Skip to main content
opinion

The Trump Tribe of Texas participates in a prayer at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, Texas, on Aug. 4.SHELBY TAUBER/Reuters

Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.

There can no longer be any doubt about the facts of what happened in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. Despite being told by his own inner circle that he had lost a fair election in November, 2020, U.S. president Donald Trump broke democracy’s cardinal rule: He refused to accept his defeat, and has been pushing conspiracy theories about electoral “fraud” ever since. Mr. Trump deliberately incited an armed mob to storm the Capitol, and when the crowd started baying for vice president Mike Pence to be hanged, he told his staff that Mr. Pence deserved it because he had refused to stage a coup on Mr. Trump’s behalf.

These were the conclusions reached by the U.S. House of Representatives’ January 6 Committee, after it had conducted over 1,000 interviews. Liz Cheney, the committee’s Republican vice chair, said in her closing statement: “Can a president who is willing to make the choices Donald Trump made during the violence of January 6 ever be trusted with any position of authority in our great nation again?”

For many Republicans, who tend to regard Ms. Cheney as a traitor, the resounding answer is: “Yes, he can.” According to a recent poll, 40 per cent of Republicans believe that what happened on January 6 is nothing to worry about. The same proportion think that the violent assault on the Capitol was a legitimate political protest.

More than half of Americans don’t share these views. But what accounts for the ex-president’s continuing grip on the trust and affection of so many Republicans?

Talking about the facts of Jan. 6 may miss the point. To many of his supporters, Mr. Trump is more than just a politician. They don’t just support him – they believe in him as a saviour who gives them a sense of pride, not least in belonging to something greater than the life of any individual person.

Class has much to do with this. Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporters tend to be white Americans without any higher education, often living in rural areas, who feel unheard, condescended to, and even despised by better-educated, more urban Americans. The more that educated liberals deplore what former president Barack Obama once described as people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” the more the typical Trump voters will double down on their beliefs.

Mr. Trump understands this and, despite his wealth, shares the popular resentment of elites that never quite accepted him or his family of shady real estate operators. The fact that he is a serial sinner against the religious values that many of his followers claim as their own does not faze them. Most people are sinners, after all. Rates of divorce and teenage birth are higher in solidly Republican states than in more liberal parts of America. The more Mr. Trump’s political opponents criticize him for being an adulterer, a bigot, and a liar, the more his followers defend him.

The key is that Mr. Trump, like all skillful demagogues, gives people who feel powerless a sense of collective power. He fires up a warm feeling of “us” against “them.”

Will his enduring appeal to such true believers allow him to become president again? It would be foolish to count him out at this stage, but he faces real challenges. An increasing number of Americans will vote for candidates they like regardless of their party affiliation, and many don’t like Mr. Trump. Women, especially, are worried about the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court – now loaded with reactionary judges picked by Mr. Trump – to strip them of their constitutional right to abortion. Even worse for Mr. Trump is the erosion of his support among conservative newspapers and Republican-adjacent media – even Fox News.

None of this necessarily means that most Republicans disapprove of Trump. Many may still believe his claim that Joe Biden’s victory was fraudulent. But an increasing number of Republicans say they are tired of Mr. Trump droning on about what happened nearly two years ago; they want their party to move on.

Forgetfulness and boredom are always quick to emerge in U.S. politics. But there is another reason why the tide may be turning against him. The Republican strategist Sarah Longwell described the feelings of many in her party: “They think the hearings are stupid and they like Donald Trump, but they’re making a political calculation about who can win.” To be rejected because he is seen as a loser: Now that would be the stuff of Mr. Trump’s worst nightmares.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.