The Paradoxical Rousing Banality of Donald Trump; or, Why I No Longer Feel Civil War is Imminent


Last year, over winter break, an originator of 23 of my chromosomes told me, with slow, earnest head-shaking, I’d been “brainwashed” by the “liberal media.” If you haven’t guessed, this same individual has supported, and continues to support, Donald J. Trump, née Drumpf. It’s a bit of a tradition for us to enter into a screaming match around that time each year, making the rest of the family miserable and leaving me frothing, positively seething, with rage. It never goes anywhere. One year while Trump was actively in office, I followed up one of these explosive events with an email essay including hyperlinked sources and photos detailing the state of migrant detention centers at the border and the policy of family separation. I even ended the email with ways to change party affiliation in Maryland, if perhaps my argument led him to feel so inclined. It did not. The next time we spoke, I remember receiving a response along the lines of, “Well, my 401k is looking pretty good right about now, so…”

In response to the aforementioned remark about my falling victim to leftist news media, my poor, pitiable, marble-smooth libtard brain decided — because the most base aspect of my mind is, first and foremost, a motor propelled by pure spite — to walk straight up to the horse, press my ear to its mouth and listen. On Saturday, March 2, 2024, I was given just such an opportunity. Trump himself graced the halls of the Greater Richmond Convention Center (which, by virtue of his having strode the floors, will hence be known as the Even Greater, the Best, the Very Best Richmond Convention Center). Although I know my opinions of Trump are based not on anything the media has said but rather on the actual words, actions and policies of Trump himself, I have the proclivity so many of us are predisposed to which demands I can not truly know something until I prove it to someone else by going to the farthest possible extreme to do so. 

I was nervous about going to the rally. My husband was very gently pleading with me not to go. I had friends reach out about accompanying me as “backup.” I think all of these responses were valid and I, myself, validly, have developed a minor phobia about large, politically charged crowds. But I’m white and at the point in my gender transition where, in essentially all situations, I’m passing as a cis — though strikingly short — man. A friend of mine and I joked that I may actually be well-loved in a place like this rally, if only from a place of pity; viewed as a tiny, pathetic incel: just a cuck, lost in a hateful world of six-foot Chads, there to lay eyes on the man who is going to place the apple boxes under my feet and place the lifts in my shoes to raise me to the place in the world where I belong. 

In reality, with ultra-conservative online presences boasting staggeringly high engagement like Instagram users humbly_awake_ and blacksheep_brigade — self-proclaimed “conspiracy realists” who believe they can identify trans people “hiding in plain sight,” citing “biblical truths” and the “science” of  “skeletal structures” — entering a space like this rally is always going to feel like I’m putting myself at risk, so I never get too comfortable in my assumption of passing or in the safety of whiteness. If you’re trans, you know it goes without saying that I intentionally dehydrated myself that day. 

The day of the rally, I put on the dullest outfit I could conceive: khakis, a navy button-down, and the cleanest, laser-precision hair part my follicles would allow for. I grabbed my notebook and set out. The look was “unbiased journalist, not due to high ethical standards, but because he’s too boring to have opinions.” As I approached the convention center, I saw the line had snaked its way around at least four blocks of westbound Broad. I called a friend I knew would be attending. She and some journalist friends had some prime real estate closer to the front. She said, “Just walk up and, like, shake our hands.” As I crossed Broad, I couldn’t decide whether I thought Trump’s Deplorables were line-cutters or not. “You snooze, you lose,” or perhaps, “finders keepers” definitely felt like mottos they’d employ, but as I hit the sidewalk and extended my hand to my “colleagues,” I decided it was more likely that they believed they’d earned their spot in line and would never consider cheating someone out of something they’d rightfully earned. But I took my chances and no one said a thing. I was surprised, but relieved. If I was going to fight someone that day I didn’t want it to follow the script of an interaction between kindergarteners in the lunch line. 

Now, regardless of your political leanings, if you are a fan of people-watching or social psychology, allow me to suggest attending a Trump rally. Simply standing in line for this event was an anthropological observational smorgasbord. The longer I watched and listened, the less fearful I became. In fact, the first thing I wrote down in my journal was simply, “Weird need for attention.” My initial fear quickly morphed into a sort of pity. Without exaggerating, I can say that 50 percent of the conversations I overheard were of individuals listing the various physical ailments and traumas they’d experienced over the course of their lifetime, vying for morsels of attention and compassion.

One man in particular is actually a regular in Carytown. You’ve probably seen him: a grown man — he’s 65 and when he tells people he’s 65, “they can’t believe it!” — costumed head-to-toe as The Riddler, usually doing what I believe he considers to be “dancing” next to a tip bucket for no discernable reason other than what I presume to be a desperate need to be noticed and maybe a few bucks if he makes uncomfortable eye contact with passersby who hadn’t thought to cross the street until it was too late. For the rally, he was dressed in a black suit with a red vest and tie like the boys at prom who listened to screamo or Insane Clown Posse. My friend and I eavesdropped as he chronicled the entirety of his childhood illnesses — mumps, “we still got mumps back then,” impetigo, strep — you name it, he had it. If I was perceiving the interaction correctly, not only was his audience completely, heartbreakingly disinterested, they were actually complete strangers. In addition to these anecdotes, at intervals both forced and random, he managed to insert a seemingly endless stream of movie trivia into conversations he was not directly involved in. Did you know Macaulay Culkin was not supposed to keep his hands on his face for the iconic aftershave take from Home Alone? Or that Dustin Hoffman’s iconic “I’m walkin’ here!” moment from the 1969 classic Midnight Cowboy was in fact ad libbed when a taxi drove onto set and nearly hit him? The Carytown Riddler did! 

A man behind us during the rally itself, wearing a nauseating visor which featured what appeared to be the scalp of Donald Trump on top, was really pulling on my heartstrings. He, too, was deploying his health as a means of garnering attention. After eating what I can only assume was an incredibly salubrious meal from the convention concessions, he administered the last of his insulin. I know because he said so, loudly. Unfortunately, as he was soon informing absolutely anyone within earshot, he didn’t think it was going to be enough. He was checking his blood sugar in real time via an app, I believe — I didn’t dare turn around to see. “Uh oh, yeah, I dunno. I hope this is enough. If those numbers don’t go down though, yeah, I dunno, we’ll see. Those numbers better go down though.” If this wasn’t bad enough, remember the visor. A new man and his girlfriend, wife, or female companion of some sort, moved down the aisle and sat beside him. Insulin man almost immediately complimented the new man’s hair. “Man, I wish I had that kind of hair, man. I’ve got this today though,” reaching, I imagine, for the counterfeit follicles of Donald Trump resting on his head. The whole scene was like a bizarre, right-wing re-telling of The Silence of the Lambs. Before and after the rally he’d asked my friends and I multiple times, “So where the parties at, guys?” and “Anybody smoking any grass and all that?” The miasma of loneliness enshrouding this man was noxious.

Not quite so devastating was a man dressed as a well-nigh geriatric by the look and ostensibly alcoholic by the smell Superman wielding a large American flag and wearing an ill-fitting full head Trump mask. He was basking in cheers and applause, readily posing for photos all night. Yet another man in this same vein had painted his Chevy HHR with a “Flying Tigers” design and had enormous Trump slogan flags flying from either side. He drove up and down the blocks lined with hopefuls waiting to enter the convention center, waving and honking. All the supporters cheered and whistled and waved right back. He was positively blitzed on the love and adoration raining down on him. This vicarious love, adoration and affection was a throughline for the entire evening. 

When Trump is on stage, it manifests as a reciprocal feedback loop: he says a buzzword, the crowd screams like girls at a Beatles concert, he feels the love of the crowd, and he lets the crowd know he loves them back. If you’ve ever watched Spongebob, the rally itself felt precisely like the scene from the talent show episode where Spongebob simply mops the stage and with each swivel and swipe of his mop, the crowd absolutely loses their mind. Trump says “border wall” and they scream. Trump says “Sleepy Biden” and they laugh maniacally. Trump says “Make America Great Again ” and the room bursts into spontaneous, simultaneous orgasm.

Before this rally, I was convinced that the country was on the brink of a second civil war. I saw the violence at the Capitol, continue to see the deluge of far-right legislation and the deepening of the divides between us all, and I just felt certain that there was no other finale but a brutal, bloody battle for control. But, post rally, I felt an unforeseen shift in my perception of Trump’s supporters. The profusion of love the crowd had exuded was so unexpected. While I certainly question the object of their affection, I can, of course, understand the feeling itself

My journalist friends had been flitting about all evening, talking to and getting sound bites from as wide a variety of people as could be found at an event like this. By the end of the night, our consensus was that the crowd consisted almost entirely of incredibly boring and fairly friendly people. We remarked on just how astonishingly good the vibes were. Thousands of people hadn’t gathered because they were full of hate, they’d gathered because they were full of love.

There is a distinct line between anger and malice. Anger is often a symptom of fear. Malice is something else altogether, something utterly devoid of love. What the majority of Trump’s supporters seem to feel is fear: fear of change, fear of loss, fear of perceived erasure. Due to what seems to be a massive hole where childhood attention should reside within them, they lack the internal reserves to lean on for confidence, to help them rest assured in their safety. What we see on TV and in the news of these rallies mingles with the preconceived notions we have of these people and paints an ugly picture of a practically rabid, hateful crowd ready to do Trump’s bidding. And, in part, this is obviously not an impossible outcome as we saw on January 6th, 2021. But having gone to this rally and left with this new frame of reference, what happened that day doesn’t feel like it came from a place of malice. It feels like a crowd of multi-generationally affection-deprived, emotionally-stunted adult children who wanted nothing more than to please daddy — militant white supremacists and alt-right paramilitary factions notwithstanding. Over 1,000 people have been arrested since that day, and I can guarantee most of those people were not there with a sophisticated agenda. Fueled by conspiracies and revved up by a hot dose of much-needed encouragement, Daddy told them it was their time to shine and they each started one-upping each other like siblings duking it out for the limited resource that is paternal attention. They wanted to make Trump proud.

Which brings me back to daddy issues of my own. While on the surface I am angry at my dad for his opinions and his support of Trump, I have been trying to analyze my upset. What am I truly angry about? Why do these conversations leave me veritably verklempt? In part, there’s a betrayal. The safety I was led to believe a parent should foster felt obliterated. When I came out as gay and again as trans, no eye was bat. Passive acceptance was almost immediate. Every partner I’ve ever brought home has been loved. I have never been treated differently as I’ve transitioned. But when I explain that support of Trump actively puts me and essentially everyone I love at risk because of our identities, I’m ignored. Perhaps not ignored, but negated, which, to me, is worse. For me to come to the table saying, “If you support this man, myself, my husband, my sibling, and most of my friends could be placed in danger,” and receive comments about positively impacted retirement plan interest rates in response breaks my heart. 

My intention when having these discussions with my dad, though unfortunately nullified by my hostile delivery, is to bring him to a place of empathy; to try and make clear the compassion that has been extended to me should be extended to others; that familial bonds should not be the only thing that dictates whether or not you show someone kindness and generosity; that support for Trump exists in diametric opposition to these values. Despite what my dad and so many others like him want to believe, waving to a black person every now and then does not offset the deep-seated biases harbored against them. In a way, going to the rally gave me a taste of my own medicine. It forced me to reconcile with the idea that I’d been holding firm in biases of my own against the attendees of rallies like this one.

Donald Trump lets his supporters off the hook. He doesn’t ask that they rethink their entire worldview, challenge their prejudices, or, most taxing of all, learn how to use they/them pronouns. He tells these people, “It’s okay, baby. You’re perfect just as you are, as long as you’re just like me.” What he offers is upcycled nostalgia, a Groupon redeemable for another four years of avoiding reality, and a hefty dose of daddy’s love and approval. These people don’t need Trump. They just need therapy. 

Graphics by Sydney Folsom