The Semiotics of Trump: All the Cool Kids Are Doing It

When I saw Trump bumper stickers on the backpacks of middle-class white kids in Tidewater, Virginia, I had an inkling—but only an inkling, like a twitchy nighttime fear—that Trump could win. But then no, I told myself, no way. We are not this gullible and self-destructive!

Yet those bumper stickers on kids’ backpacks were haunting. I couldn’t shake them.

I am an English professor in Vermont, in a liberal college town in arguably the most liberal state in the union. But I grew up in Virginia and lived there for the first 33 years of my life. I still consider myself a Virginian and was visiting family when I saw the boys, who I would guess were eleven or twelve years old.

They were waiting for a bus, backpacks slung over their backs, Trump stickers prominent, in a neighborhood where half the houses shaded toward brick McMansions along with a few large colonials and capes. Their parents were protestant, educated, and conservative. Minivans sported stickers on their rear windows announcing not only what breed of dog they had or that their kid was on the honor roll or what college they’d gone to, but also their churches, some of which were evangelical megachurches.

Each boy had on Vans, or Nikes. They wore black Nike calf socks, Quicksilver or Billabong T-shirts, and Bermuda shorts. Their hair was cropped close on the sides and longer up front, gelled into a wave, or slightly longer and shaggy, a surf cut. In other words, they were presenting themselves, in a semiotic sense, as part of a group that could be called “cool.” They knew which socks or shirts or haircuts would be unacceptable to their peers and community. Breaching these style protocols would be unthinkable. They needed to look—and thus be—just so.

This is why the Trump stickers shocked me. In this upper-middle-class tableau, in the local school, in nearby parks, these political decals—to me a representation of anti-democratic bigotry and the darkest human forces of hate throughout history—were not shameful. On the contrary, they were a proud and acceptable non-verbal message to the community, for parents and kids and teachers and preachers and parishioners. They were a way for the boys to fit in in their American context, just as their shoes and their hair and their clothes were.

I worried that if conservative, well-to-do Southern whites, who were clearly not going to vote out of economic anxiety, could normalize Trump’s vile and cruel messages and accept them, then maybe, just maybe, he could win. Then I said to myself, like so many others, No. No way. Not here.