If the ability to galvanize an audience, mobilize a constituency and motivate a following is the mark of a great speaker, Donald Trump certainly qualifies. It is a talent that even his foes would concede. Some would be quick to point out that it is a gift that can be used for good or evil, one that was put to noble purposes by such orators as Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, and to darker ends by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. Trump’s critics might liken him to the latter pair, but whether the analogy is true in ideology, it is certainly apt in style.
The great orators of democracy sought to calm their listeners – Roosevelt’s “nothing to fear but fear itself” – or to reassure them: Churchill’s “never despair.” The demagogues sought rather to excite the passions of their followers. In this, they have a worthy successor in Donald Trump. He has proved himself to be a past master in the art of inflaming a crowd, making shrewd use of the tools of incitement: creating enemies for his followers to vilify; inducing angry rhythmic chants of “lock her up,” and “build the wall”; leading the incantation of provocative slogans in a volatile call-and-response that transports his followers. Amid this, he is able to convince his audience that he is not only with them, but of them. Critics have mistakenly decried Trump’s theatricals as hate rallies. And while animosity toward aliens and their liberal enablers are manifest at these events, they are equally gatherings of love, and it is Donald Trump who is the object of adoration.
His is more than a cult of personality, a political category; for Trump’s followers his veneration has assumed a religious dimension. They see him as a redeemer who will save the nation from its wayward path. For the faithful, Trump’s devious past and turbulent present fit perfectly within the tradition of the savior in the guise of a sinner. They are not interested in the logic of his words but in the greater truth he bears. Their commitment is not to what he says, but who he is.
Trump can sanctify anything by his imprimatur. Party planks are irrelevant and platforms are meaningless since policy can turn on a dime depending on the President’s laying on of hands. Politicians who attempted to debate Trump on the issues learned that their well-thought-out positions were blown away by the onslaught of his raw energy. Long-held American policies have been reversed on his whim. He can kowtow to traditional enemies like Russia, undermine our nation’s venerated intelligence services, denigrate our longtime allies, embrace foreign dictators, mock war heroes, threaten political foes, vilify the press and exercise a brazenly corrupt and self-aggrandizing administration, all with impunity. To be sure, the elites who have put him in the White House and enabled him to stay there have done so primarily for reasons of expediency, power and self-interest. But it is the true believers among the rank-and-file who concern us here.
The religious dimension of Donald Trump’s ascendancy is critical to his success. A Trump rally invokes the tub-thumping quality of a revival meeting. It is an orchestrated performance that smacks of the fairground runway replete with gimcrack sales of Trump paraphernalia, a warm-up show once inside the tent and then the main event: the great performer himself agitating the crowd into alternating waves of reverence and rage. This could only have been orchestrated by someone whose talents lay not in statesmanship but entertainment: the star of “The Apprentice” as master of the revels.
It is here that we arrive at Donald Trump’s true calling. He is a masterly illusionist.
He promoted an image as a self-made entrepreneur when it was his father’s millions that sustained him and bailed him out of successive financial embarrassments. He presented the illusion of a successful businessman when he was nothing but a failed real-estate scrambler whose shaky ventures left a trail of debt and a credit rating so bad that he had to seek funds from Russian money men to sustain his manipulations. He gave the illusion that he would support the blue-collar cadres who voted for him and proceeded to effect a tax-break for the wealthy that enriched himself; he did little to raise the wages of workers and colluded with his party’s efforts to undermine their health care together with undoing the security net that sustains them.
Trump is likewise a master of projection. He projects the very faults that embody him upon others. A demagogue who has instigated mob behavior at his rallies, he accuses his foes of mob action and coins pathetic slogans such as “jobs, not mobs” to deflect from his incitement. A compulsive liar whose falsehoods have become a hallmark of his administration and a commonplace of his tenure, he charges the media that hold him to account with “fake news.”
A leader who is intemperate, untethered and erratic, he responds to the staid Federal Reserve’s judicious rise of interest rates by declaring that “the Fed has gone crazy.” By tarring his targets with his own defects Trump creates a false equivalence and diverts criticism of his manifest misconduct by sewing confusion.
All of this carries little weight with Trump’s acolytes. If anything, it intensifies their fervor. There is no reasoning with religious conviction. To question people’s articles of faith is only to antagonize them. Trump’s followers embrace a Manichean view of the world that divides it into light and darkness, a realm where there is no room for compromise. In this pursuit, they have espoused a primitive faith that is tribal rather than universal, punitive rather than tolerant, judgmental rather than compassionate. And Donald Trump is their Prophet who alone can bring salvation to a beleaguered white America. For all his mendacity, maintaining white supremacy is the one promise Trump has fulfilled. He has kept the faith, and for that he will have kept the faithful. Sooner or later, Donald Trump will be gone. But the passions he stirred won’t abate so quickly. Rather, they await Yeats’s rough beast, “its hour come round at last,” slouching toward Bethlehem. We’d best be on our guard. Keeping the beast at bay requires constant vigil.