CINCINNATI, Ohio – “Make America Great Again” hats abound at Trump rallies, including the first stop on Trump’s “Thank You” Tour in Cincinnati. That hat is red and worn by men, and those men span the ages of 12 to 82. But there’s a different Make America Great Again hat — white, with blue embroidery — that also pops up. Usually on the sort of guy who wears white hats in his real life — which is to say, a combination of the prep and the frat boy.
Wearing a white hat, after all, means that you’re not afraid of that white hat getting dirty. And the vast majority of men I’ve seen wearing white Trump hats complete the outfit with a remarkably similar uniform: no facial hair; fitted, but not tight, jeans; stylish suede tennis shoes (Nike/Vans/Chucks); vest and/or softshell jacket.
It’s a look, but like all looks, it’s a class signifier. They’re not poor, they’re not uneducated, they’re not working class. They’re not all the things many people believe true of Trump supporters. They use language like “fact-check” and “safe space.” They know that Trump’s probably not going to build that wall and admit that he’s had to compromise on the promise to “lock her up.”
They’re not that different from the guys you went to college with: They’re in fraternities; they’re engineering majors; they’re figuring out internships for their senior year. They read Infowars and Breitbart; they love “The Donald” subreddit — but they don’t necessarily consider themselves part of the "alt-right," a term they feel has been hijacked by the mainstream media and has come to connote something that they themselves are not.
Because these Trump Bros do not think of themselves — or their beliefs, or the beliefs of Donald Trump — as racist. In fact, it was the mainstream media ascribing them with that label — of racist, of bigot — that made them go underground. “I’m that guy that pollers missed,” David, a 21 year-old student at the University of Kentucky, told me. “When the media started calling Trump supporters racist, when my friends started saying that anyone who supported Trump was racist, I just stopped talking about it. Became invisible. But then me and a bunch of other invisible people voted for him.”
Now, those briefly invisible people — white, straight, male — have returned to visibility, to reclaim and fortify the power that had never actually left them. And they’ll do so in part by publicly distancing themselves from the attributes of Trump’s party that have been framed as deplorable.
While liberals have recently railed against the “normalization” of Trump by the mainstream media, guys like this have been doing the work of normalizing Trump far more effectively for weeks. Because of their educational and socioeconomic privileges, the vast majority of these men have the tools to convince others that their beliefs and Trump’s, by extension, are normal: not extreme, not radical, not bigoted.
When I first met Chandler — not his real name — he was sitting in the front row of US Arena, with his arms over the backs of the chairs around him, his legs spread wide. He has the look and bearing of a frat guy mixed with a car dealer: jovial, large-bellied, confident. When I saw him later in the evening on the auditorium floor, he was holding court with a small group of friends, the life of the conversation.
“I’ve been a supporter since Trump came down on the escalator,” Chandler proudly told me, referring to the president-elect’s announcement of his intention to run for president on June 16, 2015. A few months after that, Chandler found his way to r/The_Donald, a Reddit section, or subreddit, whose membership now tops 300,000.
“Back then, it was just five or ten thousand,” Chandler explained. He loves Reddit (other favorite subreddits include “Old School Cool,” one that colorizes old historical pictures, and a few that he said he didn’t want to tell me) but had never been involved in any political forums. “The Politics subreddit is run by flaming liberals,” he said. “They’re cancer.”
Through his early involvement, Chandler became a moderator, or “mod.” (Most subreddits have two to six mods; The Donald now has nearly 50). That’s why he doesn’t want his real name used here — he even uses a different handle online, as many mods like to maintain anonymity as much as possible.
“We think of The Donald as a 24/7 rally,” he said, which is why they don’t allow nonsupporters within. If you’re curious about Trump, or want to ask questions about his policies or debate, there’s Ask_The_Donald. (Recent questions include: “Do you guys all hate Hillary?” and “Are you guys happy with all these super rich people?”)
Chandler thinks The Donald subreddit — not Infowars or Breitbart, the two online news organizations cited as catering to the white, nationalistic movement often referred to as the 'Alt-Right' — is the future of the Trump movement. “We’re our generation’s Drudge,” he said. He’s referring to the Drudge Report, the lo-fi, tabloidy website that has led the right-wing “independent” media since the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
According to Chandler, Drudge is for old people — the ones who look like what you think a Trump supporter looks like. The Donald is for people like him, people in college, people who know how to use HTML, how to backchannel, how to Slack, how to make memes. “We have mods of multiple ethnicities, sexualities, nationalities,” he said. “A lot of them are in their thirties, work in corporate, have families. The youngest is around 16 or 17. We have women. We’re not who you think we are.”
Their community is, however, behind some of the most vile abuse and harassment on Reddit. Members of The Donald have doxxed, trolled, and threatened moderators and redditors; they’ve manipulated the “upvoting” function to dominate Reddit’s home page, a collection of the most popular/upvoted posts often referred to as “the front page of the internet.” As a result, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman recently announced that Reddit would prevent posts from The Donald from appearing on the front page.
“Did you hear about what happened?” Chandler asked me, referring to Huffman’s comments. “We’re not worried. We’ll find another way.”
Chandler said he “dabbles” in cable news — he watches Sean Hannity, and maybe Tucker Carlson, from time to time — but his main source of news is The Donald. He reads Infowars but thinks it’s “hilarious.” “Alex Jones, you know — this is stuff you shouldn’t always believe.” The idea that Michelle Obama, for example, is actually a man — a theory forwarded by Infowars — that’s ridiculous.
“You’ve got to fact-check, you’ve got to have media literacy of some sort,” Chandler said. He and the rest of the members of The Donald are also cognizant to just how skillfully Trump is manipulating the media. “Take the flag-burning tweets,” he said. “They’re clearly just a provocation. He’s a master. He and his team are playing five-dimensional chess.”
Chandler recoils at the label of “fake news,” a term for stories, memes, and videos, widely circulated on social media, that make unfounded, misleading, or otherwise disingenuous claims. “[Places like Infowars] touch on things that the mainstream media won’t touch,” he said. “It’s not fake news, just stuff the left doesn’t want to see.” (The vast majority of fake news is news that is simply unsubstantiated or patently false. An Infowars post claiming that 3 million votes had been cast by undocumented immigrants — which has been shared 51,000 times on Facebook — was based on report to VoteFraud.org that does not exist and a tweet that cites no evidence.)
But Chandler also thinks that Facebook, where so much fake news has circulated, is to be avoided: “Facebook turns into an echo chamber,” he said. “It’s not meant for news.”
On The Donald, Chandler is outspoken about his support for Trump. But it’s a different story on the University of Kentucky campus, where he’s finishing up a degree in IT, and where the overarching attitude on campus remains anti-Trump. “It’s fun to wear a Make America Great Again hat and see what people say to you,” he said. But he mostly keeps his beliefs to himself, or at least within the boundaries of his fraternity. “Frats and sororities are right-leaning,” he explained. “So we’ve made our own little safe space on frat row.”
Chandler has liked what he’s seen from Trump thus far — like so many at the rally, he was very pleased with the deal Trump had made with Carrier to keep 1,000 jobs in the United States (even though 1,100 jobs are still headed to Mexico). But he’s also begun to shift some of his expectations. When it comes to the billionaires Trump’s recently appointed to his cabinet, Chandler said “it might not be draining the swamp — but it’s stirring the swamp.”
When it comes to Hillary Clinton, he recognizes that it’s out of Trump’s power to actually “lock her up.” “It’s not his job, it’s not his responsibility,” he said. He also thinks the wall will be the greatest test of his ability to follow through on campaign promises — even if it’s unrealistic. “If he backs away,” he said, with a chuckle, “he’s gonna look like an idiot.”
Other college-age students I spoke to were dubious about Trump’s larger promises. Nicholaus, an 18-year-old high school senior, had driven 90 minutes to the rally with a friend. “I don’t think he’ll actually build the wall,” he said. “That just seems excessive.” More likely, to his mind, was more security or tightening immigration.
Nicholaus, who had voted for the first time in this election, didn’t even think Trump was going to win. Thinking back on election night, he started laughing at just how surprised he was. Like other men I spoke with, he’d taken to hiding his support before the election. He lives in the small town of Maysville, Kentucky, and attends a private Catholic high school; there are other supporters in his neighborhood and in his class. But when he posted his support for Trump on Facebook, his extended family “went against” him. “And I didn’t want to break those relationships, so I just stopped talking about it.”
Three students from Dayton told me the same thing — on their campus and on their Facebook feed, they were surrounded by anti-Trump rhetoric. “I never spoke my mind,” Matt, a freshman, explained. “It wasn’t worth it to get into it.” But they’d driven the hour to Cincinnati to watch their candidate speak his.
On the arena floor, David — a quick-smiling, nicely dressed 21-year-old with a small American flag sticking out of his backpack — was milling around the crowd by himself. He said he’d just come from his internship at an information systems company and was ready to stop staring at Excel spreadsheets. He, too, had been surprised that Trump had won, but was happy that he’d done it without outside money. “The conflicts of interest do worry me,” he said. “He needs to separate himself from his businesses. But I’m heartened that he’s waived his salary as president — that says something.”
Looking forward, he’s most concerned about bias in the media. “They didn’t regulate what they were saying,” he explained. “And when you throw out information and label things as racist, well, that divided me from my friend group. So I just shut up and voted Trump.”
He’s stopped using Facebook, because it became too heated, but also because he wants to get out of the echo chamber. He’s started going to Infowars: “It’s goofy,” he said, with a laugh, “but they announce their bias. And that means that I can then question that bias.”
“I do my own fact-checking — I go to CNN, and see what they’ve said about something, go back to Infowars,” he told me. “But Infowars needs to change. If you post crazy stuff all the time, it’s like the boy who cried wolf: When you actually post something that’s crazy but real, then no one’s going to believe you.”
A guy in an Oxford shirt finishing up his time at an internship isn’t the stock image of a guy who reads Infowars. That guy looks more like Jacob, a freshman at the University of Cincinnati who was wearing an American flag–themed sports jacket and a soccer scarf knitted with Trump’s name. Jacob has blazing blue eyes and a wiry build that reflects his frenetic energy. “The night of the election, he didn’t sit down once between the hours of 8 and 4 a.m.,” his friend Justin told me.
If David's the guy in your econ class who never said much but always gave off a conservative vibe, then Jacob's the guy in your politics class who wouldn't shut up. He still has a 13-foot Trump banner outside his house. He’d been to five different Trump rallies and had already been interviewed by five different news outlets at this one. Jacob radiates Trump. He had polished lines about how he liked Trump because he “wasn’t part of the establishment.” He was wearing a significant amount of cologne. “He’s like a celebrity,” Justin explained.
Jacob comes from a family of liberals — his parents are Hillary supporters — but he’s always thought of himself as conservative. “In high school, people would say that I was just repeating the politics of my parents. No way. These are all mine.” Whether it was being away from them or reacting to the rhetoric of his professors — all of whom, he said, are incredibly liberal — he’s gone deep into the world of Trumpism. He listened to every Trump rally online; he’s become a regular consumer and producer of Trump YouTube videos. He revels in his new community, which he’s recently followed to Gab, the “digital safe space” for members of the alt-right who’ve been banned from Twitter.
He doesn’t think of himself as racist, but as part of the new media that’s righting the wrongs committed by the mainstream faction. “I go straight to the source,” he said. “Trump’s tweets, Trump’s words, Trump’s speeches. And then I talk about them myself in my videos.” He argues with his professors, especially the ones who teach English. “They all want to talk about feelings," Justin interjects, "how Trump has made people feel."
Jacob recalls a moment, earlier in the semester, when a professor had challenged the class to write a persuasive thesis statement about Donald Trump. “I got up there, in front of a class of 600, and I wrote this thesis about how the media has framed Trump’s views as racist by focusing only on parts of what he’s said, and the entire class started cheering,” he said. “The teacher just walked out in humiliation.” (The author was unable to confirm this story; however, all freshman English classes at the University of Cincinnati are capped at 23).
Jacob has no doubts about Trump’s future. He thinks they will, indeed, prosecute Hillary. He thinks that Trump’s cabinet appointees are outsiders — just billionaire ones. He thinks he will build the wall. He thinks Infowars and Alex Jones is the future, a future in which he, himself, will be a leader. While we were speaking, a woman two rows down interrupted us. "I'm so glad to hear you boys being so passionate," she said. "You're our future!"
Trump supporters like Jacob are the easily recognizable, and decried, manifestations of the alt-right. Today, he has the passion and commitment of a college freshman. Time might slightly mellow his enthusiasm — or transform it into something more socially palatable like Chandler’s, who cloaks, sophisticates, or otherwise hides the more garish and objectionable parts of his politics from others.
“We are an alternative to the Mitt Romneys and the Glenn Becks,” Chandler told me. “But now the media has started saying ‘alt-right’ and combining every mention with racism. I’m not a Republican. I’m a Trumpublican. And we’re the new right.”