I first knew Donald Trump’s candidacy was a problem as I stood aboard the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. It wasn’t the first Trump event I’d attended, but something had changed at that point. His supporters were starting to feed off his negative energy and make it their own. As he criticized President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, those around me were busy calling them racial and misogynistic slurs. Then, after the event ended, they streamed out of the ship and into the winter night, where they ran smack dab into a group of protesters whom they threatened to kill.
Honestly, I’d never intended to get in the middle of anything like that. I’d started covering the 2016 campaign as a side project, something to do instead of continuing to write a failed novel, but the more I saw, the more I realized I was watching the birth of something problematic.
In the months that followed, I watched those behaviors increase with every event and rally. Trump’s supporters only grew more brazen in their ugliness. When they gathered in gyms and armories around the country, they fed off one another, and their tendency to spew this ugliness and hatred increased. With each rally I saw them coalesce and strengthen in not just their resolve but their anger. They were chanting their obscenities louder and then turning their rage toward the media and journalists, threatening to kill and maim them if they stood in the way of their growing movement.
Like everyone else, I’d figured Donald Trump’s candidacy to be some kind of publicity stunt. I'd assumed, like many others, that he’d announce his bid, lose spectacularly, and then carry whatever supporters he could earn back to NBC for the new season of Celebrity Apprentice
. There was no way this vulgar, narcissistic man could earn the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. Hell, every single day he proved his critics right with one scandal after another. His gaffes included critiques of war heroes, the family of a slain soldier, even the pope. His missteps grew in number until no one could keep track anymore. It seemed like, with every new mistake, he was only a second or two away from his entire candidacy derailing.
Like everyone else, I’d figured Donald Trump’s candidacy to be some kind of publicity stunt.
What powered him, however, was a grassroots movement the likes of which no other candidate in American electoral history had ever seen. Trump, with his politically incorrect rhetoric and brazen style, had earned the dedication of a portion of the electorate who didn’t care anymore about traditional politics. What they wanted was someone to be angry for them, to match their rage on the national stage and give hell to the system they’d grown to hate. So, with every scandal, with every ready-made indignity for the nightly news, they saw somebody who would buck the system and run contrary to what the body politic had wanted, and, in fact, had always wanted.
They saw their own.
A crude, racist, misogynistic xenophobe who was willing to flaunt his ignorance instead of hide behind the curtain of political theater.
They had seen enough of polished politicians. They didn’t want the men and women who took to the airwaves of Fox News and stoked anger, but didn’t govern with that anger in mind. They wanted somebody like themselves, who bought the great right wing lie hook and sinker and carried himself like someone who was ready to take a sledgehammer to the foundation itself.
I saw that build in strength, and I saw his supporters find one another and find solace in the fact that others like them existed. They’d been pushed to the margins by a politically correct culture, had been shamed for their beliefs so often, that they’d begun to believe they were alone in their offensive worldviews. Then, when they saw others like themselves at Trump’s rallies, when they heard them cheer at the same racist lines and applaud the same xenophobic rhetoric, they became more attached to the candidate everyone told them was toxic.
What drove them, what drove the campaign, in fact, was hardwired in them. Donald Trump didn’t create this problem — he fostered it, incited it. His speeches invoked feelings that had lain dormant in his supporters for years, and gave them permission to listen to the worst angels of their nature. He affirmed what they suspected: that everyone was out to get them. This defining of the problem, even though it was a bastardization of the problem at hand, allowed them to focus their anger as they had always wanted to focus it. He presented himself as a rallying point for their dissatisfaction and then harnessed it for political gain.
As I traveled around the country, I heard the same thing over and over again. Trump’s voters wanted somebody to be angry for them. They didn’t care, almost to a person, how he actually governed, or what he did when he got the keys to the Oval Office. They just wanted someone on the public stage to reflect their own anger back at them. They wanted someone to rage against the world, the more unrefined and offensive the better.
Donald Trump played this role to a T. It was the role he’d been auditioning for his entire life. When he stood in front of his new base, he told them what they wanted to hear, unrestrained by his own principles or ideologies. He gave them the anger they so desperately wanted, the anger that festered inside of them, and for that they gave him the White House.
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Jared Yates Sexton
is a writer, academic, and political correspondent whose work has appeared in The New York Times
, The New Republic
, and literary journals around the world. He's a regular guest on television, radio, and podcasts, and the author of three collections of short fiction and the forthcoming political book The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore
from Counterpoint Press. Currently he serves as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University.