Donald Trump’s victory, the racist attacks, the fake news… In retrospect, I should have seen it all coming. For several years I worked on Ted Nugent’s official website, an experience that gave me a startling amount of insight into the mind of the American Right. If you were to draw a Venn diagram in which one circle were Nugent fans and the other the Right, the former circle would be almost completely consumed by the latter. This is to say, while not all members of the Right love Nugent, the vast majority of Nugent fans support the Right (well, at least the ones that reached out to his website).
Looking back, I now realize that the passionate, if often misinformed, thoughts and beliefs of these fans predicted America’s current political landscape. If anyone should have known that Trump was going to win, it should have been me. Nugent fans taught me more about America’s Right than any book or university class ever could and if I’d only listened to them, I could be gloating right now about how I saw this all coming.
But of course I ignored them. In my defense, Ted and I parted ways in the summer of 2013 and up until November 8, I’d largely forgotten my time with his fans. Wrapped in my cocoon of Canadian progressiveness, I believed that while the election would be close, Clinton would eke out a win. Oops.
I should back up and explain how this left-leaning Canadian ended up working for one of the Right’s best-known celebrities. For many years I was employed by a Toronto-based company that creates and runs websites and social media accounts for bands. There I supervised the department that created content, communicated with clients and connected with fans.
When my former employer took on TedNugent.com, the original plan was that we’d look after Ted-Nugent-the-rocker’s website while Ted-Nugent-the-controversial-political-figure’s website would largely be maintained by someone else. But of course that didn’t happen and soon the community manager responsible for the site was posting about Nugent’s upcoming appearance on some right-wing radio station.
This meant that we also ended up dealing with all of the emails that were sent to Nugent by his fans. Part of my role involved ensuring that my employees were on top of their clients’ emails. I also regularly read and answered mails as I found that was a good way to stay on top of how fans were interacting with the artists, our sites and staff. It was through this channel that I found myself with direct access to the mind of the American Right. Like the torture porn movies that I have a soft spot for, I couldn’t turn away from the emails. While my coworkers often struggled with answering Ted mail (as we called it), I read it with fascination.
With our other clients, answering emails was generally a straightforward task as fans tended to ask the same questions: When are you coming to my town; Can I get an autograph; What’s the meaning behind this hit song. Ted mail was a different story.
For starters, there were the chain emails. Fans who joined an artist’s e-newsletter list were always asked to add a specific email to their address books in order to help ensure that the newsletters reached their inboxes. No one followed this instruction better than Nugent fans. We knew this because for one, Nugent newsletters generally had above average deliverability, open and click rates.
We also knew we were in their address books because each week Nugent’s inboxes would receive hundreds of forwarded emails. It was clear what was happening: The senders were forwarding these emails to their entire, or the bulk of, their address book, which now included TedNugent.com. Popular topics for these emails included: Racist jokes, concern over gun control and all and anything anti-Obama. While I never crunched any numbers, I feel confident in saying that the majority of these mails contained highly inaccurate and/or offensive materials.
When it was revealed that fake news might be a critical component of Trump’s win, I immediately thought of these chain emails. They were generally poorly written, poorly formatted and poorly researched. But they were clearly believed. If people were struggling with realizing that they were fake, how on Earth were they going to understand that a posting on Facebook, which at least used proper capitalization and punctuation, was also bullshit?
Fake news stories generally encourage sharing, just like chain emails do, and readers of both eagerly obliged. Both Nugent and other figures on the Right sometimes use the term “sheeple” to describe members of the public who obediently follow authority. I used to always smirk whenever I saw or heard that term because my time with Nugent fans taught me that no one follows instructions, whether it’s over the computer or in the voting booth, better than a right-winger.
One reason why I didn’t think Trump could win was because I didn’t believe that he could connect with enough members of the Right. After all, Trump has been married multiple times, isn’t openly religious and is a billionaire from New York. On paper, he really shouldn’t work. But I’d forgotten about the Right’s amazing ability to compartmentalize.
Nugent fans also taught me about that. When you look at Ted Nugent’s history, he also doesn’t look like right-wing icon material. His personal life has been complicated, to put it delicately; he’s a self-admitted draft dodger and for a right-winger, he’s rather low-key about religion (he is a practicing Catholic). But despite all that he’s beloved by hundreds of thousands of Americans, most of whom I guess aren’t bothered by their hero’s past. Similarly, enough Republicans were able to box away Trump’s many flaws (like being a former Democratic) and support him all the way to the White House.
Like countless others, I was also shocked that Trump’s pro-bigotry campaign resonated with so many. But then the memories of Ted mail came flooding back. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from it is that there are a lot of angry racist, misogynistic people out there.
I worked on TedNugent.com through both of Obama’s presidential runs. The outright hatred I saw directed towards him made me truly believe that there would be a serious assignation attempt against Obama. To be clear, no one emailed in such a claim but there was just so much rage that it seemed to me like a very possible event.
Obama was hardly the only target of angry emails. Disgust and frustration were expressed at any government agency that touched on guns, the environment or personal property; a few other popular topics included taxes, Europe, China and Muslims. Hillary Clinton also received a huge amount of hate.
While the aforementioned chain emails touched on all of these subjects and more, so did plenty of emails that were written explicitly for Nugent. Fans regularly wrote in and shared often-detailed stories about legal and/or financial troubles that were blamed on anything and everyone from illegal immigrants to the IRS to corrupt local officials. These emails were particularly surreal but they gave me incredible insight into the people who make up the Right.
Nugent fans taught me that for many Americans, their country is a dark, disappointing place that needs to be saved. When you understand how real and widespread that belief is and then combine it with the Right’s impressive ability to mobilize and compartmentalize and then add in its struggle to tell real news from fake, the rise of Trump was clear.
Finally, they taught me that the Right needs to be taken seriously. Trump and his supporter were, and to some degree still are, treated like jokes by too many media outlets, experts and other influencers. This attitude is one that I have to admit I had all too often towards Nugent fans and one that I know realize is dangerous and ultimately stupid. When we snark and snicker at the Right, we add fuel to their rage and ultimately only serve to support their beliefs.
This doesn’t mean that Trump supporters need to be agreed with, emphasized with or normalized. But they do need to be listened to and understood. After all, in the eyes of democracy, all enfranchised citizens are equals, regardless of whether or not they believe a chain email about how Sandy Hook was a false flag attack (yes, that is a real email that’s out there).