The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Trump has to sell a fantasy of collective persecution

Donald Trump at a rally in Perry, Ga., in 2021. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

When you watch the collection of nincompoops whose professional lives are organized around defending Donald Trump — the Fox News hosts, the backbench members of Congress, the far-right social media personalities — it’s easy to conclude that, to quote Trump himself, “they’re not sending their best.” But they know their audience, and they’re very good at identifying what that audience needs to hear, then repeating it over and over.

And right now, with investigations potentially closing in on Trump from multiple directions, they’ve homed in on a vital message: This isn’t about Trump. It’s about you.

It’s ludicrous; after all, what could be less about you than whether Trump illegally retained classified documents or lied about the value of his properties to mislead tax authorities? But the claim is absolutely vital to maintaining the Republican base’s support and passion for him.

That’s because a sense of oppression has become central to motivating conservative voters, a way of keeping them engaged, angry and feeling that they have a personal stake in the outcome of every political event, no matter how remote it might seem. So it’s being repeated over and over:

Why is it more important than ever that Trump’s very particular problems be turned into a story in which every registered Republican is at risk of having their home ransacked by jackbooted government thugs? To understand, you have to go back to 2016.

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It can be hard to remember now, but when he first ran for president, Trump had an economic message with genuine appeal to a wide swath of voters, one that was based in truth even as it played on people’s resentments.

He told them that they had been victimized by a rigged system, one that gave great rewards to a sliver of the population as it left them behind. In his telling, both parties were at fault, because they had supported trade deals, including NAFTA, that allowed manufacturing jobs to go overseas, leaving communities across the country to shrink and decline.

It might have been oversimplified, and had little or nothing to do with Trump’s actual economic agenda (much of which was a standard menu of upper-income tax cuts and deregulation for corporations), but at its heart was a truth: Across the Rust Belt and throughout rural America, people are indeed suffering long-term problems that the current arrangements of wealth and power aren’t fixing.

There were millions of people who heard what Trump said in 2016 and connected to it. “The game really is rigged against people like me,” they thought, “and sure, this guy is a blowhard and a clown, but maybe he can do something about it.”

Yet today, Trump can’t say he changed any of those fundamental problems. Let’s take one vivid illustration: The New York Times recently reported on how the coal industry ravaged the land in Letcher County, Ky., leaving it vulnerable to flooding (as if the people there didn’t have enough struggles already). As the paper noted, “In 2021, not a single building permit was issued in the county,” which means nobody built a store, a warehouse, or even a home, in the entire county. Not one.

What did Trump do for the people there? In 2016, he promised to revive the coal industry, with boundless prosperity to follow, and Letcher County gave him 80 percent of its votes. But it was a lie from the beginning, as anyone with any sense could see; the coal industry kept declining, and so did Letcher County.

Trump will probably win Letcher County again if he runs in 2024; margins that high don’t just disappear. But all over, plenty of people who connected with his message in 2016 realize his obsessions don’t matter to them at all. It’s why in 2020 Joe Biden got 7 million more votes than Trump did — and sits in the White House.

It’s unlikely Trump will be able to look beyond his own petty grievances and personal preoccupations to convince a majority of the public that his victory could change their lives for the better. So for now, he and his defenders are focusing on members of their base, telling them that whatever happens to Trump this week or next could also happen to them.

They’re not just used to hearing that message; they glory in it. They are the sympathetic victims, the encircled defenders of justice, oppressed but unbowed.

This fantasy of persecution is so powerful because it turns the most mundane things — like sitting on the couch scrolling through Trump-devoted Reddit forums while Fox News plays in the background — into something dramatic, even heroic.

You’re not just an ordinary person with an ordinary job and an ordinary life. You’re a freedom fighter waging war against forces of darkness to secure liberty’s future. The more grubby and personal Trump’s misdeeds are, the more important it is to keep telling the base that story so its allegiance won’t waver.

So every absurd Trump story will have to be presented this way: He took those classified documents for you, he cheated on his taxes for you, he tried to steal the election for you, and if, heaven forbid, he should face accountability for his wrongdoing, you will be the one who pays the price.

To any reasonable person, it might sound absurd. But the MAGA devotees believe it with all their hearts.