How Are Trump Supporters Still Doing This?
It’s past time to stop treating Trump like a normal politician.
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Former President Donald Trump gave a long and deranged speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference this weekend. We need to stop treating support for Trump as if it’s just another political choice and instead work to isolate his renewed threat to our democracy and our national security.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
A Test of Character
Donald Trump went to CPAC and gave a speech that was, even by his delusional standards, dark and violent. Much of it was hallucinatory. Amusing as it is to listen to President von Munchausen and his many “sir” stories, Trump is the former commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces and the current front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. He is as dangerous as ever to our democracy and to our national security.
But I also want to turn attention from Trump’s evident emotional issues to consider a more unsettling question: How, in 2023, after all we know about this man and his attacks on our government and our Constitution, do we engage the people who heard that speech and support Donald Trump’s candidacy? How do we turn the discussion away from partisanship and toward good citizenship—and to the protection of our constitutional order?
In the past, reporters have approached such questions gingerly, poking their head into coffee shops, asking for comments at rallies, and claiming to overhear conversations at gas stations, all in the service of trying to understand Trump voters. (Only The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper has ever managed to get anywhere in such interviews, and the answers he elicits are often terrifyingly dumb.) These respectful conversations with Trump voters have produced almost nothing useful beyond failed theories about “economic anxiety” and other rationalizations that capture little about why Trump voters continue to support a posse of authoritarian goons.
In 2016, Trump supporters could lean on a slew of hopeful arguments: Trump is just acting; he’ll hire professional staff; the “good” Republicans will keep him in line; the job will sober him up. All of these would be disproved over time. (It didn’t help that the alternative at the time was Hillary Clinton, for whom I voted but whose campaign was a tough sell to many people.) But by 2020, Trump, along with his enablers at Fox and other right-wing outlets, had created a kind of impermeable anti-reality field around the GOP base. This shell of pure denial defeated almost any argument about anything.
Media, flummoxed by having a sociopathic narcissist in the Oval Office, treated Trump like a normal political leader, and soon we all—even me—became accustomed to the fact that the president of the United States routinely sounded like the guy at the end of the bar who makes you decide to take your drink over to a table or a booth. When Joe Biden won, I hoped that this strange fever gripping so many Americans would finally pass. But the fever did not break, not even after January 6, 2021, and the many hearings that showed Trump’s responsibility for the events of that black day.
And now Trump has kicked off his attempt to regain office with a litany of lunacy. His speech at CPAC has been recounted by my Atlantic colleagues; John Hendrickson notes Trump’s return to the classics of grievance, and McKay Coppins describes how Trump has managed to become part of the typically boring CPAC kitsch.
But we shouldn’t mistake Trump’s gibbering for harmless political glossolalia. As Charlie Sykes said this morning, CPAC is “a serious threat masquerading as a cultic circus cum clown car,” and revealed “what a Trump 2.0 would look like.” This is a former president whose pitch included “I am your retribution.” Retribution for what, exactly, was left unsaid, but revenge for being turned out of office is likely high on the list. The Trumpian millennium turned into a tawdry four years of grubby incompetence and an ignominious loss. If Trump wins again, there will be a flurry of pardons, the same cast of miscreants will return to Pennsylvania Avenue, and, this time, they won’t even pretend to care about the Constitution or the rule of law.
Imagine an administration where we’ll all be nostalgic for the high-mindedness of Bill Barr.
Trump also reminded us that he is an existential menace to our national security. He reveled in a story he first told last spring—almost certainly a fiction—about how he informed a meeting of NATO leaders that he would let the Russians roll over them if they weren’t paid up. (Trump still thinks NATO is a protection racket.) He then fantasized about how easily a Russian attack could destroy NATO’s headquarters.
We’ve all cataloged this kind of Trumpian weirdness many times, and I still feel pity for the fact-checkers who try to keep up with him. But I wonder if there is any point. By now it should be clear that the people listening to Trump don’t care about facts, or even about policy or politics. They enjoy the show, and they want it back on TV for another four years. And this is a problem not with Trump but with the voters.
It is long past time to admit that support for Trump, after all that we now know, is a moral failing. As I wrote in a recent book, there is such a thing as being a bad citizen in a democracy, and we should cease the pretend arguments about policy—remember, the 2020 GOP convention didn’t even bother with a platform. Instead, anyone who cares about the health of American democracy, of any party or political belief, should say clearly that to applaud Trump’s fantasies and threats at CPAC is to show an utter lack of civic character. (I might say that it is no better than applauding David Duke, but why invoke the former KKK leader when Trump has already had dinner with Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist who he seems to think is a swell guy?)
The man who bellowed and sweated his way through almost two hours of authoritarian madness is still the same man who instigated an attack on our Capitol (and on his own vice president), the man who would hand our allies to Russia if they’re behind on the vig, the man who thinks a free press is his enemy, the man who tried to wave away a pandemic as thousands and thousands of Americans died.
Stigma and judgment have a place in politics. There was a time when we forced people out of public life for offenses far less than Donald Trump’s violent and seditious corruption. We were a better country for it, and returning to that better time starts with media outlets holding elected Republicans to account for Trump’s statements—but also with each of us refusing to accept rationalizations and equivocation from even our friends and family. I said in 2016 that the Trump campaign was a test of character, and that millions of us were failing it. The stakes are even clearer and steeper now; we cannot fail this test again.
- The Biden administration is reportedly considering a mass-vaccination campaign for poultry as an outbreak of bird flu continues to kill millions of chickens.
- Former Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced yesterday that he would not be seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
- A stampede at a GloRilla concert in Rochester, New York, on Sunday night killed one person and injured nine more. Two of the injured are in critical condition.
Up for Debate: Conor Friedersdorf rounds up more reader responses about organized religion.
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A Bird’s-Eye View
By Elaine Godfrey
Have you ever looked at a duck? I mean really looked at one.
If you have, then you’ve probably noticed how a duck somehow manages to appear graceful and goofy at the same time, with her rounded head nestled perfectly into her body and her rubbery feet flapping beneath the water. Sometimes she’ll twist her elegant neck around to peck and pull at her wings, preening—which actually involves gathering oil from glands near her tail and combing it through her feathers to keep them waterproof.
This is important work for a duck. And it can be nice to watch, pondering how else she occupies her time and letting your mind wander back to childhood memories of Beatrix Potter’s Jemima Puddle-Duck and Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. I indulged in this for a while this week during a tour of the National Zoo’s Bird House, in Northwest Washington, D.C. After six years of renovation, the exhibit will finally reopen on March 13.
More From The Atlantic
Read. Wolfish, Erica Berry’s debut book, explores what we perceive as threats—and teaches us to live with our fears.
Watch. If blockbuster-level gore is what you’re after, our critic writes, Cocaine Bear (in theaters) delivers.
Some folks on social media recently pointed me to a documentary on Amazon Prime titled The Sound of 007. I am a sucker for all things James Bond (and I have been known to have some controversial views on casting the role), but I especially love the music. The brassy horns and electric guitars, the cheesy lyrics, the overwrought performances—all of it makes me wish I were playing baccarat in London or Hong Kong in 1967 while smoking and saying things like “banco.”
There’s a lot in the special about John Barry, the king of 007 scores, and especially about the origins of Monty Norman’s instantly recognizable theme. (Weird factoid: It was originally meant for a musical that Norman was writing based on a V. S. Naipaul novel set among the East Indian community of Trinidad, and so it had a kind of bouncy, sitar-influenced sound. Barry jazzed it up.) The documentary includes many interviews and archival clips, and some of the stories behind these songs are amazing: Dame Shirley Bassey had to take off her bustier to hit the notes in “Goldfinger,” and Tom Jones says he nearly passed out trying to finish off “Thunderball.” There’s also some honest talk about the not-great themes: Dame Shirley detested “Moonraker,” and no one much liked “All Time High,” from Octopussy. The producer Harry Saltzman apparently tried to veto one of the true classics, “Diamonds Are Forever,” because it was too risqué. (No, really.) I admit I yawned a bit at the later contributions from Sam Smith and Billie Eilish, but The Sound of 007 is an engrossing musical tour through the Bond movies.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.