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In harrowing, hilarious stories for VICE and Esquire and in his books, Harmon Leon has gone undercover as a carny, a rookie Scientologist and a Westborough Baptist Church acolyte—all to understand what makes far-right extremists tick. In his new book with political cartoonist Ted Rall, Meet the Deplorables: Infiltrating Trump America, Leon attempts to understand the president’s base by visiting tattoo shops (offering free ink of the president), gay-conversion therapy groups and other “red state” firebrands. We asked the comedian and journalist about his latest wild adventure out of NYC.
You keep a tone of buoyant curiosity throughout the book, no matter how grim your surroundings. How do you maintain that?
There’s just an intrinsic curiosity when you’re in these places—like when you’re in a meeting with an anti-Muslim hate group, like ACT for America. What motivates these people? What has gotten these people to where they are? It’s always intriguing, no matter how horrific it is, when you come across a group of people with an ideology that’s so vastly different than yours. It’s easy to fire off as many jokes as you can and completely mock them. Instead, I go for the approach of: Let them hang themselves with their own words.
Do you ever get surprised and shocked, even after all these years of doing this type of work?
Absolutely. There are always those moments. Even one of the more vanilla type stories is going to New Hampshire, where people are getting Trump tattoos on their body for free.These guys are getting the likeness of Donald Trump inked on their flesh for life. Then you go to something a little more unsettling like the Oathkeepers, this Libertarian, pro-gun organization whose thought process is about how any kind of curbing of gun laws will result with everyone being put in 24/7 camps.
Did you have any moments of panic?
I went with a repo man to repossess cars in the middle of the night in Reno, and that was the one where I was like, Anything can happen here, because you’re basically pulling up to people’s houses and stealing their cars, in gun-happy Nevada.
How do you decompress when you come out of cover?
Writing the story is the decompression. No matter how horrific it is, there’s the initial being horrified, but also: This is going to make a good story.
What is something liberal audiences are missing about the people you meet?
You generalize that all Trump supporters are the racist and xenophobic supporters we see in the rallies. But there are also people like the ones getting their cars repossessed, they’re out of jobs. I went to Indiana with a meth-lab clean-up crew, and just seeing their dire economic circumstances—and suddenly there’s this guy who says he’s going to bring all the jobs back; he resonated. It’s about knowing that there’s a vast amount of motivation for people who were captivated by Trump.
How do you unshake those people?
What we’re talking about is the cult of politics, and people are in that cult. God, Roy Moore almost got elected. The takeaway of the book is that pretty soon even Trump supporters will see through the barrade. All these poor coal miners—when he’s saying he’s going to bring the jobs back—he’s going to take away their insurance, and there’s tax cuts for the rich, Mexico’s going to pay for the wall, and it’s going to come out of their tax money. They’ll just see that they’ve been duped in the end.
What is your advice for someone who wants to pursue infiltration journalism?
Do your homework. Know the groups that you’re going into. I’ve done everything, like infiltrate the Westborough Baptist Church, and other horrible groups. Whenever you’re in a situation, your humor comforts people. If you can find a common ground and make them laugh in some way, that’s a way they gain your trust.
When you’re deep undercover, what do you miss about NYC?
I miss New York all the time when I’m in these places. Anything from a good slice of NYC pizza to being in this amazing, culturally diverse city we live in. When I’m, say, cleaning up meth labs in Indiana, or amongst people who live in tunnels below Las Vegas, or repossessing cars in Reno, what’s not to miss about New York?