At the end of September, Donald Trump debated Joe Biden for the first time. For a large share of those who watched the televised debate, moderated by Fox’s Chris Wallace, an ironclad consensus was formed: Trump’s performance was horrendous, even disturbing. Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden. He refused to condemn white supremacists. “The President’s Debate Performance Was Pure Fascism,” wrote Esquire that night, summing up the thoughts of opinion-makers on the left. Trump, after this, was surely headed for a landslide.
That night, I also watched the debate. Trump’s politics are antithetical to my own. I believe he has been a vessel for right-wing, corporatist forces, and his immigration policies are driven by his hatred of foreigners who don’t look like him. His environmental policies are disastrous. He has, undoubtedly, won the support of white nationalists, and that is no accident. This nation will be better when his defeat is made official. He embodies the darkness swirling in one core of American politics. As Trump blustered onward, Wallace failing to control him, all of this came roaring back to me.
Yet I’ve also attempted, over these last four years, to understand why people like Trump. I grew up in a New York City congressional district that has now voted for Trump twice. I know many people personally who voted for Trump. It has been easy, for liberal pundits, to dismiss the entirety of Trump’s backing as a rabble of unreconstructed racists, but that cannot be the entire reality—and shouldn’t be for journalists who seek to understand their enormous country. A vast and significant minority of Americans—nearly 70 million—have voted for Trump. These 70 million people do not all belong to the Proud Boys or the Ku Klux Klan. They are not all silent fascists. Florida and Ohio, which Barack Obama carried in both his elections and are now Trump states, are not merely hotbeds of race-hatred. Trump managed, despite a collapsing economy and an out of control COVID-19 pandemic, to grow his share of the Black and Latino vote.
The numbers cannot be argued with. Black men and women, despite Trump’s bigotry, shifted toward Trump. Latinos did as well. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won 79 percent of the vote in Texas’s Starr County, an overwhelmingly Latino area that borders Mexico. In 2020, Trump captured 47 percent of the vote, nearly winning it outright. After barely winning North Carolina’s Robeson County, home to the Lumbee tribe, Trump won 59 percent of the vote in 2020, easily breezing past Biden. (Obama won Robeson by almost the same margin in 2012.) And most notably, Trump significantly improved his margins in Latino Miami-Dade County, enough to win him Florida.
This is not to say Biden’s victory wasn’t commanding. He won the popular vote and he won the Electoral College. In a normal, healthy democracy, this would give him full control of government. Republicans will likely keep the Senate. This is our curse, to live the legacy of a broken system handed to us by slave-holding men in the 18th century.
Trump’s first presidential debate came back to me this week because the reaction to it, from most in the media, always felt dissonant me. I strained to watch Trump as apolitically as I could, imagining I was not a leftist who could tally all the ways Trump had failed the country over four years. I strained to take in the spectacle objectively—to abuse an increasingly meaningless and misunderstood J-School term—and watch what exactly unfolded. Someone, somewhere, must be liking what they see.
Trump endures, I believe, because he does not talk like a politician. There are enough voters, including some Blacks and Latinos, who agree with his rhetoric on immigration. Christians and fiscal conservatives support him because he appoints right-wing judges and opposes abortion. It is important to remember that Republicans, until 2016, had been treated to successive standard bearers they could never wholly embrace. Mitt Romney spoke and acted like the patrician he was. John McCain could not renounce the Iraq War, even when conservatives were clearly souring on its deleterious waste. George W. Bush, the architect of that war, would leave office with an approval rating of under 30 percent. Trump would storm to the presidency mocking and demeaning all of these men—and Republican voters did not care at all.
While most journalists watching the first debate perceived a mere bully and vulgarian, I also saw a bully and vulgarian who could be, in his dark way, funny. (Biden, meanwhile, was halting and slow, even unsteady.) It is not funny, in the grander sense, because Trump is president, with the power to launch nuclear warheads and annihilate civilizations. But a lot of viewers don’t consume Trump that way. They see him as an unconventional entertainer, a bullshitter at a dive bar or a construction site, talking smack, getting laughs. It is not an accident that Trump once had a successful career as a lowbrow television personality. He does not speak like a wealthy person. He does not speak like someone who is encultured. He speaks like someone I may have encountered on the handball courts or rock-strewn baseball fields of my childhood, brash and reckless and self-mythologizing. These boys were not vapid and foolish like Trump, but their language was loose and informal, utterly unafraid to offend. Even friends could bond through language we would now regard as divisive, foul, or problematic. Ethnic humor dominated. This was the world I grew up in. It’s one many people of all races know well.
Trump is a child of extreme privilege. Yet he has managed, successfully enough, a faux-populist appeal that is rapidly helping the Republican Party swallow up voters without college degrees. In September, I attempted to explain this on Twitter, but I quickly learned that was the wrong venue to do so in. Thousands of people angrily deluged my feed. Well-known journalists and pundits like Josh Barro and Isaac Chotiner—people I never met—denounced me. Eventually, I deleted the tweets, though they were helpfully preserved in screencaps that can be found here. My argument was simple: people who grew up in upper class backgrounds and remain ensconced in such settings still struggle to understand Trump. A second point I made seemed to particularly infuriate these journalists and writers: a Telemundo Twitter poll proclaimed Trump had, in fact, won the first debate. The trouble with Twitter polls, as we know, is that they aren’t scientific. Anyone can respond to them. They are not ideal. In theory, non-Spanish-speaking Trump supporters could have stormed Telemundo’s poll to hand him his victory. I shared the poll because it was not likely that every single respondent or even a vast majority of them were simply non-Telemundo viewers rushing to this poll to prove a point. Some Spanish-speakers somewhere must have believed Trump’s performance was, in its own way, dominant.
Election Night delivered its verdict. Undoubtedly, there were Telemundo viewers who voted for Trump. Telemundo operates a large studio in Miami-Dade County. This is not meant to champion or gloat over a Twitter poll that’s now over a month old. It’s merely to offer, to the many people who were certain Biden would obliterate Trump in every conceivable demographic, the possibility that there are many Americans who don’t fit neatly into the rubrics prestige media sketched for them. To understand Trump’s appeal, as Matt Taibbi has written, is to enter a world like professional wrestling, where humor and violence and outsized narrative all collide. Stand-up comedy is Trump’s venue too. In the late 1980s, when Trump was reaching his first peak of fame, another son of the outer boroughs, Andrew Dice Clay, was rising to prominence, achieving such popularity at one point that he sold out Madison Square Garden for two consecutive nights in 1990. Both Clay and Trump inhabited personas; the difference was that Clay, who would become the macho, savage Diceman, could slip out of it too, leading a commendable enough life away from the stage. Trump, as we’ve learned, is the character—there is no inner life, no intellect buried beneath the orange mask. Watch Clay at his peak, with throngs of fans cheering on his vulgarities, and it is possible to see how a politician could one day command a mass following with such shtick. As Jay Ruttenberg wrote brilliantly this year on both Clay’s career and the enduring appeal of Howard Stern, a longtime Trump interviewer, while Clay could be grotesque, it was understood we were all in on the joke, Clay included. For laughing at him, you were the joke too. Trump, for us, cannot be so funny because he is not a performance artist at Dangerfield’s—he is an American president, invested with the power of absolute destruction.
Trump, for all his absurdity and venality, does not condescend to his followers in a traditional way. They aspire to be him and he believes, fully, he is better than them, and doesn’t hide it. He can shoot people, after all, and keep the cult going. He also treats them like a fan base, tossing merch into the crowd, telling outlandish jokes to keep them occupied. He makes them feel a part of something far larger than themselves. Some of them will believe, falsely, the election was stolen. And some of the 70 million—maybe a large majority—will probably move on. They have lives to live, mouths to feed, jobs to hurry to. Politics cannot consume them. Talk of coups and imminent fascism will recede from them as they tune out from the 2020 spectacle. Politics can only be the sport of choice for so long. Some will choose to engage again and others won’t. Trump will lie, until he dies, that he really won the election, that it was all stolen from him by dirty Democrats. He will say the lie enough to believe it himself. Deranged to much of us, he will inhabit a Lost Cause of his own design. As we move away from this moment, we should study it. Though a fraud and a con man, Trump won tens of millions of votes in two national elections. He found new converts beyond his white working class base. This is America too. We should try to understand why.