Trump rally

Supporters cheer for former U.S. President Donald Trump as he finishes addressing a "Save America" rally at York Family Farms on August 21, 2021 in Cullman, Alabama.

(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Trump Gives Isolated Americans the Chance to Hate Alone Together

What Donald Trump and other MAGA leaders have done is take emotions like loneliness and channel them into a social movement.

An acquaintance who hails from the same New Jersey town as I do spends his free weekends crawling through the woods on his stomach as part of a firearms training course, green camouflage paint on his face and a revolver in his hand. He considers this both a way to have fun in his free time and to prepare for the supposed threat from immigrants everywhere. (“You never know when something could happen,” he tells me.) He’s never gun-less. He brings his weapon to diners and dinners, to work meetings, and always on walks in his quiet neighborhood, where he grumbles, “This is America!” whenever he hears Spanish spoken by neighbors or passersby. The implication, of course, is that the United States has become both less American and, to him, by definition, less safe in these years.

He spends his other weekends right-swiping on dating apps to try to find a new partner (he’s being divorced) and watching—yep, you guessed it!—Fox News. He can be counted among a growing population of white, rural Americans who are lonely, lack people to count on as confidants, and feel poorly understood, not to say excluded from this country (at least as they imagine it).

Philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that those people most likely to align themselves with totalitarian movements lack a sense of their own usefulness to society and feel excluded.

In 2019, even before the Covid-19 pandemic made gatherings more dangerous, social scientists and public officials had already noted an uptick in Americans who would describe themselves as lonely—nearly 3 in 5—many from rural areas and many of them older. Today, though schools, parks, and businesses have reopened, things don’t seem much better. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently highlighted the problem, claiming that loneliness was as dangerous to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It increases the risk of various illnesses like heart disease and raises quality of life issues like addiction, depression, the urge to commit suicide, and the odds of premature death.

Our poor relationships, in short, are killing us.

Loneliness and a Lack of Self-Control

I’m a clinical social worker who treats Americans from all walks of life, including serving troops and veterans affected by our post-9/11 wars. Since I live in a rural area just outside Washington, D.C., I can work with both city dwellers and farmers in a single day and so get a sense of what seems to shape the wellness (or lack thereof) of an increasingly sweeping demographic. A key insight in my discipline is the value of human connection, particularly relationships with people who understand your experience and can reflect it back to you. I’ve seen the transformative power of just such relationships and how, when people feel supported and understood, they start to venture out more often, even volunteer in their communities, and cease having angry meltdowns in public. Empathy, in other words, leads to motivation and self-control.

Its underbelly, however, is alienation, loneliness, and their close cousins, anger and fear. I’ve seen a lot of anger lately in people who, like my friend, rant about immigrants and carry guns on their errands in the name of self-defense, while all too often isolating themselves at home or in solitary activities. Both young adults and older ones tend to feel more isolated than the middle-aged, especially if they’re poor and live in rural areas like mine. And many of those who feel lonely and depressed are also angry.

Trump and His Band of Lonely Followers

I’m hardly the only one who’s noticed that former President Donald Trump’s die-hard supporters tend to fall exactly into that crew of people who live in rural America, are poorer, older, and (much like the Donald himself) socially isolated. As pollster Daniel Cox wrote shortly after the 2020 election, “The share of Americans who are more socially disconnected from society is on the rise. And these voters disproportionately support Trump.”

As Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender also noted, Trump rallies build a sense of community among “mostly older white men and women who lived paycheck to paycheck… retired or close to it, estranged from their families or otherwise without children… Trump had… made their lives richer.” He noted how Trump supporters came to share homes and transportation, form relationships, and chant the same slogans (like “Build the wall”) in unison. I would add that those slogans can get so much uglier: “Fuck those dirty beaners” and “Fuck Islam” are anything but unheard of.

Writing in the wake of the Nazi movement that murdered more than 6 million European Jews, the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted that those people most likely to align themselves with totalitarian movements lack a sense of their own usefulness to society and feel excluded. In my own world, Arendt’s insight feels true when it comes to the Trump supporters I know in my family and community and know about in this country at large.

In such an ongoing climate of isolation, anger, and underdevelopment, there seem few safe and accessible ways for Americans to gather peacefully anymore.

What Donald Trump and other MAGA leaders have done is take emotions like loneliness and channel them into a social movement. Key evangelical Christian figures like Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence, or the Reverend Franklin Graham, provided the initial ideological scaffolding by selling Trump as someone who could deliver policy wins on issues like abortion and prayer in schools.

Later, when Trump’s extramarital affairs and crude sexual remarks made it clear to such figures that he was not exactly a shining example of Christian morality, they needed a different tack. As journalist Tim Alberta has pointed out, evangelical leaders then began selling Trump as one of a line of unlikely Biblical figures (if not Jesus himself) who led the Israelites out of peril. In other words, they saw him as powerful exactly because he was an outsider.

Donald Trump, in short, has provided a world in which isolated Americans can be—yes!—alone together, while embracing hate in an unabashed and distinctly public fashion. In doing so, he’s made the experience of being a resentful outcast a transcendent one in 21st-century America. Trump’s rallies are invariably both loud and distinctly angry, like the motorcycle gangs with Confederate flags that roar past me on the rural highway I often take, or church services with MAGA preachers. These sorts of gatherings seem to reflect what French sociologist Emile Durkheim once called collective effervescence, or shared emotional experiences that transform isolated people into something larger (if also in this case angrier) than life.

The anger of the MAGA movement is transcendent. When people act on it, their bodies trigger the release of adrenaline, which can alter behavior. I saw this outside my home once when a white male driver who had crashed his speeding car into a guardrail then threatened a group of Spanish-speaking drivers he’d just passed, calling them “beaners” and kicking and punching the side of their car, even though they’d stopped to help him. Reason and self-control prove elusive at such moments in a world infused with racial slurs as solace for peoples’ woes.

The most striking recent example of how anger can find collective social expression was, of course, the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington that came all too close to giving us a new autocratic-style government founded on a sense of rootlessness, victimhood, and rage.

Our Loneliness Epidemic

Ever since Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, many of us have been scratching our heads, wondering how to explain what gave rise to his self-styled band of lonely followers. Are they the victims of global capitalism and university systems that all too few can afford? Are they a cultural movement responding to demographic shifts involving immigration and low birth rates among white families? Personally, I’d like to see more discussion about the decisions many American voters and our representatives in Washington have made to support endless foreign wars with trillions of our tax dollars, instead of investing them in protecting the places here at home that would make community more possible for more of us.

After all, even a relatively modest percentage of our wildly overblown annual “defense” budget, now heading for the trillion-dollar mark, would have funded many of the types of programs Americans need in order to work less and live in cleaner, safer environments. Military spending and where it goes can be hard to understand but, for instance, the Costs of War Project at Brown University, which I helped to start, has broken down our disastrous war expenses—all 8 trillion-plus dollars of it—in this century. And now, as defense expert William Hartung points out, a significant part of the Pentagon budget is being spent to deter a hypothetical war with China, whose military isn’t configured to threaten American safety. Meanwhile, since 2018, at least tens of billions of dollars of classified defense contracts have been transferred to some of the world’s largest private tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, in addition to tech startups, to develop surveillance technologies, artificial intelligence, and advanced weapons systems.

President Joe Biden’s original Build Back Better Act (voted down in the Senate in 2021) would have allocated $400 billion over six years to fund universal preschool, $150 billion to be applied to homecare for elderly and disabled Americans, and $200 billion in child tax credits. So, for less than the amount we spend on defense in just one year, taxpayer dollars could have made it possible for Americans with children to stay at work (at a time when more than 1 in 4 of us have had to leave jobs or school to avoid soaring childcare costs).

If only we were to reshape our priorities in enough time to vote in leaders who cared about peace, perhaps our democracy and the ideas that define it wouldn’t be coming apart at the MAGA seams.

Today, the vast majority of nursing homes are short-staffed, but had we decided not to fund the disastrous Global War on Terror, we could have helped seniors get high-quality care in their own homes. And just think how much more money we would have been able to devote to cleaning up pollution, investing in safer public transportation and infrastructure, restoring state and national parks, and mitigating the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on schools, houses of worship, and businesses—not to mention American lives. And if so, just think how much less isolation, loneliness, and MAGAtivity there might have been.

An incident I witnessed at my rural home last summer epitomized what it means for so many of us to lack the necessary resources to relax and enjoy life with one another in reasonably good health. While smoke from Canada’s wildfires engulfed the D.C. area last June, my children and I watched as the young, Black grocery delivery driver we’d paid to bring us food arrived in his car. A child in a car seat squirmed in the back. He wore a tiny KN95 mask. Why wasn’t he at home or at a childcare facility while his father worked? What kind of quality of life did he have driving through hills and woods he would probably never have a chance to enjoy? I cringed with guilt. The quiet appearance of isolation and alienation in that car stood in marked contrast to the angry whites at Trump rallies, who looked a lot like me.

In such an ongoing climate of isolation, anger, and underdevelopment, there seem few safe and accessible ways for Americans to gather peacefully anymore. Much has been made lately of antisemitic chants at the student protests against the Israel-Gaza war and the American weaponry eternally being shipped to Israel. As Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict pointed out in the case of the protests at her university, a majority of the students couldn’t have been more peaceful and less MAGA-style angry as they advocated for a cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages, even in the face of a disproportionate law enforcement response. Such protests say everything about the ability of disaffected young voters to claim space and connect around common values, even in the face of a militarized police response. And when you think of those 2,000-pound bombs our government has been sending to Israel to devastate Gaza, they should remind us of just how far afield our spending priorities have taken us from what we should truly value.

I do try to claim space that’s positive and community-based in my world, but it isn’t easy. Even going to our church on a Sunday sometimes feels precarious to me. I find myself worrying about what I would do to protect my small children if someone as disturbed as many in my community of origin entered with a gun and started shooting the place up. (And though that doesn’t happen often, it certainly does happen.)

I recently participated with a family friend in a race in deep blue Syracuse, New York, meant to benefit local community-based healthcare. As my young companion and I moved through the starting gate together, a large banner hung above us with a “Blue Lives Matter” flag on it, signaling support for law enforcement as a counter to Black Lives Matter.

As we ran, I couldn’t help noticing boarded-up public housing and abandoned schools, potholed roads and a visible (though supportive) armed police presence to help us make our way through city traffic. I wondered what it meant that an event as innocent as a race to benefit healthcare could just as easily have been mistaken for some sort of post-apocalyptic scene.

Yes, the degradation has been gradual, caused by the bleeding out of U.S. cities, thanks at least in part to the dozens of large and small armed conflicts we’ve fought so disastrously around the world in this century and our taxpayer dollars that have been funneled in that direction.

If only we were to reshape our priorities in enough time to vote in leaders who cared about peace, perhaps our democracy and the ideas that define it wouldn’t be coming apart at the MAGA seams. Wouldn’t it be great if we all could get out more and do so together?

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