Trump Haters Turned Trump Voters

Illustration: Zohar Lazar

Karyn Olson did not want to vote for Donald Trump. If you had asked her just a few days ago, she would have said she was done with him. A 57-year-old retired government worker from Bristol, New Hampshire, Olson did not want Trump to be the Republican nominee for president because she did not believe he could beat Joe Biden, or whomever the Democratic Establishment decided to install as its candidate for the 2024 election, and more than anything, she did not want another four years of Democratic control of the White House.

For a long time, Olson was willing to tolerate Trump’s personality, which she did not like, if it meant the country would be shaped by his policies, which she did. But she thought he had frittered away the presidency through an ego trip of a reelection campaign, and his “super-base” of supporters, increasingly animated by a dark religious fervor that was freaking her out, had staged a riot on government property over the results, and even if Olson did believe the contest was “rigged,” she could not endorse violence, and what she saw that day made it much harder to abide the former president’s ugly quirks.

She had been planning to be in Washington, D.C., herself to rally against Nancy Pelosi in 2021, but in the days leading up to January 6, the tone and content of the posts she saw from Trump supporters gave her pause. “Over time, I had joined different Trump groups, you know, Women for Trump, Bikers for Trump, all this stuff. I didn’t like a lot of what was being said in the groups,” she said. “Someone posted a picture of a guy, shirtless, with an underage boy — it was creepy — and they said, ‘This is Chief Justice John Roberts.’ And so I commented, like, ‘That is not Chief Justice John Roberts’ — it just wasn’t. It wasn’t him. And I included a picture of the justice and then I got this pack of people responding, like, ‘You’re a pedophile!’ That’s what they do. I was like, Yeah, I don’t want to be a part of this. I’m just going to not do that. I canceled my flight and hotel.”

By last year, around the time Trump landed on a schoolyard taunt for the governor of Florida, who was until recently his main rival for the Republican nomination, Olson was halfway out the door.

“I didn’t want Trump to run at all,” she told me. “I felt like he should stay in the background. He could have been like the father of the party, an adviser to other candidates.” She shook her head at the naïveté. Trump, she knew, was unwilling to cede the spotlight and would never entertain the idea that anyone else might have a better shot at beating Biden in November. It was not his nature. “His ego is just the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It’s beyond.”

“‘DeSanctimonious’ — that bothered me a lot. Still does. I don’t like the name-calling,” she said. “You’re not just saying that to him. You’re attaching that to his children. That can be lasting. That’s something that, in a few years, when they’re in school, other kids could tease them about their last name. Like, grow up, stop doing that. You can attack people without making fun of their name.” She had been talking fast, and now she stopped to take a breath. “Think of who has their name made fun of.” She raised her eyebrows and burst out laughing. Her name is Karyn. “It’s very personal! Any time someone uses that trope against me, they’re off my Facebook page. Like, Bye!

She liked that DeSantis is a veteran, and she thought he seemed like a good executive. During the pandemic, her son was working at a restaurant in Florida, and when the shutdowns took effect and the unemployment system crashed and he didn’t have any income for two weeks, she called the governor’s office. “They resolved it for him in 24 hours,” she said. That impressed her. “That’s competence,” she said. “Even though he was polling so low, I was going to vote my conscience and throw away my vote to DeSantis. Which is not like me. I’m a strategy person. I’m not stupid. But I was going to do that.”

Then DeSantis dropped out, leaving her with only Nikki Haley and Trump as options.

She hated Haley — whose adolescent girlboss posture struck her as both anti-feminist and too reminiscent of Hillary Clinton for comfort — more than she disapproved of the former president. (Incidentally, she found herself bartending at Haley’s Primary Night party. Haley “didn’t mingle,” she noted, and the evening was over much earlier than those working the event would have liked.) “I wasn’t happy, but it was like, This is what you’re going to do,” Olson said. She spoke in a deep, commanding voice and pounded on her chest for effect. She was going to suck it up. She was going to vote for Donald Trump.

At campaign events leading up to New Hampshire’s Primary Day, Trump and his campaign surrogates promised the new administration would prioritize historical revision and revenge. At the Saddle Up Saloon in Kingston, a woman cried out, “When are we gonna learn the truth about January 6th?” J. D. Vance, wearing a bright-red MAGA hat, said that investigating “the truth” about the insurrection would be “one of the most important things” on Trump’s agenda once he was back in power. In Hollis on Monday afternoon, Donald Trump Jr. told me the indictments had backfired on Democrats by motivating people who were once “politically agnostic” to support his father in defiance of the “extreme nature” of the “deep state.” “They get it,” he said. “They realize they’ve been duped and lied to for far too long, so I do think it’s helpful.”

Fortified by the snow, by the subzero temperatures, by the dawn of the New Year, with his improbably bronze visage and long black overcoat, Trump emerges, resurrected, not as the great hope of the Republican Party, because what even is the Republican Party now and who even cares about the Republican Party now, but as the great hope of a movement that is branded, as he prefers, with the Trump name.

As he declared victory, Trump divided his attention between the horse race, where he galloped past his rivals with glee, and his political persecution. He left New Hampshire for a court date in New York before returning to declare victory on January 23, winning by 12 points. In Iowa, the result came down in his favor 30 minutes after the polls closed. In New Hampshire, the election was called as soon as the polls closed. He devoted the entirety of his speech to bitching about Haley, who, unlike Chris Christie, Doug Burgum, DeSantis, and Tim Scott, has so far refused to drop out and clear the path for his nomination.

“I find in life, you can’t let people get away with bullshit,” Trump said. “I don’t get too angry. I get even.”

You are at risk of developing the impression, standing in the forest of TV cameras and boom mics that sprout at the back of these kinds of gatherings, that this is what it’s all about. That the fans who arrive in team regalia, studded with rhinestones, speckled with sequins, cloaked in bastardized, Trumpified American flags, nervy and rude in the model of their savior, represent the electorate. But most of the Trump voters I spoke to in New Hampshire were more like Olson — ambivalent and disappointed with their options (“politically agnostic” to borrow Trump Jr.’s term). In general, these were not people inclined to spend a weekday afternoon listening to a suspiciously energetic Matt Gaetz ramble on about the “deep state.” Like most Americans, they were not obsessed with the candidate they voted for.

If the projections for a general election less than 300 days away are to be believed, the result could depend on voters, like Olson, who are inclined to offer Trump redemption. In most head-to-head polls, Trump beats Biden by between one and eight percentage points. In polls that factor in Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other third-party candidates, Trump is ahead by something like ten points. The willingness of people like Olson to give Trump a second chance, then, is more bad news for Democrats, who will need to find a way to attract voters outside their base (if not Olson, people vaguely like her) if they want to secure a second term for the president.

I first met Olson in February 2020 when I happened to park my rented Jeep next to her Volkswagen a few blocks from the state capitol on Main Street in Concord. At the time, she worked for the New Hampshire Liquor Commission as the supervisor in the accounts-payable department, about a 30-minute commute from her home in rural Bristol, and in her spare time, she volunteered for President Trump’s reelection effort. The back window of her car was covered by a big TRUMP-PENCE sign, which is how we got to talking. When I returned to the state in September, she invited me over, and for several hours at her kitchen counter, where she showed me the semiautomatic rifle she keeps in a drawer, she explained how a former precinct captain for Teddy Kennedy’s 1980 presidential campaign became the kind of woman who bulldozed through a crowd of protesters outside a MAGA rally with both middle fingers raised in the air.

The daughter of a butcher and a secretary in Massachusetts, Olson was once happy to swing across the party divide based on her independent assessment of individual candidates. She supported Bill Clinton. She had “a soft spot” for George W. Bush. She didn’t vote for Barack Obama, but she respected him because he was the president and she was an American and respecting your president was just the patriotic thing to do. But she hated political correctness, which she first felt creeping into her life in the 1980s, when she worked in social services and all of a sudden the word retarded was considered a slur rather than a medical designation. “I started to figure out that liberal thinking was about changing the names for things but not really changing things,” she said.

More and more, she worried about illegal immigration. She was not xenophobic, she said, and she was not against helping people in need. She cooked dinner for a homeless man at her house and then sat with him all night while he had a schizophrenic break, convinced he was being followed. She was tough and adventurous. She rode four-wheelers over sand dunes. She traveled the world. She liked to meet people from different cultures. She bartends, so she maintains a certain conversational agility, ready and able to talk to anybody about anything. She is a mother and a grandmother. She is tattooed and she has guns and blonde hair and she loves America, but she rejects the idea that she is some kind of caricature of an “America First” voter. She just happens to believe in the rule of law, she said, and she couldn’t understand why the government would allow undocumented migrants to cross the border in such high numbers to live and work when U.S. citizens cannot afford to get by here with dignity despite playing by all the rules.

She is almost certain that she will be supporting Trump in the general election. To consider voting for a third-party candidate, she would need to be persuaded that it would not be a waste — or, worse, functionally a vote in Biden’s favor. “It would have to be a wave where it’s just like the whole frickin’ country has just found this person that they love.” She thinks Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is “a nice person,” though she worries he is too liberal on the climate, but even if she were convinced of the wisdom of his policy ideas, “I’m not going to say, ‘RFK’s nice; I’ll vote for him,’ if he can’t beat Biden and Trump.” She doesn’t like Joe Manchin, who this week announced plans to visit Georgia and South Carolina as he continues to play chicken with a No Labels presidential campaign, because “he has no balls.” She does love Harold Ford (“the token black guy on The Five”) and would vote for him if he were running for president, but he is not. “I would not throw my vote away in the general election,” she said.

So the best decision Olson believes she can make with the information she trusts about the choices before her is the same one she made before. She isn’t happy about it, she said, but she is resigned to it.

She let out a heavy sigh. “I could even see myself going to work on the Trump campaign,” she said. “Not for Trump. Against Biden.”

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