Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Trump loves his supporters, but why do they love him?

President Trump spoke Saturday at a rally in support of Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate in a House race in Pennsylvania.
Tom Brenner/New York Times
President Trump spoke Saturday at a rally in support of Rick Saccone, the Republican candidate in a House race in Pennsylvania.

ON SATURDAY NIGHT, Donald Trump spoke at a political rally in western Pennsylvania, and it was the sort of unhinged and delusional speech that we’ve come to expect from our 45th president.

At various points, Trump took credit for steel mills opening up because of his tariff decision . . . which happened two days before. He said “the Olympics would have been a total failure” without him.

He called NBC News anchor Chuck Todd a “sleeping son of a bitch”; he used a racial slur to attack Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren; he derided Maxine Waters, who is African American, as “a very low IQ individual”; he talked about “African” unemployment being the lowest in history; and he said there were a lot of “evil people” in Washington. He also said the NRA “happens to be very good people” and he shushed the crowd when they booed the mention of North Korean strongman, Kim Jong Un.

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He attacked the European Union, the United States’ largest trading partner and home to most of America’s key international allies. He said Japan was very happy with what Trump is doing on North Korea. It’s not.

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He claimed that he received 52 percent of the women’s vote in the 2016 election, even though it’s actually 52 percent of white women, which makes sense if you consider that dig on Maxine Waters. He talked about imposing the death penalty on drug dealers. He said that CNN is “fake as hell . . . the worst, so fake,” but added that “NBC is perhaps worst than CNN . . . and MSNBC is horrible.”

I could go on here, but you get the idea. As was the case during the 2016 campaign Trump’s political rallies are vile and vulgar affairs. They are an airing of the president’s personal grievances; a chance for him to strike back at those who have maligned or doubted him — egged on by a crowd that cheers these attacks along and gives comfort to Trump’s seemingly limitless insecurities.

At one point, Trump asked the crowd: “Do you like me?” When they cheered he responded, “I like you too. I love you.”

I get why Trump loves his supporters. They validate him. What I can’t figure out is why they like him.

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I understand intellectually how Trump’s speeches perform an important role for Trump’s supporters: they affirm their resentments. By saying the things they allegedly say he empowers them. But most ordinary people — even those who love Trump — don’t really talk like he does. But I talked to so many of his backers in 2016 who were uncomfortable with his excesses; who had genuine qualms about the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants or preventing Muslims from entering the country. Yet somehow they found themselves willing to put those concerns aside to cheer him on. It was the perfect example of how demagoguery can cause people to lose their moorings as they became swept up in the frenzy of a political rally.

That was then. In the midst of a heated presidential campaign, it’s understandable, I suppose, how one could suspend belief about Trump — or at the least hold out hope that the office would humble him and he would learn to act like a normal person, no less a normal president.

But in the nearly 14 months since Trump has been president he hasn’t changed at all. If anything, he’s gotten decidedly worse. Now the words he uses and the actions he takes have real world consequences. And it’s not as Trump backers can fall back on the defense that he’s followed through on his campaign promises. Few of the assurances he gave his audiences in 2016 have come to fruition. Indeed, his biggest accomplishment — tax cuts — will do little to help those in the crowd on Saturday night.

Yet, here were his backers once again, waiting in long lines, crowding into a sweaty arena, lustily cheering his racist barbs, his pathetic grandstanding, his delusional proclamations, and his gratuitous attacks.

The amount of rationalization that one has to engage in to excuse Trump’s behavior feels less like a political ideology and more like pathology. No decent person should want any part of Trump’s miserable, hate-filled, and divorced-from-reality politics.

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A great deal of effort has been put into understanding the motivation of Trump’s voters — both by politicians and voters. But when you watch a spectacle like his Saturday night speech, it’s compelling evidence that it’s a pointless endeavor. For Democrats, the only proper response to those who still see this president in positive terms is not to reason with them but rather to present a message of optimism, decency and inclusivity and let the political chips fall where they may. It’s not easy, in political terms, to write off an entire swath of voters (perhaps a third or more of the country) and to suggest that they are, in effect, irredeemable. But sometimes politics is also about stating unpleasant truths. When it comes to Trump’s hard-core supporters, I think we’ve reached that point.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.