Recently, after driving over twelve hours, much of that through darkness and light snow across Kentucky and Indiana, from South Carolina to Wisconsin, I sat the next day around 6 AM in a Starbucks across from the convention center where I would be presenting later that morning.
I was exhausted and quite cold after walking from my hotel in downtown Milwaukee.
One other man was already sitting in the coffee house connected to another hotel. As I sat near him, I heard him talking and laughing on his cell phone. He was loud and clearly from Wisconsin by the sound of his voice.
His animated conversation focused on Trump’s recent firing of people who testified against him in the impeachment hearings. This man and the person her was talking to were exuberant about Trump’s behavior, including a discussion of Trump carrying his revenge even further.
I held my tongue and tried to ignore his loud and adolescent joy, but I could not help being disturbed that I had traveled so far across the U.S. only sit beside a person who, except for his accent, could have been having this same exchange in my home state of SC.
And this joyous glee over bullying among Trump supporters is a constant refrain on social media, mostly among conservative Christians who are included in my connections because I was born, grew up, and then taught in a deeply conservative and small Southern town until I was a couple years past 40.
While there is a range of evidence and informed opinions about who supports Trump and why, a combination of white people, racists (conscious or not), and Christian conservatives form a significant portion of the solid Trump base.
What these groups have in common is a sense of impending loss of a status or “values” that many of these people feel define the U.S. Where there is dominance or privilege, many Trump supporters believe that dominance or privilege has been earned.
Compounding these feelings, of course, is that Trump supporters include people experiencing some sort of hardships, often job insecurity or loss as well as deflated wages.
For a working-class white person recently laid off, being told this person benefits from white privilege is a very hard pill to swallow. There is a kind of pale hypothetical for a person to understand life would have been even harder had they not been white and/or male.
It becomes safer to say that Trump support is mostly visceral and emotional—often a type of blind faith in ideals and rhetoric.
Trump speaks to those ideals and uses the rhetoric that engages that base; whether or not Trump’s claims are factual becomes irrelevant, including whether or not Trump actually embodies those ideals or practices the rhetoric.
Trump the bully can lambast others for bullying with impunity among that base. Any effort by those outside the Trump circle to discredit Trump’s claims or expose his hypocrisy falls on deaf ears among those supporters.
This Trump moment is ongoing and possibly far too of the moment for some people to interrogate it in the way I have above. Few people are able to step back from believing all Trump criticism is simply partisan politics.
A few days after I returned from Milwaukee, however, I watched Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator (Netflix).
Late in the documentary, a lawyer for one of Bikram Choudhury’s accusers keeps referring to Bikram as both an idiot and incredibly self-assured and arrogant. A friend watching with me asked who that reminded me of, and of course, we both mentioned Trump.
If you want to understand Trump’s appeal and how otherwise reasonable people can fall victim to that appeal, I recommend watching this documentary—although (spoiler alert) the outcome for Bikram isn’t all that encouraging for those of us hoping Trump suffers the consequences he deserves.
And I am currently reading The Girl Who Lived Twice (David Lagercrantz after Steig Larsson’s The Millennium Series) where a passage speaks to both Trump and Bikram: “It had been an awful day, and she had just been talking to an idiot of a policeman who, like most idiots, thought he was a genius” (p. 67).
This pulls into the dynamic, I think, a key component of how blind faith allows people to be duped by idiots—authority.
The policeman’s idiocy is buffered by his authority the same way Trump’s privilege and smoke-and-mirrors wealth and celebrity buffer his idiocy.
Organized religion (and cult-like situations such as Bikram’s yoga empire) breeds into people a vulnerability to authority to which they must defer through blind faith.
“It’s God’s will” is a powerful cover that preys on human vulnerability; even when a rational person sees through this ploy, it takes a great deal of courage to confront “God’s will.”
Bikram has been credibly accused by many women of sexual abuse and assault. Watching these women detail those assaults and having remained in his circle, watching men collapse into tears over coming to accept Bikram’s atrocities over their faith in Bikram—these speak to the problem faced with refuting Trump and changing the minds of his faithful supporters.
Like Trump, Bikram remains in power over the fake empire he has created.
Trump benefits from both the flaws inherent in the cult of celebrity that pervades the U.S. and the vulnerability of people raised to have blind faith in authoritarian leaders who use compelling rhetoric and speak to traditional ideals—even when the leader is a hypocrite and the ideals are hollow or false.
To rightfully call that leader an idiot suggests something as awful about those supporting an idiot—and there is little to suggest those followers are compelled in any way by such truth.
As a complicated understanding of Trump and his supporters become clearer, I am less and less optimistic that such a phenomenon can be overcome with truth or by reaching out to Trump’s base.
Before leaving for Wisconsin earlier last week, I was at one of my favorite places to eat when a man and wife with their two young children walked in.
The man had on a T-shirt: Trump 2020. Fuck Your Feelings.
A nuclear All-American family.
He and the gleeful man in the Milwaukee Starbucks would be quick friends.
What are we to do?