What Trump Supporters Think When He Mocks People With Disabilities

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Last weekend, I stood among thousands of Donald Trump supporters in a windy airfield, watching them watch their candidate. I traveled to the former president’s event just outside Dayton, Ohio, because I couldn’t stop thinking about something that had happened one week earlier, at his rally in Georgia: Trump had broken into an imitation of President Joe Biden’s lifelong stutter, and the crowd had cackled.

Mocking Biden is not the worst thing Trump has ever done. Biden is a grown man, and the most public of figures. He does not need to be babied by other politicians or members of the media. Trump disrespects all manner of people, but he had notably avoided mocking Biden’s stutter throughout the 2020 campaign. No more.

This is bigger than Biden, though. Stuttering is a genetic neurological disorder—one that can be covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act, one that 3 million Americans have. Trump may or may not know that, but he certainly knows that having a disability is something both Democrats and Republicans experience. Scores of Trump supporters are older, and are therefore more likely to be disabled themselves. Most everyone can think of at least one disabled friend or family member, a person they wouldn’t want taunted by a bully on the dais.

On Saturday, as we awaited Trump’s arrival by private plane, my colleague Hanna Rosin and I spent the day wandering the grounds of Wright Bros. Aero Inc., asking rally attendees uncomfortable questions about what they’re comfortable with. Virtually everyone was bothered by specific examples of Trump’s recent bullying. But as they unpacked their thoughts, they continually found ways to excuse their favored candidate’s behavior. Many interviewees repeatedly contradicted themselves, perhaps because of a particular variable: I’m a person who stutters, and that day, I was asking real people how they felt about Trump making fun of stuttering.

A married couple from Dayton, Todd and Cindy Rossbach, were waiting in a long, snaking line to take in their sixth Trump rally. “He’s the best president I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Todd said. “Probably Reagan comes in second.” I asked him if he had seen Trump’s comments during the Georgia rally, and specifically, if he had seen Trump imitate Biden’s stutter. He saw it all. “I think he’s got every right to do whatever he wants to do at this point,” Todd said. “The level of, uh, cruelness, may seem tough, but they’re being very cruel with him, so it seems justified.”

His wife spoke up. “I disagree, because I think when you make fun of people, it just makes you look bad,” Cindy said. “It’s not the Christian way to be,” she added a little later. “I just feel like it makes Trump look bad, when he’s probably not a bad person. But he is just stooping to their level, and I don’t like it.” Nevertheless, neither of them felt that Trump could do anything between now and November to make him lose their vote.

Farther back in line was Cheryl Beverly, from Chillicothe, Ohio, who said she works locally trying to get children out of homelessness. Beverly shared that she has a learning disability and has trouble spelling. Even as an adult, she’s regularly ridiculed. “It does hurt my feelings at times,” she said. She acknowledged that it’s hard to “see a lot of people make fun of people with disabilities,” and pointed to the risk of suicide and addiction among members of the community. “We’ll just go in a dark secret hole and not come out,” Beverly said. Yet she also said she still planned to vote for Trump this fall. She was able to separate Trump’s taunts from her personal feelings by chalking his behavior up to politics. If a child asked her about Trump’s belittlement, she imagined that she would liken it to playing a game: “You’re just finding a way for you to become the winner and they become the loser,” she offered. “It’s just trash-talking.”

Near a food truck inside the venue, I struck up a conversation with a woman from Cincinnati named Vanessa Miller. She was wearing a T-shirt that read Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President, and a dog tag inscribed with the serenity prayer. She hadn’t seen, or heard about, the clip of Trump mimicking Biden. “Trump is a good man,” Miller said. “He’s not perfect. Biden is not handicapped. He’s just an ass, and he does not care about this country.” She went on, “If Trump made fun of Biden, well, like I said, he’s not perfect, but it wasn’t about a disability. It was about how he has made this country dysfunctional, not disabled.”

A bit later, she told me that “Biden doesn’t stutter; he’s mentally incapable of running this country.” But then she did something surprising: She reached out and grabbed my arm in a maternal fashion. “And I feel what you’re—I feel what you’re saying,” she said, acknowledging my own stutter. “People that are unkind to people with disabilities, it’s shameful. It’s awful. Absolutely disgusting. And I guess I understand that, like, in an election, you know, it gets ugly, and elections get competitive, and people say things, people do things.”

I unlocked my phone and showed her a video of Trump’s stuttering impression. She turned her focus to the mainstream media in general. She said that “for the press to inflame and use disabilities to get people riled up is exactly what they want.” Nothing would stop her from voting for Trump.

This pattern continued in nearly every interaction that day: skepticism, a momentary denouncement, then an eventual conclusion that Trump was still a man worth their vote. A woman named Susie Michael, who runs a Mathnasium tutoring center, told me, “I don’t appreciate the making-fun-of part, but he doesn’t have to be my best friend. He just has to do the best job for the country and for me. So I have to overlook that, because everybody has their good points and their bad points.”

Shana, a special-education teacher from Indiana who did not give her last name, told me, “​I would still support him because I feel like people make mistakes. They say things they shouldn’t say. And I feel like God is the judge on that, you know, and that we’re to forgive him.” She noted that if Trump were to mock Biden’s stutter at this rally, she’d be inclined to write him a letter saying that “everybody was born of God and that we shouldn’t be making fun of anybody.”

Saturday’s event was hosted by the Buckeye Values political-action committee, ostensibly in support of the U.S. Senate candidate Bernie Moreno. But Trump, of course, was the real draw. Moreno, who last night won the Ohio Republican primary, was merely among the president’s list of warm-up speakers, alongside South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, Senator J. D. Vance of Ohio, and Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio.

When Trump’s plane touched down on the runway behind the stage, the dramatic electric-guitar instrumental from Top Gun played over the loudspeakers. Because of the wind, the teleprompters were swaying, making it nearly impossible for Trump to read his prepared remarks. So he went off script and rambled for about 90 minutes. “Hey, it’s a nice Saturday, what the hell, we have nothing else to do,” Trump said. Most of Trump’s rhetoric vacillated between aggrieved and menacing. He called migrants “animals” and warned of a “bloodbath” next year. (The latter comment came after Trump was talking about the auto industry, though some intuited the remark to refer to political violence.) Trump didn’t bust out his schoolyard mimic of Biden’s stutter this time, but he did repeatedly attack the way Biden speaks. “He can’t talk,” Trump said.

People began filing out long before Trump finished speaking. When the event was finally over, I loitered by one of the merch tables. (A selection of that day’s T-shirt and sticker offerings: Joe and the Hoe Gotta Go, Jihad Joe, Trump’s face on Mount Rushmore, a cartoon Trump urinating on Biden à la Calvin and Hobbes.) One man, a union worker named Joseph Smock, told me that he’d been “red pilled” eight years ago after seeing the effects of illegal immigration in his native California. (He now lives in Dayton.) Unlike many other attendees I spoke with, Smock fully acknowledged Biden’s history with stuttering, rather than dismissing it as a media invention or a political ploy for sympathy. He characterized Trump as someone with a “hard slant.” When, like Biden, you’re in the big leagues, he said, Trump’s “going to hit you, and if he sees a weakness, he’s gonna go for it. Some people like that; some people don’t.”

A man on an electric scooter, Wes Huff, rolled by with a big grin and his wife, Lisa, by his side. Wes told me that this was their first Trump rally, and that they thought it was “awesome.” Wes is disabled—he has dealt with diabetes and kidney failure, and is missing five toes. He shared that all of his siblings are also disabled. He hadn’t seen Trump’s clip from a week earlier. I asked Huff a hypothetical question: If Biden made fun of a rival for using a wheelchair—someone like Texas Governor Greg Abbott—would he find that offensive? “Yeah. Oh yeah,” he said.

But then our conversation migrated back to stuttering in particular. “I actually used to stutter,” he said. He was bullied for it as a kid. He also told me about an old colleague of his who stuttered, who was ridiculed as an adult. Huff was kind and sensitive as he described their friendship, how he would look out for him. “You shouldn’t make fun of disabled people,” he said. He also said he still planned to vote for Trump this fall.

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