Standing in an inner-city hotel room on a balmy November morning, she puts on her favourite red floor-length jumpsuit with pearl buttons dotted at the waist. It cost 20 dollars from a local shop, but it makes her feel like a million. She doesn’t usually wear make-up, but for this event, she carefully applies bronzer, eyeliner and berry-toned lipstick.
Ready, she begins the short walk to the venue in the US city of Atlanta, Georgia, known as the birthplace of the civil rights movement. After showing ID to the waiting security, she descends the escalator – and then, she sees it: a crowd of Black people wearing red baseball caps, bearing the slogan “Make America Great Again”, and T-shirts emblazoned with “Black Voices For Trump”.
She takes her front-row seat. Then he swaggers on stage to chants of “four more years” and says, “I’m thrilled to be here to launch our incredible new nationwide grassroots effort. Blacks –think of this – Blacks For Trump, Black Voices For Trump, African Americans For Trump… call it whatever the hell you want, right?” The audience descends into an almost hypnotised frenzy, shouting, “Blacks! For! Trump!”
Cecilia Johnson, in her red jumpsuit, matching the sea of red caps, a 32-year-old author and speaker, is one of them. She isn’t just here as a spectator – she’s on the board of this new organisation, designed to mobilise votes for President Donald Trump in next month’s election. Better still, Cecilia will get to meet the President later that day. The first thing he’ll do during their one-minute meeting? Lean back and say, “Wow, you’re beautiful.”
In the US, the two main political parties are the right-wing Republicans, – the party Trump stands for – and the left-wing Democrats, who’ve brought us Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Cecilia is one of the 42% of US women (that’s 69 million) who voted the Republicans and Trump into office in 2016. But older, white women were the drivers among this number – women under 30 voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, while just 8% of all Black people voted for Trump. This is why Cecilia, a young Black Republican woman, calls herself a “unicorn”.
It was back when Obama was President that Cecilia first found the politics she aligned most with. She read a magazine article that advocated conservative policies and felt herself nodding along with all the main points. Feeling that she had found people she agreed with, Cecilia started attending thousands-strong Republican conventions, where she would be one of only five Black people. “Nobody with my political views looked like me,” she remembers. And although witnessing the rally for Trump felt seismic, she says, there is a stigma around being a Black female Trump supporter: “I am not what people are used to seeing when they think, ‘Republican’. I come from a single-parent household, don’t have a college degree and I like to party.” Her self-ascribed moniker is “hood conservative”.
Trump’s education and prison-system policies are the bedrock of Cecilia’s support – she believes they uplift the Black community. “People spend half their lives locked up for something petty, but in his first year, Trump enacted criminal justice reform.” The move saw the law take good behaviour while incarcerated into account when considering convicts for release; many sentences were retroactively reduced and those affected were assisted with re-integrating into society. Of those who received sentence reductions, 91% were Black. She also cites Trump’s funding for the US’s “historically Black colleges and universities”, and low unemployment figures among Black people, though they began falling during Obama’s presidency. Cecilia’s commitment to the politics that she believes will help Black people is, says Dr Sarah Harrison – deputy director of the Electoral Psychology Observatory and co-author of Inside The Mind Of A Voter – unsurprising. “People are more likely to vote based on education, age or ethnicity than gender. Also, people’s identities have multiple intersections – working-class women, LGBTQ+ women, Black, Asian and minority ethnic women. All of these identities play into the choice somebody makes in the voting booth. The ‘women’ part is the least significant.”
Though they have their critics (and a cynic might say that Trump knows he needs Black voters to win the next election), it’s clear why Cecilia feels passionately about these policies.
But how does she square them with the fact that Trump has a history of racist behaviour – from accusing Obama of not being born in America to funding advertisements calling for the execution of five young Black and Latino men accused of rape, who were later shown to be innocent, and calling Mexican immigrants “rapists”?
“I listen to his speeches in full, not just soundbites,” she says. “What I care about are his policies: say what you want in a speech, but what is your pen doing when you’re at your desk in the White House?” Her belief in Trump meant that when she found herself face to face with him in a conference room, Cecilia was thrilled – even more so to have him compliment her. “I was like, dang!” she laughs.
When I began reaching out to female Trump supporters, I expected tumbleweed, but the women I asked couldn’t be keener to espouse their admiration for the President. And these aren’t fringe extremists or matriarchs dripping in diamonds, but women like you and me. They drink flat whites with their friends, spend Saturday mornings at spin classes and scroll Instagram watching eyebrow tutorials. I expect our conversations to be fraught but – for the most part – we chat and laugh. At times, I feel I could be talking to friends.
Nicole† is a 24-year-old white government worker who realised she identified as a Republican at university but kept it quiet. “Young people assume their peers are also liberal or progressive, so I flew under the radar.” She voted for Trump in 2016 and has become more politically engaged since, listing what she likes about his policies. On abortion: “I’m a Christian and believe life begins in the womb, so I like that he’s pro-life”; on foreign affairs: “He’s strong on China”; on the economy: “pre-COVID, we had the lowest unemployment rate in years.” Overall, Trump’s time as President has exceeded Nicole’s expectations, but she would like him to take racial unity more seriously.
Nicole sounds like a cookie-cutter conservative, but when I ask her how she felt when she heard the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape,
in which Trump brags he could “grab women by the pussy”, her answer is nuanced. “I was disgusted and angry. There’s no situation where that’s OK. But,” she qualifies, “am I voting for someone because I share their morals, or because I think they’ll make decent changes to my country? For me, it’s the latter. I don’t think our politicians need to be our moral compass.” Cecilia adds that she believes the media has “framed” Trump as being “anti-woman”.
As someone who has suffered sexual abuse and assaults, she explains, she doesn’t take the issue lightly but is waiting for proof of his stance – and until then she will stand by him.
There could be some internalised misogyny at play here, but Professor Rosie Campbell, director of the Global Institute For Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, says supporters’ loyalty is more likely to be down to the strength of feeling Trump has engendered among them. “Trump focuses on demonising the other side because it polarises people, strengthening loyalty to him. When we feel like we belong to one side or another, it can take a lot to shake that.” And it seems that multiple accusations of sexual assault (which he denies) aren’t enough.
The dramatic violin strokes and foreboding drumbeats sound like the opening to a Hollywood movie trailer, not a six-minute political video. Then a person appears on the screen. His name is Brandon Straka, a gay man who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but founded the #WalkAway campaign in 2018 to encourage people to leave the Democratic Party and re-elect Trump. His video has 842,000 views on YouTube and the @realwalkaway Facebook group over 387,000 members, one of which is Niecy Torvend. Now in her early twenties, Niecy was in college in 2016 and voted for Clinton because “she was a strong woman who advocated for women’s rights”. She was shocked when Clinton lost and, at the time, thought Trump was “a joke”. Niecy grew up a liberal in a conservative household, with an Air Force veteran father and a schoolteacher mother. “At school, I hung out with LGBTQ+ kids and people of all races. It didn’t feel right to be conservative.” But not long after Trump’s election, 19-year-old Niecy met her husband, a republican former military employee, graduated college and moved to his home state of Alaska. She is now a conservative too.
“I experienced an awakening,” Niecy recalls. Her husband didn’t like Obama because he felt he cut military funding, which made his job harder. In Alaska, she got a job in emergency healthcare, where two “traumatic” experiences influenced her feelings about abortion – one of the key issues dividing women in America, with Republicans identifying, broadly, as pro-life. In college, she was pro-choice. “But what I saw made me see how precious life is.” The first was a baby born prematurely to a mother who didn’t know she was pregnant, who went on to be adopted. Then she saw a father cradling his baby, who had passed away.
She is now pro-life. But how does she feel about abortion in cases of rape or incest? “That doesn’t justify abortion. It’s not the baby’s fault.”
Like Niecy, Cecilia’s personal experiences have also influenced her view on abortion. Her daughter died in 2015, aged three, after being run over by a car. “When I found out I was pregnant, I was upset – it wasn’t part of my plan,” she says. “I never wanted kids so to then fall in love with the experience and have it taken away from me is crazy. Now I believe everybody deserves a right to live. My personal experiences are the biggest influence on how I feel politically.”
Cynicism about the “mainstream media” caused Niecy’s previously liberal values to unravel. “At work, I dealt with the police. But I didn’t feel they treated me differently because I was Black. I started questioning what the mainstream media told me.” Niecy also thinks the media take Trump’s words out of context to make him sound racist. But even if you believe the President himself isn’t racist, a 2018 study‡ showed his election was associated with a surge in reported hate crimes in the US. These include attacks against LGBTQ+ people, whom Trump has also maligned and insulted. How does Niecy feel about this? “I’m on the outside when it comes to those experiences because we rarely have any issues with race.” So there’s no connection between Trump’s electionand increased hate crimes? “There’s aggression on both sides.” Why does she think Black women don’t vote for Trump? “People are ignorant. I know, because I used to be ignorant too.”
Uniting Cecilia, Nicole and Niecy – despite the obvious – is the experience of battling the revulsion of their largely liberal peers. “I didn’t feel like I was living up to people’s expectations of me as a young Black woman. It was lonely,” says Niecy, who found support in “super friendly” conservatives in #WalkAway. “I was terrified of being ostracised by my old school friends and when I started posting about my beliefs, I was.” She put up a pro-life post and a friend whom she considered a role model unfriended her. “Now, I’ve found a new community, but I wish I had long-term friends I could talk to.”
Cecilia, too, has faced anger for her views. She’s singled out at barbecues to debate against 20 others, has been physically attacked and is accused of being a race traitor. Mostly, though, her rarity means she’s treated “like an artefact in a museum”. As a white woman, Nicole isn’t so alone in her status as a Trump supporter,
but is still careful about what she discusses, and with whom.
This extreme hostility is a relatively new phenomenon in politics, says Harrison, whose recent survey found that 38% of US voters feel disgust for those who vote for a different political party. Who’s the main agitator? You guessed it: Trump. “There is a direct link between this atmosphere and the rise of people like Trump, who uses his platform to send divisive messages. That fosters animosity on both sides.”
If we were kinder to one another, we might find we have more in common than our opposing politics – like similar life experiences, struggles and hobbies – something Nicole seeks to maintain with her close friends. “There’s more to our bond than politics,” she says. “At times, I have wanted to block or unfollow friends but every time I’m about to DM them a piece of my mind, I catch myself. It’s not worth it. Listening to people with different views humanises them.”
For every woman who adores Trump, however, there are plenty more who despise him. And his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is ahead in the polls for November’s US election. Amanda Miller, 35, is a former Trump fan whose support is now wavering. In 2016, she believed he was a thin-skinned comic-book villain who nonetheless wanted the best for the US. “Put it this way,” she says, “I liked him as a politician, but I wouldn’t introduce him to my four-year-old niece.” Amanda was “ecstatic” when he won. But earlier this year, discomfort crept in. Trump’s “mannerisms and volatile decision-making” began to remind her of a former toxic boss. She also finds his tweets disturbing, citing a recent incident where he implied an old man who was admitted to hospital after being pushed by police “could be a set-up”. Then he retweeted a video in which one of his supporters yells “white power”. His spokesperson later said he “did not hear the one statement made on the video”. “That’s either horribly lazy or he didn’t care,” says Amanda, who is now considering voting for an independent candidate.
This election won’t be decided by women like Cecilia, Nicole and Niecy, but instead by as-yet-undecided swing voters – the Amandas, if you will. When I ask the women I featured in this piece if they’ll ever change their views, most say Trump would have to do something “really” bad. But, says Campbell, “If separating children from their parents at the Mexican border isn’t bad enough, what is?”
Qualifying with “never say never”, Niecy said she feels comfortable with what she stands for right now. “If you take a spectrum of far-left to far-right, I’m pretty close to the right,” she says. She’s excited to vote for Trump. Nicole is optimistic that Trump will be re-elected, while Cecilia is convinced he’ll win. Are they right? We’ll have to wait until November to find out.
This article featured in the November 2020 issue of Cosmopolitan UK. You can buy the new issue of Cosmopolitan UK now and you can SUBSCRIBE HERE
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