Donald Trump's fans still love the show — but it keeps on getting darker

Trump's followers came to Waco to party, but his overwhelming rage and solipsism threaten to swamp the lovefest

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 27, 2023 9:34AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump arrives during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump arrives during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

This past weekend, Donald Trump proved that he can still draw a crowd after appearing before an estimated crowd of at least 15,000 fans for the first rally of his 2024 campaign. He arrived on "Trump Force One" and circled the event before landing to the strains of "Danger Zone" from "Top Gun." His entrance to the arena was even more provocative:

That song was recorded by the "J6 Choir," made up of the inmates in the D.C. jail whom the court has deemed too dangerous or too much of a flight risk to be allowed out on bail. Some have already pleaded guilty. That Trump showed up in Waco, Texas, on the 30th anniversary of the 52-day standoff between the FBI and a small religious sect in their remote compound there, and open the event with images of Jan. 6, was described by his staff a a total coincidence. It was just a normal campaign stop, they insisted. (Sure it was.)

The opening acts weren't exactly A-list. He had Ted Nugent demanding his money back because he "didn't authorize any money to Ukraine, to some homosexual weirdo," apparently referring to Volodymyr Zelenskyy. There was Mike Lindell, the "My Pillow guy," describing Trump's infamous phone call with Georgia official Brad Raffensberger as "the best call in history." Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida were the biggest Republican names on the bill — which, interestingly enough, did not include any major Texas Republicans such as Gov. Greg Abbott or Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. But the crowd didn't care about that — they probably agree with Greene, who told a right-wing broadcaster before the rally that she wants to "end" the Republican Party of Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, "who don't stand up and fight for the American people."

The crowd was having too much fun, as they always do at Trump rallies. His cult-like following has the time of their lives: waiting in line for hours, wearing their tribal gear and sharing the experience of being a member of this traveling road-show "movement" focused on worship of the former president. Mind you, the man they adore bears no resemblance to the person the rest of us see, but the whole experience seems to give them genuine pleasure.

While everyone else was having a great time dancing and singing and cheering on their hero, Trump himself was in a darker mood. Sure, he hit some of the greatest hits, claiming that the U.S. economy was the greatest the world had ever seen when he was president and that he was good buddies with all the tyrants around the world, which made everyone respect us. But mostly he talked about how he was personally being persecuted: The campaign even passed out printed signs that read "Witch hunt." He even contended, absurdly, that since he has not yet been indicted in any of the multiple the investigations against him, he is "the most innocent man in the history of our country." He said that "the Biden regime's weaponization of law enforcement against their political opponents is something straight out of the Stalinist Russia horror show. ... From the beginning it's been one witch hunt and phony investigation after another. ... The abuses of power that we are witnessing at all levels of government will go down as among the most shameful, corrupt, and depraved chapters" in all of history.

He reached a crescendo with his characterization of the government being taken over by "demonic forces":

Either we surrender to the demonic forces abolishing and demolishing — and happily doing so — our country, or we defeat them in a landslide on Nov. 5, 2024. Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state. We're at a very pivotal point in our country.

Talk about Mr. Bringdown. No wonder there were reports of people leaving the rally half an hour in. What happened to the joyous frolicking to the 1970s gay pickup anthem "YMCA"? What happened to the lusty chants of "Lock her up"?

But Trump did strike one more upbeat note. He repeated the infamous line he delivered a CPAC a few weeks ago: "I am your warrior. I am your justice. For those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution." 

The revenge tour has officially begun.

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The Atlantic's Elaine Godfrey was in Waco and reported that some of those supporters are stoked. Seeing him as a president returning from exile (or perhaps as an avenging angel) one rally-goer said that while the earlier campaigns were optimistic and forward-looking (which they were not), this one was all about payback:

"To me, this is retribution. We've got to get our country back, because it's been stolen from us." What would that retribution promised by Trump look like? I asked. "People who have done fraud and illegal stuff, they've gotta be perp walked. They need to face justice," he said. "There's a two-tier level of justice in this country."

Others agreed:

The legal system is corrupt, the political system is rigged, and Joe Biden was never elected president, Ricky Patterson told me. Trump's campaign is a crusade for "redemption." Trump is a "new-age Moses," April Rickman, from Midland, Texas, told me. "He delivered the people from Egypt."

I have little doubt that those ideas animate many MAGA true believers. They're angry about losing and they want to make someone pay. But as I was listening to Trump's endless blather about his alleged persecution, it occurred to me that he's forgotten something important about what got him there. Whether this will make a difference in the upcoming Republican primary remains to be seen, but Trump's solipsism, which has always been close to the surface, has now completely taken over.

Do Trump's followers really believe that a case about paying hush money to a porn star, or about stealing classified documents, has the slightest thing to do with them?

Yes, he pays lip service to the idea that by persecuting him law enforcement is persecuting all the MAGA believers — but do his followers really believe that a case about paying hush money to a famous porn star, or about stealing classified documents, has the slightest thing to do with them? I suppose they can stretch the Jan. 6 cases to include the supposedly-wronged Trump voters, at least in spirit, but most of the people at these rallies would never storm the Capitol and engage in pitched battles with the police. They just like to dress up in hideous red, white and blue get-ups and party the day away before they go home to watch "America's Got Talent." Maybe he gives them the fantasy of being warriors for democracy but in the end, all of this is really about him, not about them, and they know it.

Trump once understood that he needed to channel the grievances of the voters, not just his own. So he talked about immigration and crime and terrorism and particular culture-war gripes he'd culled from the talk-radio circuit. You'd hear him rant about obscure issues like "Common Core" that only those who were clued into right-wing obsessions were even aware of. Now he talks about some of that stuff, just in passing, but reserves his real passion for his own troubles, which he obsesses over in great detail. His insults are saved for fellow Republicans and obscure prosecutors whom nobody in that crowd could pick out of a lineup.

Maybe it makes no difference to his devoted flock. They do seem to love him no matter what he says or does. But I have to wonder if at least a few of these people don't watch an event like this and ask themselves, "Doesn't he care about anyone but himself?" The answer, of course, is obvious, and on some level they've known it all along. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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