Love Is Strange

Donald Trump’s Donors Asked Me if I Was Muslim

The GOP frontrunner’s plan to keep Muslims out of the U.S. has further endeared him to his most ardent supporters: those who have donated money to the billionaire’s campaign.

12.11.15 6:15 AM ET

James “Owen” Greeson said it so casually that it almost didn’t sound strange.

He was talking about how, at 76 years old, he’s never picked a winner, has always thrown his weight behind some presidential candidate who’s got no shot. This time was no different, but he didn’t much care. He sent $2,700 from Georgia, where he lives, to Donald Trump’s campaign coffers, just because he likes the guy and thinks he’s entertaining, not because he figured he could be president. It’s not that Trump isn’t fit for the office or too divisive to get the votes. “Come on,” he said, “they’ll kill him before they let him be elected.”

He meant it literally.

“George Wallace was shot,” he said, by way of explanation. And in case I wasn’t convinced, “Huey Long was shot.

“If you get too popular, you’re gonna get dusted off, you know? That should be Donald’s biggest concern, that somebody busts a cap in his ass.”

Greeson, calm and soft-spoken, was already sure that the government had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, so what was one more death, really?

“It looked like a false flag to me, come on!” he said. “Two buildings burn like that? There’s been fires in other countries that burned for 15 hours and the buildings didn’t collapse.” (He said he wasn’t sure who did 9/11, but that Dick Cheney was a good guess.)

After Donald Trump announced, on Monday, a plan to stop Muslims from entering the U.S. “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” I set out to talk to his donors about how it made them feel. I’d interviewed Trump donors before and found that above all else, they are quite a lot like the candidate himself. They aren’t all crazy or hateful or prone to shouting, necessarily, but they are fed up and they are politically incorrect. They feel as if the world and the country is changing too rapidly for us to understand it, and they resent being told that their questions are impolite or emblematic of a deeper intolerance. They see in Trump someone who would protect their interests the way he has protected his own, someone who would make a “yuge,” great deal for their benefit, perhaps. Like, really, really great. Big league.

But there are more Trump donors now—Trump’s reach has expanded as he has stayed on top of the polls for months. He’s more famous than he’s ever been. And so what you find, cold-calling well over 100 strangers who have cut him a check, is that it’s like going into any large group of people and putting your feelers out. It’s a mixed bag, but the people most eager to chat seem to have the most unorthodox views. It’s hard to say if this sort of sample is illustrative of Trump’s supporters as a whole, but it’s what we’ve got.

And so I met the 9/11 truther, the man who believes Trump has great intellect and his bold pronouncements are just showbiz, the concerned gentleman who said I could be murdered tomorrow in a supermarket, the hot tub salesman whose mind-controlled girlfriend was killed by the Illuminati, and the father of the donor who didn’t want to talk, who asked me to recite the Lord’s Prayer to prove I’m not a Muslim.

Being of the belief that Muslims weren’t responsible for the 9/11 attacks didn’t mean Greeson wasn’t wary of them, or that he didn’t support Trump’s plan to ban them from entering the country.

He was concerned, he said, that Muslims might prioritize abiding by Sharia over the U.S. Constitution. And he was baffled, frankly, by certain aspects of the religion, like “that you have religious jihad and you’re met by 27 virgins in heaven.”

How would I feel, he wanted to know, if I was told I couldn’t drive because of my gender?

But Greeson, like Trump, was adamant that he didn’t hate all Muslims. “I think they’re like everybody else,” he said. “You’ve got a bad bunch, a good bunch, an in-between bunch.”

Anyway, he said, Muslim animosity toward America was largely America’s fault for “bombing all over the place” and killing “more civilians than we did soldiers” in Iraq. He was in the military and he’s not a pacifist, he said, but “I think they’ve been stirred up like a hornet’s nest. I don’t know if you’ve ever tapped a hornet’s nest. They come out like smoke.”

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He said he’d live next-door to anyone, that supporting Trump’s ban wasn’t about intolerance.

“I’d like to have a way to find out more information about my neighbors,” he said. “Can’t we just slow down a bit?”

Muslims hate America, Trump had said in his press release, and they overwhelmingly want the option to be governed by Sharia, rather than the Constitution, while living in America. Because of this, Trump said, “Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses,” no more Muslims could enter.

It was just common sense.

It’s never been a secret that Trump is a racist, a bigot, a xenophobe, an attention whore, and a bad speller.

Each time Trump says something that would be the end of any other politician’s career—beginning with his June 16 announcement, when he said immigrants from Mexico are “rapists” and “criminals”—he is only made stronger. It’s part of his appeal. Still, that doesn’t stop political observers, professional and recreational alike, from wondering if each new, horrible thing he says will be the new, horrible thing to sink his candidacy once and for all. That’s how this has always worked, after all.

And now it’s December, and Trump 2016 is still going strong. He’s polling at a 27 percent average—10 full points above his closest competitor, Ted Cruz. Trump’s ugliness does not seem to matter to his supporters because Trump’s ugliness is a reflection of the rot that can devour the soul when a person is overcome by paranoia and fear. We saw it briefly in 2010, when Tea Party activists yelled at an older man suffering from Parkinson’s and holding a sign indicating his support for health-care reform. We’re seeing the breadth of it now.

But to say Trump and his supporters are cut from the same cloth would be to miss a more important point. Trump is not paranoid and he is not scared, he is merely stoking the paranoia and fear in others to his own benefit. He is exploiting the paranoia and the fear of the people who send him their money, or attend his rallies, or defend him on Twitter. They are not elites. They don’t have big buildings or golf courses or book contracts or TV deals to lose. And they can inspire sympathy, even when they sound just like Trump, which they often do.

Robert Auray from Pennsylvania also sent Trump $2,700, but he wasn’t convinced Trump was about to be murdered and didn’t say 9/11 was a false flag operation. But what Trump was proposing about Muslims, Auray said, was perfectly reasonable.

“How do we stop more radical Islamists from coming here?” he asked in a calm, even tone. “That’s a legitimate question and Trump is the only one who has the courage to ask.

“How I feel about it is he raised an important issue that no one else had the courage to raise.”

Auray said he was 65 years old, Catholic, and “grew up in a country of free speech,” so he wasn’t going to be easily rattled by Trump’s political incorrectness.

“What I love about Trump is he paints in vivid, bold colors. They unsettle people, but they also get people’s attention,” he said. “Trump was the first guy to say, What the hell are we doing admitting all the Syrians? And everyone said, Oh, he’s such a xenophobe.

“To me he seems to be the brightest bulb of the bunch,” Auray said.

As he sees it, Trump is the only candidate who is truly serious about protecting the welfare of Americans.

“Many Muslims are good people. This isn’t about discriminating against all Muslims,” Auray said. “Radical Islamists are a subset, unfortunately, of the Islamic religion.”

To call Trump’s plan bigoted, he said, was “bogus.” To him, Trump was just being realistic. “People love to play they racist card,” he said. “He’s trying to solve a problem!”

To pay too much attention to Trump’s bombast was to miss the point that “being the president is about a feeling. People are gonna get a feeling that this is the right guy for the time or he’s not,” Auray said.

“Here’s how I see this election,” Auray said, “Trump is the sun and all the other candidates—Democrat and Republican—are revolving around him… The rest of these guys, the biggest statement you get from them is a reaction to something Trump said.”

Audrey added, “and I don’t care that much about what he says.”

John Captain, of Portland Tub and Tan, home of “Portland’s premier hot tubbing and tanning specialists with exclusive outdoor hot tubs year round” in Oregon, was glad that I called because he wanted to talk about his girlfriend, who he believes was a monarch mind control slave who was murdered by her family, part of the Illuminati and the New World Order.

Captain talks a mile a minute in run-on sentences that jump from one topic to another—an effect of his ADHD, he said. He explained, in record time, that he had been on Trump’s website, trying to contact him to ask for help in his fight against the Illuminati, when he decided to send him $1,000. (He donated in the past to Ross Perot.)

He had recordings to prove that his girlfriend was a robot, he said. He’d been sent tapes of her sessions with a therapist who told her to “follow the yellow brick road,” but said he would let me ask about Trump before he explained all of that.

Captain liked Trump, he said, “because our government’s out of control in terms of spending and unaccountability and I have no belief in the government that’s currently in power.” Being a small-business owner, Captain said, has made him wary of “anybody who gets a check from the government: federal, city, county, state, people who collect leaves. Anything they do is wrong.”

Captain thinks, he said, “on my own,” but he said he agreed with Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. “What I would say is anybody that’s a concurrent threat to our country should be stopped.” Why would we let people in, he said, who are “statistically” more likely “to hate us?”

“If, consistently, we’re having an issue with Muslims that hate Americans…” he trailed off.

“A part of me hoped that Donald Trump would take over and maybe he would help look into my case,” Captain said, his pace slowing. “I don’t know what to do, you know? I’m at a loss because not only is this over my head, the facts surrounding her murder, but America is ruined as a whole.”

Henry “Hank” Datelle of Georgia, who sent Trump $1,000, paused before telling me what he thought of the proposed ban. He seemed afraid that he might phrase his opinion incorrectly.

“Clearly, there’s a problem,” he eventually said.

“He’s come up with one possible solution. It may be extreme, but until we found out what’s going on—in the Second World War, we put all the Japanese in camps and contained them. Innocent people.”

Datelle said it wasn’t clear whether Muslims were “here to assimilate into our society or change our civilization,” but all signs seem to indicate that we are in dire times.

“We’re facing a pretty serious situation where you might die tomorrow in a supermarket,” he told me.

Trump, Datelle said, is “saying things that a lot of people want to say but are afraid of political correctness.”

Particularly irritating to Datelle is the fact that people keep talking about how there are “good Muslims and it’s a good religion” and yet, “you don’t see them speaking out against bad Muslims. Why is it that so many of these terrorists are Muslims? Why? What is it about that group that makes them prone to behave this way, to destroy Western civilization? Is it a religious thing, or something we’re missing? I don’t know. I don’t know enough about the faith, but it’s troubling to me that they do so many bad things. They cut off babies’ heads. Would you do that?”

I said I wouldn’t, and then Datelle asked, “Are you a Christian?”

The Christianness of this reporter was also of particular interest to Frank Maxwell Jr., who I called by mistake. I had intended to contact Frank Maxwell III, a Trump donor, but I reached his father instead (it turned out the younger Maxwell wasn’t interested in talking, anyway).

“I think he’s correct on that,” the elder Maxwell said of Trump’s proposed ban. “I don’t like ’em. I wish they’d go back to the mid-East and stay there—all of ’em. I would refuse to get in a taxi cab with a Muslim driving it with a headband on.”

“They’re anti-Christian. And Jesus Christ says we need to forgive, but I’m not like that,” he said.

And then, he added, “I think we need to kill all the Muslims we can kill.”

Shortly after that he hung up, and then he called back and asked me to recite the Lord’s Prayer with him.

“Are you a Muslim?” he asked.