Picture the scene: On Saturday night, deep in the heart of Texas, I was hanging out at a saloon that featured western swing dancing, and during a break in the action I pulled out my phone and watched a chunk of Donald Trump’s bat-crazy serenade to a conservative confab.
I was revolted, for all the usual reasons, when a guy in a handlebar mustache sidled past, peered at my screen, and asked, “What’s he saying?” I had to make an instant decision. Should I be candid and share the news that Trump had copiously buttressed his treasure trove of 9,000 lies? Or should I play it safe? Should I pose as a cultist and hail the Leader the same way Trump treats Kim Jong-un?
I decided to take a chance. I shook my head in disgust, which prompted him to laugh – with me, not at me. He asked, “What bothers you most?” So far, so good.
I said, “What actually bothers me most is the reaction of his audience. He’s not a man of sound mind. But what’s their excuse?” I could’ve said a lot more – about how conservatives and Republicans used to care about “character,” about how they prized morals and marital fidelity, about how they took pride in being tough on foreign adversaries and faithful to our allies – but much to my relief, he clearly got my drift.
It turned out that he was a Trump skeptic from east Austin, and “the best thing” he’d ever read about Trump’s followers had been posted a few years ago on the website of the Texas Observer. He promised to send me the link; yesterday, he did. I realized it was a piece I’d seen before – it was written shortly before the 2016 election – but I hadn’t read it. I’ll share it now, because it feels more timely than ever, as we careen toward our national day of reckoning in 2020.
Trump begins his re-election bid with roughly 90 percent support from the Republican base (despite his demagoguery, lies, and serial failures), and that blind fealty cannot be underestimated. As the Texas Observer piece presciently warned us, Trump reigns supreme over a kingdom of the “happily stupid” – a sizeable slice of the citizenry that chooses to indulge its basest instincts and most irrational fears. Key excerpts:
“Thing is, the support of Trump in Texas — and I speak specifically of my region, East Texas — goes beyond the smart and the not so smart, the educated and the uneducated. It is more a result of what I like to call the happily stupid; the ones who hold stupid views by choice, not due to lack of intelligence, but due to a kind of tribalism. Facts that interfere with their version of the world are there to be ignored…Trump has provided a dark, dank hole into which these folks can dump whatever it is they’re mad about…
“Most of what Trump is selling shouldn’t convince a distracted 12-year-old, and certainly it’s hard to see how a conniving real estate tycoon represents the average person, but those are the people he has made the greatest inroads with…Trump could have unhealthy relations with a dying donkey on the White House lawn and they would see it as him being refreshingly politically incorrect, and isn’t there a chance that donkey could have illegally crossed the border from Mexico and got what it deserved?
“They have decided to hear what they want to hear and dismiss the rest. But this isn’t as new as some suggest. What appeals to the Trump supporter is what has long appealed to the Republican party. Before, it was thinly concealed, like a cheap coat of whitewash over bathroom graffiti. No longer. Now we know for certain what’s written on the wall, and what has been going on in the basement. Trump is the Frankenstein monster Republicans have been tinkering with all these years, and now It’s Alive! and running amok…
“It’s a jungle out there. At least, to hear the Republicans tell it. But what it’s really about, in earthier conservative circles, is a chance for people to feel important, to think they are standing on the lines of freedom, fighting back the zombie hordes. What drives these folks is fear; but for many, it’s a delicious fear…
“Fear sells, and it stimulates. Trump and his cronies constantly tell us, without actual facts, how bad crime is and how evil all foreigners are…and you better build that bunker and stock up, because if you don’t, all you’ll have for protection from the certain rise of crazed liberals is harsh language. This is a world so many conservative Republicans feel they can control. A frightened world. A world where the happily stupid, bless their little hearts, can thrive within their own fear-based mythology.”
Those words were written in 2016. They could’ve been written now. Over the weekend, attendees of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference yelled “Fake News” on cue, cheered wildly when Trump described the Russia probe as “bullshit,” happily indulged his delusion that the midterm election debacle was actually a victory for the GOP, bought his warning that Democrats will take away their cars and “end air travel”…a willfully frightened constituency beholden to a cult of personality.
That’s roughly 40 percent of the electorate, immovable and forever loyal – a clear and present danger to our fragile democracy, given the vagaries of the Electoral College, the threat of a third-party candidate, and the usual propensity of Democrats to keep fighting among themselves. We’ve already seen what happens when a demagogue governs by tweet on behalf of “the happily stupid.” We can ill afford another perfect storm.