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.
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.
This was first published in Rantt News on January 25th, 2018.