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Hillary called us ‘deplorables’, Biden calls us ‘fascists’, but Trump calls us ‘Americans’

Hillary called us ‘deplorables’, Biden calls us ‘fascists’, but Trump calls us ‘Americans’
Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Dayton International Airport in Vandalia, Ohio, on 16 March 2024. (Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images)

On a journey to the Yukon, the author meets some of the tens of millions of Americans who will vote again for Donald Trump. Conversations with them were either fascinating or utterly bewildering. It was as if they had mistaken the Book of Revelations for an all-encompassing Baedeker Guide to Life.

The other night I had dinner with an old friend – a fellow journalist with whom I covered the Rwandan genocide. We have had many passionate and thoughtful conversations over the years, so naturally our talk turned to the upcoming US elections and the genuinely frightening thought that Donald Trump may be elected.

“I just don’t understand how anyone can vote for Trump,” I said despairingly.

My friend looked at me. “That’s a failure of imagination on our part. We need to ask: ‘What experiences have they had; what pain do they feel to make them believe this way?’”

It struck me that he was right. I can’t say I find it easy to imagine why anyone would vote for Trump, but I have a haunting memory of a trip to Alaska in the mid-1980s where I met the kind of people, in this case men, who are the likely Trumpists of today. I wrote down my impressions in a large wire-bound notebook and almost forgot about them until I was jolted into thinking about them by that conversation with my old friend.

What I have is not a clear-cut line connecting the past and Trump today. It is not a sociological explanation of how America got to where it is now. But it is a small portrait of a few of these people, a way of humanising them.

Trump may very likely win the upcoming election in the States. I am one of those who believe a Trump victory will be a disaster for America and for the world. But interrogating that terrifying reality and its political implications is not the point of this article.

A colleague, award-winning author Craig Higginson, says the writer’s job is always to hold onto “the willingness to try to understand”.

Sharing these memories is to provide a starting point for the reader, and, crucially, for myself, on a path with a deeply troubled heart, but with the understanding of the need to hold open the willingness to try to understand.

‘Where ya headed?’

I was standing at the rail of the ferry boat from Seattle harbour to Skagway, Alaska. It was an early autumn morning, a half hour or so after sunrise. A cold mist drifted off the steel-black surface of Puget Sound and rose to meet the clouds hanging low over the city. Across the bay, grey tatters of fog clung to the corners of skyscrapers.

I turned to see who was talking to me. It was a man of about 70; he was small – considerably shorter than me. He had a tiny, wrinkled face with a triangular goat-beard hanging off the edge of his jaw. His eyes were fierce behind a pair of square, black-rimmed glasses. Pulled down tight over his skull, he was wearing a green and grey wool ski-cap with a red bobble on top.

Standing next to him was a young man in his thirties with blond hair and a full, thick blond beard.

“Where ya headed?” the old man asked again.

“Skagway,” I told him. He picked up my foreign accent immediately.

“Where’re you from?” he demanded.

“South Africa.”

“Which country?”

“South Africa.”

“I know that!” he said, glaring at me from behind his thick lenses. “But which country?”

The younger man interjected. “South Africa’s a country, Pop. You know, it’s the one they’re always talking about on the news.”

“Never heard of it. Must not have been talking about it as much as you say.”

“They have been, Pop. You just haven’t been paying attention.”

The old man stared rigidly ahead, refusing to look at his son. He jabbed his hand out in my direction.

“Name’s Joab Galens,” he said at me. “From Red Bluff, California.”

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His son put out his hand, too. “Bill Galens,” he said. We shook hands. For a few moments we stood at the rail watching the morning rays of sun slowly burn their way through the fog. Beneath us, the decks of the ferry started to vibrate.

A loud blast from the ship’s horn bounced over our heads and ricocheted among the concrete supports of the freeway that ran along the edge of the harbour. The sound frightened a few seagulls picking for scraps of food in the rubble under the roadway. They screeched and fled across the bay, cutting half circles in the air as they rose haphazardly into the fog.

I was excited. I was on a ship bound for the starting point of the legendary Klondike trail. I had the cheapest ticket available, and I was going to be sleeping outside under a perspex canopy on the deck in the Alaska cold. I was an aspirant young writer paying homage to Jack London; following his footsteps and, I hoped, something of his style, into the Yukon.

He had intense, wounded blue eyes brimming with a mixture of hurt, genuinely-nice-guy, and complete bewilderment at the way he had found the world to be.

The ferry shuddered and drew away from the dock. I turned back to the rail and stared back at the city flowing away from us, eager to drink in what I could of the moment.

“Got yourself a took?” Joab’s voice scratched the air behind my ear.

I turned to face him. Bill Galens interjected.

“He dudn’t know what a took is, Pop.”

“You need a took,” Joab said to me, ignoring his son.

I laughed embarrassedly. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Joab glared at me. He yanked the woollen ski cap off his head, revealing wisps of snow-white hair against a nut-brown scalp: “This is a took. You gotta have one of these if you’re going up north. It’s too cold without one. You lose too much heat from your head.”

“He’s right,” Bill Galens said.

“Sure, I’m right,” Joab snapped. “You better get yourself one at Ketchikan.” He paused, and scowled at me. “Shoulda bought yourself one in Seattle, it’ll cost you at least twice as much in Ketchikan.”

“Nice visitin’ with you,” said Bill Galens. “Talk to you later.” And the two of them wandered off across the deck.

Alaska is the last American frontier. It takes a special type of person, often an eccentric adventurer, to make it there. There were very few women on board, it was mostly crowded with rough, burly men munching hamburgers and drinking machine Coke at all hours of the day or night – even at a glance one could see that they were exiles from mainstream American society.

They were divided into two basic groups: The younger ones were spinoffs from the Reagan Eighties. Holden Caulfield wannabes who wore bandanas and heavy metal T-shirts, but who were pissed off because they couldn’t afford a Walkman.

The older group were 30-something-plus refugees from Vietnam and the burnt-out ends of the Sixties. Wanderers mostly, who had failed to get a passing grade on the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test; wandering souls who, in a moment of fateful madness, had dived head-first Off The Bus and had found themselves limping along the side of the road ever since.

All day we sailed through endless expanses of unspoiled wilderness where millions of acres of pine and spruce came down over the peaks of the mountains right to the very edge of the sea. Far above us, clouds touched with mauve and lead floated in a blue sky that stretched down from the top of the world.

Quite often, a tiny dot of brown and white would flash in the sky high above us. Slowly and effortlessly, it would spiral through the thin layers of air down into the flutter, stretch and leisurely long glide of a bald eagle riding a thermal into the folded crannies of the fjords and inlets along the coastline.

Despite being the national bird of America, the bald eagle is seriously endangered. On the ferry one day, Joab and Bill and I set ourselves the task of counting every eagle we saw. By evening we totalled 56 circling down out of the sky. Occasionally we would see moose and elk standing in a clear patch in the forests on the coastline; or our ship would disturb a flock of waterbirds paddling on the swells, and they would fly up in huge, wing-beating flocks and disappear into the protection of the trees. 

One day she come in an’ tell me that she’s in love with a girl and they’re goin’ off together to San Francisco.

Then there were the whales. Mostly humpback, but there were other species too which I couldn’t identify.

It wasn’t only Joab and Bill I met.

Jimmy was 24 years old with chiselled features, pale porcelain-white skin, thick black hair. He had intense, wounded blue eyes brimming with a mixture of hurt, genuinely-nice-guy, and complete bewilderment at the way he had found the world to be. Jimmy was from a town in southern Illinois – the dividing line between the old industrial North and the old agricultural South, the border between the mindsets of Dixie and the Union.

This unresolved conflict showed in Jimmy’s speech and his strange up-and-down accent that was midway between the “good ol’ boy” southern twang and the nasal whine of the industrial cities of the Great Lakes.

But what struck one most about Jimmy was his son, Hank. The two of them looked so similar that each was almost a clone of the other. Hank, too, had the soft black hair, the blue eyes, the pale skin. He was four years old, but small for his age, and he looked about two. Most of the time, Hank clung to the stained and ripped pant legs of his father’s Levis, peering up at the world with his eyes so like his father’s – overflowing with fear and wonder at the world and with a craving to be able to trust it.

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At night, the two of them slept together on the deck in Jimmy’s sleeping bag and in the morning they would be the first to wake. We would see the two of them standing at the ship’s rail in the morning cold. Jimmy holding onto the rail with one hand and holding his son’s hand in the other. The two of them looking out onto the forests and glaciers that slipped behind them as the ferry made its way northwards.

Jimmy smoked pot. He would take the joint guiltily, playing nervously with his son’s hair, but visibly relaxing as the smoke filled his lungs and he told his story: “One day she come in an’ tell me that she’s in love with a girl and they’re goin’ off together to San Francisco. She didn’t want no discussions about it or nothin’, just upped and gone with that dyke – said I could have all the things in the apartment – fuckin’ A, bitch – now I’m a rich man. ‘What about him?’ I ask her.”

He points to Hank.

“She didn’t say nothin’, she just starts crying and then she walks out the door…”

And then breaking off, embarrassed and worried, conscious of how ill-equipped he was to be a “good father”. And yet all of us looking at him, and seeing his love and his fear and not knowing what to say or how to tell him that he was braver and stronger than he thought he was.

Things had gone from bad to worse for Jimmy. He lost his job working in a hardware store and then he “heard you could make some money packing fish in Alaska, and I gotta get money for him, you know”.

So, he had come, because there was nothing else for him to do.

I remember listening to Jimmy and feeling the autumn cold creep through our down jackets and listening to the hum of the motors before someone else started telling a joke or some story of his own. He was angry and hurt and resentful of gay rights, and nothing someone like me could say would change his mind. Still, he had a story to tell – one of fear and of hurt.

Bill fancied himself as a nature photographer and he was constantly hanging over the rail of the ferry pointing an old 8mm home movie camera with a tiny, fixed-focal-length lens at the glaciers that slipped by, or at a pair of dolphins that might have been plunging in and out of our wake.

Their world was a surreal blend of fears, joy, love, religious awe, good common sense, crazy half-baked theories gleaned from right-wing pamphlets, and fascinating tales of their lives and travels around America.

It was the sort of camera that had been built in the late 1960s for suburban housewives to film their babies’ first attempts to feed themselves, and there was absolutely no possibility of getting usable footage out of it from the distance he was away from his subject. Bill enjoyed himself enormously, though – “maybe I’ll sell some pictures to National Geographic one day, and they can use them in one of their wildlife documentaries that they put on television.”

“I never want to go to Russia,” Bill Galens said to me one day, after we had spent a couple of hours exploring Sitka, the old Russian capital of Alaska, when the ferry docked there for a morning. “That’s what’s at work in your country – the communists. They want to take over all that gold and diamonds and everything you got there. I read about it in a pamphlet sent me by the John Birch Society.”

The John Birch Society is one of the most rabidly right-wing organisations in the world, and their pronouncements on international affairs are something I could hardly take seriously. I said as much to Bill.

“You got it all wrong,” he replied. “The John Birchers are being persecuted and discredited by the communists and the satanists.” 

Joab and Bill were my look at an America that is largely incomprehensible to most outsiders. It is a cosmos of devils with horns and tails who inhabit the vinyl tracks of Beatles songs. But it is also a world with angels in the new BMW (“the Lord wanted me to have it”), and miracles to be witnessed on TV – a type of electronic medievalism. It was a worldview to which Joab and Bill subscribed wholeheartedly.

I have to say this, though, they were good people. Unlike the televangelists who fed them this diet of fantasy and self-gratification, Joab and Bill were not concerned with materialism. They took their Bible and the injunctions of their Lord seriously.

The world they inhabited was a surreal blend of fears, joy, love, religious awe, good common sense, crazy half-baked theories that they had gleaned from right-wing pamphlets, and fascinating tales of their lives and travels around America.

It was as if they had mistaken the Book of Revelations for an all-encompassing Baedeker Guide to Life, the Universe, and to the back roads of “these here United States”.

His politics were scary, but there was something wise, even spiritual, about him, his integrity, and the way he lived in the world.

Conversations with them were either fascinating or utterly bewildering, usually the latter. Bill would switch, almost in mid-sentence, from telling you an anecdote about backpacking through Montana and finding Indian arrowheads lodged in the walls of an ancient log cabin, to outlining an elaborate scheme by a secret cabal of Jewish bankers to take over the world and telling you how, when it happened, this would be the signal that “The End Days” had come.

The way he said it, with such conviction and seriousness, you almost got goosebumps down your arms.

Bill was divorced and his mother was dead, so he and his father shared a trailer home in central California. I never quite worked out what either of them did for a living, but it probably would best be described as “a little bit of this and a little bit of that”. They were not rich, and their ability to be content with their own lives was their greatest strength.

Joab’s greatest joy was his garden.

I’ll never forget one of my last conversations with them just before we reached Skagway, when Joab told me about the fruit he grew back home in California. His own personal speciality was growing cherries.

He explained in great detail how he cultivated and pruned the trees. How he mulched them in the winter and then, when spring came and they flowered in all their glory, he would wait for the precious red fruits to grow.

And then, Joab’s face lit up with pure joy, and his eyes gleamed with excitement from behind his glasses as he told me about the simple glory he found in his prized fruit.

“Pick them cherries,” he said excitedly, “and put them in the icebox for a time and when you take them out, and eat them right off the stalk, they’re better than any candy you can buy in a store.”

Well, there was no gainsaying that, and a part of me still wonders just how delicious Joab’s frozen cherries were. His politics were scary, but there was something wise, even spiritual, about him, his integrity, and the way he lived in the world.

Out of the ranks of people like Joab and Bill and Jimmy come the Trumpists of today. While I was working on this article, I read on the internet a comment that resonated with me when I thought back to them: “Hillary called us ‘deplorables’. Biden calls us ‘fascists’. But Trump calls us ‘Americans’!”

It’s a simplistic, angry slogan that reduces complex arguments to a propagandistic outcry – one that, like all propaganda, contains within it a grain of truth.

There are tens of millions of fellow human beings who believe Donald Trump is their saviour. Even if he loses the election, they will still play a huge part in the future of our world. We should try to understand them. We should try to find some way to respond to the joy they find in their gardens, and not focus entirely on the fear they feel about the way the world around them is changing.

I’m not even sure understanding them will bring about a better world, but I do know that if we don’t try, then we, too, have failed as human beings. DM

Hamilton Wende is a South African writer and journalist who has worked on a number of television projects and films for National Geographic, CNN, BBC, ZDF & ARD, among others. He has published nine books based on his travels as a war correspondent in Africa and the Middle East, and two children’s books. His latest thriller, Red Air, reflects his experiences with the US Marines in Afghanistan.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John P says:

    The sad thing is that these people truly believe in Trump, that he loves them as Americans and will give them a better life. Will they ever realise that he is just a con artist in it for his own gratification? Probably not, much like the rural peoples of South Africa. The King is always great and always good.

  • John P says:

    The sad thing is that these people truly believe in Trump, that he loves them as Americans and will give them a better life. Will they ever realise that he is just a con artist in it for his own gratification? Probably not, much like the rural peoples of South Africa. The King is always great and always good.

  • Steve Daniel says:

    So beautifully written – such wonderful use of language to articulately describe a chance encounter with other fellow travelers in a disparate world – very well done and Thank You.
    On another plane however I do wonder why so many on one spectrum so painfully, obviously, to the left of center (once so fashionable but now in decline) bemoan the reality of the much vaunted Ideal of Majority Rule. Surely, that lofty Ideal holds true, still ?
    Will the people not have spoken if indeed they are the Majority of the vote regardless of who they then have elected to lead ?

    • Rodney Weidemann says:

      You are aware that neither Trump, in 2016, nor Bush Jr in 2000 were elected by a majority – both elections saw them losing the popular vote by several million….

  • Steve Daniel says:

    Majority Rule – so simple, so easy, so moral, sooo tragic. If only…

  • David Walker says:

    Beautifully written and full of wisdom. Thank you.

  • ST ST says:

    There are people I for 1 could do with not reading about or seeing their faces, one of them we have know about because they are in our country…JZ. But putin trump…no thanks. Once in a while or even never-yes, twice in one day. No. Unless something extraordinary happened. There’s a lot going on in SA..no shortage of news.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Never occurred to our minds that we will behave like a lost generation, years were spent building order in societies around the world, when that seemed close to being achieved we revert to a chaotic world order, but if you strictly follow the financial gain everything makes perfect sense, America will be great again stuff the rest.
      We will be hearing that very soon.

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