The intersection is unremarkable on most days. It sits at the cross of two major thoroughfares in a suburban town in Florida. It’s located on the edge of a large parking lot in a strip mall with a Starbucks, Supercuts, Publix grocery store, FedEx, and some local businesses.
But each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, this intersection transforms into a political battleground. Since July, a group of Republicans have gathered there with signs supporting Donald Trump, flags, music, and attire. The demonstrators are met with honking, waving, swearing, flicking off, fist pumping, and occasionally, they get into shouting matches with the drivers passing by. Months after the presidential election resulted in a victory for Joe Biden in November 2020, this group of demonstrators continues to show up every Saturday in support of Trump and his claims that the election was stolen from him.
Their efforts are a part of a larger social movement known as “Stop the Steal,” which swept the country in the final months of 2020. It became one of the fastest growing groups on Facebook in early November, amassing 320,000 users in its first 22 hours before Facebook shut it down for trying to incite violence. Despite this, the slogan caught on like wildfire as testimonials alleging voter fraud made their way across social media and onto right-wing sites. The message was fueled by President Trump himself, who claimed the election was stolen on Twitter and official White House platforms. As of early December, one poll found that three out of four registered Republicans said they did not trust the 2020 election outcomes. By that time, “Stop the Steal” demonstrations were taking place on the steps of state capitols, outside of elected officials’ homes, and on local street intersections. On Jan. 6, 2021, the day Congress met to certify the Electoral College votes, “Stop the Steal” followers and other Trump supporters staged an armed insurrection at the country’s Capitol. As a result of the attack, five people died and many more were injured. Footage of rioters destroying parts of the building, sitting inside the Senate chambers, and defacing legislators’ offices offered a shocking display of how far the movement had come.
In effort to try to understand those who are sympathetic to Trump’s efforts to undo the election results, I decided to join them. As a sociology graduate student, my lessons in ethnography have taught me to unravel problems by standing in or near other people’s shoes in the hope of explaining something seemingly inexplicable. Unlike those who study people’s beliefs or behaviors without this context, ethnographers try to capture people within their natural setting by participating in their lives. This is how I found myself spending my last four Saturday mornings at this intersection alongside these protesters. I wanted to get as close as I could to observe and learn how these individuals view themselves and the world they were fighting for, as well as uncover more about their beliefs and motivations.
I was nervous about whether I would be able to gain entree into their group and how I might be treated. How would these people react to a 20-something Asian woman who found herself spending an extended winter break in their town asking to join their ranks? How would these white and Hispanic middle-aged to elderly Floridians decked out in MAGA hats, bright red, white and blue apparel, and carrying pro-Trump signs feel about a California native who has spent her adult years living in bastions of progressivism like Berkeley, Detroit, Chicago and Princeton?
“I was nervous about whether I would be able to gain entree into their group and how I might be treated. How would these people react to a 20-something Asian woman who found herself spending an extended winter break in their town asking to join their ranks?”
I would also be wearing a mask among a group that believed COVID-19 mask mandates were the ultimate symbol of government overreach. Each time I joined the protesters, I was one of two people out of 15-20 wearing a mask. The other mask-wearer was Susie, a white woman in her 60s. She was soft-spoken and always carried a little red megaphone slung over her shoulder (though I never saw her use it). She was known for her shirts and flags decorated with provocative statements. Her favorite T-shirt read, “Socialism shits on the faces of soldiers who died for our freedom.”
Shortly after her arrival each Saturday morning, Susie taped up signs on nearby surfaces, including a laminated sign with a Chinese flag with an image of Biden’s face that she posted on an electric switch box at the center of the intersection. During my first Saturday morning at the intersection, she noticed that I didn’t have a flag or sign and offered her Trump Train flag to me. I respectfully declined but appreciated the gesture.
Jake is a white man in his mid-50s with a white-collar job who wore the same navy blue Ron Paul shirt each time I saw him. He brought a portable speaker to blast a diverse playlist ranging from the 1990s radio hit “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train)” to the more recent YouTube hit “God Bless Trump and the USA.” When I asked him how he selected songs for these events, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I go on YouTube and find whatever I like. Just for Trump alone this year, there’s probably been 20 different songs made for him, which is pretty nice.”
Jake was the first person to introduce himself to me when I arrived at the intersection over a month ago. I noticed that he and Connor, another member of the group, always made a point of saying hello to new people. They served an essential role in creating a sense of solidarity among the group of strangers brought together by their loyalty to Trump, and they also eased my worries about whether I’d be accepted into the group.
I explained to Jake that I had passed by the group a few days earlier and wanted to learn more about their cause. He asked if I wanted to join the protesters’ WhatsApp chat group and told me about other upcoming events. I accepted the invitation and learned that some of these demonstrators, including Jake and Connor, planned to trek north to attend the big “Stop the Steal” protest in D.C. planned on Jan. 6.
Jake had a long list of talking points that he read in an authoritative voice into his microphone, which was connected to portable speakers. His favorite topics were criticizing mainstream media, describing how Biden would ruin this country, and citing all the ways in which the election was stolen from President Trump.
“Every single thing points to a Donald Trump landslide,” his voice boomed. “Statistics show that Donald Trump won. You’re not going to hear any of this on the mainstream media. Guys, the truth is most of the people driving by that are pro-Biden or anti-President Trump are very surface thinkers, they’re very directed by the mass media. They don’t have any clue about some of the things I mentioned today.”
Distrust in mainstream media was a central theme in the conversations I had with the demonstrators. Madeline is an elderly white woman who enjoyed sharing a wide array of opinions and bits of information on current events. She was a lifelong Democrat until Obama’s second term when he became, in her eyes, too lenient on “terrorists and illegal immigrants.” Now, Madeline gets most of her news from YouTube, which she believes is more reliable than mainstream news platforms because you can see things “firsthand.”
When Trump entered the scene, Madeline says she found a candidate who was able to put words to her worries about the direction America was heading. “Trump said it as it is,” she told me. She has been participating in the flag waving demonstrations at the intersection since July and believed this was the least she could do to “protect Americans’ freedom.”
When I asked Madeline which rights she felt would be most threatened under a Biden administration, she said she was worried Americans would be forced to wear masks, get vaccinated, and that small businesses would be shut down.
Connor is in his 60s, works a white-collar day job and spends his time off helping to coordinate the demonstrations at the intersection and trying to increase membership in the county’s Republican group. He also turned his back on the mainstream media. When I asked him why he had showed up at the intersection every Saturday for the last five months, he told me, “I’m a Trump supporter. I’m not going to give up. I do believe [the Democrats] cheated like hell, and I don’t know how people can’t see that. But when somebody hates someone, it overtakes them. And that’s what happened here. The news media hates him and then a lot of people just go along with the program.”
Connor’s loyalty to Trump was central to how he processed information. He told me that anything that was critical of Trump was the same as being biased against Trump. For example, Connor’s main source of news for most of his life had been the Wall Street Journal. But when the publication began publishing articles critical of Trump during his campaign in 2015, Connor unsubscribed and moved to other news sources that he felt were fairer to Trump. Now, Connor gets most of his news from OAN (a far-right pro-Trump cable channel known for promoting conspiracy theories) and Epoch Times.
Connor believes that Trump is an antidote to the radical left, which he says increasingly dominates the mainstream media and the nation’s universities. “A lot of what we have is an educational system that has told people, ‘You’re white and you come from this background and these other people didn’t have that opportunity so we should give up something and we should feel guilty,’” he told me. “Then students think, ‘Maybe you’re right, you’re the college professor and my parents are sending me to go to school here.’ The communication is manipulative. And that’s how we have all these bleeding hearts who want to guilt white people, take their money, and give it to Black people. Now you have a generation of lazy, in debt, college graduates who work at Starbucks but still have a $1,000 iPhone and want Bernie Sanders to forgive all their debt.”
In addition to the misinformation they believed and their allegiance to Trump that brought them together, the camaraderie and pride they shared also kept these individuals coming back to the intersection each week. “Trump supporters know how to have a good time!” Madeline told me. “Once we had five ladies in wheelchairs here. We were all having so much fun.” Each time a car honked in support of the protesters, everyone raised their flags a bit higher, smiles appeared, and a feeling of unity swept over the group. Even I found myself returning smiles to those who honked and waved at me and I felt the elation that my compatriots felt beside me. It was contagious.
“In addition to the misinformation they believed and their allegiance to Trump that brought them together, the camaraderie and pride they shared also kept these individuals coming back to the intersection each week. 'Trump supporters know how to have a good time!' Madeline told me.”
During the month I spent with these demonstrators, I learned that the “Stop the Steal” movement is comprised of individuals who are deeply misinformed by lies spread by President Trump and others. Each person had their own reason for being there. Jake believed he was helping to inform people about the truth of what is really happening in the United States. Madeline saw attending the “Stop the Steal” protests as a civic duty to defend Americans’ freedom. Connor felt compelled to fight what he believed to be the full-frontal assault of President Trump that is being waged “by the establishment.” When I asked him what the long-term strategy for the demonstrations was, he told me, “When Trump says it’s over, there’s a good chance we’ll stop.”
When I began this project, my partner asked me, “Is there a chance that writing about the perspectives of this group might validate their views? Don’t you think there are some perspectives that we shouldn’t be empathetic to?” I continued to grapple with these questions over the past month and I still am even as I write this now.
One answer that I gravitate toward comes from Arlie Hochschild, the Berkeley sociologist who published a book based on her interviews with Tea Party supporters in Louisiana in 2015. Hochschild suggests that to address the major issues of our day ― from protecting the environment to ending homelessness ― we need to understand those who oppose the state’s role in these efforts. This requires what Hochschild describes as scaling an “empathy wall” to try to grasp the stories of people who are different from us.
It’s unclear what the outcome of the “Stop the Steal” movement will be, or what stage it’s currently at. It is clear, however, that the kind of thinking that motivated “Stop the Steal” has moved beyond the realm of mere rhetoric and into very real and dangerous action.
In light of the events of Jan. 6, Hochschild’s vision of social progress may seem more like an idealistic plea rather than a serious blueprint for change. Still, it is precisely these moments in which violence and destruction occur ― and further threats of both loom ― that developing a clear-eyed understanding of the ideas that inspire and fuel them is most important.
When engaging in a process of understanding, we should be open to the likelihood that the ideas that emerge will seem deplorable to us. In these instances, it’s especially important to remember that it is the ideas ― and the mediums that transmit them ― that we must concentrate on. That certainly doesn’t mean that we don’t hold these individuals accountable for their actions but, ultimately, if we hope to change them, we must be able to reach them. And that can only happen if we understand their motivations and struggles.
At the close of the Second World War, the UNESCO signatories ratified a constitution that opened with, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Recognizing what the harmful ideas are, where they come from, and why they take such hold is how we will begin to construct the best defenses against them. It is through this sort of understanding that we may hopefully begin to dismantle the destructive narratives and construct a new one together.
Note: All names of individuals described in this essay have been changed.
Megan Kang is a Sociology Ph.D. student at Princeton. Her work aims to make sense of issues around crime and criminal justice by providing a perspective that’s hard to access through conventional data. Follow her on Twitter at @kang_megan.