With his rainbow-tinted aviator glasses, Vietnam-era jungle hat, and American flag sleeveless shirt, Tony Carraway comes across as a patriot the way Hunter S. Thompson did: on his own terms, without apology.
A reservist pilot in Conyers, Ga., who flies twin-props in support of domestic Army maneuvers, he turned to President Trump after watching what he saw as years of Democrats starving the military of funding. “Democrats were just going in the wrong direction,” he says. “Trump has set us straight. America wins.”
Now as the Trump White House faces deepening revelations of the campaign’s involvement with Russian intermediaries, Mr. Carraway acknowledges he is among those whose support for the president is being tested.
For now, however, he’s sticking with Mr. Trump, given his view that the media and the Washington establishment are actively trying to undermine an outsider president who was elected to do exactly what he is doing: disrupt the political status quo, shake the economy awake, and recalibrate US interests domestically and abroad.
To be sure, the revelations that Donald Trump, Jr., e-mailed “I love it” to a Russian offer for dirt on Hillary Clinton comes amid a slight erosion in those who “strongly support” Trump. That standard has fallen to about 1 in 5 Americans – down from 30 percent in February – though the president still has an aggregated approval rating of about 40 percent.
Interviews with Trump voters in Georgia and Texas suggest that part of Trump’s enduring appeal to his core supporters is not just them loyally siding with the president in what they see as a war against liberal media. It also hinges on the nature of how they see America’s role in the world and the depth of their personal support for the president.
One Texan named Mary tells the Monitor that, for her, the only unforgivable act for Trump would be “murdering his wife.” But many of his ardent supporters have a more finite line and could be deeply alienated if Trump crosses that threshold, says Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist.
“The longer this goes, the more evidence that comes up, sure it’s going to peel off some people who today say, ‘The media is out to get him,’ ” he says. “People can deny all kinds of things if they conflict with their deeply held beliefs. But at some point, it’s a final straw.”
The Russia revelations
For Carraway, the Conyers pilot, any obvious evidence of un-American activity would be a wake-up call on Trump.
This week’s revelations and the emails that Donald Trump Jr. released Tuesday, to him, don’t rise to that standard. “[Trump Jr.] didn’t do anything that any other politician hasn’t done. Are you kidding?” he says. While certainly opposition research is coveted by campaigns, there are instances – perhaps most famously in 2000 – when campaigns have called the FBI when handed illegally obtained information.
As far as Russia meddling with US democracy, he explains, “I know they’re not our friends, but things have changed since the cold war. I see Russia now less as some kind of existential threat and more like France.”
'A lot of post-modern chatter'
As the ship of state has turned hard to starboard, there's been a willingness among his supporters to rethink Russia’s role in the world. But even more, says GOP consultant Dave Woodard, it is about Trump’s belief that “part of making America great again is to be the biggest player in the room.”
“It’s a real contrast with Obama, who tried to get along with everybody, and now Trump comes along and he doesn’t mind [annoying foreign leaders],” says Mr. Woodard,the author of “The New Southern Politics.” “If you’re an Alabama fan, you never like Auburn, so if you say something bad about Auburn, well, that’s your job, that’s what you do. In the view of Trump supporters, to be a leader is to be a leader for us and not necessarily a friend to others. And that’s a fact not appreciated many times in the day-to-day press.”
He adds: “Most in his base don’t have any affection for France or Russia or China, so I don’t think he’s getting hurt at all by Democrats trying to paint him with this brush. To a lot of them, this is just a lot of post-modern chatter.”
Waiting for his son outside the Senter Recreation Center in Irving, Texas, Theron Harris, a white-haired Army veteran in a thin-checked shirt, says there is a limit to his support for Trump. So far, that is far from being reached, given that, “I can’t see one thing he’s promised that he’s not trying to get done.”
Some legal experts say soliciting a “thing of value” from a foreign power in the middle of a campaign tests federal law that expressly forbids such exchanges. And on Tuesday, Mr. Trump, Jr.. said he might have done thing differently if he had a do-over.
But the possibility of legal problems for the president's son strains against “the mileage [Trump got] out of the countries that were giving money to the Clinton Foundation, and which looked like a backdoor bribe,” says Woodard.
'There's always a deal-breaker'
But he adds that Trump so far scores only 9 out of 10 on the success scale. “There’s always a deal-breaker” with any president, says Harris, but Trump “is pro-American … [and offers] a dose of hard-core reality.”
To lose Harris’s support, Trump “would have to turn into Obama,” he says, explaining that means Trump would “have to work with Iran, let North Korea keep doing what they’re doing, let Russia do what they want.”
Such views are partly tied to the emotional connection that many people have made with Trump's presidency. That way, “you don’t see a concern with a foreign power impacting our elections, because to acknowledge that is to diminish your hero,” says Professor Bullock.
In Texas, as in other states, party affiliation strongly determines whether people believe Russian meddling is a big deal: 9 percent of Republican voters said Russia influenced the election; 81 percent said it didn’t, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Among Democrats, 75 percent said the Russians influenced the election, and 9 percent said they didn't.
At the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4380 in Plano, support for the president remains strong. "I'm glad he's stirring up everything, and not taking crap from other countries,” says Steve, who asked that his last name not be used, and jokes that Plano is home to about five Democrats, total.
'Our wild card'
Some Trump fans see, in fact, less hero and more “our wild card,” writes New Jersey construction company owner Jason Roamer via email.
An independent who had never voted before 2016, Mr. Roamer says he began to gravitate toward Trump based on “how the media took everything this man said out of context and twisted it against him in the least honest way possible. Perhaps I felt bad for him.”
Of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, “This is something the US does pretty much in every country on earth so I really don’t think we have much room to talk,” says Roamer. “And if Russia is responsible for keeping Hillary Clinton from becoming the next president, I thank them for their service to the citizens of this country.”
He hedges a bit. “There is a line [Trump] could cross,” Roamer says. “I just don’t believe everything I read, so I probably won’t know when it happens.”