The following was originally published by the The American Conservative on May 2017.
“Tattoos and teeth,” is how my father described what I absolutely was forbidden to become as an adult. It was his shorthand for the backwards people in our home state of Kentucky. Lately, that crowd has the world’s attention. Friendly pundits refer to them as members of the “Silent Majority” of working and middle class whites. Others snidely write them off as “Trump Supporters,” a sort of dog-whistle for anything that kisses its sister, beats its dog, or votes Republican.
Now I live in Los Angeles, where the assumption is that all conservatives are the same. It’s an easy myth to buy into in a place where out-of-the-closet Trump voters are scarcer than most endangered species. Here, Trumpies are a faceless enemy on par with ISIS—something that is known to be evil but never experienced outside of the evening news.
In reality, millions of Trump supporters live in California. And tens of thousands of them were gathered out in the desert for Stagecoach, a three day A-list country music festival put on by the same people who produced Coachella the two weekends before. The difference between these two pop-culture events is self-explanatory: it’s Lady Gaga versus Shania Twain; Kendrick Lamar versus Kenny Chesney; and Radiohead versus Willie Nelson. The Make America Great Again hats and Reagan-Bush ’84 t-shirts that were a common sight at Stagecoach were absent from Coachella, where #MAGA gear is considered spitting distance from swastikas, and Reagan t-shirts require a trigger warning.
It was a rare opportunity to observe California’s irrelevant Republicans, a tribe descended from Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon that has been hunted to near extinction by the media and technology industries that now dominate the state. Here at Stagecoach, they flew their colors without fear of persecution. And to the surprise of many in their gated LA and San Francisco homes, Donald Trump’s West Coast fan club was full of normal people, who, after three days of drinking and sunning themselves, bore remarkably little resemblance to the fascists brawlers who supposedly voted for him.
Making friends wasn’t hard. At our hotel pool, there was a lazy river. And as it turns out, it’s easy to meet people when you’ve got an inner tube and a cooler full of beer. There was Jason, a Marine Corps officer from Oceanside, CA, who’d gone to college on the GI bill after serving a combat tour. He’d volunteered to take his buddies’ wives to the show while they were at sea.
Then there was Ashley, who cut sailors’ and Marines’ hair Monday-Thursday and commuted an hour into San Diego on weekends to earn big dollars at a frou-frou salon.
Jake was from Los Angeles. He worked for a Hollywood business manager and assisted TV and movie talent with their personal finances. He said the work was dull but a few times a year, he’d get cast in a commercial that paid for trips like this.
Sitting on another set of lawn chairs was Craig, a civil engineer who’d spent the morning perfecting a spill-proof beer bong. The only thing more sculpted than its arrangement of PVC pipes and valves was his body.
Grace and I talked while she was on a show tractor posing for an Instagram. She was a young public relations professional at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and was traveling with some engineers who she worked with.
And then, during Wynonna Judd’s show, there was a middle-aged man whose wife told me he wore his Trump-Pence hat because he was bald, but he said he just wanted to show it off “someplace where my neighbors won’t hate me for it.”
A few broad strokes connected most of these people: not a single one had a job that I or any of my Hollywood friends could do without blowing our brains out; almost all of them were married, engaged, or spending the weekend with a significant other; everyone was friendly and willing to share whatever was cooking on their grill; and the vast majority were physically fit. Unlike the Deep South that I grew up next to, there were no power chairs or Honey Boo Boos here. California’s conservatives took good care of themselves and, except for the addition of some cowboy boots and a few tattoos, bore a striking resemblance to the Anglo-centric beauty of LA’s Beach Boys era. That said, there were also a surprising number of Latinos in the crowd, some of whom even sported Trump swag.
Despite everyone’s friendliness, there was little to suggest any of them aspired to be writers, astronauts, brain surgeons or politicians. They seemed to enjoy working out, spending time with their families, and drinking cold beer. It was an observation that checks out with what political scientists have already said: that liberals tend to be better educated while conservatives tend to be more generous. The staff at the fairgrounds agreed.
“What’s the difference between us and Coachella?” I asked some Hispanic service workers. They didn’t know it was a put-up job.
“You guys are nicer,” said a school bus driver moonlighting at the festival door.
“The Coachella people are nasty, man,” said the Lifeguard at the hotel pool.
And, “You wear less black,” was what one of the Uber drivers told me.
Those responses and others were a window into an emerging contradiction in American politics: that the liberals who champion the rights of immigrants in the political arena treat them like the help in person; while the conservatives who vote to deport them actually deal with immigrants as equals in day-to-day life.
Which gets to the big question that everyone in Coastal California has about Trump, Republicans, and the people who vote for them: race. Aren’t they all a bunch of bigots? From the way the news is written, and from some of the things Donald Trump has said, you wouldn’t be a fool to think so. But after three days surveying the scene, I realized the concept of “identity” was a different thing all together in the Stagecoach desert than it is on college campuses and debate stages around the country.
Though my own judgment might have become impaired by my participation in the weekend’s rites, I became convinced that unlike the worldview of California’s liberals, the Stagecoach conservatives didn’t dwell on race much. To me, it was clear that they thought of themselves as part of a people—as Americans and not just one strand in a patchwork quilt of ethnicities. And in a way, that’s the big concept underneath Donald Trump’s incoherent rants about immigration and identity: that our national character cannot, should not, and will not ride second saddle to tribal labels like race, religion, gender, and sexuality. Or in more modern terms, that the recent movement to re-brand our historic “melting pot” as “cultural appropriation” is the biggest mistake of our time.
With California’s conservatives, fitting in had nothing to do with racial appearance. It was about buying into a shared vision of America, a place where people came from all over the world to be Americans. Not Italian-American. Not Polish-American. Not Mexican-American. Americans. And in a Left Coast world where every gender, ethnic, and sexual group has its own support system, there still are people in California who think of themselves as members of a nation and not a tribe. To them, rejecting identity politics is the ultimate form of inclusion, one where no one has to be assigned a race, class, or sexual identity.
Late at night, on my drive back to Los Angeles, I called my friend Beth to stay awake.
“Don’t you feel bad?” she asked me as I passed through the endless field of lights along Southern California’s Inland Empire freeways.
“For what?” I asked.
“That you had so much fun with those racist people?”
Shockingly, after three days with those “racists,” that was the first time I’d heard anyone put down another group for being different.