Four weeks have passed since the El Paso Walmart shootings and Donald Trump’s incredibly insensitive response. During this period the nation has witnessed multiple episodes of Trump’s bizarre behavior. His judgment — always questionable — has evaporated. As a consequence, many Americans have concluded that Trump is incapable of fulfilling the duties and responsibilities required of the President of the United States. But some, most notably the Trump cult, continue to support him.
The latest 538 Summary (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/ ) found that 54.2 percent of respondents disapproved of Trump, while 41.3 percent approved. It’s a remarkably constant finding: Trump’s disapproval seldom goes above 56 percent and his approval rarely dips below 40 percent.
On the one hand these polls suggest that Trump will have trouble getting reelected in 2020 — his recent swing-state polls have been terrible — but on the other hand the polls indicate that Trump has a solid base of support. There are millions of Americans who either don’t care about Trump’s behavior or refuse to believe the mounting evidence of his incompetence. There are millions of Americans who belong to the Trump cult.
In recent months, many have written about “the cult of Trump.” A couple of months ago, Chris Hedges savaged Trump and his supporters (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/06/10/cult-trump), noting that Trump shares the characteristics of cult leaders such as Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, and David Koresh:
“Cult leaders are narcissists. They demand obsequious fawning and total obedience. They prize loyalty above competence. They wield absolute control. They do not tolerate criticism. They are deeply insecure, a trait they attempt to cover up with bombastic grandiosity. They are amoral and emotionally and physically abusive… All those outside the cult are branded as forces of evil, prompting an epic battle whose natural expression is violence.”
Hedges continued: “Donald Trump has transformed the decayed carcass of the Republican Party into a cult… Trump did not create the yearning for a cult leader. Huge segments of the population, betrayed by the established elites, were conditioned for a cult leader.” Seeking to explain Trump’s power, Hedges wrote: “Domestic terrorism and nihilistic violence are the natural outcomes of the economic, social and political stagnation, the total seizure of power by a corporate cabal and oligarchic elite, and the contamination of civil discourse by cult leaders.”
Let’s start with the assumption that Donald Trump is, at best, incompetent, and, at worst, deranged, “a danger to himself and others.” Nonetheless, when Trump is removed from office — either by impeachment or as the result of the 2020 election — those of us who are currently shouting, “the Emperor has no clothes,” will be stuck with the toxic residue of his cult. Trump may go away but his cult members will still be with us.
There are, at least, four major components of the Trump cult: The first constituents are conservative evangelical Christians. Many have been conditioned by their brand of Christianity, which teaches that the word of God does not come from revelation or studious Bible study but instead from the teachings of their minister — typically a white male. Writing in The Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/08/14/evangelicals-view-trump-their-protector-will-they-stand-by-him/?wpisrc=nl_rainbow&wpmm=1) observed that conservative evangelical Christians typically do not condone Trump’s behavior. Rather, they see him as the means to an end: Trump is the only major politician who seems to stand up for their desire for a theocracy. Trump is, in effect, “God’s mercenary,” their agent in “spiritual warfare.” Trump does what they want — whether it’s appointing ultra-conservative judges or opposing abortion or supporting Christian schools — and they, in turn, ask no questions. “Trump is able, by being less Christian than your average Christian, to protect [evangelical] Christians who fear incursions from a hostile dominant culture.”
The second component of the Trump cult are white supremacists — aka “white nationalists.” (hpps://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/09/30/donald-trump-now-owns-white-supremacy ) They are more supportive of Trump’s day-to-day behavior — this group pointedly eschews “political correctness.” The white nationalists also see Trump as a means to an end: the establishment of an autocratic government run by white males.
The third component of the Trump cult are the owners and employees of fossil-fuel companies. Like the conservative evangelical Christians, many members of this constituency do not condone Trump’s behavior but see him as a means to an end: long-term job and profit security. Trump has gone out of his way to favor this group, whether by denying the reality of global climate change or by doing everything he can to keep coal mines operating. (There are similar industrial groups — such as chemical companies — that are seed beds for Trump supporters; I’ve noted the most obvious.)
The common characteristic of these three Trump constituencies is that they are locked into a rigid anti-democratic worldview that does not have broad popular support. Among major politicians, only Trump supports them.
The fourth component of the Trump cult are the large segments of America that have lost hope. This group was described in Arlie Hochschild’s insightful “Strangers in Their Own Land.” (https://thenewpress.com/books/strangers-their-own-land ) From 2012-2016, sociologist Hochschild talked to residents of Lake Charles, Louisiana, a Tea Party stronghold. These residents felt they had lost their shot at the American dream. One of Hochschild’s key insights was that these Americans no longer believed that “government” would help them; instead they placed their faith in “corporations” or “capitalism” or — in the period leading up to the 2016 presidential election — Donald Trump.
My point here is not to vilify members of the Trump cult but rather to point out the obvious: these four groups are going to vote for Trump, no matter what, because they don’t see an alternative. Whomever the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate turns out to be, the members of the Trump cult aren’t going to switch sides to support them.
Yes, American politics is deeply polarized. And, no, the Democrats aren’t going to win because their choice of candidate caused some Republican voters to switch sides. If the Democrats win, it will be because their candidate energized their base and attracted a majority of true independents. The members of the Trump cult are going to stick with Donald to the bitter end. And beyond.