CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — Over the past few years I have been travelling to the Carolinas to spend the winter holidays with my parents who split the colder months between Charlotte, North Carolina, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This year, while traversing the small country roads between these two cities, I noticed a number of pop-up “Trump Centers” sandwiched between the usual CBD boutiques, diversity-targeted military recruiting ads, homemade liquor signs, and lottery ads. These self-proclaimed Trump Centers are typically found in half-abandoned shopping centers, corners of souvenir shops, and surrounded by dying businesses.
During Trump’s time in office I didn’t have the strength to enter these places.
I had experienced firsthand how nasty the media and domestic affairs could be, particularly since I had created together several artworks in reaction to the administration. One artwork, a satirical-anti-monument, ended up going viral, shared by both left-and right-wing users, causing a backlash of hate mail from both communities. The work even provoked anonymous arsonists to burn the artwork down — this event, combined with hateful threats, weakened and depleted me emotionally. But, over the past weeks I decided to retrace my steps through the Carolinas to investigate these centers more closely. This decision took me down a rabbit hole of dark tourism and nationalist identity.
Initially, I was astonished to discover that these shops have stayed open, even months after the end of Trump’s presidency. I was also surprised by the diverse backgrounds of the shop owners themselves. The largest Trump Center I visited was in South Carolina, operated by a family of Pakistani immigrants, while another in North Carolina was run by a couple of Mexican descent. However, the smaller and more sinister-feeling shops were typically manned by older white men or bikers.
As you might imagine, in my conversations with the owners, I found them to be skeptical of the government establishment, pro-gun, anti-media, down on their luck, and growing more paranoid. The topics of the conversations usually centered around the idea that the election was stolen from Trump, or the possibility he is still actually the president. These brief discussions would start with me asking “how do you feel the election went?” to which various employees’ responded:
- “Joe Biden is just a corporate president.”
- “Joe Biden is a fraudulent president.”
- “Trump is still president and still has the nuclear football according to the first constitution.”
- “Why is it that president Trump still has Air Force One? Probably because he is still president.”
- “Joe Biden was inaugurated 10 minutes before 12noon which means he is not a legal president according to the constitution. “
Supporting Trump and clinging to his presidency has become a kind of alternative-reality game, or a pseudo religion for these Trump supporters. They have a kind of missionary zeal, regardless of heritage. Probing into the depths of denial and cult-like worship, combined with being exposed to so many confederate flags, blatant evidence of racism, and extreme xenophobia has made me feel sick and sad again.
We’ve all seen how Trump’s presidency emboldened radical nationalists and white supremacists. Their numbers grow with a supportive tweet from him, and in return, the horror of their actions diminished, obscured, or recast as patriotism. Even the darkest sentiments casually conserved on racist T-shirt designs, “100% southern grown, picked by yo’ momma.”
They are so very certain of their righteous place in history and their future victory parade that they are still keeping the gift-shop open.