New Trump poll proves Obama and Clinton were right: The GOP base are deplorable, bitter clingers

First rule of MAGA? "Never admit a liberal was right." Unfortunately, their conniptions are getting people killed

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 22, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters at the James A. Rhodes Arena on August 22, 2016 in Akron, Ohio. (Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses supporters at the James A. Rhodes Arena on August 22, 2016 in Akron, Ohio. (Angelo Merendino/Getty Images)

"Hurt dogs sure do holler." That was the saying that came to mind in 2008 when then-candidate for president Barack Obama drew outrage from Republicans because he described their voters as "bitter" people who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." The phrase came to mind again in 2016, when Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton used the memorable phrase "basket of deplorables" to describe supporters of Donald Trump. Since a cardinal rule of politics is "insult your opponent, but never their voters," the mainstream media picked up and amplified the umbrage-taking from Republicans. 

What wasn't discussed very much in all this media coverage: The truth value of either Clinton's or Obama's comments. And what a shame, because both of them were right.

New polling out this week from CBS News proves, as many feared, Trump's fourth set of indictments — he now faces 91 felony charges across four jurisdictions — has only caused the GOP to rally around their seething orange leader. (And let's not forget this comes after a jury recently found him responsible for sexual assault.) Trump has surged to 62% support in the Republican presidential primary poll, and 73% of those backing Trump say it's because, not despite, of his massive criminal exposure. 

And, in a poll finding that really is astonishing, Trump voters claimed they trust the notorious fraudster more than anyone. A whopping 71% of Trump voters claim "what he says is true." Only 63% of them say that about family and friends, 56% about conservative media figures and 42% about religious leaders. 

The word that comes to mind is "cult." 

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"Cult leaders must be dynamic, charismatic, and convincing because their goal is to control their members to acquire money or power-related advantages," said Joe Scarborough on MSNBC in response to the poll Monday.

Political scientist Brian Klaas tweeted, "you need to understand what an authoritarian cult of personality is, because that's what it has become."

Even Trump's primary GOP opponent, Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis, got involved, telling an interviewer, "A movement can't be about the personality of one individual," and that it's not a "durable movement" if it's just "listless vessels."

MAGA is a cult, but it's a mistake to view Trump followers like DeSantis does, as "listless vessels" for Trump. Take this poll with a strong grain of salt, as it's unlikely that so many people are so delusional as to truly see an honest broker in the chronic liar and criminal that is Trump. Instead, the poll is a reminder that Trump backers are both deplorable and bitter clingers. 

When a MAGA-American picks up the phone and hears a pollster from the hated "liberal media" ask them questions about Trump's indictments and general trustworthiness, they aren't answering the question asked. What they're really hearing, over and over: "Are you ready to admit that you were wrong and liberals were right all along about Trump?" And the answer is a big, fat "hell no," because the first rule of MAGA is to never, ever, under any circumstances, admit that liberals might be right about something.

It would be funny if these folks weren't a massive threat, and not just to democracy. As Obama said, they bitterly cling to their guns. Violence is the inevitable result of all this rage.

That poll doesn't measure a sincere belief in Trump's trustworthiness. It measures people who, consumed with bitterness towards the more liberal majority, are clinging to Trump even harder in a pathetic bid to save face. Which, as anyone who has studied cults can tell you, is a surprisingly strong factor in why people squelch their doubts to stay in the cult. They were warned so many times that this was a mistake that they stick around, hoping to prove the skeptics wrong. 

The rally-round-Trump effect is fundamentally an eff-you-liberals response. This is demonstrated by the way this sentiment surges around every embarrassing reminder that the man is a criminal, and an idiotic one at that. There's a pattern emerging to the MAGA reaction to Trump indictments. The first swell of emotions is a tantrum, full of "how dare you" screaming, as they metaphorically (or literally in some cases) follow their leader's ketchup-throwing ways. Once that crybaby reaction fades, however, you can see concerns about betting it all on a profligate criminal start to seep in. As a Washington Post analysis of the polls before the Georgia indictments show, the overall trend shows Republicans more willing than ever to admit Trump is a bad person and a criminal. But that willingness dries up temporarily in the face of new indictments, as their ascendent emotion is defensiveness. Plus, when pollsters word questions more carefully to avoid provoking Republican spite, Trump's indictment bump disappears. 

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It's unsurprising that the conniption fit is especially strong after the RICO charges against Trump and 18 co-conspirators were announced in Atlanta because the face of these indictments is Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. A Black woman having the power to charge Trump triggers both the racism and the sexism that fuels the Trumpist movement. When the prosecutor reading charges is Jack Smith, a stern-looking white man from the Justice Department, it's a lot harder for Republicans to tap that bitter clinger energy that makes them so deplorable. But now they're in high dudgeon because they refuse to accept a world where a Black woman has the right to make accusations against a rich white man. 

It would be funny if these folks weren't a massive threat, and not just to democracy. As Obama said, they bitterly cling to their guns. Violence is the inevitable result of all this rage. They may not be rioting at the courthouse, but, as I wrote in March, the MAGA fury is being redirected at women, LGBTQ people, and racial minorities, the people that MAGA believes they shouldn't have to share power within a democratic system. There was yet another reminder this weekend of how bad things have gotten when a California store owner named Lauri Ann Carleton was murdered by a 27-year-old man. The reason the 66-year-old mother of nine was shot in cold blood? Because, police say, she flew the LGBTQ pride flag outside her clothing store, Mag.Pi.

The irony of all this is, if you read both Obama and Clinton's comments in context, they were actually far more charitable than the media coverage would lead one to believe. Obama was lamenting that "the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them" in Pennsylvania and the rural Midwest. That, he said, is why it's "not surprising then they get bitter" and are attracted to hateful rhetoric "as a way to explain their frustration." Similarly, Clinton was sympathetic, saying that while half of Trump's supporters are just ugly people, others "feel that the government has let them down" and are "desperate for change."

"Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well," she said of people who, in turn, were chanting about her: "Lock her up!" 

For the sake of brevity and sanity, I'll take a pass at relitigating ye ol' "economic anxiety" debates here. (If you're interested in digging in, though, I recommend Zack Beauchamp's recent analysis at Vox.) But whatever the cause, we can see the result in the polling: Millions of people whose hackles are raised far too high for them to even start to calm down and ask themselves if Trump is really the hill to die on. Trump is barely literate, but, likely due to his own narcissism, he's especially adept at manipulating people's ego defense mechanisms. He's managed to get his followers to believe that, if they admit he sucks, it's as good as saying they also suck. That's hard for anyone to do, but especially people who have spent their whole lives being told they're the only "real" Americans. 

The irony here is that this stubborn unwillingness to face the truth about Trump is a big factor in the MAGA deplorability. Having the humility and grace to let liberals be right about Trump would crack open the door to the possibility there are other things liberals are right about, from the facts of history to vaccines to climate change. Republican voters aren't really the dead-eyed zombies DeSantis invoked. But it may be something worse: Millions of grown adults slamming their hands over their ears and singing loudly, "nah nah I can't hear you."

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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