It was about 2 AM when the bartender at a Staten Island dive turned up the volume on Fox to hear the astonished newscasters name-drop the deplorables, and then the Brexit. “We’ve never seen anything like this,” the anchors informed us. “It’s a whole country just going, ‘We’ve had it with y’all.’”
I had just been arguing with Jimmy, a 24-year-old with a helmet of slicked-back blonde hair and a satisfied grin. Jimmy had also had it with y’all. He jumped out of his seat and across the bar to flag down another beer, caught up in the moment. Though he told me earlier he hates Trump, Jimmy did vote for the guy: “If we weren’t such sheep then we’d have someone better than a moron and a murderer,” is the way he put it. Though I don’t agree on all the particulars of his analysis, I do see where he’s coming from.
Jimmy’s a businessman himself, he told me proudly; he has a business degree and works in accounting. “Obama, Dubya, Clinton”—he counted them on his fingers—none of our leaders have been men who move money around. Maybe, he said, we should just try a change of leadership and “see how it feels,” as if this were a middle-management shakeup or a second date. Or maybe, he suggested, we should have all just refused to vote. But of course we didn’t. Jimmy cast his ballot, and I did too, and less than an hour from this moment Trump will be named the president-elect.
Spending the evening in one of New York City’s only Republican strongholds felt like a better idea at 8 PM on Election Night than it did by the time I started talking to Jimmy. I had a map of the handful of pubs I wanted to visit, and a plan. Around dinnertime a crew of retired guys who’d been drinking together since grade school put a Budweiser on their tab for me. We were in the oldest bar in the borough. The pot-bellied seniors suggesting they voted for Hillary did so without using her name. “Usually I don’t talk politics with a drink in front of me,” a Vietnam vet in aviator glasses leaned in to say. “But I have eight grandchildren, and I’m afraid for the world we’ll leave them with.” As I walked towards the door he told me he was glad I was an American, to which I replied, awkwardly, “Thank you, you too.”
At my next stop, around 9 PM, I found slimy pizza on the table and green Christmas lights snaked between bottles of booze. I pulled out my notebook and wrote that the bar was between a Chinese restaurant and liquor store. I wrote down that Obama was running up the national debt, but not that the guy who thought that tried to explain what debt was to me. I wrote notes on the dudes in matching black shirts and star-spangled Make America Great Again hats—they were arguing about whether “Proud to be an American” is too slow and for pussies. (It wasn’t; they played it on the jukebox twice.) It was still pretty early, but they were doing shots of Jameson, and one said he’d only talk to me if I brought more girls to the bar. I wrote down that there were no girls there, except for me.
Actually there was one other woman, the bartender. She was middle-aged, tiny. Her hair and her eyeliner were exactly the same color: jet-black. As she slid me some peanuts she glanced at the TV and said she hasn’t been this nervous about a presidential election, ever. When she was in the Air Force politicians came to the base in Colorado year after year, but she was usually unimpressed. The most intense electoral feeling she’s ever had, up until now, was about Bill Clinton: “I have no use for Bill.” When he reduced the force she was “involuntarily separated.” Now she’s a carpenter by trade: “When he gets in, I want to help him build the wall,” she told me. I wrote down everything she told me, because it’s my job, but also because I was supposed to be writing a story about what it was like in the Republican bars when Hillary Clinton became the first female president.
Innumerable words have been typed in the last year on the subject of Trump supporters, that curious demographic that lives somewhere out in middle America, nebulously furious, perpetually underemployed, and uninterested in what horrific truths lurk inside Trump’s baggy suit.
But as we learned on Election Night, there are far more of them than even the most conservative of news outlets could have projected. They aren’t just the fringe elements of the United States, the cloak-carrying members of the KKK making bombastic appearances in the pages of the New York Times. Instead they are white people making between $50,000 and $250,000 a year and white people who consider themselves religious. They are white women, who out of a perceived sense of persecution (or shame) kept their political affiliations silent until they woke up, yesterday morning, in Trump’s America.
Some of these people live on Staten Island, a historically GOP-friendly borough and one of New York City’s least racially diverse, where select counties went as hard as 90% for Trump in the primaries and where the city’s “Blue Lives Matter” bill, which would make assaulting an officer a hate crime, was first drafted. Nearly a fifth of Staten Islanders work for the city. Its suburban streets are home to a high density of cops and firefighters, many of whom, once retired, open dive bars and hang up photos of 9/11 first responders or NYPD killed in action. Fred Trump built property here. Older residents will recall that as a boy Donald hung around Staten Island during the summer, working for his pops.
Staten Island is the city’s version of white suburbia, a microcosm of the half of America that cast its ballot for Donald Trump. Its politics are quiet and suburban; its bigotry is quiet and suburban, too. You might not have realized how sympathetic its residents were to cops until the investigation of Eric Garner’s death-by-chokehold a few years ago, or that they believe that "the Mexicans get drunk and start trouble” until a local paper went right out and asked.
In the affluent neighborhood I spent the night in, there were no roving bands of Trump supporters to photograph, no crosses burning in lawns, just SUVs with 9/11 memorial license plates and dudes in bars playing darts. I walked by the immense T-for-Trump sign, roped off by twine on a residential street. The “Staten Island Militia” was not there to protect it, as its owner suggested there might be, just a closely cropped lawn and some floodlights.. Through the window it appeared that the family was on the couch, watching the election results roll in.
I went to Staten Island on Election Night for the same reason I’ve been seeking out young Trump supporters for months. In part it’s a grotesque fixation, an object lesson in the smug remove of the media when it comes to dealing with the right. It’s shocking to watch these BBQ-and-beer, “I wouldn’t say white Nationalist” clubs go mainstream; there’s a Williamsburg-ified version, an alt-right group called ProudBoy, headed by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, in New York. I didn’t understand the new lines being drawn at all. I, like everyone, wanted to find the reason these people, people who dressed and talked and looked like me, could be so unbearably wrong.
When I talked to a guy in his early thirties, a web designer, on Election Night, he said he voted Obama twice but this time he went for Trump. He told me Republicans were idiots and that it was “pathetic” people believed that Benghazi nonsense. He was probably trolling me but the cognitive dissonance nearly broke me in half. “These idiots get all their news from Fox or Wikileaks,” he said, taking my lighter to spark his cigarette.
Around 10 PM I followed my map elsewhere. The place I found myself in was a lot like the place before it. It was set into a storefront in a strip mall—similar crowd, same drink specials, just some white people hanging around and playing darts. I kept writing down what was said to me, but I kept getting distracted. The results were flashing across the TV screen. I thought maybe the biased media was overdoing how close the race was.
I was talking to a retired member of the NYPD, ex-Navy, who worked with the guys responsible for Eric Garner’s death—”right over here,” he pointed vaguely through the wall. He believes in small government on a federal level. He’s “not here for anyone’s anti-immigrant rant.” As a business owner he gets taxed too much. He’s a nice guy, pro-union, voted Trump, of course. I wrote down what he said, until he told me there was a real epidemic of civilians killing cops, at which point I stopped writing, because that is a fucking crazy thing to say.
Ex-Navy and I argued about federal oversight and I caught a car elsewhere. My driver’s name was Jordan; he immigrated here from China almost a decade ago. At first he wouldn’t tell me who he voted for, but once I told him I was writing a story, he told me the “illegals” are making it harder for everyone else. He voted Trump before he came on the clock. I didn’t write that one down; there was no way I'd forget it.
At my last stop Jimmy the businessman was holding court with his buddies; he’s clearly the politically-minded one. The rest of them, boys in hoodies with beards, quietly smirked into their beers. From across the bar a girl, having found out I’m a writer, yelled at me to keep her out of it. She didn't want me twisting her words. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t trying to, but I found myself too occupied by Jimmy, who was telling me that businessmen like Trump tend to surround themselves with good advisors. I disagreed, and it was late, and I told him how wrong I thought he was. The bartender looked at me disapprovingly. When I went to the bathroom to collect myself someone wrote “eat a dick” in my notebook. My friends started texting me from another bar in another borough; they were also jumping out of their seats, but where they were it was a different sort of scene.