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Trump’s rallies are returning, but the “MAGA magic” is dead

Trump’s rallies are returning, but the “MAGA magic” is dead

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The Trump campaign is finally emerging from its bunker, but even its favorite weapon will not be enough this time. 

President Trump will resume his rallies this weekend after begrudgingly bowing to public health experts for months over COVID-19 concerns.  His supporters believe shutting down his festive stadium events has contributed to his dramatic decline in the polls, and they hope that their resumption will help him rebound from what’s been perhaps the most miserable 6-month stretch any president has ever endured.  Some Democrats even seem concerned that the rallies may portend a reversal of his misfortunes at a critical point in the race, leaving him plenty of runway to recover in time for the election. 

These hopes and fears are testaments to both how up-side-down politics has become, and how much of Trump’s support – like his successes in business and in life, such as they are – is based on perception, perspective, and the perpetuation of lies, and not on any hard data or raw numbers of supporters.  

Trump and his followers love referring to themselves as the ‘Silent Majority,’ a Nixon era term coined then to rally mostly White voters who had had enough of hippies, Blacks and women making a fuss over Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation and the Vietnam War.  Sound familiar?

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Today’s Trump supporters, however, are neither silent nor anywhere near a majority.  They are in fact a very loud and very obnoxious minority that’s desperately self-aware of its dwindling demographic clout.  Their talking heads in the media go out of their way to say things like, “The media is against President Trump but he speaks for the forgotten voter,” or “the Washington elites hate President Trump but the American people trust him.”

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These statements and others like them are patently untrue.  Three million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than Trump, of course, and Trump’s done nothing to grow his coalition.  Yet there they are, broadcasting these lies to anyone who will listen, hoping to drown out the truth because it runs counter to the illusion that they’ve painstakingly constructed.  Maybe they believe repeating them enough times can will their alternative reality into existence. 

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That’s why these rallies are so important to him, and to them.  Packing into large buildings not only gives them a much-needed platform to vent their shared grievances at the changing world around them.  It allows the President to breathe life into a corpse of lies about his ‘movement,’ thereby reinforcing their false sense of strength and legitimacy. They are designed to project the mirage of a non-existent majority to justify the government’s pursuit of the most destructive and regressive of the far-right’s long-sought political and cultural objectives.  

But the truth is, Trump’s MAGA supporter base is mathematically insufficient to win national elections on its own – and they know it.  They really only represent about a 30% slice of America, and they have not expanded their ranks over the last four decades, let alone the last 4 years. They have grown louder, and their instruments of amplifying and projecting their propaganda are today sharper and more potent than 2016.  But those ride-or-die, MAGA hat-wearing, rally-attending Trump voters still only account for little more than half of the Republican Party. 

The core of his base is a combination of the remnants of the Tea Party movement, the culture warrior xenophobes emboldened by Trump’s more draconian rhetoric, and the right-wing talking media heads in the “own the Libs” business who stand to profit from books, ratings, and viral posts peddled inside their media bubble.  

This coalition is not a majority by any measure, but it is something to work with.  To translate it into a win in 2016, the Trump campaign needed help from three groups of people, particularly in the critical “Blue Wall” states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

First, they needed the other half of the Republican party – the ‘Good Germans’ of the GOP – to put party loyalty first and set aside their judgments of Trump’s massive deficiencies of character and competence.  They did.

Next, they needed moderates and independents from both parties to see the Clintons as the corrupt ‘establishment’ insiders and Trump, with all his flaws, as the populist outsider.  They also needed them to equate Hillary’s policy failures over 25 years in public service, both real and imagined, with Trump’s many flaws and failures as a man.  They did.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they needed the Obama coalition to crack.   In particular, they needed a handful of disenchanted working-class voters in those Blue-Wall states – voters who are sincere in their frustration with the Democratic Party’s coastal leanings and its failure to deliver on the promise of the Obama era – to stay home or even give Trump a shot.  They did. 

All of this may seem like hindsight, and for many of us, it is.  For the Trump campaign, however, they saw this clear as day from the beginning.  This was their strategy going in.  They knew then, like they know now, that their supporters alone were not going to be enough.  They therefore specifically targeted these three groups of voters with a sustained disinformation campaign designed to sow confusion and division, confirm preexisting opinions of Hillary Clinton – particularly among those disaffected Democrats – and convinced enough of us to either give the new guy with crazy ideas and a shady business record a chance – or to just stay home. 

And it worked.  Trump’s margins of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were 11,000 (.2%), 44,000 (.7%) and 23,000 (.7%), respectively.  Without those states, Trump loses.   

It wasn’t luck. It wasn’t Russia and Wikileaks, though they amplified the damage. It wasn’t voter suppression, though that’s always an issue. It wasn’t the eccentricities of the electoral college (Obama won twice, after all) though the electoral college does probably need to be overhauled. It wasn’t the infamous Comey Letter, though that did provide cover for those who didn’t really want to vote for Hillary anyway. And it certainly wasn’t a ‘sleeping giant’ – another term Trump’s supporters love – awakening to reclaim its government from the Liberal establishment.  The giant is really a midget, and it hasn’t enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep in decades. 

No – It was us who knew better. We succumbed to infighting. We didn’t show up at the polls, particularly in the battleground states. Moderates and independents from both parties, who deep in their hearts knew better, voted for him anyway in sufficient numbers or didn’t vote at all, which in our systems amounts to the same thing. And the conscientious Republicans, even those who openly objected to Trump’s most egregious paucities, put party over country.  

There are many reasons why 2016 unfolded this way, and it took all of those reasons merging like a series of tornadoes all touching down simultaneously for it to lead to Trump’s historic upset.  I don’t want to relitigate those reasons here, except to concede that some of those reasons were avoidable and fall on the Party, the candidate and her campaign. 

But it’s also worth pointing out that many of those reasons were specific to the dynamics of 2016, dynamics that are not present this time around despite the Trump campaign’s efforts to make them so. Then, Trump successfully framed his candidacy as the face of a larger populist insurgency, and they framed the choice as one between the unknowns of a Trump presidency and the knowns of a Clinton presidency. He then convinced otherwise skeptical voters that there was little to risk were they to roll the dice on him. “What have you got to lose?” he famously asked Black voters 2016. He was actually speaking to everyone.

Now, however, the answer to that question does not come out in his favor. The idea of a Trump presidency is no longer a hypothetical for voters to contemplate. He has a record now; an abysmal one with few tangible accomplishments for even his hardcore supporters to point to, let alone those who took a chance on him. When they factor his criminally incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the troubling exhibition of the authoritarian instincts many have long suspected he harbored in response to the George Floyd murder-inspired Black Lives Matter protests, and his unceasing degradation of the honor and the integrity of the office of the presidency — something Republicans and moderates especially take seriously – it’s hard to imagine anyone outside his base making the same mistake twice. 

There’s still a long way to go, however, and a lot of time for things to change. Joe Biden has his own flaws that Trump will no doubt exploit, and the narrative of the election has shifted sharply following Floyd’s death. It’s possible Team Biden misses the mark with its response and loses the faith of those who are now looking to him for strength and leadership during these very troubling times.  Expect Trump to exploit any rift in the Party over this as well.  

And, yes, Trump’s rallies will resume to project that false sense of strength and legitimacy he and his supporters desperately need. But it’s all theater, a gloriously absurd illusion, complete with sets, props, costume designs, and scripted monologue with pithy, easy to digest attacks on well-defined villains both real and imagined.  They even have critics lined up to publish their pre-fabricated 5-Star reviews after each show. 

It’s impressive in its own way.  The way Wrestlemania is impressive, I suppose, with all its choreography and pyrotechnics and overdramatized storylines.  But just like professional wrestling, the MAGA reality is only ‘real’ because the people in the seats choose to believe it’s real.  The rest of us know better – and there are far more us than them.    

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