The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s Tampa circus proves you can’t reason with his base

President Trump on July 31 compared his presidency to that of Abraham Lincoln, noting that the leader was "tough." (Video: The Washington Post)

For once, the most memorable thing about one of the president’s rallies was not his baldfaced lies nor his attacks on reality. Rather, Trump’s Tampa rally will be remembered for the reporting of CNN’s Jim Acosta. He revealed more accurately than most what the Trump base, or at least part of it, looks and sounds like and what Trump must do to hold its attention. He tweeted:

In between reports, Acosta strolled over to engage with the hooters and hollerers, extending them the civility and respect they would deny anyone who contradicts their cult leader.

A few observations are in order:

First, this is the behavior Trump incites and amplifies with his attacks on the free press. When he says the media is the “enemy of the people” or the worst people or the most dishonest people, his followers take it as license to treat members of the media as something less than human. Trump has defined the press as part of “the other,” and his cult responds with the kind of venom used to keep a foreign body at bay.

The Trump administration blocked a CNN correspondent from attending an open media event. That's an assault on press freedom. (Video: Erik Wemple, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Second, let’s not be surprised when 35 percent or so of voters consistently tell pollsters that the president is the victim of a witch hunt or that they agree with every policy position and action he takes. Trump fans’ politics is not the politics of rationality, considered judgment or empirical observation. Blind hatred and unthinking boorishness are not moderated by new facts or observable phenomena. We should stop marveling as his “success” in holding his base as if this were a reflection of his political skill, let alone the efficacy of his policies. Rather, the unbreakable and unblinking devotion of his unhinged base is confirmation that he now must rely on support from people oblivious to reality.

Third, we should stop infantilizing Trump supporters, treating them as hapless victims of forces beyond their control. We’ve done them wrong. They come from “real America.” Bunk. Whatever one’s economic hardships, any threatening, unhinged conduct and crude insults shouldn’t be excused. Trump cultists claim to be injured by the disrespect of “elites”; the only ones showing disrespect in Tampa were those in the mob. (And anyway, what ever happened to personal responsibility for one’s life choices?)

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Fourth, don’t expect Trump to adhere to facts or apologize for egregious rhetoric. Words for Trump are the quintessential Pavlovian bell, used to elicit a response from the mob. He says “MS-13!” and they holler. He shouts “Fake news!” and they chant. It’s only his better-behaved apologists in Congress, on Fox News and among the right-wing ecosystem who try to rationalize his conduct and explain his statements as if he is speaking great truths that the evil media simply won’t acknowledge.

And that brings us to the most distressing part of the Trump cult: The apologists who should know better. The “But Gorsuch!” and “Yeah, but Hillary…” crowd gives Trump and his cohorts political, moral and intellectual legitimacy to spew racist rhetoric and distort reality. The Trump vanguard in more respectable settings and publications twists itself into knots trying to explain how his 4,299 lies aren’t really lies. They insist despite a dearth of evidence that Trump’s performances in Singapore and at the Group of Seven summit were strategically brilliant, rather than reflections of an irrational narcissist who will say anything (whether it’s compliments to Kim Jong Un or fiery nonsense to a Tampa crowd) to garner praise. Without the people who should know better (both inside and outside the administration), Trump could not survive politically.

Democracies cannot function without reason and respect for truth, which is why totalitarian movements seek to obliterate both. It’s only when the mob is unhinged and dependent on its leader for direction and for truth that the leader can get away with cruelty, corruption, blatant falsehoods and illegality that would not otherwise be tolerated. The survival of our democracy requires that we not merely jettison Trump and his sycophantic party from power and attend to repair of our democratic institutions, but that we also insist on a level of rational, civil discourse and respect for facts. Mobs cannot practice democratic self-governance; for that we need an engaged, rational citizenry.

And by the way, if you didn’t think it was important to turn out to vote, then consider whether you want to be governed by the politicians who thrill that crowd in Tampa.

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