The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s gun-toting supporters are firing blanks

Protesters rallied against Michigan's stay-at-home order on April 30 as lawmakers considered whether to extend the state’s expiring declaration. (Video: @QuirkyFollowsQ via Storyful)

Four years ago, Donald Trump’s core supporters embraced Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” label because it encapsulated their class struggle against the perceived ruling elite.

Now, as Trump’s reelection nears, the Deplorables are back, but this time they’re gunning for a new moniker: the Discombobulateds.

If his supporters are unified by anything in 2020, it is a shared confusion about his rationale for a second term. This has become a movement without a message.

At the American Patriot Rally at the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., on Thursday, many of the hundreds of protesters wore red “Make America Great Again” caps or flew “Trump 2020” banners and “Build the Wall” or “Drain the Swamp” signs. Others waved the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags of the tea party. Demonstrators, several armed with military-style guns, then marched into the statehouse and stared down the police.

What did they propose to do with these weapons? Shoot the virus? Shoot the governor? Shoot themselves in the foot?

They didn’t seem to have a plan. They were there to rail against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic restrictions, though hers are not so different from those in other states, even those run by Republican governors. They howled about “tyranny” even though the country is now run by the man they helped elect. They fretted about losing their Second Amendment rights even as they carried guns, legally under Michigan law, into the Capitol. They complained about runaway government spending and money-printing even though Trump and the GOP have championed it.

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Before the armed stunt, David Clarke, the former Milwaukee County, Wis., sheriff who was once offered a senior job in the Trump administration, stoked the crowd’s inchoate rage.

“I do not want the government to run any testing operation,” he told the demonstrators.

The crowd cheered.

“Bill Gates has suggested microchipping every American,” Clarke said, falsely.

The crowd booed.

Clarke said “so-called experts” pulled the idea of six-foot social distancing “out of their rear ends.”

The crowd cheered.

Clarke mocked “bulls---” ideas such as “bending the curve,” declared the coronavirus death count phony and derided the Trump-appointed surgeon general. Clarke demanded that Michigan fully reopen without waiting “until testing can be done, not until a vaccine is discovered, but now, dammit!” He instructed the demonstrators to “leave your homes, open your businesses” in defiance of Whitmer’s restrictions.

“Lock her up!” the crowd chanted.

Immediately and fully reopening the economy, of course, would only cause unemployment to worsen, as the virus ran uncontrolled and the health-care system collapsed. But this crowd hadn’t come to rally for logic.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

They had come, according to their signs, to declare Whitmer a Nazi (a poster showed her with swastika, Hitler mustache and Third Reich salute), to say “Bill Gates is evil,” to declare that this isn’t a “real pandemic” but rather “psyops” with “fake stats” and to misspell a call to resistance: “Lets Rebel.”

Trump, who stoked protests with his “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” tweet last month, egged them on. He tweeted Friday that Whitmer, a previous Trump target, should “put out the fire” by making “a deal” with the armed mob. “These are very good people, but they are angry,” he wrote.

The president is reportedly angry, too. Not long ago, the plan was clear. Trump would run on a booming economy and against the “socialists.” On March 2, at what would turn out to be his last rally, he boasted that “we just had the largest one-day increase in the stock market in history” and “jobs are booming in our country, incomes are soaring, poverty has plummeted, confidence is surging.” Said he: “Promises made, promises kept.”

No longer. The economy collapsed. “Crazy Bernie” Sanders, the socialist, lost the Democratic presidential nomination. Obamacare is increasingly popular. The trillions of dollars of stimulus Trump signed into law dwarf President Barack Obama’s spending.

Without a rationale for reelection, Trump gropes for one. He says his opponent, Joe Biden, has a medical “condition.” Despite his own past boast of sexual assaults, he draws attention to an accusation against Biden. He ricochets among attacks on Obama, China, Chuck Schumer and the FBI.

His supporters can’t decide what to do. “Don’t defend Trump,” advised an April memo by Senate Republicans’ campaign operation advising candidates on the coronavirus.

In Lansing this week, the speakers generally took that advice. They seldom mentioned Trump. Instead, they alleged conspiracies. “You have been bamboozled,” Clarke informed them, by “agenda driven people in the medical field along with bureaucrats with ties to liberal causes.” Clarke alleged that these sinister actors “wiped out 12 years of job gains in 30 frickin’ days.”

No wonder they reach for their guns. But in their hunt for a reelection rationale, they’re firing blanks.

Speculation by Fox News and the president about covid-19 cures is making it more difficult for health officials to do their job, says media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Alex Brandon / AP/The Washington Post)

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