The most dedicated of President Donald Trump’s followers do not continue their support in spite of his cruelty — cruelty is central to the president’s appeal and a primary bond bond between them.
The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer likened this bond of cruelty to that which connected many white Americans in the days of lynchings:
The artifacts that persist in my memory, the way a bright flash does when you close your eyes, are the photographs of lynchings. But it’s not the burned, mutilated bodies that stick with me. It’s the faces of the white men in the crowd. There’s the photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana in 1930, in which a white man can be seen grinning at the camera as he tenderly holds the hand of his wife or girlfriend. There’s the undated photo from Duluth, Minnesota, in which grinning white men stand next to the mutilated, half-naked bodies of two men lashed to a post in the street—one of the white men is straining to get into the picture, his smile cutting from ear to ear. There’s the photo of a crowd of white men huddled behind the smoldering corpse of a man burned to death; one of them is wearing a smart suit, a fedora hat, and a bright smile.
Their names have mostly been lost to time. But these grinning men were someone’s brother, son, husband, father. They were human beings, people who took immense pleasure in the utter cruelty of torturing others to death—and were so proud of doing so that they posed for photographs with their handiwork, jostling to ensure they caught the eye of the lens, so that the world would know they’d been there. Their cruelty made them feel good, it made them feel proud, it made them feel happy. And it made them feel closer to one another.
And so it is with Trump and his supporters: whether it is their collective abhorrence of Central American migrants; their nonchalance in traumatizing migrant children at the border; their disdain for the MeToo movement; or their joint mockery of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who came forward with her story of sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Trump and his supporters are displaying the same truth evident in those lynching photos: “The white men in the lynching photos are smiling not merely because of what they have done, but because they have done it together.”
This is “their” America, outsiders be damned.
The president who demanded the execution of five black and Latino teenagers for a crime they didn’t commit decrying “false accusations,” when his Supreme Court nominee stands accused; his supporters who fancy themselves champions of free speech meet references to Hillary Clinton or a woman whose only crime was coming forward to offer her own story of abuse with screams of “Lock her up!” The political movement that elected a president who wanted to ban immigration by adherents of an entire religion, who encourages police to brutalize suspects, and who has destroyed thousands of immigrant families for violations of the law less serious than those of which he and his coterie stand accused, now laments the state of due process.
Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.
For Trump and his supporters, the cruelty is the point.