“Make no mistake: when he made his inaugural address, there were knots in my throat because I thought that maybe I was wrong. That maybe there really would be something special. That he would be a president for all people.”
Don Mabrey is not talking about President Donald Trump. He is talking about former President Barack Obama. Mabrey deeply opposes the former president’s ideology.
“He divided this country in a way that I have never, in my whole life, seen.”
Mabrey is first and foremost an educator. He used to head a private school for low-income Black and Latino students in New York City’s Spanish Harlem, and is now the assistant principal of the Harbor Science and Arts charter school, also in the city. He is hard-working, astute, and willing to talk with strangers who request interviews. Mabrey’s Harlem roots run deep—he grew up there, first on the West side, and then later in Spanish Harlem. He is a Black and Latino man with Democrat parents. He is also a Trump supporter.
Mabrey is important because he represents the large swath of Americans who voted for Trump, and yet whose demographic goes largely unheard from in popular media. In the 2016 election, Trump won 29% of the Latino vote and 8% of the Black vote. Moreover, Clinton’s support base among Black voters was significantly smaller as compared to Obama’s in 2012: Clinton was supported by 88% of black voters, which is a drop relative to Obama’s 87-point edge four years ago, when he was supported by 93% of black voters. Clearly there is a misconception about Trump’s appeal to minorities.
In the aftermath of the election, pundits and voters alike have tried to find a coherent narrative to explain—or in some cases, justify—Trump’s victory. Many attributed it to the perceived sexism, racism, and nativism of the white working class, finding within Trump’s spoken (and sometimes tweeted) rhetoric an appeal to a dangerous traditionalism. This was perhaps the hardest explanation to grapple with. On election night, political commentator Van Jones identified the phenomenon as a “whitelash.”
Are there Trump voters who defy this categorization? It has often been hard to see them, as the supporters being covered by mainstream media are usually the most vocal, and the most radical. There is a prevailing sentiment that the Trump movement really is a manifestation of America’s dark underside. But where are the Trump supporters who don’t adhere to the white, working class mold? They exist in various cross-sections of American life, and yet they occupy a very small space in the liberal imagination. Mabrey is a testament to the existence of a political demographic that resists categorization.
His is the worldview of a Trump supporter who grew up in a Democratic, urban, and coastal state. Cosmopolitan both by upbringing and geographic circumstance, Mabrey’s political beliefs make him somewhat of an outlier: 79% of New Yorkers voted for Hillary Clinton. And yet the fact that he exists simultaneously in two spheres—the urban, Northeastern one, and the conservative, traditionalist one—suggests that these worlds are not as mutually exclusive as they are made out to be. Mabrey is uncommon partly because he is enthralled by a candidate whose movement was thought to resonate primarily with voters whose identities seem to be opposite of Mabrey’s in nearly every way. Although he may not have the same interests as the rural working class, and although he may not have felt the same forms of resentment as laid-off factory workers in Michigan, he found a lasting commonality with these voters through the Trump campaign. Their unifying belief is a growing frustration with political and economic elitism.
“I think watching people lose their jobs, watching more and more people rely upon the government for assistance, watching people go on food stamps, watching people become more and more hopeless, watching our society go to a disgusting elitism—it drives me crazy,” he said.
At a time when ideologies are also hyper-partisan, Mabrey’s politics are hard to pin down.
“I consider myself somewhat of a conservative, but I wouldn’t consider myself a big ‘R’ Republican. Pretty much a traditional constitutionalist,” he explained.
Like many New Yorkers, Mabrey grew up acutely aware of urban inequality. His home, was, and remains, profoundly segregated, characterized by visible racial and economic divisions. However, it is also a place defined by its resilience—a beacon of multiculturalism and vitality in the face of discriminatory policies and historic neglect. The incongruity of Mabrey’s stomping grounds have impressed upon him a distinct worldview, the tenets of which rest upon the some of the institutional failures he has seen firsthand.
“When my mother and father broke up, we moved to the projects in Spanish Harlem. And mostly all the people there were on public assistance, and not trying really hard to do anything. The school system sucked,” he said.
Mabrey expressed his frustration with policies aimed at reinvigorating poor communities—he saw them as counterproductive. In his eyes, however, the rejection of government intervention does not mean a rejection of the truth. He acknowledges the failure of schools, the faltering of businesses, and the economic suffering of East and West Harlem. He taught low-income Black and Latino boys at a private high school in Spanish Harlem, where he bore witness to the capacity of the private sector to empower communities. He does not view the government as a solution because he has seen its flaws.
“I realized as a person of color that all the promises that were made after the civil rights movement were ridiculous, actually. It was a way of inflating people to rely upon the government to do things for them and not for themselves,” he said.
An active distrust of liberal promises pervades our conversation – he knows the system is failing, yet he places the blame not on the lack of intervention, but instead on what he deems to be the hollow promises of Democrats who have time and time again promised widespread social and economic reform in his city. He hasn’t always been this skeptical of idealistic progressivism, however. Mabrey was raised a Democrat, with parents who encouraged political activism, especially around issues of social inequity.
“I used to protest when I was in elementary school, outside of the Board of Education, with a communist group. I was brought up on the more socially conscious side,” he said.
In fact, Mabrey’s adolescence echoed those of many of his young, staunchly Democratic students.
“I specifically remember the eighties, and I remember listening to Rush Limbaugh, to get aggravated at the radio, because I thought he was so racist, and I used to just lose my mind,” he said.
Mabrey’s political evolution didn’t begin until college, where he struggled to make ends meet as a result of what he said was over-taxation. He couldn’t understand why he, and those around him, were working so hard, and still making no money.
“We get taxed for so much, we get so little, and so many people rely upon these promises that haven’t changed since the law was enacted,” he said.
Mabrey’s economic frustrations are not foreign—voters on both sides of the aisle have echoed a common sentiment that they are being left behind. But while many consider deep-rooted poverty and poor urban living standards to be the culmination of a relentless barrage of discriminatory policies, Mabrey believes they are perpetuated by a failing welfare state.
“The social aspects of our community are dictated by the laws that are put forth by our political community, and so what happens is that everyone who is involved in pushing a specific collectivist agenda has really hurt the individuality and entrepreneurship of Black and Latino people in these neighborhoods,” he said.
The case Mabrey makes for Black and Latino empowerment is a distinct one, but still, he is quick to assure that he is an advocate of the cause.
“I’m not whitewashed, I work in the Barrio, I’m all about my people,” he stresses.
As an educator, Mabrey’s ideology is motivated by a desire to instill a sense of self-reliance in his students, and to show them community role models and successes after which they can model themselves. In its current form, he sees public education as being deeply flawed, ultimately crediting the political decline of the country to its failure.
“Education is completely classist, and as we all know, it is the makeup of our system. It has nothing to do with really empowering people—it was designed just to have people learn how to read so they could be followers,” he said.
When asked how his rising frustration at the state of affairs translated into his support for Trump’s platform, Mabrey said that it was Trump’s very “anti-politician” nature that resonated most strongly with him.
“Believe it or not, the main thing is leadership. Not platitudes, not emotional appeals, but real leadership, to the point where there is nothing scripted,” he said.
For Mabrey, President Trump’s repudiation of “political correctness” is compelling. Trump provides an alternative to Obama’s era of eloquence, and for many is a stark contrast to the political standard set for the past eight years, which was largely founded on idealism and, quite literally, hope. Mabrey expressed his support for this evolution of the political arena into a more brazen one, especially in light of what he sees as a failed Obama administration, selling a dream that was outdated and untenable:
“Most people are so sold on emotion. To me, I thought Obama was a used car salesman—beautiful, handsome, great—I mean, I said to myself—my goodness, these people are going to go crazy for him, because he is a used car salesman,” he said.
Mabrey’s support for Trump doesn’t rest on the assumption that he was the perfect presidential candidate.
“I realized very very early on, there were a couple of faux pas that Trump had that I thought were gonna cost him, but I realized that he was gonna win. He was gonna win because he’s a New Yorker, number one, and number two, he knows how to play both sides of the game. He’s an entertainer as well, but more than that, most people don’t even realize that he is one of the most intelligent people,” he said.
Even so, Mabrey does not waver in his backing.
“I didn’t lose support for him—I was concerned that he was a little over the top, because these people weren’t ready for what he had to say,” he said.
When asked about these “faux pas”, particularly the instance in which Trump was caught on-camera discussing “grabbing [women] by the pussy,” Mabrey told The Politic:
“Most people, when they come together, whether it be men or women, if they’re coming together in a social setting and the subject comes up about men, or women, sometimes it gets a little vulgar. But it doesn’t mean that any of the individuals that are involved, outside of these situations, are vulgar.”
However, Mabrey does not advocate for the things Donald Trump said in private. He also made the case for the deluge of sexist or otherwise inflammatory material that came from other politicians, suggesting that, if Americans took the time to look into some of the things other very public figures have said, they would find information that was equally as shocking.
“He’s an alpha male—again, that doesn’t make me a chauvinist, but I like men that are strong, not men that are like Obama. I think he is being a man, and a man that loves his country. More than anything to me, I love people who love their country. And that doesn’t mean any other country is worse, but I love America. I love the opportunities that I had here, and that’s all I want,” he said.
Mabrey’s support for Trump was also contingent on the president’s cabinet selection. He favored Betsy DeVos, Trump’s appointee for Secretary of Education.
“You have to be able to have competition [among schools,] and she’s all about that. And we’ll take the caps off the charter schools and really start opening up more charter schools. Now, again, I would love for public schools to be what they were supposed to be. However, as long as we have unions that are staying in business, we will never have the change that we need in public education,” Mabrey said.
Despite his conservatism, Mabrey does advocate for federal oversight in the name of bettering the public school system.
“Every single district, throughout this country, should be equal in terms of resources and I think the only way that we can do that, is by having the federal government dole out the funds, and oversee the facilities and resources being used. I think if we can do that, we can go into Spanish Harlem and Harlem, and look at their public schools, and their facilities would be state of the art,” he said.
I felt it necessary to ask, finally, if Mabrey felt his racial identity was ever at odds with Trump’s rhetoric, or with the nationalist movement he was responsible for spearheading. Particularly worth inquiry were Trump’s murky associations with the alt-right and white nationalism.
“The alt-right is a joke. I wouldn’t even say there are 10,000 members in the entire country of 300 million. It isn’t even a drop in the ocean…I think it is also part of this movement to take people as racist that do not prescribe to the globalist, progressive agenda,” he responded.
Ultimately, Mabrey raised his own defense against the notion of a “white backlash”:
“No, I don’t think Trump’s election to the presidency has anything to do with the alt-right. And even if every KKK member in the country voted for Donald Trump, that still wouldn’t be enough to make him president.”
Mabrey’s insight is crucial, not only because he was one of the only Trump supporters out of dozens contacted who agreed to speak with The Politic, but also because he represents an evolution in American politics. Mabrey is proof that the strictly constructed partisan divisions are breaking down, and that the traditional defining factors—whether it be geographic, racial, economic, or religious—of Republicans and Democrats are far more fluid than we thought.
Mabrey’s final piece of advice was this:
“I think your generation really needs to open their minds up and stop listening to everything you learn in college. It happens in all generations—you think your professors are the smartest people in the world, and most of them have only been stuck in a university for most of their lives, and they don’t know anything besides what everybody else is leaning towards. They kind of group think—there are no individuals—everybody wants to be a part of what everybody else is a part of.”