In the last spring of the Obama administration, Michelle Obama was delivering her final commencement address as first lady, at City College of New York. Then, as now, the specter of Donald Trump had become the inescapable backdrop to everything. He’d spent the past year smashing every precept of restraint, every dignified tradition of the supposedly kindhearted nation he was seeking to lead. Obama couldn’t help but lob some barely cloaked denunciations of Trump’s wrecking-ball presidential campaign—the one that would soon be ratified with the Republican nomination. “That is not who we are,” the first lady assured the graduates. “That is not what this country stands for, no.”
The promise did not age well. Not that November, and not since.
“This is not who we are”: The would-be guardians of America’s better angels have been scolding us with this line for years. Or maybe they mean it as an affirmation. Either way, the axiom prompts a question: Who is “we” anyway? Because it sure seems like a lot of this “we” keeps voting for Trump. Today the dictum sounds more like a liberal wish than any true assessment of our national character.
In retrospect, so many of the high-minded appeals of the Obama era—“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”; “When they go low, we go high”—feel deeply naive. Question for Michelle: What if they keep going lower and lower—and that keeps landing the lowest of the low back in the White House?
Recently, I read through some old articles and notes of mine from the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, when Trump first cannonballed into our serene political bathtub. This was back when “we”—the out-of-touch media know-it-alls—were trying to understand Trump’s appeal. What did his supporters love so much about their noisy new savior? I dropped into a few rallies and heard the same basic idea over and over: Trump says things that no one else will say. They didn’t necessarily agree with or believe everything their candidate declared. But he spoke on their behalf.
When political elites insisted “We’re better than this!”—a close cousin of “This is not who we are”—many Trump disciples heard “We’re better than them.” Hillary Clinton ably confirmed this when she dismissed half of the Republican nominee’s supporters—at an LGBTQ fundraiser in New York—as people who held views that were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.” Whether or not she was correct, the targets of her judgment did not appreciate it. And the disdain was mutual. “He’s our murder weapon,” said the conservative political scientist Charles Murray, summarizing the appeal that Trump held for many of his loyalists.
After the shock of Trump’s victory in 2016, the denial and rationalizations kicked in fast. Just ride out the embarrassment for a few years, many thought, and then America would revert to something in the ballpark of sanity. But one of the overlooked portents of 2020 (many Democrats were too relieved to notice) was that the election was still extremely close. Trump received 74 million votes, nearly 47 percent of the electorate. That’s a huge amount of support, especially after such an ordeal of a presidency—the “very fine people on both sides,” the “perfect” phone call, the bleach, the daily OMG and WTF of it all. The populist nerves that Trump had jangled in 2016 remained very much aroused. Many of his voters’ grievances were unresolved. They clung to their murder weapon.
Trump has continued to test their loyalty. He hasn’t exactly enhanced his résumé since 2020, unless you count a second impeachment, several loser endorsements, and a bunch of indictments as selling points (some do, apparently: more medallions for his victimhood). January 6 posed the biggest hazard—the brutality of it, the fever of the multitudes, and Trump’s obvious pride in the whole furor. Even the GOP lawmakers who still vouched for Trump from their Capitol safe rooms seemed shaken.
“This is not who we are,” Representative Nancy Mace, the newly elected Republican of South Carolina, said of the deadly riot. “We’re better than this.” There was a lot of that: thoughts and prayers from freaked-out Americans. “Let me be very clear,” President-elect Joe Biden tried to reassure the country that day. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.”
One hoped that Biden was correct, that we were in fact not a nation of vandals, cranks, and insurrectionists. But then, on the very day the Capitol had been ransacked, 147 House and Senate Republicans voted not to certify Biden’s election. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, skulked back to the ousted president a few weeks later, and the pucker-up parade to Mar-a-Lago was on. Large majorities of Republicans never stopped supporting Trump, and claim they never stopped believing that Biden stole the 2020 election and that Crooked Joe’s regime is abusing the legal system to persecute Trump out of the way.
Here we remain, amazingly enough, ready to do this all again. Trump might be the ultimate con man, but his essential nature has never been a mystery. Yet he appears to be gliding to his third straight Republican nomination and is running strong in a likely rematch with an unpopular incumbent. A durable coalition seems fully comfortable entrusting the White House to the guy who left behind a Capitol encircled with razor-wire fence and 25,000 National Guard troops protecting the federal government from his own supporters.
You can dismiss Trump voters all you want, but give them this: They’re every bit as American as any idealized vision of the place. If Trump wins in 2024, his detractors will have to reckon once again with the voters who got us here—to reconcile what it means to share a country with so many citizens who keep watching Trump spiral deeper into his moral void and still conclude, “Yes, that’s our guy.”
This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “This Is Who We Are.”