It’s a threshold question, one that can trigger uncomfortable conversations: Do you support Donald Trump?
As his outrages add up, and up, and up, Americans are going to be confronted with the question of where they stood when the would-be strongman vied for power, fueled by an ethno-nationalist slate. A great sorting on the Trump question is coming.
Votes for president have long been a kind of social signifier. People will proudly boast that they voted for JFK; while it’s harder to find those eager to claim having supported Richard Nixon. You don’t find many boastful Carter Democrats (or George Bush Republicans, Jr. or Sr.), but among liberal old timers, voting for FDR remains a badge of honor; so much so that Bernie Sanders, who up until last year had never been a Democrat, proudly associated his brand of “Democratic Socialism” with the 32nd president. There is little that defines a modern conservative more than an effusive and often revisionist adoration of Ronald Reagan; indeed, to be “Reaganite” is to be the conservative ideal. There are even “Reagan Democrats,” who proudly crossed the aisle to vote for him.
For modern-day Democrats, and some Republicans, voting for Barack Obama, the first black president, is an important social marker (when it’s not a reason for certain conservative Florida doctors to refuse you service.)
In many quarters, there is no shame in the game. In very conservative pockets of the U.S.—particularly across much of the deep south—just about everybody, or at least everybody white, will be a Trump voter. While Trump is unlikely to become the next president without some dramatic, material shift among voters of color, just by dint of being a Republican he is all but guaranteed the support of at least four in ten voters—and perhaps six in ten white voters—nationwide on November 8.
But as he racks up a string of outrageous pronouncements painting himself as a self-aggrandizing, racially obtuse crank with an itchy Twitter finger and a strange affinity for dictators, have already made Trump association a socially awkward matter, even for diehard members of the GOP. Even the most partisan Republican needn’t be a #NeverTrumper like Mitt Romney, or quit the party outright like George Will, to be horrified by Trump’s political Vaudeville act, or by the growing dossier on his history of failed casinos, and stiffed contractors, employees, charities and would-be condo owners holding worthless paper for apartments that were never built.
Some movement conservatives have already vowed to make Trump support a symbol of selling out the doctrine for crass political or commercial advancement. But rank-and-file voters will face the question, too particularly as Trump faces the potential first woman president, along with a potentially viable and well-funded Libertarian ticket.
One day soon, support for—or opposition to—Donald Trump will be a threshold question, like were you for or against the Vietnam war. And there are three types of Trump supporters headed for that great sorting.
First, there are the die-hard Trumpists; those openly and proudly with him no matter what he says or tweets or what outlandish company he keeps (Indian whoops? Skinhead brawls? So what! We’re getting our wall!) They believe wholeheartedly that “Mr. Trump” will use his business skills to bring back the 1950s era they’re nostalgic for, complete with good-paying manufacturing jobs and a country without so many Mexicans and other foreigners. Even if he can’t pull off his promises, they’re looking forward to the death of the multiculturalism, “safe spaces” and political correctness of the Obama era. They’re copping “Make America Great” hats on the Internet, stocking up on guns and ammo to tackle ISIS in the heartland, or ticking the heart icon under “Trump girls break the Internet.” Win or lose, some on the rough edge of this camp will be aggressive with unbelievers after November 8th. Just ask Asian or Polish Londoners across the pond who are catching hell now from the worst of the Brexiteers.
Then there are the reluctant Trump supporters; the ones who readily confess to being uncomfortable or even embarrassed about their candidate, but who will vote for him anyway; out of partisanship, or Hillary hatred, or some other formulation perhaps only ambitious, elected Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio can truly understand.
They frown when The Donald calls Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” and wince when he says America should match ISIS, caged prisoner torching for caged prisoner torching. When they heard about Trump’s latest Twitter fiasco, in which he tweeted a Hillary slam showing her face, a six-pointed Star of David and piles of cash over a “most corrupt candidate ever!” slogan, their hearts sank once again, as the elusive Trump “pivot” vanished further into the ether. Post-election conversations with members of this group will be full of self-defense and caveats about the awfulness of Mrs. Clinton (or the cruciality of a Republican president replacing Antonin Scalia and other conservatives on the Supreme Court.)
Lastly, there are the secret Trumpers; the ones who have yet to reveal their presidential preference, and who may never intend to; though it’s hard to imagine they can keep it to themselves forever. (Trump himself has seemed to acknowledge this phenomenon, telling his supporters last month, “don’t be embarrassed” to say they’re for him when pollsters call.)
They may include the lifelong Democrat who will quietly pull the lever for The Donald in November, because her money’s been funny for years and she agrees with him on China and trade. It could be your doctor or dentist or lawyer; college educated and suburban, but quietly suspicious of the Clintons, or of the idea of a woman as president. It could be the struggling working class liberal who hates everything Trump stands for, but hates NAFTA and the TPP more. There’s the out-of-work father, white or black, who’s quietly seething at the presence of so many people in the neighborhood who don’t speak English, but who have better job prospects than he does. Or the college student who volunteered and tweeted their heart out for Bernie and believes Hillary and her DNC minions stole the nomination away. And there’s the “burn it all down” crypto-anarchist who thinks Trump’s ridiculous or even frightening, but who just wants to shake things up with his vote.
When the great sorting takes place, how will you react to the unmasked Trump supporters in your circle? What will it do to your evaluation of who they are? Will it change the way you feel about them? Will you view them as less savvy or intelligent than before you knew? Or more racist? If you are deeply religious, will you question the genuineness of their faith? And if you’re a liberal, will you even associate with them again? If they’re your significant other, will it impact your relationship? And is that potential for ever-increasing social marginalization of the other side—which my 18-year-old son described as already extant among his Northeastern collegiate friends, aimed at both Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters—liable to exacerbate the political polarization that produced Trumpite populism in the first place; transferring it to the next generation and the next? (Presumably, the flipside will be true in Red America).
It may seem odd to ask, but in a country where political identification is morphing into a kind of tribal identity—and the main tribes increasingly loathe one another—and with a candidate who seems so determined to grab the electrified rails of race, gender, sexuality, religion and economic competition that were set aflame by Obama’s election and tenure, the question is increasingly salient.
Because whatever the election’s outcome, the country is likely to emerge in November even more polarized than we are today.