Lately, in considering the erosion of America, the image that first comes to mind is Mariah Carey's now-iconic "I don’t know her" GIF. The gleeful shake of Carey's head. The subtle mischief of her utterance. The animation frames our current moment with dead-on precision. In fairness, from its earliest days, America has never looked like we knew it could. Which is to say, America—a country of sharp contradictions and tangible evils—has never lived up to what it could be. Since the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, we have encountered grotesqueries that have further marred the country beyond recognition. Who is she? How did we get here?
One way to characterize all the recent chaos is to understand that Donald Trump's rise and reign was, and continues to be, anchored by an acutely corrosive variety of fandom. This is not your typical fandom; not like the ones we normally discuss here. It is much more pernicious than anarchic XXXtentacion fans or Elon Musk’s army of bros. Trump's ilk falls into the most harmful category of fandom—men and women who, explicitly or implicitly, uphold the structures of white supremacy. His supporters vary in texture and intent, and it would be inaccurate to paint Trump's base in one broad sweep, but there is a considerable portion of white supremacists who very seriously subscribe to, and fuel, his vile thoughts. As I've previously pointed out, to view the world through a white supremacist lens is to exist as an antithesis to progress. Trump's is a gospel of negation: At best, it is to live in the complicity of false equivalences, to shroud one's scope in unsafe fabrications like "alt-left," and to willfully color malice as virtue.
The malice is all around. Such fervent investment, when it moves beyond the fictionalized territories of TV or gaming that many fanbases rally around, becomes much more fraught with real-world risk. Consider the bloody indignation that arose from Charlottesville. Or Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Or the implementation of a travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries, which the Supreme Court upheld, even if narrowly. Or the cancellation of the Trans-Pacific partnership. His never-ending demonization of the free press, his constant Twitter attacks on figures both private and public, the erection of internment camps near the US-Mexico border, where children and babies were cruelly ripped from their parents. All of it—all of it— is stoked by Trump true believers.
The micro- and macro-dramas of the Trump era are nothing if not undying and brattish, the outbursts of spoiled children who choose defiance even when they know its costs to be perilous. Matters are only made worse by the extreme fandom that surrounds and emboldens Trump, a congregation ever ready to spew tales of conservative victimhood: spineless Republican legislators who back destructive policy; TV pundits like Sean Hannity skilled in the dark arts of media distortion; supporters who believe division, fear, and racial persecution are ingredients needed to Make America Great Again (according to one scholar, whiteness sources power through narratives of self-victimization).
Among the list of calamities, last week's press conference in Helsinki and its aftermath registers among the most grave. In one of the most shocking public testimonies ever to be given by a president, Trump sided with Vladimir Putin and denied reports of Russian interference in US elections. (At first blush, it made sense for Trump to do so; an admission of foreign meddling would imply that he unfairly won the presidential election against Hillary Clinton.) The backlash was immediate and swift. Politicians and citizens called treason. Former President Barack Obama, during a speech in Johannesburg, cautioned that the denial of facts would help undo democracy as we know it. Trump's response? Inviting Putin to the US this fall—just in time to watch the midterm elections.
With perfect timing, The Onion responded with an article titled: "Supporters Praise Trump For Upholding Traditional American Value of Supporting Murderous Dictators For Political Gain." But the headline was terrifyingly close to the echo chamber in which Trump fandom thrives. On Fox News, host Tucker Carlson said that Mexico was, in fact, doing more to tamper with US elections than Russia by "packing our electorate." Representative Warren Davidson of Ohio thought Trump's meeting with Putin was helpful in strengthening foreign ties. "I think it's always patriotic to pursue peace," he said. "Trump went out of his way to pull Russia into the community of nations." The claim was backed by Ohio representative Jim Jordan, who said of his constituents: "People are pretty darned pleased." In its most disorienting state, this is how Trump fandom works—it endows one with blind faith so poisonous all they understand are dysmorphic ideas like "Muslims are bad!" or "Women should not have a right to their bodies."
As it turns out, all fandoms, even those in Trump's club, have certain limits. The following day, under internal pressure from chief of staff John Kelly and close allies, Trump amended his initial remarks. The distance he attempted to carve out between himself and Putin, however, was pure illusion. When asked, he refused to answer where his faith lay: in the Russian president or in his own intelligence officials. "I have confidence in both parties," he told the press.
But the fact of fandom is that fans can never completely break from their roles. A source close to the White House told BuzzFeed News that there is no ceiling to what Trump can do or say: "Long-term there is no such thing as a last straw. When he's back talking about the Supreme Court or regulations, they will be back publicly supporting him." There were also several GOP lawmakers who disagreed with the president—Marco Rubio, Bob Corker, Rand Paul, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, among them—all of whom released statements denouncing Russia, the bulk of which avoided criticism of Trump head-on. Fandom, of course, is not a neat science. But it does obey a reliable logic: surrender. A surrender to one's morals, to actuality, to simple reason—all in the name of a person, an entity, some higher power.
These are indeed strange times. What's turned out to be one of the strangest aspects of Trump fandom is how it curdles in online ports. Aside from out-and-out white supremacists, Trump supporters include internet trolls who use white supremacist language and dog whistles to whip up a slice of his base. There are the legislators who kowtow to Trump out of pure fear of losing their power or facing the wrath of a constituency they might not understand. There is the anti-Hillary, anti-establishment contingent who merely wanted "something new" in Washington. And there are the sort of half-fans who blindly champion Republican values no matter what, voting for leaders regardless of what evils they incite.
All these fans are far more interconnected now thanks to Twitter, the president's preferred megaphone. The once disaggregated network is now bound together, creating a thorny gordian knot. If fandom subsumes, Trump's is one that has pulled in all manner of subgroups with varied agendas, which is the exact opposite of positive fandom, where a group collectively comes together for a greater good to celebrate something bigger than themselves. Trump fans celebrate Trump, only this time that celebration is leading to national decay.
But that is the thing with fandom—it's laced with disappointment. Think of storied sports franchises like the Lakers or Knicks. To love just about any genre show is to resign oneself to heartbreak, whether due to untimely death (cancellation) or qualitative decline. To their own disappointment, fans may soon realize that the man they elected to transform the country for the better instead accomplished the very opposite. Only, by then, it will be too late.
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