of the vote, compared to 15 percent for Cruz and 8 percent for Rubio.
You know you're cooked when even your own kid is bored shitless with hearing you talk.
The Hispanic Republicans I spoke with loved Trump because of his stance on immigration. You can argue that their attitude is kind of vindictive and fucked up, but it also appears to be pretty popular with conservative Hispanic voters. Donald Trump isn't about to sail into the White House on a wave of gleeful Latinos: Eight in 10 Hispanic voters nationwide disapprove of him. But, he has still proved better at courting their votes than any other Republican in the running.
He's also vastly more popular than any of his opponents among millennials, possibly due to the fact that John Kasich is a sentient pair of dad jeans, and Ted Cruz breaks out in hives when he's in the presence of teenagers. I was kind of shocked at how young the crowd at Trump's rally was.
"He's definitely a garbage person, but he's just so ...
meme-able. BUILD-THAT-WALL, BUILD-THAT-WALL!"
I came with a friend who I feared might blow our cover due to her brightly dyed hair. But, none of the Trumpers surrounding us acted the least bit suspicious. There were tons of young people with weird hair in the audience. They greatly outnumbered the people who looked like Marlboro Men.
Pointing Out Trump's Negatives To His Supporters Only Makes Him Stronger
The rally I attended came the day after the Republican debate in Houston, when Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz teamed up against the Great Orange One. Here's how most of the media covered it:
PBS Kids called it "Trump And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Debate."
Pundits speculated that maybe we had finally seen the end of Donald Trump's dominance and gleefully proclaimed that the shadier aspects of his business past, which Marco Rubio brought up repeatedly, were finally going to bring his campaign down.
And then, of course, Super Tuesday came, and Trump's solid lead turned into a possibly insurmountable lead. A lot of people were surprised, but not me. The Trump supporters I spoke with made it clear that Rubio and Cruz's efforts to combine into an anti-Trump Voltron hadn't done a damn thing to dissuade them. One middle-aged house wife (a former Jeb! supporter) called them " ... a pair of kids. A pair of kids in the playground. They made themselves look silly. If they'd had some strategy, they could have made some points, but the way they approached it ... " She shook her head. An elderly rancher I had spoken to earlier at the rally felt the same way. "Both of them going after him like that is just going to send voters in the opposite direction. It's not going to change anyone's mind."
Turns out we're fine with candidates insulting their way to the
presidency, but they have to be good at it.
The most baffling thing about Donald Trump's candidacy is how good it has been at turning what seems like a long list of weaknesses into strengths. Journalists (and Trump's opponents) love pointing out how inconsistent he has been on specific issues, such as gun control. I brought this up to my Trump-supporting friends and phrased it as a worry I had about supporting him. In their eyes, his inconsistency is a strength: "I think he's changed his mind on that because of all that's happened ... but I think of how much I've changed my mind since I've grown up. If I was still accountable for what I did 30 years ago ..." said Kathy, a mother of two in her early 40s.
"If you can reevaluate your opinions and change them ... I think that's a huge character advantage," said "Paul," a British immigrant to the U.S.
I also brought up Trump's many bankruptcies and business failures, something the pundits are starting to hit on again in a big way:
Trump Steaks, Trump Magazine, Trump Mortgages, Trump America, Trump Vodka ...
"Janice," a registered nurse, gave a typical response: "But, he made it, and lost it, and made it back again ... if you can come back up, after losing everything?" She was impressed at Mr. Trump's ability to rebuild and rebrand himself.
And his ability to outright lie about those bankruptcies is most impressive of all.
Many of the Trump supporters I spoke with shared her opinion. And none of them were very convinced by the establishment Republicans speaking out against him. Mitt Romney hadn't yet given his anti-endorsement of Donald Trump at that point, but there were rumors that he would try to slide in and steal the nomination during the convention.
Paul, the British Trumper, thought that was laughable: "He couldn't even beat Obama, and he thinks he can beat this guy!" The woman next to him agreed, "He's corrupt on both sides, and it's sad."
Donald Trump doesn't have to be perfect for his supporters to stick by him. I'm sure the media and his opponents will keep slamming him on these same issues right up until election day, but it won't help. A poll released this very week showed him breaking 50 percent support among Republican voters for the first time. And this is after Romney came out against Trump.
"Who wouldn't listen to Mitt Romney?" -- the same guys in 2012 and 2016.
Interestingly enough, this reckless disregard for establishment for politics as usual wasn't just an attitude that pushed Trump voters to the right ...
A Lot Of Them Like Bernie Sanders
Last week, The Guardian put out a request for voters who planned on voting for Trump if Bernie Sanders didn't win the nomination. To their great surprise, more than 700 people responded. And while the data indicated that only about 7 percent of Sanders supporters would actually vote for Donald Trump, the fact that they have any overlap at all is kind of shocking.
"I am the 93 percent."
But, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are actually making quite a few of the same points: about the Iraq War being a fuck-up (Frank, the middle-aged Mexican-American immigrant in our group, called it a "disaster," and only one person disagreed with him), about the dangers of free trade, and about the importance of getting money out of politics. "He can't be bought. And that's what mainstream politics is all about," said Paul. Janice, the nurse, added, "I like Bernie -- he's the only other guy out there talking about the banks."
She was the first human being I had actually met who professed a willingness to vote for either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. I fought back the urge to touch her face to make sure she was real. She mistook my look of wonder for disbelief and explained, "I'm a lifelong Republican, but ... I don't really mind if the people want Donald Trump, if the people want Bernie Sanders ... just let the people choose. And get all the money out of it."
The multibillionaire with a fleet of private jets is going to take the money out of politics.
Paul didn't exactly express his support for Bernie Sanders, but he did feel both campaigns had "fired up the nation" and added, "That's what it needs."
Around that point is when the actual speaking part of the rally started. We sat through an hour or so of Chris Christie and then Donald Trump. If you've listened to one of Trump's speeches on TV, you get the idea. But, listening to the audience's reaction taught me something surprising ...
The Audience Doesn't React To All The Lines You Would Expect
One thing Donald Trump is great at is reading a room. He pays attention to what the crowd reacts to and adapts, on the fly, to whatever will rile them up the most. You've certainly seen articles or watched news coverage of Trump siccing his supporters on protesters in his audience. Well, that happened at my rally, too.
This is Vidhisha. She showed up with that sign, along with a group of other protesters, and started chanting "Take on hate!" partway through Trump's speech. They were escorted out, and some asshole grabbed her by the scarf and pulled. When we spoke after the event, she told me, " ... he grabbed one side super hard, and I jerked backwards and fell back, and security ... pushed him back and I got up ... my neck still hurts on the right side; it bruised a little bit the next day."
We could only faintly hear Vidhisha's group on my end of the room, and while Trump acknowledged their presence, he quickly pivoted to another topic when the room failed to show very much interest. This Fort Worth audience was packed with former Jeb Bush supporters and libertarian voters: Many of Trump's lines fell flat on them. When he brought up his desire to end abortion, there was only a smattering of applause -- it was by far his least-applauded moment of the speech.
"We're going to see a lot more baby bumps. Bigger bumps. Yuge."
But, for me, the most surprising part of the entire rally was a young man I'm going to name Sir Shouts-A-Lot. At first, he seemed like the stereotype-est of stereotypes. Before the speech, when some non-Trump person mentioned Hillary, he screamed out, "Bill just wants to get back in the house!" and then, "He's a rapist!"
He shouted out canned responses to every line uttered by anyone on stage like he was a nonplayable character in Elder Scrolls: North Texas. Most of them were variations of, "It's time to make America great again!" but what really amazed me was his ability to project. There were so many people in the conference room that I could barely hear the folks next to me talk, but I heard this guy, a hundred people back, clear as day. He started booing loudly as soon as Chris Christie took to the stage. Not because Christie was an establishment shill, or in the pocket of Big Whatever, but because "Texas needs to legalize WEED, you idiot!"
"This ... This is my life now ..."
This would be the first inkling I got that ...
A Lot Of His Supporters Are Ron/Rand Paul Fans
During the first few glorious debates of the election, Donald Trump had no foe more steadfast than Rand Paul and his stallion-like mane of impossible-to-tame hair.
Between Trump, Sanders, and Paul, this has been an awful election for stylists.
But, one thing my brief time in the world of Trump supporters made clear is that fans of Rand Paul, and his father Ron, were some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Trump campaign. A few days after Donald Trump's big rally and the day before Super Tuesday, I found myself in Austin. And since I happen to be on the Trump campaign's mailing list, I got this email:
It's been a ... tough few months for my inbox.
The email didn't include any information about what in Washington's balls a "Walk For Trump" might be, but I envisioned something like the march on Selma with far more ugly hats. I showed up at Trump's Austin headquarters expecting to find a crowd of supporters already gathered. What I actually found was a sizable office occupied by one man.
I couldn't stealthily take his picture, so here's his office instead.
He was young and described himself as a documentary filmmaker and libertarian. His only previous political experience had been working on the Ron Paul campaign: " ... they taught me how to be very effective." When I asked him what had gotten a Ron Paul-voting libertarian to go Trump, he explained it was other vets from the Ron Paul campaign: "A lot of the guys who I worked with previously were just kind of ... capitalists who despise politicians." He told me they felt like, "If this guy gets elected, he's gonna tear it down."
I went home after the "Walk For Trump" turned out to be nothing but one guy in a room. As I left, he reminded me to take some lawn signs and put them up wherever they would be welcome:
No problem, buddy.
But, a little research at home showed me he was far from an outlier. One of the Trump campaign's attorneys and the state director of New Hampshire both got their start working on Ron Paul's campaign. The founders of RonPaul.com officially came out for Trump on February 29. Rand Paul's hate-on for Donald Trump was clear in every single debate the two had, but that didn't stop one of his major backers from starting a Super PAC supporting Donald Trump.
There's a reason why, every time he smiles, he looks exactly like Trollface.
Trump's supporters wound up being far more diverse in belief and appearance than I would have ever guessed. Technophobic elderly voters who cheered when Trump promised to "penetrate" the Internet to catch terrorists coexisted with hardcore libertarians who oppose all government surveillance. Literal KKK members stand (ideologically) side-by-side with Hispanic immigrants and with this avowed Trump-supporter I met selling tchotchkes outside:
He's lucky those Klansmen were off the clock.
This all seemed baffling at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized ...
All The Trump Supporters I Met Shared Exactly One Thing
There IS one through line I found across all the Trump supporters I met during my time undercover: They wanted revenge on somebody. For the three immigrants I spoke with, it was the shiftless (and no doubt criminal) illegal immigrants. They were angry at these people for the same reason you would be pissed if someone cut in front of you in line at the airport. As Paul told me, "I pay taxes, I've had a green card for eight years now ... and I can't even vote. I can vote in my local elections, but I can't vote in the federal one. It's ridiculous ... they're given IDs, which are fake, but they can vote. It's immigration by soapbox."
A Mexican-American immigrant in the crowd told me he had spent years and a lot of money immigrating the legal way. The people who got in by hopping the fence were freeloaders. He was furious that they might get amnesty and be rewarded for breaking the law.
Sadly, the actual nuances of immigration reform can't fit on a T-shirt.
Many of the Trump supporters felt used by mainstream politicians. This thoroughly-scarfed gentleman ...
Same guy as earlier, still ranting five minutes later.
... told me he supported a Trump candidacy because it would "shake up" the politicians who "take our money and lie to us to get our votes." He complained that no politician he had voted for "has ever done anything to make my life better." Voting for Trump was a way to flip them the bird, rather than an endorsement of any of the man's policies.
Pictured: the political equivalent of dropping a hydrogen bomb because a few people were mean to you.
And the Libertarian dude I met managing Trump's Austin campaign office only really got animated when he started talking about how hard President Trump was going to come down on the IRS and other government agencies: "All those guys in Washington who take our money ... they're all going to get fired, man."
The bolding is mine, but he got super loud right around the word "fired." He had mentioned earlier that his first foray into documentary filmmaking had been an attack on red light cameras: There was nothing this guy hated more than the idea of government employees taking his money. And nothing made him happier, or more excited, than the thought of President Trump fucking those people up.
The Donald Trump Tax Plan: where roads and hospitals get funded
entirely by raising your hands while shrugging your shoulders.
The Trump voters around me at the rally had no idea that Vidhisha had been assaulted by one of their fellow travelers. I don't think they would have cheered if they had been able to see it. But, like the dick who grabbed her by the scarf and pulled, they were all the kinds of people who couldn't stand letting anyone get away with bad behavior. A crime deserved a punishment, and though they were all angry about different crimes, each of the men and women I met believed in the same punishment.