This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.
The Trump years changed, in ways large and small, practically everyone—including those who voted for him. Many Trump supporters found themselves questioning their fundamental assumptions about politics, their party, and the American people. Some felt a political awakening so thrilling they embraced Trump’s exhilaratingly loud version of their party, while others felt themselves edged out. Some were filled with a deepening sense of betrayal at a system they saw as discriminatory and alienating. Others felt a different kind of betrayal, at the people and party they thought they knew. We spoke to six Trump voters—some diehard fans, some who held their noses while casting their ballot, and some who feel betrayed by the man they helped elect—about the legacy of the 45th president and the lessons they learned from the past four years. These as-told-to essays have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andrew Kimbel, 31, veteran of the Marines who now works in IT security, Virginia
Politicians have all these grand promises. And at the end of their term, things don’t seem to get much better for anyone except themselves. I felt that way about Trump. I voted for him in 2016, less because I actually liked him and more so because of this polarization. Like, you don’t want the enemy to win. But one of the biggest things [I learned from the Trump era] is that people can’t always accomplish what they claim they’re going to do. He was going to reduce the national debt. Well, that didn’t happen—it increased. One of Trump’s big things was draining the swamp. And that really didn’t happen. Our political system is no better off than when he entered office.
It wasn’t until this past year that I started getting involved more in politics. Some friends that I went to high school with shared some memes from various libertarian Facebook pages, and I found myself agreeing. I started looking at the Libertarian candidate for president, Jo Jorgensen, and her running mate, and I really liked the things that they had to say. And I realized I don’t like how things are run in general. Republicans versus Democrats—I don’t think that the two parties are really all that different. Not as different as they make themselves out to be.
One of Trump’s legacies, unfortunately, is going to be how divided the country is. As time goes on, unless we can get a candidate who can speak to both sides, I don’t really see that gap getting smaller. Libertarians have said that we are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. If you’re not violating my rights, it’s none of my business. I think libertarians are capable of speaking to both sides, because we generally just want to leave people alone.
I’ve gotten a lot of flak online for Trump losing the election, and I feel like that blame is incorrectly placed. I feel like the blame for Trump losing the election lies on the people who voted for Biden. I don’t think that Trump is the worst president ever. But I also don’t think he’s the best president ever. I’d put him somewhere in the middle.
Cecilia Grimaldo,* 42, public high school counselor who emigrated from Peru at age 10, Palm Beach County, Florida
I was always a Democrat. I voted for Obama. I voted for Hillary. When Trump started running, it’s like, “Why is this crazy old man running?” It just sparked my interest. He’s a millionaire—why is he doing this? I started reading more about who he really was and what he was trying to achieve. And it wasn’t until after he got elected that I started really getting into it.
I voted for Hillary because I always had that mindset that I was a Democrat. I really thought this man was a hateful, spiteful human. And now I feel so bad that I felt like that. If I’m a Christian, I shouldn’t have judged him like that. But even though I was a Democrat, I was always a pro-life person. I grew up very strict Catholic. And he [promoted] a lot of laws that would help protect our religious freedom and stop giving money to Planned Parenthood. What really drew me to him was when he started supporting Jerusalem. When he started doing these things, toward the end of 2018, something inside of me just changed. It took a couple of nights of me reading, and then it just happened. I always say it was the Holy Spirit that changed me. How do you go from 20-something years being a Democrat to just overnight loving Trump? That doesn’t happen. And it just happened for me.
I knew a lot of my friends hated him so much that I just had to keep my opinions to myself. Some friends still don’t know that I’m 100 percent a Trump supporter. I’ve had a couple of friends tell me, “You’re trying to be a white American. You’re not a true Hispanic.” My mom and my side of the family, they can’t stand him. We’ve had several conversations, to the point that I don’t want to talk politics with them anymore. It put a little wedge between me and my side of the family.
I didn’t realize how much hatred people had for this country until I really started paying attention. That was surprising for me. How are you born and raised here and you go out of your way to destroy cities and burn up statues and burn the flag and say screw the country? That has been the most eye-opening thing for me. I feel like a lot of people like myself who have emigrated from other countries and seen true poverty and had to deal with communism appreciate what we have in this country way more. But I also found so many people who are so loving, people that are God-fearing, and they’re the ones who voted for Trump.
There are people who are genuinely sad and depressed [because of the election]. I have had family members who called me crying. I was sick to my stomach the day Biden was inaugurated. I think the legacy that Trump leaves is like this: He’s woken up a sleeping party. People before were complacent. And I think there’s going to be a great awakening or a revival of some sort. The same thing that happened to me. I haven’t lost hope. Things will change. But we’ll see. I don’t think he’s going to run again. I heard that he wants to open up his own party. And that would be awesome.
David Andersen, 40, works in the financial services industry, suburb of Des Moines, Iowa
When my two choices came down to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I took a look at both candidates and made the decision to vote for Donald Trump because while he as a candidate was an unknown, I knew what kind of candidate Hillary Clinton was and what she stood for.
If the pandemic had not happened, I don’t know that I would have had a reason not to vote for Donald Trump again. That does not mean I agree with everything that Donald Trump did, everything that Donald Trump said, everything that Donald Trump stood for. But three years into the Trump presidency, the economy was doing great, and stock markets were on a roll, unemployment was low. Looking at things from a fiscal perspective, what do I have to vote against?
Then, the pandemic. The coronavirus came to the United States, and he instructed his administration and his base to basically not take it seriously, to dismiss it: It’s going to go away. It’ll be like it never happened. For me, as someone who takes science and health care very seriously, that caused me to really question, “OK, can I sign on for four more years of this?” And based on the inaction, the denying science, the spreading of misinformation, it was too much. So I voted for Joe Biden. I am a lifelong registered Republican. And 2020 was the first presidential election that I did not vote for the Republican candidate.
I learned a lot of things [from the last four years]. I learned that having a basic understanding of civics is very important. And I’m a high school–educated guy, so it’s not like I’m sitting here on a mountain of degrees. But it’s just amazing to have lived through these last four years and really seen how uninformed people are, on both sides, about how our democracy works.
I’ve also learned that there are a lot of people in this country who have some very scary points of view. And I’ve always known that we’ve had folks in this country who have more of an extremist point of view, from both sides. But obviously, with the last four years with the Trump administration, the president gave the power to that [extreme] right to essentially come out of the shadows. When the leader of our country is on Twitter and on different news channels espousing these horrible things that clearly aren’t true, it gives courage to those who share those same points of view to say, “Well, the president says this about minorities, and the president says this about people from other countries, and the president makes fun of people with special needs. So that must be OK.”
Before the rise to power of Donald Trump, I didn’t really realize just how many of these people were out there. Did I think that Donald Trump held the radical views that he would eventually start to espouse once he became the commander in chief? No, I didn’t. Maybe that was me being naive. But I feel like I’m a pretty informed citizen. The level of vitriol he had toward individuals who didn’t have that same mentality he had—I didn’t realize that it would get to the level it did. What happened on Jan. 6 was Donald Trump and his most hardened supporters in Congress whipping these people into a frenzy and creating chaos in an attempt to try and overturn the election, and really overturn democracy. And as a registered Republican, I struggle with how anyone who looks at the situation can’t see that for what it was. If you can’t have that honest conversation with yourself, and call it what it is, then I don’t really know what to say to that.
As far as I’m concerned, the Republican Party left me behind. I look at Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene—individuals who fed this insurgency, who said these lies. So looking forward, I’m actually in the process of changing my political affiliation. I’ll be going from a registered Republican to a registered independent. So yes, I’m leaving the Republican Party. Time will tell what his legacy was. All I know is that when I look at the presidency of Donald Trump, over 400,000 Americans died in one year’s time on his watch. And to me, that’s really the thing that stands out. And so I guess the word that I would use to describe the president and his time in office is failure.
Joey Fratino, 20, junior at the University of Colorado Boulder
I think I got my driver’s license on the day Trump got elected. I was really involved in politics in high school. My friend and I started a young conservatives club. I’m more of a conventional, economics-focused Republican, so I was kind of upset when Trump won the Republican primary. But since he was better than Hillary Clinton, and with a Supreme Court vacancy that year, I supported him in the 2016 election.
For those 3½ years before COVID, I think he presided over an excellent economy. But his character has not lived up to my expectations. I thought he would grow into that position over time, but he never did. I don’t think he had a good personality for the job. If a foreign leader didn’t do something he wanted, he viewed it as a personal attack. To be the world’s superpower, you have to have countries know they’re able to depend on you and trust you.
I do think I’m better off [because of the Trump years] because the economy did improve. The one thing I’m not better off for is being identified as a conservative on a college campus. A lot of my peers ostracize me. Especially freshman year, I’d make friends, and a lot of people—this especially happens with girls—find out and completely stop talking to you. And I don’t even go around talking about politics. So it makes it tougher to make friends. They think I’m a huge fan of Trump, when I’m not. I just want to promote conservative policies, and they’re not interested in hearing about them because they associate everything with Trump. As a young Republican trying to encourage more people to join the party and support conservative policies, he’s made it more challenging.
I don’t have on my résumé that I’m the president of the College Republicans club because it got so partisan in this country. I got invited to this event where Nikki Haley was speaking in Colorado. The next day, I was in the Denver Post, in the background of a picture. [Some people] recognized me in the picture, and then made fun of me. And I was trying to keep it down-low.
I think a lot of Trump’s core supporters don’t really care about his policies. They just think he’s making America great again, and they don’t know how he’s doing it. So I think there’s going to be a civil war in the Republican Party. I talk to other presidents of the College Republicans, and there’s a big divide. There’s a chapter of Turning Point USA at my school. They’re the Trumpy people. There’s really no overlap between us. We don’t ever coordinate. There are a lot of College Republican battles like that. Some of the Midwestern schools, it’s Young Americans for Freedom they’re battling with. And there is a big battle among College Republican chapters: Some of them are more populist, and some of them are more traditional conservatives like us.
Marty Baker, 59, pastor of Stevens Creek Church, Augusta, Georgia
Donald Trump understood the people in a way that few politicians do. He was able to be the voice of the working man. He encouraged us to be proud of our country and to be proud of America. He encouraged us to love the flag and to support our military. He touched a deep nerve of patriotism in the American people. He is unorthodox. He was at times rude. But he was fighting for people and trying to create a better economy to lift everybody up out of poverty. I’ve always been pretty clear on my political beliefs, but he gave us confidence that what we believed was important.
There have been times where some leaders looked at the church when they were running for office, but once they got into office, the church didn’t matter to them. But for Donald Trump, he stayed with that. I mean, even making pastors essential workers when the coronavirus hit—it’s those simple little things that brought affirmations to us. He understood that enough to say, “Yes, you are essential, because faith is an essential part of an individual’s life.” And he stood for Israel. The Bible says that we should pray for the peace of Jerusalem, so we believe that God has specially touched that country. And so the very simple move of transitioning the embassy from Tel Aviv over to Jerusalem was a statement that encouraged people of faith. Because we see Jerusalem as a city that has been set apart for the world. And Donald Trump understood that.
There are times when he was a little brash. But when I would see a tweet that would make me roll my eyes and cringe—which, there would be many—I would give him the benefit of the doubt. We’ve lost the ability to give people the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe the best in President Biden, in order to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s our commander in chief, and we respect the office, and we’re going to support him and pray for him.
This past four years taught me that there’s always another side of the story. We always believed that the media was fair and trustworthy. But what we’ve seen in this [election] season is that it’s slanted, and it censors. And what we thought was a fair and balanced media has turned out to be not that. And so that’s been the sad thing. We thought that in America we could speak our mind with the First Amendment. And we can, as long as our thoughts line up with people who control the airwaves.
The last four years, I have learned that we’ve lost the ability to get along. We’ve lost that sense of working together. And so that’s what I hate. I hate the division. And sometimes I wonder, would a third party be something that would be beneficial for America? If you say, “Marty is going to lean toward the Patriot Party,” people would think, “Oh, yeah, he’s just drinking the Trump Kool-Aid and can’t think for himself.” But I think that a third party is good for other reasons than to prop up Donald Trump’s ego.
I feel that we will bounce back, and we will become unified, because that’s who we are. We are Americans, and I believe that good will prevail. I think it’s going to take some time. And it’s going to take President Biden reaching out to people of faith. He’s a churchgoing president. My advice for Joe Biden is just to affirm the faith that he has. Not to sideline religious leaders, but to bring them in the conversation.
Andrew Bilardello, 63, retired police captain and president of the Republican Club at the Villages retirement community in central Florida
For years I’ve been saying what we need is a businessperson to be president. I was fortunate—I’ve met Donald Trump on many occasions at his golf course in West Palm Beach and at Mar-a-Lago, where we would host fundraisers [when I was working for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office]. When the cameras weren’t rolling, he’s a different person. He’s a lot nicer. Sometimes when the cameras are rolling, he changes. And there are times that I don’t like that Donald Trump. I didn’t like the way he mocked and belittled people. But it worked for him. He got elected president.
My mother is a Democrat. My daughter is a Democrat. She hated Donald Trump, and there was a lot of friction between us because of my position. She sees a lot of my statements, and she gets offended. “How could you support him? How could you do this?” I’m like, “Honey, you can’t take this personally.” I do what I can to promote my party and my party’s beliefs. I do what I can to promote my candidates and try to get them elected. But if they don’t, I move on. Right now, as a former military guy and a former law enforcement officer, Joe Biden’s my president. I may not like his politics, but I’m going to do everything in my power to [have him] succeed.
[The lesson I learned from the Trump era is that] the media has gotten too influential in elections. They tell you what they want you to hear. They’re controlling the information. And that’s one of the first rules from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf: control the media, you control what people think. They really should be held responsible for some of the things they’re putting out there. Because in a lot of cases, they’re the ones that are starting all these riots in towns by putting false information out there. I believe in a free press, but there has to be some accountability. I don’t think the government should control it, but somebody needs to.
I honestly think that if the Democrats or the career politicians in D.C.—the swamp people, if you will—had given him a chance, he would have been able to accomplish a lot more. And I still think that he did an amazing job, given all the roadblocks that were thrown in front of him. His tax relief plan gave me an extra $300 a month. For me, that was real money. And I did exactly what President Trump wanted us to do with that money and put it back into the economy. I went on a trip with my daughter, to several national parks out west.
He did a lot of good things. Border security. He did a lot in the Middle East. [He brought] jobs back to America. What he did with North Korea—I think that’s amazing. There are things that he did that I was like, “I don’t know if I really liked that decision.” I believe in conservation, limiting oil drilling. I love our national parks. I don’t want to see our national parks developed. So sometimes I get chastised by some of my Republican friends, and I shake my head. But President Trump did do so many good things when he was in office, and I don’t think those should be overlooked just because people didn’t like his personality. I think we’re standing at the abyss—of really becoming a fractured nation. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get out of it.
*Grimaldo asked to use a pseudonym because her work discourages her from making public political statements.
This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.