The writer is a freelance journalist based in the Midwest
Has Donald Trump finally pushed his supporters too far?
I looked to the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, which swung against the US president in the 2020 election, and talked to the same Trump supporters that I have been interviewing for years.
In the wake of the violent invasion of the US Capitol on January 6, and the president’s incendiary rally that preceded it, I wanted to ask: has this finally pushed you over the edge?
But instead I put it like this: did those events change how you feel about being a Republican, a Trump supporter or even a conservative? And I tried, with genuine humility and curiosity, to listen to what they had to say.
Demonising the 74m Americans who voted for Mr Trump in the 2020 election seems to be the most popular blood sport in America. I promised myself I would avoid it just like I avoid coronavirus, and for the same reason: because it is threatening the very future of American life as I have known it.
I turned first to Pam Travis, 59, a conservative from central Wisconsin whom I first met four years ago this week when she was en route to Mr Trump’s inauguration. “I’m a play-by-the-rules kind of girl,” she says. The Capitol invasion “was disgusting and wrong and the people who did it were wrong”. “But I don’t like to group them all together, it’s just like the [anti-racism] riots last summer, you can’t say it was everybody.”
Has any of that put her off Mr Trump? “I would never not vote for President Trump if he chose to run again.” But the atmosphere of public demonisation of Republicans in the wake of the Capitol attack has made her think twice about one thing: “I’ve contemplated taking my Trump bumper sticker off my car,” she says, after her sister, a Republican party official in southern Wisconsin, had a car damaged, possibly for political reasons.
Chris Vitale, 48, a city councilman in a working-class suburb outside Detroit, rejects the idea of an attempted rightwing insurrection. “College fraternity hooligans in crazy costumes taking selfies is not behaviour we condone, but it’s not setting the Capitol on fire either, they stole a podium and messed up some papers, they couldn’t possibly have thought they were going to prevent the next president from taking office.” Would Mr Vitale vote Trump again? He pauses an extra beat, then says, “Yes — unless someone else comes along who espouses the same message and is more articulate.”
Is this a big turning point for the GOP? Mr Vitale thinks so — but not for the usual reasons. “I think the Democrats will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory,” by pushing for a Senate trial of the president now. “The more they overplay their hand the more anger there will be in 2022” for the midterm elections, he says.
Nelson Westrick, a 45-year-old autoworker outside Detroit, is an “Obama-Trump” voter: former Democrat-turned-Republican who helped Mr Trump get elected in 2016. He has a “Stop the Steal” sign on his front lawn and a belief that “massive fraud” marred the 2020 election. His is not a fringe view in the Republican party: according to a CBS News/YouGov poll conducted last week, nearly 70 per cent of Republicans do not consider president-elect Joe Biden the legitimate winner of the November election.
Did Mr Westrick consider joining the Washington DC protests? “Heck no, I have a job, I have a family,” he says. But when I ask whether “what happened at the Capitol” put him off the president or his party, he counters with “what happened at the Capitol? For six months our country was ravaged by [Black Lives Matter] protests, small businesses were burnt to the ground, but six guys run up the steps of the Capitol and it’s an insurrection?”
I don't agree with him — but nor do I think he should be demonised for thinking as he does. Mr Westrick says that right now he is hearing a clear message from the other side: “My way of life has to end now, I’m a horrible human being, I’m a superspreader trying to kill people.”
It looks like Mr Biden, who takes the oath of office on Wednesday, is promising to unify a nation whose citizens hate their neighbours. Good luck with that.
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