"Mentally unwell old man hugs American flag; rants about 'socialism' and 'baby killers.'"
That's not a headline from a local newspaper somewhere in rural America. Instead, it is an entirely factual description of Donald Trump's speech last Saturday at the political rodeo and hate festival known as CPAC.
Even by Trump's standards, it was a bizarre, two-hour-long performance, full of lies, vainglorious talking points, random racism and bigotry, paranoid fantasy and delusional storytelling about events that have taken place in some other reality of Trump's own making. But the president's core message was simple: He must be re-elected to stop the Democratic Party and their voters from enforcing an agenda of "open borders, socialism and extreme late-term abortion."
Trump's speech was clearly a preview of the themes he will use once again to try to win the White House in 2020: Death, murder, fear of "socialism," empty patriotism, superficial nationalism and disturbing hints of violence.
On Monday night Donald Trump continued with these talking points. Quoting his Fox News mouthpiece Sean Hannity, Trump proclaimed on Twitter:
We the people will now be subjected to the biggest display of modern day McCarthyism ... which is the widest fishing net expedition ... [into] every aspect of the presidents life ... all in order to get power back so they can institute Socialism.
Together these are examples of how Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and their compliant media outlets have mastered political sadism, a strategy by which they repeatedly frighten white voters into supporting their agenda. In essence, Donald Trump has weaponized existential terror.
Trump's recent speech at CPAC and his broader political strategy are an example of what social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski have described as "terror management theory":
Terror management theory assumes that humans have developed a suite of defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the existential anxiety they experience when they are cognizant of their mortality. Existential anxiety arises because individuals experience a profound motive, derived from evolutionary forces, to preserve their life. Therefore, an awareness of mortality could evoke existential anxiety, corresponding to a sense of futility, unless humans invoke a set of mechanisms that are intended to curb this awareness. Some of these mechanisms include a tendency to believe in an after life, to feel connected to a broader, enduring entity, or to distract attention from their mortality, reflecting a form of denial ...
Terror management theory explains how those individuals who are more authoritarian and conservative soothe their death anxieties (or "mortality salience") through an attachment to objects, ideas, and symbols such as the American flag or fundamentalist notions of God as a way of becoming "immortal."
Conservatives and right-wing authoritarians who measure high in mortality salience are more likely to own guns and oppose gun control policies. Mortality salience and death anxieties also intersect with social dominance behavior and a fear of losing group privilege. For Trump and the Republican Party this takes the form of manipulating their white voters' fears of the "browning of America" as well as parallel white anxieties about "reverse racism" and a fallacious belief that white Americans being "oppressed" or discriminated against in "their own country."
Right-wing authoritarianism and death anxiety are also connected to an irrational fear of terrorism and a belief that women should be denied their reproductive health freedoms.
There are many millions of Americans who are ready and eager and primed for the ghoulish message being offered by Donald Trump, along with his allies and enablers.
For example, PRRI's new report "American Democracy in Crisis" details how the country is split on fundamental civic values, norms and beliefs.
A new poll from NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows that 40 percent of Americans would vote for Donald Trump again in 2020. This same poll shows that 88 percent of Republicans continue to support him.
Last Sunday, the New York Times (once again) profiled "white working class" Trump voters in Pennsylvania. As other reporting and research has repeatedly shown, racism and sexism are the core values that bind together his political cult.
This specific article was about registered Democrats who had voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and about the (arguably irrelevant) question of what the Democratic Party might do to win them back.
Angie Hughes, 55, a nurse, had cast the first vote of her life for Mr. Trump. She said she would never vote for a Democrat because she believed that the party favored generous welfare benefits. “When you see people who have three, four, five children to different fathers, they have no plans of ever going to work,” she said.
Lou Iezzi, 68, who still works at an auto garage he opened at 19, had voted Democratic for decades before casting a ballot for Mr. Trump. He liked the way he sounded as if he were on the next barstool, and Mr. Iezzi chuckled approvingly recalling Mr. Trump’s dismissive remarks about the newscaster Megyn Kelly in 2015 that were widely interpreted as referring to menstruation.
Mr. Iezzi could vote for a Democrat in 2020 if the nominee “sounds like he’s talking honestly,” he said. His choice of the male pronoun was deliberate: “I just can’t see a woman running this country.”
At least that Trump voter said out loud what is generally kept quiet, or spoken in code. Trumpism is a national temper tantrum by resentful white men:
Rob Kopler, a retired deputy sheriff, who agrees with the president on a border wall, voted for him in 2016, but in the midterms he supported [Rep. Conor] Lamb and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat. He is doubtful any of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls will win him over. “The Democrat party let their people down,” he said. “They were going so far into the different extremes they forgot about who put them in office: the middle-class white male.”
One of the foundational understandings of American politics is that partisans are highly unlikely to change their votes. The competition is for those "persuadables" in the middle who can be swayed to either side by a given candidate or set of issues. For the last few decades in America, this would the much discussed and obsessed-over independent and "white working class" voters that the Democrats supposedly lost to Trump in 2016.
Pursuing these voters, however, is wasted energy. Extreme political partisanship and polarization continues both to persist and worsen in America. In large part, this is because of the Republican Party's drift toward extremism, which began during the Clinton years and became an inexorable, all-consuming compulsion in the age of Trump.
Some political analysts and progressive activists believe that Sen. Bernie Sanders would be the best candidate to counter Donald Trump and win over the "white working class." Such a conclusion does not hold up to critical scrutiny. It is a type of political folk wisdom, rooted in old hopes and dreams that white Americans will somehow see the light and realize that common class interests should trump racial hierarchy and unearned white advantages, a decision that would surely benefit all Americans.
Public opinion and other polling data show that much of the support that Bernie Sanders enjoyed among lower-income white voters during the 2016 primaries was effectively a protest against Hillary Clinton, and that many of those voters backed Donald Trump in the general election. White racism, white identity politics and misogyny ultimately beckoned them back to their natural home in the Republican Party.
Donald Trump and his movement are not just a political force. They are a cultural force, which Trump is leading from his proverbial pale horse while he wields murder and fear as a weapon. Ultimately, Trump's red-hat followers are not motivated by reason but by existential dread and fear.
The Democrats must face reality: They are better off mobilizing their own core voters, especially the millions of them who chose not to vote in 2016, than wasting time on trying to convert some sliver of Trump's "white working class" vote. If the Democratic Party and its leading candidates don't understand this, then they may well lose the 2020 election and Donald Trump's regime will remain in power.