It’s 1988, I’m 12 and Washington, D.C., is losing the crack war. Mayor Marion Barry hasn’t walked into the Vista hotel, yet — in fact, he’s talking to kids at Lincoln Jr. High School where my mother teaches English. He’s sweating so much that he’s got a hand towel on his shoulder and is using it to wipe the moisture from his forehead. It’s all my mother and the other teachers could talk about. I would hear about it as soon as I got home: how Mayor Barry was supposed to be speaking to the kids, but the kids were all talking about how he was sweating. Because when you’ve watched a city devastated by drugs, you are familiar with the sweats. And the scratching. And the nod. It was all symbolic of addiction.
During the 1980s, it was impossible to throw a stone and not hit someone who was either struggling with addiction or had a family member who was a victim of crack. D.C. was “The Walking Dead” before we knew what a zombie apocalypse looked like.
So no one in D.C. who had seen their family or friend’s family destroyed by crack was surprised by the news that Barry was caught in a hotel room smoking rock two years later in 1990. We knew he had a problem. Everyone did. It was a bizarre normal. Barry being an addict didn’t move the needle for those living in the city during this time. In fact, it humanized him. It endeared him to people who believed that if the “bitch” was the government, then she’d also set us up, too.
So it’s no surprise that as more information pours out about former President Donald Trump and his brood that his supporters are growing stronger in force. It’s what happens when a prophet is demonized; his followers believe not only in his rise to power, but in the power of his teachings. Doesn’t matter that a potato could be a better president or that Trump is likely going to jail (shut up, I’m dreaming here), those who love him love him recklessly and with abandon — as I did with Mayor Marion Barry.
He saved my life.
I’ve told this story several times, but I’m going to tell it again. During the summer of my 14-year-old year of uncertainty, I was teased mercilessly about my sneakers. The growth spurt the year before betrayed me. My clothes, all of them were too small and I was starting from scratch. It’s also important to point out here that because D.C. had become zombieland, the crack market created unlikely entrepreneurs. Kids my age weren’t just fresh, they were ridiculously fly. I’m talking about “new sneakers every day” fly. So my beat-up Nikes stood out like a finger painting of a tree taped to a Van Gogh.
It was disturbingly obvious that something was wrong and I wasn’t going for it anymore. That summer I was tumbling between staying on my side of the street and venturing off into the dark economy that had taken over my city, and then I got a job. A summer youth employment job.
I’d never worked a day in my life, but Barry knew something that those living outside the city didn’t: If he was going to compete with the underground hustle of selling drugs, then he had to put money in kids’ pockets. That was really the only way to save us. So he engineered a program that allowed D.C. public school kids to work in all facets of the District government, from the Capitol to sanitation, so that we could see what an honest day’s living looked like. A lot of my friends kept those jobs and were employed once they graduated.
That year, I was picked to be a part of a college leadership program in which a select group of kids got to learn study skills and hear from local entrepreneurs about what it took to make it in business. It was a plush summer job to get paid to learn how to keep dreaming about becoming a success. The last week of the program, we got to stay on an actual college campus. I never told anyone this, but I cried when that program was over because I never wanted it to end. I never felt more loved and encouraged than I did that summer.
So the news of Barry smoking crack didn’t make me hate him. It made me empathetic to his struggle. It humanized just how far up the ladder this epidemic had gone. Most important, it confirmed the one thing that Chocolate City believed before his arrest: that the government was just as corrupt as we believed it to be.
That’s where Trump followers come in. For years, Trump’s been selling one tenet that has become the spine of his success: See the world as I see it, and if anyone tries to tell you differently, they are not to be believed. He spent his candidacy and the majority of his presidency attacking the validity of mainstream media. Whenever anyone tried to point out that the then-president was lying, he’d go on the offense to attack the report.
But there was a pivot in Trump’s mission to subjugate mainstream media outlets. He began claiming that they were not only against him, but were actively trying to “rig” the 2020 election. He claimed that the media was a part of a political “witch hunt” to keep him from being reelected.
This not-so-subtle attack is what led to the mayo-infused insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. And it’s not just because Trump lied. It’s because his followers believed in him so much that they couldn’t see the truth. And as such, they became political pawns in a game of pixelated chess.
Belief is a powerful drug. I know because I used to be hooked on it. I was a full-fledged member of the “Marion Barry was a political prisoner” crowd during his six-month stay in federal prison. I was elated when he was elected to the D.C. Council upon his release in 1992. I was speechless in 1994 when he was reelected mayor. And I was saddened by his death in 2014, despite being a full-on adult with bills in my name by then.
Yes, I knew that Barry was under investigation in 1984 and that he reportedly paid a woman $20,000 to $25,000 to withhold information from a federal grand jury. Yes, I’d heard that the Vista sting wasn’t a setup not to get the then-mayor to smoke crack but actually a plot to kill him. Yes, I knew that the majority of his political work was rife with scandal. But guess what? I didn’t care.
I was more focused on Barry’s political comeuppance than his downfall: the fact that he was the son of a poor Southern family (which included Barry’s father working as a sharecropper and a young Barry actually picking cotton), to his work in the Civil Rights movement, to him being shot during a hostage situation.
So no one had to tell me that the news was fake when it attacked Barry. I already knew it was. Not that the media was necessarily making up stories, but I knew corruption and politics aren’t just bedfellows, they’re cousins. Barry was being unfairly targeted by a corrupt task force that had criminalized crack for both those who sold it and those who smoked it.
Crack smokers and sellers got mandatory five-year sentences for what amounted to a misdemeanor with the same amount of powder cocaine. If you have trouble understanding the uneven penalties for similar drug use, just know this: white people snorted cocaine, Black people used crack. But two things were true both then and now: Barry was a flawed man who was attacked by a flawed system. What white D.C. residents could never understand is that because of his flaws, Barry was one of us. He was the people’s champ and D.C.’s mayor for life.
Trump’s ability to win over his constituents lies not only in their shared racist, misogynist and xenophobic views, but also in his trumped-up (pun intended) wealth. Despite the common misconception that Trump voters are all hard-working middle-class Americans (a bit that’s played up during his countless rallies), Trump supporters are actually just well-off Republicans.
“A March 2016 NBC survey that we analyzed showed that only a third of Trump supporters had household incomes at or below the national median of about $50,000,” The Washington Post reported. “Another third made $50,000 to $100,000, and another third made $100,000 or more and that was true even when we limited the analysis to only non-Hispanic whites. If being working class means being in the bottom half of the income distribution, the vast majority of Trump supporters during the primaries were not working class.”
But Trump’s done the duplicitous work of selling himself as the result of perseverance, when he was handed his fortunes from his rich daddy, while simultaneously marketing himself as a billionaire when he isn’t one. He’s somehow made both the rich and the not-so-rich believe that he’s one of them and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
So the mug shot and criminal charges won’t hurt Trump’s chances with those who believe in him, no more than Barry’s arrest video did his chance at a second term as D.C.’s mayor. Trump’s currently leading all GOP candidates and is the front-runner for the presidential nomination.
This is the magic of cultism, and really, the magic of magic; it’s knowing that a trick is happening, knowing you’re being duped while having no idea how it’s being done, all the while willingly believing that magic is real, even if it’s just for a moment.