Illustration by Erin Taj

Moving Back South in the Year of Trump

What it’s like when your old childhood friends turn into Trump lovers

“He’s basically Obama,” a moustachioed older man told me, referring to Louisiana’s newly elected Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards. It was last November, and the man was attending a post-election party for my father, a Republican who had just unsuccessfully run for a judgeship on a state district court. I arrived back in my home state just in time for election night, after leaving behind Los Angeles, where I’d spent the past six years.

It took me a moment to remember that in Louisiana, a reference to the 44th President was almost never a tip of the cap; almost always a flip of the bird. This time was no different. The mood in the room was heavy. Heads were hung low over Coors Light bottles and blended red wines. The disappointment of their friend losing a local District Court election was compounded by seeing a man with a (D) next to his name celebrate victory for the state’s highest office.

“Why do you say that?” I asked the mustachioed man, pressing him to clarify Edwards’ similarities to Obama.

“Well, I saw on TV they said he likes Obama, and he’s gonna kill the oil business.”

I pointed out that the governor-elect had brought up bolstering Louisiana’s oil production throughout the campaign, which, along with his pro-life stance, would make many on the left deem him a Republican. The man looked back at me quizzically until I asked if he’d have preferred Edwards’ opponent, Senator David Vitter, who was infamously connected to a Washington, D.C. prostitution ring.

“Shit, he’s just as bad,” the man replied. “We need somebody like Donald Trump.”

My pulse began to race. Of all the insane situations and right-wing proclamations I’d prepared myself for in anticipation of moving back to Louisiana, I still never fully prepared for a full-throated love-fest over The Apprentice star’s presidential bid. I thought about my born-and-bred California wife, blissfully unaware of what was to come as she drove with our dogs and her mother on their way to our new home. Would spending time around ardent Trump supporters make her break down and demand we high-tail it back to Southern California? Would she blame me for dragging her into the ninth circle of hell? I also wondered, how would she react when she saw me getting into face-to-face fights about politics on what would likely be a near daily basis?

For the past six years, I’d been able to relegate my political rage exclusively to the digital realm, trolling former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s tweets almost daily and replying to a smattering of late-night posts from my Southern conservative friends, usually with Snopes links. It’s come to mean only one thing when I get a status notification from Facebook after 9 p.m.: that the combination of a half-bottle of 12-year-old Macallan’s and two hours spent listening to Sean Hannity make the case for a “glorious wall” on our southern border can be a toxic mixture. But those angry moments normally faded fast with a new photo of someone’s Caribbean vacation, or the 300th engagement announcement on my newsfeed. Confronting Trumpism in real life was more difficult and visceral.

I don’t know if the man could see the internal war raging inside my mind, but he must have, because almost on cue he steered the conversation toward common ground. “I think we gotta get rid of Les Miles,” he offered, referring to the LSU Football Coach, who was on thin ice with the university at that time.

An olive branch. A rescue float. I reached for it and held on tightly.

“I’ve been wanting to get rid of Les Miles since 2011,” I replied.

The man took a sip from his longneck. “He doesn’t know how to call a game, or manage the clock. This is shit eighth-grade coaches can do.”

It is, and he can’t.

I took a deep breath to enjoy the relief of tension. We spoke for three more beers about the state of our beleaguered football team. It was an interaction that reminded me that, while perhaps this man and I didn’t agree on much politically, at the end of the day, we seemed to have more in common than did he and Donald J. Trump, the “billionaire” from Queens.

Still, these interactions with dedicated supporters of the Republican nominee only mounted in frequency as my days back in Louisiana added up. Several months later, for example, I ran into an old friend from college at the new Ace Hotel in New Orleans, who giddily proclaimed that this election was going to be a Trump “landslide” and that we would finally be ridding “ourselves” of the “Socialist Kenyan Muslim,” who, in his mind had hijacked control of the Oval Office from “real” Americans.

It’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between my conservative friends who are just enjoying being trolls and those who are totally sincere in their support of Trump or disdain for Clinton, but there was a relentlessness to his insistence. I rattled through the most recent list of Trump gaffes, but he stood undeterred. I asked, “What could Trump say that would make him lose your support?”

“Nothing.”

I tried to write that interaction off as an especially dedicated, theatrical troll; this particular friend always had a flare for the dramatic. Even if he was serious, I thought, he had to be an outlier. After all, poll after poll had shown that Trump’s strongest support came from non-college-educated whites, whereas many of my conservative friends have college degrees and are hardly “working class.” Most are air-conditioned 9-to-5ers who wear anything but a hard hat to work (an office, not a job site). They’re not the guys who are showing up at Trump rallies yelling “Get ’em out!” about immigrants; they’re unwilling to admit that supporting Trump’s policies amounts to racism in any way.

No one fits this description better than “Jeremy,” one of my best friends from college. “Fuck Jeb Bush,” Jeremy told me this fall, chewing on scotch-soaked ice cubes.

We were sitting in his extravagant new outdoor kitchen looking back at the huge four-bedroom house he owns in the Houston suburbs. I wondered what someone so successful, living mere miles away from where George H.W. Bush began his political career, could have against the Bushes.

“He’s a loser, thinks because his dad and brother were president, he’s entitled to it. Fuck him.”

I was shocked. I’d only heard him say things like that about Obama and the Clintons. To hear it about Republican royalty was astonishing. At that moment I knew that Trump wasn’t going away. And in the months since his Bush rant, Jeremy’s support for Trump has been unbreakable. Nothing The Donald says can lower the mercury. It’s “the media” or “the establishment” trying to take him down when something bubbles up to zeitgeist status.

“Just look at his kids; people don’t raise kids like that if they’re a lunatic. They’re like robots. I love it.”

I wish I could say that in the seven months since I’ve been home — and after all of Trump’s daily fuckups — things have changed. But they haven’t. Basically everyone I talk to, no matter their background or wealth, has at least one thing in common: Each of them believes that “too much political correctness” is destroying the country. They’ve been apoplectic about the impact of social media and how it can destroy people’s lives in an instant for saying something they believe, or even something they just spouted off. The constriction of what Southerners feel is their right to “say what needs to be said” is driving them up a wall. And Trump is the only one offering an antidote for that affliction.

So just as warm, moist basements are ideal for breeding mold, the political and media conditions of our country were primed to grow a fungus like Donald Trump. People in the South have been hungry for a leader who “says what he thinks.” They wanted someone who could not only withstand the attacks from the media and political elites, but someone who grew stronger from them.

Everyone else, of course, thinks that the near-constant exposure of Trump’s contradictions, inconsistencies and ignorance will eventually cause his supporters to hit a breaking point. But I’m here to tell you it won’t. Southern Trump supporters are like a starving survivalist stumbling on a basket of bread. And the rest of us are like the comfortable campers asking if they know the bread has a lot of carbs.