The divided states of America: reflections on the election

“The overwhelming impression you got of the people who were sending in their ‘join the Trump train’-type messages, was their ordinariness. !
Photo by Aaron Burden, courtesy of unsplash

As we wait for America to descend into violence, this might be a good time to reflect on the people Trump has inspired in his own country. They are a group that many of us in the UK find difficult to fathom. How can any rational person be taken in by this charlatan? Yet they were in 2016, and there seem to be even more of them in 2020. Were it not for his missteps in handling the pandemic, it now looks as if Trump might have won re-election by a comfortable margin. Media reports tell us that his vote among black Americans have increased by 2%, and among Hispanics by a larger margin, but that doesn’t really tell us what we need to understand, which is, not their ethnic/class background, but their mentality.

I spent the spring of 2016 looking at Facebook. Specifically, Donald Trump’s Facebook page. What was useful about this was that, unlike Twitter, where Trump was stoking outrage, Facebook was full of comments by his supporters. I went in search of misogynistic swagger of the ‘bikers for Trump’ sort but didn’t find it. There was a bit of ‘build that wall’ (whatever happened to that?), but it was much less prevalent than I had expected. The overwhelming impression you got of the people who were sending in their ‘join the Trump train’-type messages, was their ordinariness. 

I was looking for loutishness, and found family values.  It was all a bit odd.

Start with the ‘join the Trump train’ message.  And while you’re cringing at it, consider that what it represents is the emergence of a social movement.  It’s ‘I know he doesn’t always say things right, but his heart is in the right place’ – a sentiment that was all over his Facebook page.    What his supporters saw in him was someone who was genuine.  Not a machine politician, but some one from the outside, like them.  It doesn’t matter at this point that we, as observers, may see something entirely different in Trump., that we see the self-absorbed narcissist.  What matters is that, for his supporters, his manifest fallibility becomes a virtue, a reason to stick with him. 

But hold on, you say, Facebook is full of fake accounts.  How do we know if any of this sentiment isn’t just propaganda put out by people in troll factories?  The reason is because I started looking for evidence of troll factory content. And didn’t find it.

Basically, trolls are lazy – create a fake account and put out some messaging, secure in the knowledge that no one is going to check back to see if your account has history.

I checked back and found accounts that were full of grandchildren and family gatherings. And, noticeably, short on political messaging. These were people who would be appalled at the idea that they might be seen as zealots for a political cause. These people wanted to convey the impression that their kids and grandkids were their world. Everything else came second. All Facebook users use the medium to project an image of themselves. These were no less valid than anyone else’s.

While I was looking for pictures of Dan, holding up his AK47 and yelling about Mexican rapists, what I got was Dan blowing out birthday candles with his four-year-old. The message was not zealotry, but respectability. Trump was being supported by people who saw themselves as ordinary, decent, hard-working people with no axe to grind. People who want to be represented by someone who shares those values. People who, believe it or not, saw that in Donald Trump. People who, presumably, look at Joe Biden, and see the Washington establishment, a representative of a class that has set itself apart from ordinary people. 

Biden has been accused of putting himself up as a ‘Stop Trump’ candidate, on a platform that has little substance beyond this.  He has done little to distance himself from that ‘Washington establishment’ taint. Little wonder that the landslide has not come his way.

It looks, at the moment, as if Biden will win the necessary number of electoral college votes to secure the presidency. While the overwhelming majority of us in the UK are happy to see Trump removed from the White House, we have to observe that Biden is probably about to become president of the Divided States of America. Is that cause of optimism? It’s hard to say.

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