By John Rolfe
I’ve been wracking my skull for years to understand why Donald Trump commands such devotion to the point where many people are sacrificing relationships with family and friends who oppose or simply criticize him.
I’m also trying to square that behavior with Trump being everything people ordinarily say they despise: a brazen liar, a childish bully who spews schoolyard and racist insults, an ignorant and loudmouthed know-it-all, a sleazy sexist scoundrel who cheated on his wife with a porn star, and a dictator wannabe who tried to overturn an election with unfounded claims of voter fraud that sparked a siege of the Capitol by his followers.
You’d think at least some of that would tarnish him in their eyes, but you’d be wrong.
So, why such adamant allegiance?
The answers I’ve been getting from people I consider to be reasonable:
The days of genteel Republicans like Ronald Reagan are over.
Trump may be a dirty, lying scoundrel and a bully but he’s our scoundrel and bully, and he fought for us like no President ever had.
His achievements (tax cuts, high employment, regulatory rollbacks, curbing immigration, challenging China, Mideast peace deals, and pulling us out of wars) were worth offending people and any damage he may have done.
Just as many of us find it hard to grasp Trump’s Gorilla Glue appeal to his followers, his supporters can’t or won’t grasp just how deeply and unnecessarily he antagonized millions of people. Trumpers are offended that we are offended and have disrespected someone they love. Hence the charming Trumper slogan, “F—k your feelings.”
Even worse, Trump and right-wing politicians and media have led his followers to believe that liberals, Democrats and even moderates and centrists are existential enemies and that America’s future is at stake. Garden-variety political and social disagreements are boiling over into outright hostility and refusal to compromise. Each side views the other as hopelessly brainwashed and stupid.
So now we have families riven by political discord with members no longer speaking to each other because of their feelings about Trump. Friends and neighbors have fallen out with each other or with us.
I’ve been unfriended on Facebook and shunned at work by people with whom I’d been friendly. We never had so much as a political discussion. But my opinions are easily known because I write a sociopolitical column for The Poughkeepsie Journal. That also makes me a member of the despised “fake news media” in their eyes, and it even led one co-worker to tell me that my views are going to get me a bullet in the head.
He didn’t say it as a threat, merely as a casual statement of reality.
In the wake of the Capitol riot and the stated desire of some far-right militias to kill journalists and all liberals, I can’t help wondering if the Trump supporters around me would actually harm me and my family if given the chance, or simply not object if someone else did the dirty work.
What would they have done if the January 6 insurrection had succeeded?
I’ve never been in this weird, ugly place before, even when I was growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s with nasty political divides and “the generation gap.” One of my uncles by marriage was an obnoxious bigot who had a fistfight with my dad in my grandma’s kitchen one night. Ironically, both were Republicans and their dustup was due more to personal enmity than their differing views on race, but we all kept speaking and gathering for holidays.
There is now a palpable frosty tension at my workplace. My wife and I have also been cut off by a former co-worker who was her friend. The woman had given me the lead I used to get my job and was very helpful after I started. But when my wife sent a recent friendly email to check in, she received no response. She’s guilty by association with me.
I admit that I have unfriended Trump followers on Facebook, mainly to keep the peace on my page. A minority, they were getting into spats with my other friends and I found their views too aggravating, especially their baseless claims and conspiracy theories. My brother-in-law, a Trump supporter, called one commenter a “liberal coward.” That commenter was me, though he didn’t notice it at the time.
He later apologized and we agreed to stop talking politics, but since the election he’s stopped sending his usual chatty emails about music and TV shows we like. I would still talk to him just as I would talk to the co-workers who are snubbing me, but it would help if the first grudging grunts came from them. I can only wonder if they want me to make the first move. Something tells me, probably not.
So why are we all falling out so completely?
As near as I can figure, people ordinarily hate hearing views that challenge or refute their own. And humans also tend to prefer sticking a lit blowtorch in their ears to admitting they were wrong or apologizing for something they said, did or supported. And Trump has forced people to defend some pretty distasteful comments, deeds and positions.
I suspect many supporters also fear being ostracized by their comrades-in-Trump if they commit the heresy of not completely backing him. Meanwhile, the rest of us engage with them in endless rounds of What About-ism and Equivalence, trying to reconcile our drastically different perceptions of reality until we all can’t stand it anymore and just pull the plug on each other.
Major blame also falls on the politicians and talking heads who’ve led so many to believe that incivility is justified and that Trump’s opponents are trying to destroy America. Take the case of Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, accused of treason by 11 of his relatives in a just-released January letter for criticizing Trump and, in their view, aligning himself with “the devil’s army” (Democrats and the media).
Some of us manage to keep the peace with each other despite all this madness. But what Trump has come to stand for is just too extreme and threatening for many people. Unfortunately, those who embrace him see those who do not as extreme and un-American, and the gulf between us remains cold and wide with nary a bridge.
How and when does it all end? I’ve been wracking my skull over that question, too. I wish I had some answers.
Now, click below to meet a family with Trump Estrangement Syndrome:
“My Family is Dead to Me” - Living in the Wake of the Trump Presidency
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.