Commentary Magazine

Depravity and Theatrics on Donald Trump’s Stage

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

The behavior of many attendees of Donald Trump’s campaign-style rally in Florida on Tuesday night was barbaric. There’s no other way to put it. The footage of rally-goers’ menacing and shouting profanity at reporters in slavish observance of the president’s goading was unbecoming of the citizens of a republic that values a free and independent press. The normalization of the radical anonymous conspiracy theorist “Q,” who is conspicuously obsessed with the idea that child sex trafficking is a popular liberal pastime, is disgraceful. A target of last night’s frenzied crowd, CNN’s Jim Acosta claimed that the “the hostility whipped up by Trump and some in conservative media will result in somebody getting hurt.” Indeed, this was a hostile assembly, and such crowds are capable of astonishing violence. But, as he later learned and revealed, Acosta was probably not in that kind of danger.

When Acosta descended from the podium on which he broadcasts, he calmly approached his abusers and invited them to speak—most of them happily accepted. This isn’t the first time that Acosta has served as the object of a mob’s derision, only for their ire to transform into celebrity-worship when the cameras go off. No one should minimize the potential for savagery here; it would not be the first time that the president has incited his followers to acts of violence, and the media figures and outlets Trump singles out endure harassment and credible threats from the president’s most unhinged fans. But there is a performative aspect to the Two Minutes Hate directed toward Acosta. He serves as their foil, the heel who absorbs the crowd’s fury in the ring only to sign autographs for his hecklers backstage. And there’s some evidence that Acosta relishes that role.

That doesn’t excuse any of this behavior. Indeed, it makes it worse. In his conduct as America’s chief executive, Donald Trump has inflamed and aggravated tensions to serve his own narrow ends. That objective is so transparent, though, that most who participate in this performance must do so knowing it is a farce. In willingly suffocating their better angels with a pillow, Trump and his allies may be radicalizing the truly unhinged who cannot see through the act. Perhaps more depressing, the Trumpified Republican Party is acclimating itself to behaviors and policies that would have been considered unspeakably callous not all that long ago.

In that speech before a group of veterans last week, Trump implied that media reports of businesses or individuals hurt by his trade war were pure fabrications. “Don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news,” Trump said to cheers. “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not happening.” That goes for polling data, too. At least, polling that the president doesn’t like. “Polls are fake, just like everything else,” Trump insisted this week before citing his own standing among Republicans as determined by—what else?—polls.

The only way to avoid feeling insulted by this naked contempt for the audience’s intelligence is to convince yourself that this is all a game. Maybe rally goers think that blind displays of fealty to the president frustrate all the right people. Maybe they love being swept up in the performance art of it all, and Jim Acosta might as well be the Iron Sheik to Trump’s Hulk Hogan. The bottom line is that the audience believes they’re part of the act.

But Trump’s acolytes are endorsing or excusing shameful behavior that no one should tolerate from public servants or the government of which they are a part.

Donald Trump is fond of reciting portions of civil-rights activist Oscar Brown Jr.’s 1963 poem, “The Snake,” from behind the lectern to impugn foreign refugees fleeing war and poverty abroad as sleeper agents who seek only to do Americans harm. This isn’t just agitation; it’s policy. The United States took in just 33,000 refugees last year, the lowest intake in over a decade and well below the quota. This year, administration officials led by immigration antagonist Stephen Miller hope to resettle only 15,000 refugees, a decline that experts contend is designed to allow the private charities and public mechanisms that facilitate resettlement to atrophy permanently.

At first, Trump was happy to defend his “zero tolerance” policy, which became a euphemism for breaking up families at the border to deter future border crossers. He incoherently blamed “Democrat-supported loopholes” for the policy while simultaneously insisting that a secure nation cannot have a “politically correct” immigration policy, all to the sound of applause. Only when the backlash became so great did he back off this draconian policy, and his fans cheered him for that, too.

The public outcry that erupted following the termination of “zero tolerance” has abated, but the horrors have not. In testimony before Congress on Tuesday, a Health and Human Services official confessed that they knew the “separation of children from their parents entails significant risk of harm to children.” The psychological abuse associated with this policy has occasionally led to outbursts among incarcerated children, leading U.S. government officials to administer regular doses of psychotropic medication to their charges without the consent of a parent or guardian—a practice that a district judge halted in a sweeping ruling on Monday.

The president’s rallies exemplify the post-truth moment, in which his supporters adopt Trump’s penchant for moral and intellectual malleability as though it was a virtue. As Jonah Goldberg observed, the president’s vanguard has seamlessly transitioned from claiming that there was no evidence that the president welcomed the interference of Kremlin operatives in the 2016 election to contending that welcoming such interference would not violate any statutes to insisting that cooperation with hostile foreign powers for political gain is just best practice. Likewise, when Trump’s crowds chant “lock her up” nearly two years into the Trump administration, they know that’s not going to happen. It’s the kind of banana republicanism that owns the libs, and that’s all that matters.

For Trump’s fan base and his phalanx of enablers in the conservative press, this is all a big gimmick, and they think they’re in on it. It’s all just talk, and so the stakes must be low. Anyone who over analyzes the impact of a presidential pronouncement just doesn’t get him—not like his infinitely forgiving admirers do. But this is not a game. The behavior of the most powerful man on earth matters. Pretending it does not only to posture as self-righteous is no nobler than the hysterics to which Trump’s perspectiveless critics are prone. They are players occupying two different roles on the same stage, both taking their direction from the president.

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