I met McCall Calhoun on a dark, blocked-off Georgia highway in early December. He had just left a Donald Trump rally on the tarmac of the Valdosta Regional Airport and was buying a Confederate battle flag from one of the string of merchandise tables outside the venue.
Mr. Calhoun was angry at the Democratic Party, which he accused of rigging the presidential election, and at the “communistic” Black Lives Matter movement. “We’re going to kill all of them,” he said. “If they cross the line.”
A bespectacled criminal defence lawyer with a grey beard and ponytail that gave him the mien of an aging hippie, Mr. Calhoun had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He came over to Mr. Trump’s side after the Democrats stepped up their push for tougher gun-control laws. Last summer’s anti-racism protests solidified his support for the President.
The 58-year-old was a familiar type among the scores of Trump Nation denizens I’ve met: white, aggrieved, certain that something about his country was falling away. And he gave voice to the conspiracism and threats of violence that had become increasingly common in the final days of Mr. Trump’s term.
Just one month later, this anger would explode at the U.S. Capitol, as a mob of the President’s supporters attacked the building in a bid to stop Congress from certifying president-elect Joe Biden’s victory. It was the culmination of an extraordinary campaign by Mr. Trump to overturn his re-election defeat. Mr. Calhoun would be there, posting to social media as he joined the crowd invading the building’s rotunda.
That insurrection has forced a swift reckoning for the President. Some once-loyal Republican legislators, cabinet secretaries and campaign donors abandoned him. Twitter and Facebook suspended his accounts. The House of Representatives made him the first president to be impeached twice.
But after covering Mr. Trump’s America for five years across 19 states, I am convinced that the movement he built is not going away. His base is tied together by threads of deep-seated cultural conservatism and a fervent conviction that the United States is under siege by foreign countries, visible minorities and resurgent Marxism. It is driven by an alternative-reality view of the world shaped by a long-standing right-wing media ecosystem and the President’s conspiracy theories.
Even after an avalanche of previous crises engulfed his presidency and the country, Mr. Trump’s support only grew. Despite losing to Mr. Biden by a 4.4-point margin, the President captured more votes in 2020 than during his 2016 victory.
Mr. Trump leaves office Wednesday, and Congress may bar him from ever running for federal office again. But the U.S. will be living with his legacy for a long time. He has shaken the foundations of the world’s most powerful democracy, undermined the limits on presidential power and left a base that believes the entire system, including Mr. Biden, is illegitimate and deserves to be overthrown.
“They’ve already achieved one goal, which is to upend the American democratic republic, constitutional system and the peaceful transfer of power,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “These people aren’t going to stop.”
On a chilly afternoon in April, 2019, I sat across from Tom Bell at P.J. Scanlan’s, a lunch spot in downtown Scranton, Pa. Mr. Bell is an insurance agent, a lifelong Democrat and one of Joe Biden’s oldest friends. The pair grew up down the street from each other and still talk regularly.
The former vice-president was on the cusp of announcing his bid for the White House, and I had come to learn more about him. Mr. Bell, a gregarious 76-year-old with a full head of white hair, was happy to regale me with childhood anecdotes, including the time he and young Joe scrambled up a bank of coal-mining refuse on a dare. As the conversation turned to politics, however, Mr. Bell revealed that he had voted for Mr. Trump in 2016. In part, he felt pushed away by the Democratic Party’s increasing support for abortion access, which he described as “evil.” He also happened to agree with Mr. Trump’s anti-immigration message. “You can’t risk your culture, who you are, your everything, on hopes and promises,” he said. “We’re ruining Western civilization.”
After the 2016 election, pundits frequently attributed Mr. Trump’s success to “economic anxiety” among those left behind by the modern economy in blue-collar places such as Scranton. But the leitmotif for most Trump voters I’ve spoken with has been a cultural one.
When I visited Lucas Heinen’s soybean farm in the spring of 2017, the President’s threats to tear up the North American free-trade agreement were putting a question mark over Mr. Heinen’s livelihood, which involved exporting much of his crop to Mexico. He had voted for the President nevertheless. “I want to be a family man, be white. I’m Christian. I’m a man. Oh, and I’m straight. That’s like the last safe group to discriminate against,” Mr. Heinen, 37, told me as we sat in an outbuilding on his land near Everest, Kan.
In contrast with the stereotype of “forgotten men and women” that the President and media like to trot out as the exemplars of his base – usually at a diner in a working-class town – a great many Trump supporters I met were the prosperous beneficiaries of globalization.
Take William Staber, owner of an Ohio company that builds washing machines. The U.S. doesn’t produce enough industrial-grade aluminum, so free trade helps him get it more cheaply. In the fall of 2018, during Mr. Trump’s trade war with Canada and Mexico, Mr. Staber told me that the President’s tariffs were driving up his costs.
Still Mr. Staber, 60, supported Mr. Trump because he liked the idea of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, to stop caravans of Central American asylum seekers. “Go to Israel and line up a caravan of 7,000 people from Syria and see if they get across the border,” he said at his factory, in an industrial park near Columbus. “You can’t just let a caravan cross.”
This is Mr. Trump’s ideology. An “America first” nationalism that has meant curbing immigration, erecting protectionist trade barriers and stepping back from world leadership, whether on climate change or human rights. He has married it with appeals to traditional Republican hot buttons such as gun control and abortion. And he has imbued it with a current of authoritarianism, praising dictators, soliciting foreign election interference and, finally, trying to throw out the result of a democratic vote.
Underpinning it all is a persistent white identity politics, in which Black anti-racism protesters are portrayed as a dangerous “mob,” undocumented Latino immigrants are assumed to be violent criminals and travellers from majority-Muslim countries are stopped for fear of terrorism.
Mr. Trump may have amped up the culture wars, but they long predate him. Since the 1980s, for instance, Republicans have traded heavily on their opposition to abortion. Figures from Rush Limbaugh to Bill O’Reilly to Steve Bannon have been building a separate media universe for three decades. This steady mixing of news with political ideology and unbridled rage primed Mr. Trump’s audience to accept the false narratives pushed by the President and his allies.
“Our public sphere is very broken. People are so distrustful and at the same time so gullible – they believe everything that their side says and nothing that the other side says,” said Jennifer Mercieca, author of Demagogue For President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. “Trump didn’t break it; it was already broken. He took advantage and made it worse.”
It is little surprise, perhaps, that many of Mr. Trump’s supporters subscribe to one of the longest-running disinformation campaigns in the country’s history – the Lost Cause. This 150-year-old narrative claims the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and that the Confederacy was simply a heroic movement for states’ rights. If you can believe something like that, it’s much easier to sign on to, say, QAnon, the conspiracy theory that maintains Mr. Trump’s enemies are part of a Satanic cult.
During the 2020 election campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly pushed claims that the COVID-19 pandemic was not as bad as it appeared, and persuaded an overwhelming number of his supporters. At the President’s rallies, few people wore face coverings or physically distanced. To explain away his country’s high death rate, Mr. Trump insisted crooked doctors were artificially inflating it.
“I think the numbers are skewed,” Stuart Wilson, 61, a software engineer from Cherry Point, N.C., told me at a Trump event last October. “It’s all for political reasons.”
Pam Fura, a 59-year-old stay-at-home mother, posited that Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, had caused the pandemic because of his business interests in China.
“There’s so much underground stuff. It’s a man-made virus,” she said as she waited to see the President in Lansing, Mich., the week before the vote.
When Mr. Biden defeated him, Mr. Trump and his legal team claimed that an enormous conspiracy had robbed him of his rightful victory. In some versions of the story, voting machines or a CIA supercomputer had changed votes for Mr. Trump to votes for Mr. Biden. In others, Democratic officials had arrived at counting stations with piles of fake ballots.
There was no evidence for any of this. But it was enough for Mr. Trump to put pressure on election officials and legislators to reverse the result. In Valdosta, Ga., every Trump supporter I spoke with believed the outlandish narrative.
“Why vote,” lamented Theresa Mull, 50, an Atlanta property manager, “when they can just bring out suitcases of ballots?”
As the sun rose over Charlottesville on Aug. 13, 2017, a Virginia town stifled by humidity and stained with blood vowed that the previous day had been the nadir of the Trump era’s toxic politics.
A riot by neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and sundry white nationalists left an anti-racism protester dead, scores injured and a country afraid. Nothing like this, civic leaders vowed, would ever happen again.
“It’s a little pocket of people,” Alvin Edwards, pastor of the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, told me of the racists who had overrun the streets. “The 99 per cent can drown them out.”
For a brief time, it seemed possible that the violence would force the country back from the brink. Even Mr. Trump read a statement condemning hate groups. But within the week, the President reversed course, declaring there had been “very fine people on both sides” of the riot. It was a harbinger of things to come over the next 3½ years.
Before Congress met on Jan. 6 to certify Mr. Biden’s victory, Mr. Trump called for his supporters to descend on Washington. “Be there. Will be wild!” he tweeted. That morning he exhorted a crowd of thousands near the White House to march on the Capitol and “fight like hell.”
Within the hour, a mob of insurgents stormed Congress. Rioters beat police officers with pipes and fire extinguishers, hunted lawmakers, and smashed up windows and doors. Some brandished Confederate flags. One wore a sweatshirt reading “Camp Auschwitz.” When the dust settled, five people were dead and dozens more wounded.
“We’re pissed because politicians won’t do their job,” one insurrectionist, Ryan Suleski, a 33-year-old truck driver from Williamsburg, Va., told me. “That was the whole purpose of this: The intimidation factor, to have the voter in front of those politicians.”
Brian Rucker, who carried a pitchfork, said there would be an armed revolution if Mr. Biden took office.
“Consider yourself warned, politician and media, because we’re coming for you. We know where you are, we know who you are,” said Mr. Rucker, 56, a stay-at-home father from Hampstead, N.C. “We’re in the streets, and we’ve got more than pitchforks.”
It remains to be seen if plans by some far-right groups to attack Washington during Mr. Biden’s inauguration come to pass. Either way, Mr. Rucker’s warning is more than bluster: The Trump train is still barrelling down the tracks.
One Pew Research poll last week found that 64 per cent of Republican voters continue to believe that Mr. Trump won the election, and 57 per cent want him to stay in politics. All but 10 Republican House members voted against impeachment. Senators with their own presidential ambitions, including Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, continued to fight Mr. Biden’s certification even after the Capitol had been ransacked.
The clearest evidence for Mr. Trump’s enduring draw is history. Over the past five years, I’ve watched him careen from crisis to crisis – deriding the late senator John McCain for being a prisoner of war, withholding military aid to Ukraine to press Kyiv into helping his election campaign by investigating Mr. Biden, presiding over a failing COVID-19 response – and always emerge, as he did after Charlottesville, with his movement intact.
I’ve also heard a great many warnings about where Mr. Trump’s presidency could lead. Often, they were voiced by racialized people who saw most directly the result of his incitements and most clearly the path that would run to Jan. 6.
For Jose Bonilla, a 67-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, the President paralleled the Latin American strongmen he thought he’d left behind.
“I see similarities between Donald Trump and Nicolas Maduro and Hugo Chavez,” Mr. Bonilla, a construction company manager, told me on the veranda of his bungalow in Dale City, Va., in August, 2018. “They say things that are not rational, and they do it with such arrogance.”
This was the sea change Mr. Trump achieved in American politics. His ideology is entrenched with his base. He’s shown that a ferocious approach to culture wars, and a disregard for both truth and the constitutional system draw as much approval as condemnation. His erosion of political norms could pave the way for a future leader with autocratic ambitions, and fuel attacks by his loyalists against his opponents. And he was a vessel for the Republicans to pack the courts with social conservatives, ensuring a right-wing advantage for decades in legal battles over abortion, guns and immigration.
Far from the swan song of Mr. Trump’s movement, the storming of the Capitol may only have been its housewarming party.
On that highway in Georgia last month, I asked Mr. Calhoun about his Confederate flag. Why endorse the symbol of a society that fought a war against the federal government?
Far from repudiating sedition, Mr. Calhoun embraced it. To him, Mr. Trump’s fight against the election results and the South’s fight to leave the union were parallel struggles against tyrannical politics, and both equally justified.
“This is about independence and freedom,” he said, gesturing to the crowd pouring out of the airport as the President wrapped up his speech. “This is about keeping America free.”
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