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Trump's true believers

Aug 07,2022 - Last updated at Aug 07,2022

NEW YORK  —  There can no longer be any doubt about the facts of what happened in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. Despite being told by his own inner circle, including by his loyal attorney general, William Barr, that he had lost a fair election in November 2020, US President Donald Trump broke democracy’s cardinal rule: He refused to accept his defeat and has been pushing conspiracy theories about electoral “fraud” ever since. Trump deliberately incited an armed mob to storm the Capitol, and when the crowd started baying for Vice President Mike Pence to be hanged, he did nothing and told his staff that Pence deserved it because he had refused to stage a coup on Trump’s behalf.

These were the conclusions reached by the US House of Representatives’ January 6 Committee after it had conducted over 1,000 interviews. Some of the most damning evidence came from members of Trump’s own staff. Liz Cheney, the committee’s Republican vice chair, said in her closing statement: “Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”

For most Republicans, who tend to regard Cheney as a traitor, the resounding answer is, “Yes, he can.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy refused to have anything to do with the committee. According to a recent poll, 40 per cent of Republicans believe that what happened on January 6 is nothing to worry about. The same proportion think that the violent assault on the Capitol was a legitimate political protest.

More than half of Americans do not share these views. Democrats obviously don’t, and many independents also are turning away from Trump in disgust. But what accounts for the ex-president’s continuing grip on the trust and affection of so many Republicans? Ignorance and lack of interest may be part of it, but if so, it is a willful ignorance, because all the facts about January 6 are out in the open, even though Fox News refused to broadcast the committee’s hearings.

But talking about the facts may miss the point. To many of his supporters, Trump is more than just a politician. A major part of his appeal is that he was never really a politician at all. People have turned to him as a kind of messiah. They don’t just support him, they believe in him as a saviour who gives them a sense of pride, not least in belonging to something greater than the life of any individual person.

Class has much to do with this. Trump’s most loyal supporters are white Americans without any higher education, often living in rural areas, who feel unheard, condescended to, and even despised by better-educated, more urban Americans. The more that educated liberals deplore what former President Barack Obama once described as people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them”, the more the typical Trump voters will double down on their beliefs.

Trump understands this and, despite his wealth, shares the popular resentment of elites that never quite accepted him or his family of shady real-estate operators. The fact that he is a serial sinner against the religious values that many of his followers claim as their own does not faze them. Most people are sinners, after all. Rates of divorce and teenage birth are higher in solidly Republican states than in more liberal parts of America. The more Trump’s political opponents criticise him for being an adulterer, a bigot, and a liar, the more his followers defend him. That is why the facts laid out by the January 6 Committee do not matter to them.

The key is that Trump, like all skillful demagogues, gives people who feel powerless a sense of collective power. He fires up a warm feeling of “us” against “them”, and of being “patriots” pitted against arrogant cosmopolitan urbanites who coddle non-white minorities, immigrants and transsexuals.

Will Trump’s enduring appeal to such true believers allow him to become president again? It would be foolish to count him out at this stage. But he faces real challenges. An increasing number of Americans will vote for candidates they like regardless of their party affiliation. And many do not like Trump. Women, especially, are worried about the recent decision by the US Supreme Court, which is loaded with reactionary judges picked by Trump, to strip them of their constitutional right to abortion.

Even worse for Trump is the erosion of his support among Republican-adjacent media. Conservative newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post now criticise his behavior on January 6, and even Fox News is no longer a dependable cheerleader. Already on the night when Trump lost the presidential election, Rupert Murdoch, who owns all three media outlets, reportedly growled: “**** him.”

None of this necessarily means that most Republicans disapprove of Trump. Many may still believe his claim that Joe Biden’s victory was fraudulent. But an increasing number of Republicans say they are tired of Trump droning on about what happened nearly two years ago; they want their party to move on.

Forgetfulness and boredom are always quick to emerge in US politics. But there is another reason why the tide may be turning against Trump. The Republican strategist Sarah Longwell described the feelings of many in her party: “They think the hearings are stupid and they like Donald Trump, but they’re making a political calculation about who can win.” To be rejected because he is seen as a loser: Now that would be the stuff of Trump’s worst nightmares.


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of “The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit” (Penguin, 2020). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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