On Jan. 6, 2021, supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol Building. They beat police officers, attempted to harm duly elected officials and threatened to overturn a fair, democratic election.
If Trump was a more capable autocrat, they may have succeeded.
But, all of these actions seem antithetical to Trump’s proclaimed message of defending the U.S. and staying loyal to its democracy. So why then do people in East Tennessee still support a man who wanted to uproot nearly 250 years of American ideals just to stay in power?
The answer is populism, the political approach of appealing to common people and uniting them against elites or other threats.
Donald Trump is a brand. He has mastered a vague yet highly targeted message and led a misinformation campaign appealing to nationalism, nostalgia for a mythical near-perfect past and Evangelicalism. He used broad terms that resonate with conservative beliefs, such as freedom and family values while vilifying an establishment that supposedly wants to take these principles away.
East Tennessee has been a stable republican region since it formed a loyalty to the Union during the Civil War, but this does not explain its attraction towards the modern-day GOP.
Trump has constantly spoke about Christian values, playing into Evangelicals’ disgust towards abortion and LGBTQ rights to create rock-solid support in rural communities where church is very important. East Tennessee, being a rural region in the Bible Belt, has routinely cited these theological reasons for being staunchly Trump.
Yet, Trump has consistently shown a lack of real interest towards religion, famously using the Bible as a prop in a photo-op at St. John’s Church during the George Floyd protests. This act was denounced by numerous religious leaders, including the bishop who oversaw the church. Trump’s messaging is so effective, however, that many still see him as the defender of Christian values in Washington.
Trump also encourages ultra-patriotic displays, leading his supporters to create flags, car decorations and clothes adorned with images of guns, male bravado and even icons of Trump with a Schwarzenegger-like body. His use of the American flag and phrases like “Make America Great Again” reinforces nationalistic tendencies in everyday people who have grown up in conservative regions, such as East Tennessee, that teach near-total American exceptionalism.
This leads to their support of vague policies such as the isolationist America First movement, viewing other countries as untrustworthy, if not below the U.S.
Trump also utilizes ordinary people’s the fears and angers to create a fanatical devotion to himself. He purposefully uses vague messaging and misinformation depicting the loss of modern American values because of vague evil enemies. This fear of loss, potential struggles and anger towards those who are supposedly responsible allows Trump to vilify his opponents.
As a result, the polarization of American politics has grown at an alarming rate. Many Trump supporters in East Tennessee now have a genuine disdain and sometimes hatred towards liberals, immigrants and republicans who Trump deems disloyal. They believe these groups are responsible for the loss of the previously “great America” and will continue to endanger their country. This can been seen in the false conspiracy of the stolen 2020 election.
But the great irony is that Trump doesn’t practice what he preaches.
Trump gives big speeches detailing his love for America and his unwavering duty towards defending his country, yet he attacks the free institutions that got him elected and assails the free press.
His attempts to illegally subvert the 2020 election is one of the most traitorous actions any citizen can do. He has willingly eroded the pillars of our democracy, spitting on the Constitution and the graves of all service members who fought for our freedom to vote. When you lose an election in this country, you accept it, move on and try again.
A combination of Trump’s appeals to populism, his exceptional use of misinformation and people turning a blind eye have led him to still having ardent supporters. Many truly believe that he is the “savior” of an otherwise doomed country and the defender of family values. Many others have complicitly allowed him to continue in fear of losing their own power.
But he doesn’t really represent the values of the everyday person. To support Trump is to support a strongman who values his own power in office over the rules of the Constitution and the very ideals of America. Someone who would rather destroy the principles of our democratic system than lose an election.
The American experiment is whether a country conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal can long endure — whether men like Donald Trump can truly put themselves above the law in the quest for power or be held accountable.
Let’s make sure we don’t fail our historic experiment.
Walker Kinsler is a freshman at UT this year studying political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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