MAGA caps and Confederate flags: The white men who 'can't be swayed' on support for Trump

The Trump Party is largely a party of men, particularly white men over the age of 40 and without college degrees

Jenna Johnson
Monday 28 September 2020 10:29 BST
Trump aseguró que ha pagado millones de dólares en impuestos a lo largo de los años
Trump aseguró que ha pagado millones de dólares en impuestos a lo largo de los años (AFP via Getty Images)

The parade of boats was decked out in flags and banners screaming support for President Donald Trump, led by a barge that had been used in previous summers for bikini-tops-optional parties on Sandusky Bay but was now laden with 10 cannons and a crane holding up a 22-by-15ft American flag. 

There were motorcycles and pickup trucks on the shore, and an antique military plane in the sky. Trump flags seemed to far outnumber American ones; at least one Confederate flag flew among them.

The dozen or so men firing the cannons wore red hats embroidered with Mr Trump's name and praise for the president. 

"There are still people coming to get into the parade!" said Shaun Bickley, 54, the barge owner who organised the parade and would later change into a black tank top with "Trump 2020" and an expletive written around an American-flag skull. 

"Act like we're being fired on!" yelled Jeff Karr, 59, who dropped out of high school to join the Ohio National Guard and spent 36 years in the military.

Blue-collar men such as Bickley, Karr and their friends on the barge are the core of Mr Trump's base of support, and their enthusiasm for the president has only deepened since they first voted for him, even as Mr Trump has driven away some voters, especially college graduates and women. As illustrated by the masculinity-oozing boat parade, the Trump Party is largely a party of men – especially white men without college degrees and especially those over the age of 40.

A majority of white men have long sided with Republican presidential nominees, and they voted for Mr Trump at about the same rates as in previous years, according to exit polls – but Mr Trump won the votes of white men without college degrees by the highest rate in at least 36 years.

Four years into a tumultuous presidency, these men consistently give the president his highest approval ratings, and polls show they are happier with the economy and the direction of the country than white women or voters of colour.

Their connection with Trump is cultural and emotional as much as political, closely intertwined with their lives and identities. They live by the rules he lives by: that concepts like white male privilege or structural racism and sexism are to be scoffed at, that the working-class, Christians and Trump supporters have been victimised, that it is okay to be moved to tears by a love for the country and its president but that liberals are crybabies and snowflakes. They pride themselves on being self-made, and see Mr Trump, whose life has been nothing like their own, as a once-in-a-lifetime leader.

Mr Bickley, who owns two marinas and a shoreline construction company, gets frustrated by the suggestion that white men such as him were born more powerful, or with advantages.

"There's eight billion of us on the planet. There's only 780 million white people... So I'm personally really tired of hearing that I'm a majority, that I'm a superpower white privilege kid," Mr Bickley said. 

"Now, here I am, 54, and I've got a lot of stuff ... Somebody says: 'Look at all of this stuff you have, you must have been privileged.' Oh really? Really? I've been working since I was 10."

Mr Bickley says that while he is now “on the top of the food chain”, he remembers the years he spent as a lowly worker, making other people millions of dollars. He thinks Mr Trump has that same mentality. 

Mr Trump's strategy for winning re-election relies on finding more white men who support him but did not vote in 2016, as well as pulling in more votes from black and Latino men.

Those on the barge on the Saturday before Labor Day are labeled as “white working-class men" by journalists, political strategists and university researchers – people in professions that some of these Ohio men do not consider real work, as they define it: the sort that is physical and might get your hands dirty.

Many have done well for themselves without a college diploma, and they are living a version of the American Dream that involves owning a boat and a truck to haul it.

For many summers, Mr Bickley hosted the Sandusky Bay Barge Party, which featured live music and bikini-clad women dancing around stripper poles. He likes to circulate a video compilation of women's jiggling bodies from these parties.

He lost his enthusiasm for it in 2015 when his father – a Navy veteran, former police officer and Democrat – died. He started paying attention to the Republican presidential primary and gleefully watched as Mr Trump trounced established politicians – especially former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

For much of his life, Mr Bickley was an independent, although he mostly voted for Republicans, even during the decade that he worked at a quarry and was involved with a union. 

He is staunchly conservative on nearly all issues except for those related to the environment, on which he's aligned with liberals, worried about factory pollution and the health of the nation's waterways. This is one area where he says he hasn't studied Mr Trump's record.

Bickley loves that Mr Trump puts “America first”, especially when that offends the educated elites. He supports building a wall along the southern border and forcing immigrants who arrive legally to learn English. 

There was something about Mr Trump that transcended both political parties – which is also a big reason Mr Karr voted for him after voting for Obama in 2008 and Ron Paul in 2012.

Mr Karr retired from the Army a few years ago, disgusted with most politicians, military leaders, government contractors and federal workers who he said put their pursuit of wealth and power above all else, including keeping their word. 

For years, he has struggled with serious digestive issues that he believes were caused by burn pits in the Middle East, and he was frustrated by Veterans Affairs doctors who seemed unable to accurately diagnose him or ease his pain.

Sometimes, he said, he feels like the US has become a nation of victims, even when they are not – a feeling that has become especially strong amid protests over racial inequality.

Mr Karr says that racism should not be tolerated, but that he does not think the nation's problems are as bad as the media claims. Slavery was terrible, Mr Karr said, “but that was then and this is now, and we can't go in a negative direction”.

Mr Trump and Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden have fought over who could best serve blue-collar workers, but Mr Bickley and Mr Karr rolled their eyes at the notion that Mr Biden understands them. 

As they see it, Mr Biden has spent his entire career in elective office with a generous salary, posh benefits and opportunities to become wealthy. Mr Trump is right to call him weak, they said. Although Mr Trump was born into a wealthy family, they see him as someone who knows how to build a business and understands the pressure of trying to make payroll.

Amy Grubbe, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party for Erie County, where Sandusky is located, says her volunteers do not even bother trying to win over the men who voted for Trump in 2016.

"People tend to go down with the ship... That hardcore group, they're going to be flying Trump flags at their funerals 30 years from now," said Democratic representative Tim Ryan, whose eastern Ohio district is heavily blue collar. While Mr Ryan said he is confident Mr Biden will win Ohio, he has little hope of converting Mr Trump's strongest supporters. 

The issues Mr Trump has chosen to highlight are, like his cultural positions, attractive to his white male supporters. His focus on law and order, seen by many as a way to scare some suburban women and seniors into voting for him, has also excited and rallied the men who already love him and are willing to follow him anywhere, including into an actual battle.

"We'll grab my AR and head for Washington and join the police force if they think they're going to riot and destroy Washington – not under my watch. I will die shoulder-to-shoulder with the cops," said Mr Karr, the veteran who has three grown sons. 

He and Mr Bickley say Mr Trump is right to refuse to accept any blame for the coronavirus and the nation's resulting economic problems. Yes, people are getting sick, they said, but they do not believe the death toll is really as high as some claim.

Mr Bickley and Mr Karr blame the pandemic on China and credit Mr Trump for blocking many foreign travellers from China and other countries. 

Mr Bickley says he spent thousands of dollars stocking up on food and protective gear. When Mr Trump touted the lifesaving potential of hydroxychloroquine, Mr Bickley ordered 90 pills online, along with a bunch of Z-Paks and some zinc pills, also touted by the president. 

Although federal health officials have strongly warned against using the medications to treat Covid-19, especially without the oversight of doctors, Mr Bickley is confident that they work.

In July, Mr Bickley's 32-year-old son-in-law became sick and tested positive for the coronavirus. Soon his 27-year-old daughter was also sick. Mr Bickley offered them the medication, but they declined, suggesting that it was “quack science”. The two quickly recovered, he said.

Two weeks after the parade, Mr Bickley was invited by the Trump campaign to sit in the bleachers directly behind the president as he spoke at a rally in Swanton, Ohio, just outside of Toledo. Because they would be in view of television cameras, the campaign asked the group to put on masks. Most of the thousands who gathered outside did not.

As Mr Trump took the stage and marvelled at the sprawling crowd before him, Mr Bickley and Mr Karr did the same. Mr Trump assured the crowd that polls showing a tight race in Ohio were “fake”, which is exactly what Mr Bickley and Mr Karr have been telling people. 

Mr Trump debated aloud if he should nominate a woman to the Supreme Court or a man, as he did with his first two nominations – the sort of joke that Mr Bickley and Mr Karr say the media always takes too seriously.

Mr Trump gave himself credit for saving millions of lives and tens of millions of jobs amid the pandemic. He promised to continue to build up the military, the power of which he said he is not afraid to use on American soil. He told the crowd that he is “the only thing standing between you and chaos”, and he warned "suburban men and husbands" that if Mr Biden is elected, “you're not going to have your dream very much longer”.

Mr Trump left the stage to the recorded sounds of the Village People telling men everywhere that “there's no need to feel down ... there's no need to be unhappy”.

Mr Bickley said afterward that the sound system near their group was not working properly, so they could not always understand what Mr Trump was saying. But they applauded anyway.

"We could see what he saw. We could feel what he felt. We could see the laughter and the joy and the excitement," Mr Bickley said of their front-row seats. "So the couple times I couldn't hear him, that was OK, I knew I was supposed to clap. I don't know what I was clapping about, but I clapped."

The Washington Post

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