It shouldn’t make sense. Donald Trump has just been indicted on four criminal charges, including defrauding the United States and conspiring to deprive Americans of their voting rights. Trump also faces 40 charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, in a Florida federal court and 34 felony counts in New York related to hushing up a sex scandal. Despite it all, Trump’s position as frontrunner to be the next Republican candidate for the presidency appears unassailable. According to one recent poll, he is 37 percentage points ahead of his closest rival, Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida.
That the former president might end up in prison doesn’t seem to bother his supporters at all. Zero percent of his hardcore supporters think he has done anything wrong, which is odd. Odder still is that 43% of Republicans apparently think “very favorably” of him.
DeSantis, who admittedly seems so uncomfortable in his own skin that he makes other people feel uncomfortable watching him, is failing to outflank Trump on the right. But Chris Christie, a slightly more appealing politician (now polling at 2%), has had even less success by projecting a more moderate image.
What explains the tenacity of Trump’s support? The force of his arguments is unlikely to be the key, because he makes few coherent arguments. It is rarely clear what he thinks, or whether his thoughts amount to anything much at all. He is indifferent to or even contemptuous of facts. But the more he lies, the more his supporters seem to like him, as though his avalanche of falsehoods has numbed their ability to perceive truth.
No doubt, the radical shifts in how people receive their information have something to do with this. Many people, not just Trump supporters, find a snug spot inside a bubble of internet-driven misinformation, boosted by hucksters posing as journalists on Fox News and other, even zanier outlets.
The Trumpist bubble is deeply mired in pessimism. Some 89% of the GOP think the US is in steep decline, even though the economy under President Joe Biden has been remarkably resilient. Members of Trump’s base even talk of an impending national catastrophe, caused by sinister elites, malevolent immigrants, and a wicked international cabal of financiers pulling the world’s strings. Trump has been a master at manipulating these conspiratorial anxieties, which can provoke vengeful violence as easily as ecstatic adulation of the self-professed savior.
There are several reasons for popular anxiety. Many American industrial workers feel left behind in a global economy where cheaper labor is sought overseas. And an array of social and demographic changes – more non-white citizens, less religious authority, challenges to deep-seated gender norms and sexual and racial hierarchies – have left people bewildered, and in their own eyes, dispossessed. They worship the leader who promises to “give them their country back.”
The most successful – and most alarming – of Trump’s demagogic gambits is to present his own legal troubles as an attack on all his followers. His campaign compared the latest indictments to persecution in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. After his federal indictment in June, he told them: “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you – and I’m just standing in their way.”
History never repeats itself exactly, and loose comparisons with other times and places are always dangerous. But some aspects of the past can still help us to understand the present better.
In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt made a point that remains valid: deliberate lying is the first step towards tyranny. In her words: “Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency … in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations.”
The German historian Joachim Fest said much the same about the “liturgical magic” of National Socialism. It was a magic, he argued, that returned to the people “their lost sense of belonging together and their feeling of collective camaraderie.”
Even more to the point today is a remark made in 1932 by the liberal politician Theodor Heuss, when the Nazis were about to destroy German democracy. He spoke of the Nazis’ “fantastic propagandistic achievement, that practiced interplay that embraces both the hero and the saint at once, alternating between the great victorious man at one moment, the martyr and his persecuted innocence in the next.”
The US today is not Germany’s doomed Weimar Republic. There have been disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there is no equivalent to the Versailles Treaty punishing the Germans after World War I. There is no economic depression remotely comparable to the 1930s.
What is perhaps most important is that Trump, despite his success in stacking the Supreme Court with religious radicals, has not captured most of the elites, as Hitler did. Some young white men now feel drawn to the far right, but Trump has nothing like the support of students that the Nazis had.
If the Republican Party nominates Trump as its presidential candidate, he will probably find it harder to beat the likely Democratic candidate, Biden, than swatting away his Republican rivals. But we shall see whether enough people can be persuaded to vote for an often faltering 81-year-old to stave off the disaster of a candidate who longs to return to the White House to avoid going to jail.