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Feeling Trump’s Pain

“But just remember this: you’re smarter, you’re stronger,
you’ve got more going than anybody, and they try and demean everybody having to
do with us.”
—Donald Trump, January 6, 2021

“We need to be the party of reason.” — Donald Trump Jr,
earlier the same day

As the lead institutions of our political life wind down
from the horrific spectacle of Wednesday’s abortive MAGA coup, they contemplate
restoring order through the familiar and reassuring operations of government
oversight. Hence the eleventh-hour bids either to impeach and remove President
Donald Trump from office, or to invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment to
transfer the substantive powers of the presidency to Vice President Mike Pence.
These measures, we’re almost prayerfully reasoning, would be penalties commensurate
with the grave abuse of the office of the presidency in its incitement of a
mass assault on the Capitol, undertaken with the intention of compelling
Congress to cease certification of the 2020 election results. They would strip
a mad president of the power that he so plainly covets, and would presumably
discipline a Republican leadership that has, for far too long, prostrated
itself before the feckless, unstable fever dreams of the nation’s grievance-addled
commander-in-chief.  

These measures, like so much else about the past week, would
also be unprecedented: harried efforts to short-circuit the nihilistic and
increasingly violent logic of the modern conservative movement. And the
particular remedy of impeachment and removal would seek to prevent any
nightmare like the Wednesday siege of the Capitol from happening again, by
ensuring Donald Trump could never again run for the presidency.

But the big question hanging over our beleaguered, buckling
democracy isn’t so much the person of Trump; it’s Trumpism, as a movement of
mass right-wing violence. Even in the final days of the Trump presidency, we’re
at a loss to supply a compelling account of just how and why something like the
long-sanctioned politics of culture-war grievance on the right could have both
captured the American presidency and produced a would-be American coup. For the
past four years, we’ve undertaken various forensic inquiries into the mindset
and psychic makeup of Trump supporters. Are they confrontational apostles of
white privilege? Are they misguided casualties of global capitalism’s brutal
race to the wage bottom? Are they fascists? Are they crazy? Are they textbook
exhibits of social media gone wild?

Of course, in many ways, the answer to all these questions
is “yes.” But all the individual pathologies fueling support for Trump have
also coalesced around a broader quest for emotional catharsis in politics, a
kind of mass therapy-by-confrontation with the specter of illegitimate cultural
power. While journalists and social scientists plumbing the emotional appeal of
the Trump movement tend to alight on narratives stressing the comparative
isolation and stoic suffering of individual Trump supporters bewildered by a
world seeming to pass them by, Wednesday’s rally—like the many, many Trump
rallies preceding it—showed a tremendous mass outpouring of faith in the
redemptive power of grievance, rooted in both the doomed “Stop the Steal”
campaign to reverse the election and the near-ritual rites of denunciation and
excoriation of liberal pomp, pretense, and “suppression.” It’s extremely hard
to chart this quasi-spiritual communion of leader and mass following along the
traditional lines of our inherited political discourse, but it was on lavish
display in the marathon “Save America” rally that led directly to the Capitol
siege.

Reviewing the mass gathering that touched off the violent
bid to overturn the election results, it’s striking how little salience it had
in connection with the actual politics of the election and its aftermath.
Instead, the speakers focused on the personal upshot of the crime they believed
to be in progress down the street at the Capitol—the silencing of their
voices
—over against the question of just what might be done on their behalf
once the stolen presidency was reclaimed. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising for
a Republican Party that adopted a 2020 campaign platform amounting to “whatever
Trump wants.” Still, past disputed votes over the presidency created very
consequential policy fallout, well understood by the combatants—the suspension
of Reconstruction in the infamous 1877 bargain for the presidency, and the
restoration of tax-cutting Reaganism in the Bush-Gore battle of 2000. For the
Trump speakers, very much by contrast, the combat itself was the thing—the
exhilarating sense that, yes, the Trump movement was alive and fighting, and
poised to subdue the “weak Republicans” deferring to the certification of the
Electoral College results.

Indeed, the most relevant historical forerunner to today’s
Stop the Steal folklore isn’t so much those previous episodes but rather Theodore
Roosevelt’s eager, didactic embrace of “the martial spirit” at the turn of the
twentieth century. Like today’s revolt, Roosevelt’s crusade was premised on the
raw assertion of American power for its own sake—in his case, in Panama, Cuba,
and other outposts of the emerging American empire. Much like the ardent
enablers of Trumpian impunity, Roosevelt endorsed the ethos of American
militarism as a therapeutic project—a means of achieving “the moral and
intellectual rehabilitation of the ruling class,” as Christopher Lasch put it. Roosevelt’s
all-purpose adoption of “the strenuous life” at least produced some beneficial
policy outcomes, such as the first great wave of antitrust prosecutions. The
Trumpist version, however, begins and ends with the vision of a great leader on
the brink of sinister overthrow and martyrdom—whose great love for the scorned
nation behind him urgently requires immediate requital and redemption.

These themes were summoned at the “Save America” gathering
even before the speakers took to the rostrum. As the broadcast of the event
began, Twitter commentators rushed to note the irony that the final song played
on the PA system before Trumpist cable pundit Katrina Pierson formally kicked
off the rally was “My Heart Will Go On”—the treacly Titanic theme song by
Hillary Clinton-backing chanteuse Celine Dion. But the song that aired prior to
Dion’s waterlogged love ballad was Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For
Fighting).” The juxtaposition here doubled as the event’s de facto mission
statement: the battle was about to be joined, but with a soothing undercurrent
of emotional validation, even love.

Pierson herself, in her opening remarks, underlined the
relevant therapeutic distinctions here: the roused Trump electorate would
assert its sovereignty over the faithless DC political class, and would do so
in a way that would shame and eclipse the lifeless canons of liberal dissent. “Here’s
the deal, guys”—another small but telling tic of the rally’s oratory was that,
while half the featured speakers were women, the crowd was always addressed as
“guys”—“the left, they go out there, and they scream and cry and they
whine. But this is something they don’t get either: Let me tell you, they
haven’t seen a resistance until they have seen a patriot fight for their
country! Because we know how to fight for our country, we’re not going to
complain, we’re not going to cry in the streets. We’re not going to sit in.
You’re going to see us, and you’re going to hear us”—at which point Pierson
reeled off the now-familiar litany of disproved voter-fraud charges.

Of course, the substance of Pierson’s tacit claim—we’re the
peaceful, play-by-the-rules, grown-up protest faction—was refuted in the
ugliest imaginable fashion a few hours later, with five deaths, rampant
vandalism and theft amid chants of “Hang Mike Pence!,” with shit smeared on the
walls of the Capitol and “Murder the Media” graffiti scrawled on an office
door. But this carefully calibrated self-image provides a powerful kind of
psychic legitimation for the Trump insurgency: It conjures the urgent mandate
of frontal engagement with the powers that be, but in a controlled, civilized
fashion. This fanciful image of Trumpist protest recalls and reinforces the
founding mythology of the Tea Party, which Pierson helped to launch and
organize: the critical notion that movement patriots are ordinary, law-abiding
citizens driven to outraged-but-orderly politics of grassroots confrontation by
the stunning betrayals of the governing class.

Just as important was Pierson’s characterization of the kind
of serious protest that matters to the Trump movement: “You’re going to see us,
and you’re going to hear us.” This, too, was a constant refrain from the “Save
America” podium: We are many, they are few. The prooftext for Pierson and the
other speakers was the crowd itself—a mustering of Trump supporters that echoed
the American majority that was marginalized and denied its voice in the
election. “We’ve seen these crowds, unlike Joe Biden and his six hula hoops,”
Pierson announced. “The guy couldn’t even get 1,000 views online but we’re
supposed to believe that he had more votes than Barack Obama. I mean, nobody really
believes this crap.” She wound up her remarks with the same appeal: “I can see
from here all the way back: there are more of us than there are of them, and
they’re about to see us coming!”

What’s integral to being civically seen in the bizarre
context of the “Save America” rally is that the dissenting image the
insurrectionists are cultivating is fatally yoked to that of Donald Trump: not
only a sitting president exploiting all the counter-patriotic traditions of D.C. self-dealing to the utmost, but also a louche Fauntleroy of the pro-wrestling
and reality TV circuit. So Donald Trump, too, is seen in a very peculiar way:
as a heroic avatar of patriotic sacrifice in his own right, helping to bring
the assembled patriot crowd back in contact with its true governing birthright.
This Trump is also, importantly, a fighter, poised to sacrifice all for
the sake of his patriot followers. “This president has sacrificed everything
for this country and has asked for nothing in return,” Pierson declaimed. “He
loves the United States of America. He loves God, he loves our flag, and he loves
all of you. And that’s why we’re all here today. We love Trump. I’ve never seen
someone fight so hard, so strong against everything, here and abroad, just to
provide and protect our basic values to keep our nation free and our people
able to go to church.”

Here is that Gilded Age martial spirit retrofitted for our
own therapeutic moment: Trump is “so hard, so strong” but also a vessel of a
higher love; Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and My Heart Will Go
On.

Here is that Gilded Age martial spirit retrofitted for our
own therapeutic moment: Trump is “so hard, so strong” but also a vessel of a
higher love; Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting and My Heart Will Go
On. The quasi-messianic notion that Trump fights for us all, and asks for
nothing in return also helped the rally speakers articulate the crowd’s end of
the bargain: Now the loving great leader needs us to fight for him. Amy
Cramer, founder of Women for America First, the group that organized the rally,
wasted no time in taking up this theme. Trump’s heroic sacrifice is a mass call
to arms, she explained—but also a prophetic warning for the pusillanimous
right-wing political class to stand up and fight themselves, on Trump’s behalf:

The president has not asked for much, but he
asked for us to show up today and we showed up. And we are not going to back
down, we’re not going to go away. You see, Republicans for years have been
afraid of their own shadows. They tuck tail and run anytime they see their
shadows. If nothing else, what Republicans should have learned was how to go on
offense and win, and fight back—punch back—from Donald Trump. He doesn’t back
down; he’s not afraid of Republicans, he’s not afraid of Democrats. He doesn’t
need anybody else’s money—he is fighting for me and you and Americans across
this country. And he needs us now just like we need him. So for years, as
Republicans over at the Capitol have been telling us they’ve been fighting for
us, what have they been doing? They’ve been crafting the terms, and signing
away our rights. That’s what they’ve been doing. And they’ve been attacking our
president—and you know, every time they attack him, it’s an attack on you and
I.

Again, lay aside the bizarre account of political power in
action here—somehow, in the last two months, a Trump-besotted GOP has backslid
entirely into the role of Trump’s attackers—and consider the fusion of crowd
and leader, in a surreal bastardization of the old labor slogan: An injury to
Trump is an injury to us all. As the proceedings built to the main
event—Trump’s own 70-minute stem-winding speech—the remaining speakers dilated
on the same basic themes. In a barrage of adjectives seemingly lifted from a
marketing white board, Kimberly Guilfoyle pronounced Trump “the most
transformative, impactful president that this incredible country has ever seen.
He is a great patriot who has fought for the America First polices, for the
American dream, for you and your families.”

Guilfoyle’s far-from-better half, Donald Trump, Jr.,
produced a series of non sequitur transphobic riffs on the excesses of cancel
culture, only to declare that once he’d weathered the rude blows of
cancellation, “it’s rather freeing, and you can kind of do what you want.”
Here’s another important variation on the politics of being seen in the
Trumpian vein—without the culture-war sport of lib provocation, your speech and
its content are really of no great public consequence; to be an apostle of true
conservative liberty, you must ensure that your speech and actions provoke
outrage from the ideological opposition. There’s certainly no other rationale
for the Trump dynasty’s heir apparent to be quoting his own Instagram account
on the national stage. Trump Jr. did at least do Katrina Pierson the great
favor of providing the day’s most inapt foray into comparative protest
politics: “I’m looking at the crowd here, and the tens of thousands—probably
hundreds of thousands—of people here, and you did it all without burning
down buildings!
You did it without ripping down churches, without looting?
I didn’t know that that was possible. According to the media, when you have a
large gathering of peaceful protestors, they’re supposed to burn it all down.”

Rudy Giuliani—accompanied by hack Federalist Society law
professor James Eastman as a walk-on “expert” on constitutional law and voter
fraud—supplied perhaps the day’s most notorious non-Trump incitement to
violence in his exhortation to bring voter fraud claims to a “trial by combat.”
But he also took great care to depict his failing legal crusade to document rampant
voter fraud within the same framework of culture-war retribution that Trump Jr.
so loudly and clumsily favors: “I know the courage it takes to be out there,”
Giuliani concluded. “I know how you get ridiculed. I know how they try to take
jobs away from you. But you look in the mirror every night and you say to
yourself: ‘I’m doing the right thing.’”

But his longsome speech also brimmed
with movement love—and the companion call to culture-war arms.

Trump’s own greatly anticipated star turn before the crowd
has been duly parsed for its most incendiary content—the president’s
(predictably unfulfilled) promise to personally join the crowd’s march to the
Capitol, and his far from subtle threats to dispatch his following in Mike
Pence’s direction should the vice president fail to seize unilateral control of
the certification of the election results. But his longsome speech also brimmed
with movement love—and the companion call to culture-war arms. “I want to thank
you for the extraordinary love,” Trump said early on his remarks. “That’s what
it is—there’s never been a movement like this, ever, ever—for the extraordinary
love for this amazing country and this amazing movement.”

Still, love’s an undeniably perfunctory sentiment in Trump’s
rhetorical arsenal. His listeners heard far more about the president’s
fake-news lamentations and the unconscionable snubs he’s suffered at the hands
of his Supreme Court appointees than about their noble patriot loyalties and
superior protest savvy. And naturally, they got an extended recitation of the
many imaginary entries in the Trump-Giuliani litany of voter fraud, a
performance that in sheer forensic tedium rivaled the late-career
courtroom-transcript monologues of Lenny Bruce.

But as the long run-up to Trump’s oration demonstrated, the
point wasn’t so much the speech’s content as the fact of it: Here was the
conservative movement’s long advertised savior in the flesh, baring his many
grievances and culture-war afflictions for MAGA nation to marvel at. Indeed,
the notion that someone could simultaneously be the most powerful man in the
world, and relentlessly besieged by weak Republicans, the lugenpresse, the
stuck-up court system, and an entire corrupt American establishment, powerfully
conveyed the central therapeutic message of the gathering: You and Trump are
one, his suffering is your suffering, and his crucibles are your crucibles.

Against this backdrop, to get anything like specific marching
orders to proceed to loot the Capitol and menace Trump’s own vice president
would really be something of an afterthought. For the past half decade, they’ve
been schooling themselves in the most perfect love of their savior-warrior
king. And despite Trump’s grudging efforts to belatedly call back the chaos and
sedition he’d unleashed, the MAGA faithful alternately lounging and pillaging
their way through the Capitol could be confident that he was well pleased with
their devotions. They know Trump’s grievances as intimately as their own—and
regardless of the broader fate of the Trumpist coalition, their hearts will go
on. 

Source: Feeling Trump’s Pain

What do you think?

Written by Chris Lehmann

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