Trump Tribe: Portrait of the New Americans

I did a documentary about Trump’s supporters and here is what I found out about them …

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump greets cheering supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Lakeland
Donald Trump greets cheering supporters as he arrives at a campaign rally in Lakeland, Florida [Reuters]

Over the span of this gruelling presidential campaign, I have read and studied countless well-meaning, thoughtful and intelligent articles about the 47 percent of American voters who elected Donald Trump President of the United States of America.

None of these examinations helped me to understand any better who the Trump supporters are and why they are so attracted to him, while many others firmly believe that he was clearly unfit for the job.

Like many of my fellow Americans, I was left with an eerie discomfort as to what would happen if he was to be elected, but I was baffled that so many others didn’t agree with me.

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Fuelled by this consternation, I decided to try to discover the truth in the most objective, non-partisan way I could. As a filmmaker, I travelled to Cleveland, Ohio, in July, during the Republican Convention that nominated Trump as its candidate, to make a documentary of discovery called Trump Tribe.

Together with my producing partner Peter Koper, we decided to adopt an “anthropological’ approach to our subject – one where we as outside observers tried as little as possible to inject our own feelings into the investigation, while documenting the various tribal rituals we discovered.

As with any tribe, we uncovered many practices that help us to now understand how to analyse today’s breathtaking political tsunami, and to use these findings to postulate about the future.

A new cult

While making Trump Tribe, Peter and I interviewed many of Trump’s loyalists inside the Republican National Convention, and we embedded ourselves among his supporters, both inside and outside the Convention Hall.

What we witnessed was often amusing, sometimes heartwarming, and frequently troubling – an eye-opening view into what had developed from a political movement into a cult, with Trump as its leader.

His supporters feel that they are not part of the larger Republican Party structure, they resent that their beliefs are regarded by many people as extreme, bigoted or dangerous, and they are completely devoted to their leader. They show many signs of cult behaviour. Now that Trump has been elected president, “Trumpism” will have a major effect on American politics and culture for years to come.


In 2005, I directed Trump during the first season of his reality television hit series, The Apprentice, and when he started his campaign I was both fascinated and terrified.

To many Americans, and to most people I know, supporting him made no sense. To these Americans, his supporters were either misogynists, or racists, or uneducated, or just plain stupid. At first, they did seem to be, indeed, “deplorable”.

During filming we gave free rein to Trump supporters to explain themselves in their own words.

As expected, some were toeing the Republican Party line, while others were just plain crackpots. But many we talked to made sense, once we sat down to discuss their frustrations and feelings.

They believed that workers should be protected from the ravages of open trade, that illegal immigration should stop in order to protect American jobs, and that we should end our interventionist foreign policies of the past four decades.

Some even believed that the rich should pay their fair share of taxes, or that the minimum wage was too low. They often sounded like … Democrats! This was a far cry from the traditional policies of the mainstream Republican Party. And those supporters – not the traditional Republicans or the crackpots – are the ones who made the difference and got Trump elected.

A Trump supporter at the Republican National Convention interviewed for the Trump Tribe documentary [James Bruce]
A Trump supporter at the Republican National Convention interviewed for the Trump Tribe documentary [James Bruce]

Perhaps the Republican Party will successfully co-opt this force, as it did previously with the Tea Party, but I sense this time is different. The Republican Party and Trumpism are distinctly different sociopolitical entities, at war with one another.

Trumpism is smaller than the 47 percent of the electorate that voted for Trump in this election, but it is intense and unified. Trumpism is an existential challenge to the Republican Party, due to its political core ideology – one which has a strong backing among supporters of both political parties in the US. 

The future of the Trump tribe

We are experiencing the end of Reaganism and the birth of a new nationalist and isolationist political movement that fully rejects the economics of neoliberalism and the politics of globalisation that have been the driving forces behind the United States since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Trumpism is a politics that is suspicious of our democratic institutions, including the free press. It has a vision for the future that is unprecedented in the country.

I firmly believe that Trump as its leader will use this cult to his advantage in order to reshape what remains of the Republican Party as we know it, by forming a transatlantic alliance of authoritarian political movements with the likes of the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party in Britain, Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and Jobbik in Hungary. This is a new era in the US, indeed.

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Pragmatic politics are not Trump’s modus operandi; therefore to keep his tribe loyal, President Trump will pander to them with renewed energy and volume. How will his hardcore supporters react if their beloved president does not deliver on his promises?

They will rationalise, they will make excuses and they will twist the truth because, as in all cults, they are all in. “Failure” is not in their lexicon, when they think of their cult leader, so they will blame others.

Moreover, should President Trump get stalled by the quagmire of Washington politicking, he may get impatient and call on his tribe for help. If this happens, all bets are off.

James Bruce is a US-based film director and producer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.