The always-on Trump campaign tested its new slogan Thursday night at another one of its loopy rallies. The mostly filled Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., seemed pleased.
President Trump asked: “You ever hear this before: ‘Make America Great Again’?”
“You know our new slogan that we will be switching to because we are ahead of schedule to make America great again? It’s called ‘Keep America Great!’” The fair-skinned figures in candy-colored T-shirts and dark sports coats — the gung-ho crowd unfailingly known as Trump’s “base” — cheered again.
Oh, the inanity. “Ahead of schedule?” Sure, bud. No wall built. No Clinton jailed. Your inner circle en route to the supermax.
Reporters in the room seemed to roll their eyes and shake their heads. Who would cheer for this?
Paula Reid said on CBS, “People here believe the president has kept many of the promises he made on the campaign trail.” She spoke in a will-wonders-never-cease tone.
Such is the straitened stagecraft of the event. The base says something loony tunes — like that Trump has “kept his promises” — and the media, without correcting anything, reports on the misperception with a note of defeated irony.
A monster lives in the basement, we’re told over and over, and it has real-world electoral power.
It’s often said that Trump holds these rallies to “shore up” the base. But the media does much of the work of consolidation, too.
Every time we even use the word “base,” we reinscribe its solidity. An idiosyncratic American minority becomes the uncrackable concrete foundation that’s somehow “under” the Trump presidency, immortal and unchanging. “Base” also conjures the basement — our country’s long-disavowed racism, spite, greed and violence, locked in the cellar like a monster.
Once the base, as a figure of speech, has been erected and reinforced, it must be fed like any invented bogeyman — and fear is what feeds it, our fear, which is hardly in short supply. Every time aghast reporting suggests that some consider special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III a pedophile, or believe Trump is a holy man, or prefer the Kremlin to Democrats, we get a new chance to feel sick.
Then far-right pranksters who love the smell of liberal fear, many of them trolls who don’t vote, come around to delight in the sway they suddenly are perceived to hold.
Other people’s disgusting beliefs are compelling. Last March, an MIT study of fake news discovered that people prefer to share stories that shock and disgust, arousing and intoxicating our bodies as drugs do. What was also a study of botnets and virality became an almost poignant study of humans: We are animals who crave sensation. And disgust is a particularly acute sensation that makes us feel alive.
What’s especially disgusting-exciting about the supposed base is that its members, as represented by the media, are not just complicit. They give standing ovations, scream for more. Heard through a certain psychic amplifier with looping screeching feedback, the rank and file seem like the brownshirts at Nuremberg or the lynch mobs of midcentury Alabama.
Coverage of the Evansville rally took the usual approach: The-base-will-be-the-base, intransigent, all-powerful, bloody-minded.
To cover Trump’s assemblies this way is to be complicit, too. It’s to amp up the spectacle — and relevance — of those who rep #MAGA. A modest crowd, which surely counts among its numbers the curious, the skeptical, the amused and the plus-ones, are all cast as true believers with shared ideological commitments and predictable behaviors.
Will the Evansville rally attendees gun for Trump’s enemies, campaign for Republican candidates and vote the Trump way?
Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but if we monotonously insist that one subset of Americans will do exactly what Trump says, and forgive him anything, we’ve swallowed whole Trump’s claim in 2016 in Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
In one idiom or another, the media has been parroting this boast ever since.
And yet — not 24 hours after the rally, an ABC/Washington Post poll revealed that Trump’s approval rating has crashed, and his disapproval ratings are at an all-time high. So maybe just maybe Trump could lose voters.
Even without the new poll, there are reasons to doubt the idea of Trump’s eternal and immutable base. Plenty of evidence suggests that Trump’s crowds, like the crowds of many politicians, have been recruited. And pro-Trump online activity that seems so sickly thrilling on the internet has, as often as not, failed to materialize in three-dimensional space.
These last two years have shown us that social media is a world of illusions. The bigger, badder and more sudden a bizarro conspiracy theory appears, in fact, the more likely it is to be an op. To make an idea seem like it’s everywhere on the web used to be called “blowfishing”; now it’s known as “astroturfing.” In any case, it’s a strategy.
Many of us who should know better behold the astroturf of ideas in horror, and report on it in a way that never acknowledges that it might be a series of calculated effects. Neither do we acknowledge that the individuals who have chosen (or even been paid) to champion weird beliefs act on caprice like everyone else, and can change.
Media representations of the base are jaw-dropping, but they’re also credulous. A monster lives in the basement, we’re told over and over, and it has real-world electoral power. Then we use the notion of it to terrify ourselves, because somehow, as Hoosier John Cougar Mellencamp once taught us, it hurts so good.