Donald Trump, Londonderry, NH
President Donald Trump campaigns at Pro Star Aviation in Londonderry, NH, October 25, 2020. Photo credit: © Keiko Hiromi/AFLO via ZUMA Press

I went with an open mind and came away with both insight and concern.

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We all need community. To feel loved, cared for, and wanted. To feel we belong. Unfortunately, that need is eminently exploitable. 

As I walked into a Donald Trump rally last April in Manchester, NH, I reminded myself that some people had warned me I’d be walking into a loud, chaotic, and possibly dangerous environment — quite different from the rallies of other candidates I had made it a point to attend

My mom dropped me off (I was 15), and I immediately met a friendly older woman, dressed head to toe in MAGA attire, all red including 5-inch red heels. She laughed as we shared stories on the way over to the line (no Trump rally without a line!). 

“They are amazing,” she told me, referring to the nearly two dozen rallies she had been to. We turned the corner into a cascade of music, chants, talking, laughing, and shouting. It was a carnival atmosphere with people selling all sorts of Trump-themed paraphernalia. One of the trucks even had a 12-foot Trump blowup doll waving in the wind. 

My newfound friend told me her story in the hours we were together in line among thousands of Trump supporters. She was a Carly Fiorina-turned-Trump supporter because “he is honest — he says what he thinks and does not hold back.” 

She thought Antifa stormed the Capitol on January 6, and thought that Trump was a better president than Abraham Lincoln. She was kind and engaging and introduced me to her dozens of friends there, and within an hour I was solidly in a large friend group. Just by showing up to a Trump rally, I realized that I had been accepted into a vibrant community where people felt included, loved, and heard. 

Craving Community

Research shows that a sense of community is crucial to well-being. Many of us find community through our neighborhood, church, or school, or through activities such as volunteer work or sports. Standing there that day, I realized that one of the most sure-fire ways to find community is to show up at a Trump rally. 

That day I tried to listen deeply without judgment to my new rally-going friends. I recognized a common theme in their stories: The majority of MAGA voters feel marginalized in their political and social lives and they find immediate and powerful community at Trump rallies (if a Trump rally were a cup of coffee, it would be instant and it would be strong). This basic human need for community goes a long way towards explaining Donald Trump’s strong and unwavering base of support. 

The deep-rooted division in American communities and social lives is real and frightening to many people, so it is not surprising that they seek echo chambers that reinforce their own political and social beliefs while attacking the other side’s “radical ideology that is destroying our country.” 

The Pew Research Center found that “many Americans hold deeply negative views of those on the ‘other side’ of politics.” That research shows just how exploitative “Us versus Them” politics can be. When used effectively, politicians and parties can build a strong base of support to fight the “other.” 

Even at the level of a 16-year-old’s interactions, I see that divisive politics permeate all aspects of modern social life. I have friends who are forced to choose between voicing what they believe or having a social life in school — and social life almost always wins. But will these reluctant conformists eventually become disenchanted with the community that can’t accept them and will they be the next generational wave at a Trump-like rally? 

A Born Entertainer

The need for community explains a lot, but why Donald Trump? As I realized after attending these rallies, people have always underestimated how important his strange charisma is to his success. At least among his followers. As with any cult of personality, MAGA’s full weight sits on Trump’s charisma. 

Most politicians try to work the crowd; many find it awkward, but for Trump it is second nature. A born entertainer, when Trump comes out on stage, he gestures and points at individuals in the crowd and makes them feel rewarded, heard, and valued. Together, “Team Trump” unites to undermine and fight the “corrupt establishment” and the “deep state.” 

Trump’s supporters would go to hell and back for each other and for Trump, and Trump’s colossal charisma engenders the belief — never put to the test — that he would do the same for them. 

Interestingly enough, members of MAGA can have diverse opinions when you talk to them outside of MAGA events. But the rally erases those divisions. I witnessed a true groupthink atmosphere — people do not want to disagree on anything. One person says something — anything — and then the rest of the people there nod fervently in agreement. 

For me, one particular scene from a MAGA rally stands out. Forty-five minutes before Trump was coming to speak, a buzz went around the crowd that a “6er” was in their midst (the term MAGA supporters use to refer to those who stormed the Capitol on January 6). The supporters immediately found her in the crowd, surrounded her, and praised her for her valor on “that day.” 

To me, this seemed a disconnect, as pretty much everybody had already told me that the FBI had set up the storming of the Capitol or that it was Antifa that had stormed. But here we were praising a MAGA for storming the Capitol, who was clearly not FBI or Antifa. 

I knew not to question this, as everyone else seemed to accept it. This groupthink atmosphere around MAGA gatherings is extremely beneficial for Trump because, without it, varying perspectives would be created that would gradually erode the community and create divisions within his movement.

War or Welcome?

What — aside from a signed red MAGA hat (worth $2,000 on eBay), a firm handshake, and a selfie — did I gain from a personal experience of MAGA rallies and the enduring solidarity of MAGA voters? I gained both insight and concern. 

Society functions well only if we get people in communities to communicate and compromise. Open dialogue is crucial for enlightenment, understanding, and progress. Without listening and without placing ourselves in communities with the “other,” we risk living as a deeply divided nation incapable of effective and efficient governance. Worse, we will live apart from and without each other. 

Signed, MAGA hat

Quinn’s signed MAGA hat from New Hampshire Trump rally. Photo credit: Courtesy of Quinn Mitchell

Of course, some people feel strongly that the only way to keep their own mental health is to shun “toxic” people. Yet does shunning MAGAs or shunning “the woke” or “the libs” really give us better mental health or a community that thrives and includes? 

Often what we think works or makes us comfortable doesn’t help. Shunning others who don’t share our political views “works” to keep us from having to deal with the “other” or to listen to their real concerns and troubles. It abdicates responsibility for our failing political and social life. 

What we are doing in gravitating solely to our own tribal enclaves may work for us in the short-term — sometimes satisfying pressing psychological needs — but it doesn’t help. Indeed, it takes a major toll on our politics. 

We need to show up. Not necessarily at a MAGA rally as I did — although I survived and it was a great learning experience — but we need to show up for our communities and our democracy with open minds and with respect for the needs and perspectives of others.

Many may find my urging naive, and indeed many on both sides have already decided that we’re past the point of conversation, open-mindedness, and respect — past the point of no return. Decided that the only thing to do is whup the “enemy” at the polls, or even in the streets. 

Our overheated politics — much of it driven by political extremes and dark, doomsday rhetoric such as you’d hear at a typical Trump rally — makes it easy to forget that the vast majority of our day-to-day interactions are not political but social. You encounter — at the store, a restaurant, on the sidewalk, in the car next to you at a stoplight — a fellow human who, by appearance or insignia, you size up as a political “enemy,” not of your tribe. Is it entirely lame to think that a friendly smile or some small courtesy or kindness — mine, yours, theirs, everyone’s — is the foundation on which we rebuild our future? 

Yes, beyond such simple gestures and signals, conversation is almost impossible when the participants are grounded in utterly different realities and worldviews, with seemingly no points of intersection. Call me quixotic, but difficult is not impossible, civil war is not inevitable, patience and understanding may yet be rewarded, and the effort is still worth making.

Quinn Mitchell is a 16-year-old high school student with a strong belief in participatory democracy. More of his views can be found on his podcast Into the Tussle. We’re excited to report that Quinn will be writing on US politics, youth engagement, the 2024 election, and other topics for WhoWhatWhy throughout the year.


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