(Getty/Kevin C. Cox)

Trump the storyteller: His gift for narrative is why he may win again

Donald Trump is terrible at many things — but he's a gifted spinner of tales. Can Democrats tell their own?


Chauncey DeVega
July 13, 2019 10:00AM (UTC)

Donald Trump is one of the best storytellers in recent political memory because of his skill in manipulating the emotions of the audience.

Trump enraptures and titillates his fans, true believers, and other followers.

Trump terrifies, upsets and enrages his detractors, critics and people of conscience.

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Trump's Fourth of July event was a great example of these gifts.

On that day, Donald Trump hijacked what should be an inclusive, nonpartisan civic holiday for his own craven, power-hungry and narcissistic purposes. To that end, Trump offered up a pathetic and childish military spectacle — one in which he embodied the state, and the country's generals publicly pledged fealty to him. Throngs of faithful waited in the rain to be anointed by their Great Leader. He then spun a story about a country under siege by enemies, one only he can save — presumably by putting migrants and refugees in concentration camps.

Trump's speech on that day was not noteworthy because of how it mangled basic facts. Such a narrow obsession is weak pedantry, a form of liberal Schadenfreude to mock Trump's ignorance of American history and the deplorables who follow him. In any case, an adherence to facts is secondary to the emotional power of a performance. It was most important because of the way Trump "whitened" America's history by removing the issue of immigration from the country's sacred mythology.

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Masha Gessen of the New Yorker summarizes this:

Campaign slogans and glaring Trumpisms were not the only things absent from the speech. Immigrants were missing. Trump’s most recent predecessors presided over Fourth of July naturalization ceremonies. A rhetorical link between the holiday and immigration has long seemed unbreakable. During his last Independence Day as President, Bill Clinton chose to speak in New York Harbor, against the backdrop of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. “Perhaps more than any other nation in all history, we have drawn our strength and spirit from people from other lands,” he said. “On this Fourth of July, standing in the shadow of Lady Liberty, we must resolve never to close the golden door behind us, and always not only to welcome people to our borders, but to welcome people into our hearts”...

That immigrant story is, of course, the story the Trump Administration has demonstratively abandoned. Last year, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. That phrase, like most foundational myths and more than some, obscures much of the country’s history: the first immigrants would more accurately be described as settler colonialists, who brought Africans here as slaves. But this was not why the Trump Administration deleted the phrase. Trump has retired the myth of America as a nation of immigrants because he staked his election campaign and his legitimacy as President on the demonization of immigrants — and on mobilizing Americans for a war against immigrants. ...

With the possible exception of rain streaks, the pictures from the rally are his image of himself and the country. Following his speech, Trump kept retweeting images of his own limo leaving the White House, of fighter jets flying, of the red stage and a strange cross-like formation of red elevated platforms, and of himself speaking. In these pictures, Trump is the supreme ruler of the mightiest military empire in the history of the world and his people are with him in the public square. Nothing else exists.

In 1964, the New Yorker's Richard H. Rovere wrote about the enthusiastic Southern crowds who gathered to hear Sen. Barry Goldwater, who must rank alongside Jim Crow white supremacists like Orval Faubus and George Wallace as one of Trump's ideological forefathers:

The quality of this enthusiasm, one felt, was essentially non-political. These were not really political rallies — they were revels, they were pageants, they were celebrations. The aim of the revellers was not so much to advance a candidacy or a cause as to dramatize a mood, and the mood was a kind of joyful defiance, or defiant joy. By coming South, Barry Goldwater had made it possible for great numbers of unapologetic white supremacists to hold great carnivals of white supremacy. They were not troubled in the least over whether this would hurt the Republican Party in the rest of the country. They wanted to make — for their own satisfaction, if for no one else’s — a display of the fact that they had found and were enjoying membership in one organization that was secure against integration, because it had made itself secure against Negro aspirations; as long as they could put on shows of this kind, no Negro would ever want in.

This is a dead-on description of Donald Trump's rallies and other events some five decades later.

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A social imaginary consists of the symbols, laws, institutions and values that a given culture or society uses to create a shared sense of meaning and reality.

Donald Trump's social imaginary is fascist and authoritarian. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of the new book "How Fascism Works" explained this:

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Liberal democracy organizes society around respect for the dignity, equality and freedom of all human beings. Fascism, by contrast, organizes society around the vilification of outsiders. In this administration’s rhetoric toward undocumented immigrants from Central America and religious minorities, we have been subject to classic fascist tropes for some time. The obsessive focus on immigration and the representation of immigrants as invaders is particularly indicative of this ideology. ... When we consider the character of a ruling government, we should think about the ideology that motivates it, as well as the institutions and tactics it employs to transform society. It is clear that this administration draws on fascist ideology in its rhetoric.

Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law and political science at Columbia Law School, explained to me in a recent phone conversation that from the perspective of Trump supporters, "power is being transferred away from white males."

This is the language of "white genocide," which is commonly but not exclusively used by the new right. This fear is what the American new right really wants to emphasize and orient all of its politics around....

What we're seeing right now is how all of this neo-fascist, white supremacist, revolutionary language is becoming acceptable in different ways. Such language and concepts are starting to become part of the ordinary discourse in America. It's starting to change the way people are willing to express themselves. Many people hardly notice when this happens. President Trump is articulating many of these ideas.

This fascist ideology and its aesthetic are intoxicating for Trump's voters and the millions of other Americans who share such values and beliefs. Racism, hostile sexism, nationalism, militarism, nativism and violence against the Other are not repellent to those Americans; rather, they are deeply compelling.

The Democratic Party faces a great challenge in defeating such forces. Public opinion, social psychology and other research shows that today's American conservatives are tribal, herd-minded and anti-intellectual.

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The post-civil rights era Republican Party has used racism to win and maintain power.

White Christian conservatives are a key constituency for today's Republican Party, and many of them apparently believe that Donald Trump is a messenger and savior sent to them by God. White conservatives, especially right-wing Christians, also believe they are in a literal, existential struggle for survival against black and brown people and "the secular world."

Donald Trump has combined these attributes and further weaponized them in the form of overt white supremacy and white identity politics. In this right-wing social imaginary Donald Trump stands as savior and father figure. Loyalty and obedience to Trump provides life and salvation to his followers. As Trump himself told Politico's Tim Alberta: "Nobody gave them hope. ... I gave them hope. Now, the Republican Party is strong. They’ve got to remain faithful. And loyal."

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Adding further strength to Donald Trump's cult-like power is his and the Republican Party's willingness to do anything to win. For Republicans and other conservatives, democracy is but a means to an end. They do not respect democracy as either a concept or an ideal. This is especially true as the United States becomes more racially diverse and there is a perception — which is grossly incorrect — that white people will no longer be the most powerful, privileged and dominant group in the country.

As part of this strategy of winning at all costs and by any means necessary, Trump, his Republican Party and the right-wing movement rely on voter disenfranchisement, voter suppression, voter intimidation, and gerrymandering to get power and then keep it.

The Republicans have also invited and are eager to accept assistance from hostile foreign countries such as (but not limited to) Russia in order to win future elections by subverting American democracy.

It is true that Democratic policies are generally much more popular among the American people than those offered by Republicans. But Republicans tell a much more compelling story to their voters. In that way, the Republicans have been waging a society-wide crusade for the last 50 years while the Democrats, with few exceptions, have argued over weak, status-quo consensus politics.

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This habit continues to hobble the Democrats in their race against Donald Trump. What great and compelling story can they tell the American people to win the 2020 election?

The Democrats had a potentially powerful narrative in their hands in the form of the treachery and obstruction revealed by the Mueller Report. But Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have evidently chosen not to impeach Trump, a decision that has further empowered his assault on democracy — and by implication has conferred upon him a thoroughly undeserved claim of "legitimacy". If Trump's crimes are really so great, why will the Democrats not impeach him?

As Trump's polling numbers continue to improve and the likelihood of his winning in 2020 increases daily, the Democrats must empower a master storyteller of their own. Will this be the familiar in the form of Joe Biden? Or instead a new and more exciting voice? The Democrats must choose correctly. Time is running out.

If Trump wins again, he will write another chapter in his version of the American story. It will not be pretty or true and his followers will relish it. And Americans of conscience will feel even more like strangers in a strange land, outsiders in their own country as democracy dies even more under the Trump regime and his movement.

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Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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