The speech may have been all about “American Carnage.” But the inauguration of Donald John Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America felt more like a joyous occasion. Trump had overcome the “rigged” election, defeated Hillary Clinton, and had come to Washington to “drain the swamp,” just as he’d promised. Outside the National Mall his supporters, in their signature MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats and shirts calling his political rival a “bitch,” waited in security lines and chatted about how lucky the country was to have avoided a Barack Obama coup and speculated as to what would come first: the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act or the imprisonment of “Crooked” Hillary.
In the conversations I overhead, the revelers, what few of them there were, were relieved. It was as if a malevolent spell had been lifted. The Democratic Party, after years of pushing identity politics and racial unrest, had been thwarted. Barack Obama’s two terms of spitting on the Constitution had come to an end, and, as a few of them said, he could now return to Kenya, his supposed country of origin, and join ISIS. And, maybe most importantly, the threat of political correctness, which liberals used as a means of brainwashing, could be rolled back once and for all and make room for the freedom the Founding Fathers had intended.
They practiced that newfound liberty, using racial and homophobic slurs openly and insulting protestors wherever they found them. Men around me huddled in groups and catcalled women as they passed, including a female officer who, after telling them to leave her alone, they called a “Clinton-loving c*nt” while flipping her off. The main event, however, came when Trump took the oath of office on the steps of the Capitol across the street and a group of young men screamed, high-fived, and chanted “USA/USA/USA.”
One of them, holding his phone while it broadcast a stream of the event, held a triumphant fist in the air and yelled, “I just got so many rights back!”
“Dude,” another called to him, “we just got our country back!”
Of the many factors that contributed to Trump’s unlikely win, cognitive dissonance played a prominent role. Regularly faced with negative stories and scandals about their candidate, his voters had an unconscious choice to make with every news cycle: further their support of Trump or accept the growing avalanche of criticism. In a masterstroke of maneuvering, Trump had inoculated much of his base to the media, which he demonized in his every speech, interview, and tweet, making sure his supporters stayed true to his fold and dismissed every report as dishonest manipulation.
They had stayed with him through an unthinkable gauntlet: frequent criticism of war heroes, racist rhetoric, video of him admitting to disgusting conduct, and a deluge of women charging him with sexual assault. So by the time he assumed the role of president in early 2017, his base was fairly immune to any criticism or story dealing with something as mundane as bureaucratic appointments or legislation.
While he stocked his administration cabinet with lobbyists and billionaires, people worth billions of dollars, including multiple staffers who’d worked at high profile banks like Goldman Sachs, his supporters continued to parrot his intention to drain the swamp even while he filled it with every pen stroke. He told them he was the president of the working people even while he promoted bills that would take away their health insurance his and the GOP’s legislative agenda set its sights on the Affordable Care Act that provided them healthcare and his cabinet stripped nearly every regulation that protected the food they ate, the water they drank, and the schools where their children learned.
As the rest of the country turned on Trump and his approval ratings plummeted, his diehard base stayed firm. Roughly 30% of the voting public continued to support him, seemingly proving his assertion that they were so loyal he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody.” They’d weathered one scandal after another, watched Trump undermine journalists, threaten NBC’s broadcast license, trade barbs with the unpredictable head of a rogue nuclear state, and yet, they still seemed unwavering loyal.
That loyalty, however, towed them into deep waters.
In order to maintain that devotion they had to accept a toxic worldview—a worldview that made them susceptible to hate groups that had grown large and powerful with Trump’s ascent to power. His supporters defended him as he amplified hateful voices on social media, including anti-Semites and foreign fascists, and, perhaps most damningly of all, when he hemmed and hawed over the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia that left a young woman dead after neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched into town carrying weapons and looking for a fight and eventually, disappointingly, referred to them as “good very fine people.”
As the year came to a merciful end, it became apparent that there might be no limit to just what Trump’s 30% might abide. Roy Moore, whom Trump endorsed before Alabama’s special election in December, had been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers, including one who said the abuse took place when she was only fourteen years old, and though that might have been enough to disqualify him in past years, Trump’s base stayed true. For decades they had preached family values and religious piety, but by the close of 2017 they were comparing an accused pedophile to Joseph, the father of Jesus, and seemingly jettisoning every professed principle they had.
Looking forward to 2018, it is a matter of whether there is a bottom to this hole. Under Trump this base has not only stomached his breaches of democratic norms, they’ve cheered him on. Personally I’ve heard them float fascist desires, like jailing and murdering dissenters and members of the press, doing away with elections and provisions preventing cruel and unusual punishment, and with the midterms approaching the question is whether the Trumpification of the Republican Party will continue with a new slate of radical candidates who look more like Trump and Roy Moore than the traditional GOP who birthed them.
And then, there’s one of the pressing issues of our time, what will happen if Robert Mueller, special counsel charged with investigating Trump’s possible collusion with Russia, delivers evidence that a crime was committed?
The defense against cognitive dissonance among Trump’s base has been astounding to watch, but some assumed the fever might break before the 2016 Election or, when that passed, as Trump’s presidency floundered. Those expectations have proven false, and continue to confound as the Mueller Investigation into suspected collusion and obstruction of justice continues to uncover evidence. This troubling scenario has been made possible as Trump’s inoculation of his base, aided by right wing media and voices, continues to build a wall of deniability around his supporters.
While Trump maintains his innocence, going so far as to tweet that he is the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt in the history of American political history,” the conservative media apparatus that helped his rise to power has fallen in behind him to construct his defense. It began on the far right, with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Breitbart News, which weaved a narrative that Trump’s presidency was under siege and being attacked by shadowy cabals helmed by globalists and Hillary Clinton, all of whom had their sights on destroying the administration. Jones took it a step further, as he always does, by claiming the plan was a coup and that there were discussions regarding having Trump assassinated if necessary.
Those narratives planted a seed among Trump’s base that not only was the investigation into collusion fruitless, but that it was part of a larger plot against the president. If it had ended there it would have been bad enough, but soon Fox News echoed these fringe parties as Sean Hannity and others questioned Robert Mueller’s integrity and accused him of conflicting interests. Recently, that rhetoric has only escalated as Fox has started to use the word “coup” as well, and recently contributor Kevin Jackson floated the possibility on air that the FBI might have planned to assassinate Trump.
Needless to say, this new development is incredibly dangerous. Trump’s base has proven susceptible to these wild conspiracy theories in the past and the attempt to protect Trump against these accusations could lead to truly horrifying consequences. Many of his supporters, after all, have been waiting decades for what they’ve been told will be the overthrow of the American democratic system, whether that’s by globalist overlords or Satanic forces, both of which have been cited by Alex Jones on a daily basis for the past year, and those Americans who have been convinced this will happen have taken measures to prepare themselves, including hoarding supplies and weapons.
The game of chicken being played by Jones, Breitbart, and Fox News is unfathomably perilous. It is, after all, bad enough that his base might support Trump firing a man charged with investigating him, but the talk among the fringe right, where many of his supporters can be found, is trending more and more toward armed insurgency.
Whether that ugliness boils over into more violence is uncertain, but it seems assured that these encroachments on the bedrock principles of America will continue. Over the past year Trump’s base has shown a willingness, if not eagerness, to accept tests of the Constitution, including questionable immigration policies and threats of escalating torture, checks and balances on power, and basic decency in a shared society.
In many ways, Trump has appeared to be a reflection of their own worldview rather than the other way around, which begs the troubling question: just how far will they go?
Hope dictates that this cognitive dissonance can only shelter them so much and for so long, so is there a limit to what they will accept?
Is there anything Trump could do to lose their support?
Any group or institution he could attack that would be a step too far?
Or, is it always going to be worth it to get their country back, whatever that means.