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MATTHEW BOOSE: The art of the cope
President Trump’s re-election kick-off rally was classic Trump — part Rolling Stones concert, part improv comedy set, part Roman triumph.
Shouting over the crowd, Trump asked his army of 20,000 which campaign slogan they would prefer: the dissident war cry that launched him to the White House, or its successor, “Keep America Great.” It was a smashing success. The crowd loved it. But there was something insulting and almost sad about Trump’s question. What has he done to earn this triumphant catchphrase?
Trump’s rallies are a bit like a Roman triumph, but without the triumph. They’re great entertainment for enthusiastic Trump supporters; for jaded America First-ers, the levity provokes a bittersweet amusement, a nostalgia for 2016 and what could have been.
Trump was the first Republican in generations who pushed back against the left, who acknowledged a despair in the American soul that had been suppressed. Two years later, many still feel that Trump at his worst is better than any Republican or Democrat, that there is no one else.
Is the reality more crushing – that there is simply no one?
After two years of complaining about the border on Twitter, doing nothing to end America’s never-ending wars, and almost starting another one for no reason, Trump seems quite eager to rest on his laurels. In this, he has the unwavering support of Fox News and countless supporters who are too blinded with passion to hold his feet to the fire.
For the purpose of juxtaposition, Trump’s triumphalist kick-off could not have been more timely. Last week was a case study in the real priorities of the America First presidency. Here are just a few of Trump’s achievements: the president who promised to end wars in the Middle East narrowly averted a cataclysmic conflict with Iran. Just days later, after promising to begin deporting “millions” of illegal immigrants, Trump caved — wait for the punchline — at the “request of Democrats.”
Trump launched himself to the White House with the “art of the deal.” Over the last two years, his supporters have mastered the art of the cope. Trump promised his supporters they would win so much, they’d get tired of winning. Many of them have settled for much, much less.
This was a learned response, something habituated after continued disappointments from the commander-in-chief. By any reckoning, Trump has failed to fulfill his core promises. But his base fervently denies this, although obliquely, by pointing to all the other nothing he has accomplished.
There are certain pro-Trump memes that Trump, Fox News, and his army of supporters never tire of repeating. These talking points invariably find their way from Trump’s Twitter feed, into the mouths of Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, and perhaps back onto Trump’s Twitter feed with a retweet, before being pipelined to the MAGA army through the likes of Charlie Kirk and other grifters who have co-opted the Trump movement to make a buck.
These talking points have become so trite that listing them is unnecessary. Trump is presiding over the strongest economy in decades; the black unemployment rate is at record lows; the stock market is doing so great; he has appointed so many conservative judges; and on and on.
Not all of these things are really true, and the ones that are do not constitute the victory Trump promised. The GDP and unemployment numbers tell one story. America is still an extremely precarious place for many people to live. Suicide is at record highs, especially for the young and middle-aged.
Young Americans can’t afford to buy homes and start families; aging Americans can’t afford to retire. The black unemployment statistic is inane tokenism and a consolation prize to blacks given Trump’s inability to stop the ravages of illegal immigration, which is actually getting worse.
Trump hasn’t done the things his supporters wanted from him most, so why do they continue to shower him with support? The degeneration of the Trump movement was precipitated by a codependent relationship. Like Citizen Kane, Trump is a demagogue who wants to be loved and admired by lots of people. If he can win the adoration of the crowd with a couple of judges here, a tax cut there, and bluster about locking up Hillary Clinton and deporting illegal immigrants, he’ll settle for it.
Trump’s base, on the other hand, is losing their country before their very eyes. For numberless supporters, sticking by the president is simply non-negotiable.
The MAGA movement tapped into a widely felt urgency. There was a sense that Trump was the last chance to take the country back from the forces that are destroying it. America would be doomed otherwise to a future of open borders, steep and inexorable cultural decline, and economic precarity. The nation would soon lose its sovereignty, its identity, its virtue, and its freedom forever.
Americans charged the cockpit. But with Trump guiding the way, the country is coasting. There hasn’t been a real course correction. Recovery from America’s malaise was always going to take longer than any president’s tenure, but MAGA has, in its haste to get over America’s crisis, rushed to declaring a meritless triumph. Despair in Trump’s failures, in America’s seemingly bottomless collapse, has produced fervent conviction in his success.
The idea that the country is — or even could be — “great again” after two short, empty years is absurd. Trump insists that the country is doing incredible because the stock market is up. Americans dying of opioids would protest, if they could.
Conservatives are increasingly squeezed out of the public square, their ideas branded hateful and taboo, but Trump does nothing about Big Tech censorship but complain on Twitter.
Trump isn’t doing what his base wanted him to accomplish, but they’re sticking with him no matter what. Who else is there for them to support? Trump is their champion against the left. No one else comes close.
But what if the champion is a dud, too? The people need to believe in their champion. The belief that the country is doing so well under Trump must be motivated by a suppressed fear that the opposite is true, a belief not merely that America hasn’t recovered from the disaster it elected Trump to fix, but that not even Trump can, or cares, to do it. If this is true, then what else is there?
The truth is terrible; the heady rush of faux-triumph is a welcome substitute for victory. The MAGA movement has degenerated into an elaborate cope, not only with MAGA’s failure, but with the national, social, and cultural collapse that catapulted Trump to the White House in the first place.
Trump has done little to solve the problems he said he would fix, other than provide a salve for the suffering. Like the Robert Mueller cult, MAGA is something of a politico-religious messiah movement, a provider of meaning for a deracinated, atomized, and hopeless public.
The religious character of MAGA provides a ritual ecstasy. The savior offers a purely symbolic sense of gratification-in-victory whenever he rags on Crooked Hillary, bashes the Fake News, or tweets out one of his many MAGA devotionals to stave off the abyss: Black unemployment is low! The stock market is high! Criminal justice reform!
Maybe Trump isn’t wrong to feel complacent. His supporters aren’t holding him to account. Trump’s boosters play an important role, here. Fox hosts soothe Trump’s rage and coax the base with platitudes about Trump’s wild “success.” KAG’s complacency enables Trump to keep blundering. Trump needs to be pressured — from the right — not flattered for settling.
That’s the real tragedy: complacency keeps victory from reach. The Trump movement is a hollow shell of what it was in 2016. MAGA welled up from a deep despair — despair over losing American identity, jobs, and freedom to unaccountable forces from above. But it was a despair that produced something powerful and great.
The despair that animates KAG is ugly and sad. It’s cheap, corporatized, bow-tied codswallop. It’s defeatism painted over with a Cheshire grin, aged schadenfreude over “Crooked Hillary.” MAGA was a conscious rage; KAG has the complete opposite thrust. It’s a retreat into Xanax-induced dissipation, a slow, sad return to unconsciousness.
For years conservatives sleepwalked into oblivion, dimly sensing that something was going wrong with their country but lacking the ability or the courage to articulate what it was. There was an inchoate awareness of a threat to the nation, but nobody in charge who was willing to acknowledge or do something about it.
Trump changed all that. MAGA was an awakening for millions of Americans who suddenly felt it was possible to take their country back from multiculturalism and its enforcement arm, “political correctness.” KAG is a return to the preceding slumberous state. It’s surrender, making peace with mediocre results and the “Swamp.”
MAGA was dissidence; KAG is capitulation. And what a capitulation it has been. The Trump movement has been thoroughly co-opted — by pseudo-MAGA types like Charlie Kirk, by neocons like John Bolton, by Fox hosts trumpeting predictable MAGA talking points.
The committed Never Trumpers like Bill Kristol and David French, at least, are honest about their opposition to America First. Then there are the MAGA-lites, people like Kirk, who remain resolutely libertarian and Beltway in belief while wearing the rebellious uniform of the Trumper.
This is how the young emissary of the MAGA movement speaks about his country. See if you can recognize anything remotely Trump-ian, or simply patriotic, in this statement:
I have loyalty to ideas. Of course I love the Grand Canyon. I love the Rocky Mountains. And I love Boston. And I love Chicago. But if all that disappeared, if all I had was ideas, and we were on an island, that’s America. That’s Israel. And that’s what people have to realize. America’s just a placeholder for timeless ideas. And if you fall too in love with, oh, the specific place, and all this…that’s not what it is.
Establishment-aligned organizations like Turning Point USA have risen to the top of the MAGA network. Trump’s presidency, meanwhile, has sunk into the establishment quagmire he rebelled against. The Swamp is doing just fine.
Trump’s failures haven’t been helped by the hostility he faces, but he isn’t doing himself any favors by drawing his advisers from the establishment he campaigned against. Few presidents have faced a more concerted resistance from America’s leading institutions, from the mainstream media to the intelligence apparatus in Washington. Trump’s relentless push-back against this host of enemies is admirable.
But at some point, Trump has to be held accountable. There is a common denominator in Trump’s screw-ups.
Trump keeps hiring the Swamp. Is this Trump’s fault, or a testament to the fruitlessness of revolt? Either way, Trump won’t stop hiring, and allowing himself to be led by, officials who work against his agenda.
The Iran showdown is the most consequential recent example of this. Why does John Bolton even work at the White House? As for immigration, why doesn’t Trump appoint a hardliner to lead the DHS? Why is Jared Kushner anywhere near the negotiating table?
Kushner has delivered nothing for the America First agenda. Neither have Mike Pompeo, or the late great James Mattis, or the rest of the Washington swamp monsters who pass through the revolving doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Why do any of these people work in the Trump administration? The president does realize he can fire them, right?
A few true believers continue to carry the torch, chief among them Tucker Carlson. At this point, Carlson is truer to Trump-ism than Trump himself. He isn’t afraid to call out Trump’s disappointing record. But Carlson shares a network with some of the biggest enablers of Trump’s failure.
Maybe there is a small consolation in the notion that Trump, regardless of his personal effectiveness, has left an indelible mark on the DNA of the conservative movement. Perhaps this is true. Maybe Trump is just the beginning of something greater. But if Trump’s presidency is a failure, and his supporters accept that, why write off a return to the norm?
What if it’s all just a big cope, a momentary head rush to deal with the wasteland? What if it’s a brief moment of revolt, a stop gap before the coming calamity? What then?
It’s all terribly sad. But it’s not 2016 anymore. Trump’s election was a great moment in American history, but history is littered with failed movements. KAG sure has the ring of defeat.
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