DiAnna Schenkel is a law school graduate who once ran on the Democratic ticket for her city council. She voted twice for Barack Obama. A 59-year-old suburbanite in North Carolina, she worries about her Black son-in-law being racially profiled by the police, pulled over and beaten or worse.
The portrait of a Biden voter?
No, Schenkel, who is white, is a confirmed supporter of Donald Trump. She voted for him enthusiastically four years ago after becoming disillusioned with the Obama presidency, and plans to vote for his reelection. At the same time, she is wary of expressing her politics openly because she believes that stereotypes of what she calls “Trumpers” like herself, as portrayed on social media and in conversations, are smug and spiteful.
“There’s so many people throwing down really inflammatory words: Racist. Xenophobic,” she said of the way people regard Trump supporters. “And these inflammatory words carry emotions. It just pivots people to where they’re not going to even tolerate someone for supporting that person. You’re automatically put on trial and you have to testify why you believe what you believe.”
As Trump takes center stage at the Republican National Convention this week, he maintains a core of rock-solid supporters like Schenkel who believe he is fighting in America’s best interests and has achieved many of his goals — which are their goals too. He has aggressively cultivated these voters over the last few months with scathing criticism of vandalism that has occasionally arisen from mostly peaceful protests calling for racial justice, and by boasting that, pre-coronavirus, he had built an economy second to none.
For Democrats and many independents, Trump has shattered the norms of presidential behavior with racist tweets and divisive policies; his use of federal agencies to advance his personal interests; and, perhaps most important, his detachment from managing the pandemic, which has killed more than 175,000 Americans.
The revulsion toward the president that his opponents feel has colored how many regard Trump’s supporters. Portrayals of his base, these supporters say, are often distilled into a caricature: that they are all white bigots, in thrall to an authoritarian leader and lost in a fog of fact-denial.
While polling and interviews turn up ample evidence of these traits, tens of millions of Americans will vote for Trump, and there are plenty of supporters who transcend the stereotypes, whose personal experiences or policy interests make him the right fit for them.
In lengthy interviews over the last several weeks, a cross-section of Trump voters said they believed he had succeeded on issues like hardening the Southern border, appointing conservative judges, taking on China and putting “America first.” Many said the president’s grievances were their grievances, too. They believed kneeling during the national anthem was un-American, and they were appalled at what they viewed as liberals’ minimizing of violence that at times grew out of the protests over the killing of George Floyd.
At the same time, Trump voters dismissed as irrelevant aspects of the president’s behavior that critics say make him historically unfit for office. All politicians lie, many said; as for the president’s suggestion that he might not accept the election results, supporters said voters should judge his actions, not his loose talk or tweets.
“I didn’t vote for Trump because I wanted him to be my best friend,” Schenkel said. “I wanted to make a change and a difference.”
“If he thinks it’s the right thing, he doesn’t care who’s going to get mad at him,” she added. “I think he’s very misunderstood.”
Asked about her two votes for Obama, Schenkel faulted him for doing little, in her view, to heal racial divisions or lift the Black community. She cited a “blood bath” of crime in Chicago whose victims are mainly young Black men, and a high abortion rate for African American women.
“I feel he made race relations the worst I’ve seen in my 50 years,” she said.
A longtime resident of Minnesota, Schenkel moved with her husband last year to North Carolina to be closer to their grandchildren. She found work using her law degree in a bank loan department, while her husband babysits.
She grades the president highly on having met his promises, including slowing the flow of immigrants entering the country illegally and building a strong economy before the virus struck.
Other Trump supporters outlined myriad reasons for wanting to reelect him, ranging from the pragmatic, like a new job made possible by the administration’s policies, to a gut-level attraction to his hard-nosed personality. His supporters related “aha” moments in their upbringing when they realized they were conservatives, which they spoke of as nonnegotiable beliefs woven into their identity, like opposition to abortion.
Joseph Karlovich of Jacksonville, Florida, is also a former Obama voter who abandoned the Democrats for Trump. Karlovich, 33, an engineer, explained that he was working for a government contractor on a Navy missile system in 2015 when the news cycle became consumed with Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which had held some classified information.
“That’s like a huge no-no, what she did,” he said, noting that he believes he would have been fired for a similar offense. Offended by what he said were Clinton’s attempts to minimize the issue, he voted for Trump.
Karlovich is from a family of five adult siblings with diverse political leanings. A sister who is a nurse is a Republican. A brother who leans Democratic works for the National Rifle Association.
Karlovich said he had personally benefited from the president’s America First policies. After the Trump administration restricted H-1B visas for immigrants with high-tech skills, Karlovich landed a better-paying job just this month in his field, robotics.
“I don’t think I would have gotten offered the position” without the restrictions on foreign workers, he said. “There was less competition out there for me applying for that position.”
He takes the president’s bullying outbursts and lying with a grain of salt.
“He’s selling a pitch, for the most part,” he said. “My dad’s a salesman. For me, it’s the same with all politicians. They’re trying to get you to buy in, and you have to do your own research.”
When Shelley Taylor was 17 in rural Ohio, she crossed a teachers’ picket line at her high school and told the school board the teachers were selfishly depriving seniors of credits they needed to graduate. Supporters of the teachers boycotted her parents’ hardware store, she recalled. The episode shaped her political identity as a conservative.
Now a resident of Deltona, Florida, Taylor, 59, still considers herself outspoken, and she was drawn in four years ago by that same quality in Trump.
“I liked how he was very straight up,” she said. “I laughed at his demeanor. I thought, all right, we got a guy here who’s going to whoop some butt on these politicians.”
Taylor believes the president’s enemies, including Democrats who she says behave like “spoiled little kids,” have tried to undermine him from day one. Among the developments she said were being manipulated to damage the president are the coronavirus outbreak and the protests after the death of Floyd, a Black man killed in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis.
“We’ve had more cops gun down white people than Black people,” she said. “Do we throw a fit if a white guy gets killed by the cops? No.”
“I’m not racist,” she said. “I’m not. I have all kinds of friends. There’s good cops and there’s bad cops, I see that. We just need to weed them out. I think this George Floyd incident got escalated to be ridiculous. ”
“He was doing such a great job,” Taylor said of the president. “They couldn’t impeach him. Everything was going good and wham, all of a sudden, we got a freaking virus.”
Taylor and others blamed the news media’s coverage of the virus, complaining that the media is being hypocritical when it condemns unmasked crowds in bars but not unmasked protesters in Portland and Seattle. They echoed a Gallup poll from March that showed Republicans’ trust in the media’s response to the pandemic was lower than for any institution.
Trump has called journalists “the enemy of the people” and has worked to undercut confidence in other institutions, including science, the electoral process and government.
Ludwig Pikulski, 57, of Pennsylvania, said he had stopped watching all TV news a couple of months ago.
“There’s no real news sources anymore,” he said. “I don’t trust anything.”
He even tried watching a French channel in English.
Kathleen O’Boyle, who sells real estate in the Pittsburgh suburbs, said she did not believe Trump had soft-pedaled the virus at all.
Trump, she said, had “overreacted based on the information he had available.” She added, “I would have been opposed to an economic shutdown.”
O’Boyle, 60, a law school graduate and former litigator who called herself a constitutional conservative, said those who fixate on the president’s behavior did not understand what supporters like her admire in him: He has accomplished what she would want from any Republican president.
“It seems there’s an argument that anybody who’s a Trump supporter is not rational, is a racist, just likes him for his personality,” she said. “None of that is true with me. I actually don’t particularly like his personality.”
“For some reason, people who are not Trump supporters can’t understand that Trump supporters are pleased because he’s done what they elected him for,” she added.
She ticked off a list: putting conservatives on the Supreme Court, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and presiding over the lowest unemployment in 50 years before the pandemic. Moreover, she said, he did so amid a special counsel investigation and an impeachment.
“It’s a very chaotic atmosphere to accomplish those things, so I give him credit for that,” she said.
Robin Sinsabaugh, who lives outside Charlotte, North Carolina, supervises seven McDonald’s franchises. Many of her employees are African Americans, and initially she was sympathetic to the outrage over Floyd’s killing.
“Obviously Black men, especially younger men, are targeted,” she said. “I say that because I’m able to talk to a lot of my employees. I talked to a young man who said, ‘I’ve been pulled over a dozen times when I’ve done nothing wrong.’”
But she believes that grievances that were peacefully expressed at first got out of hand in early June, when the police in Charlotte said that protesters had aimed rocks and fireworks at officers, and authorities responded with pepper spray and tear gas.
“I’m not going to remember them for anything they said,” Sinsabaugh said of the marchers. “I’m going to remember them for what they did to their own city.”
Sinsabaugh, 47, is married to a retired police officer.
She said the nationwide fracture between the president’s support of aggressive policing and the protesters’ fury at law enforcement had split her own household. Her 17-year-old son, who will vote for the first time in November, is vehemently anti-Trump. When he watched the video of Floyd’s killing, he erupted, saying “all cops should be shot.”
Sinsabaugh hit the roof. She took her son aside, she recalled, and said: “From now on, I don’t want to hear you say one more word. We don’t talk about cops in this house. Your father being a cop for 26 years is why we have what we have. That level of respect needs to change.”
Polls show that Trump’s most unwavering supporters are white evangelical Christians. Despite the moral lapses in his life — his infidelity, his bankruptcies or questionable enterprises like his now-defunct charity — they have continued to stick with him.
When Sarah Danes was an adolescent, her parents were Christian missionaries on the Navajo Reservation. Today she, her husband and their five children, 8 to 17, live in rural western Michigan. He works at a food processing plant and she is a homemaker. The both strongly oppose abortion and believe Trump will further that cause.
They do not spend much time on the internet.
“I get a little news through a pro-life TV network,” said Danes, 39. “They said Trump was the first-ever president to speak at the March for Life,” she added, referring to the annual anti-abortion rally on the National Mall. “I’m like, wow, that’s awesome. When I hear him talk about life, it’s not just a social issue, it’s a God-says-it’s-wrong issue.”
She feels a long way from Washington and what elected officials there seem to understand about the lives of people like her.
“We’re in a lot better place financially than we used to be, but we’ve lived in a lot of trailers,” she said of her family. “I’ve had crazy neighbors dropping f-bombs at their children. I don’t think people up in Washington have much of any clue about what my life looks like.”