There was a little bit of welcome political news for defenders of democracy in the New York Times/Siena College poll released late last week. More than half of all Americans believe Donald Trump has threatened democracy by pushing the big lie that he defeated Joe Biden in 2020. A majority also believe Trump has committed serious federal crimes and hold an unfavorable opinion of the twice-impeached former president.
Of course, the flip side of that polling is that a stubbornly high minority of voters reject those facts and continue to stand firmly behind Trump. It’s true that you can occasionally find polls showing that Trump’s grip on the GOP is slipping, but overall, despite his surging legal troubles, Trump remains the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination and the leader of the party’s increasingly crazy and violent base.
A Trump rally in Wilmington, N.C., Friday night showed that the sizable minority of people who still believe Trump’s lies is devoted and deranged. The location got my attention: In 1898, Wilmington was the site of one of the cruelest white-rage riots of the post-Reconstruction period, where 2,000 rampaging white vigilantes toppled the city’s Black-led government, targeted Black politicians, police officers, and business owners, killed at least 60 Black men, and drove the Black population out of Wilmington. I’m not saying Trump or the rally planners knew that shameful history—there’s just a small memorial downtown—but it was a creepy backdrop for his vicious attacks on two Black women, New York Attorney General Tish James and former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court Cheri Beasley, now the Democratic Senate nominee.
A snarling Trump tore into James, who had just announced that she will bring civil charges against him and three of his adult children for real estate and banking fraud. “There’s no better example of the chilling obsession with targeting political opponents than the baseless, abusive and depraved lawsuit against me, my family, my company, by the racist attorney general of New York state,” he said. “This raging maniac campaign for office ranting and raving about her goal—her only goal is, we got to get Donald Trump.”
He falsely accused Beasley of supporting “defund the police” efforts; she is, in fact, on record as saying she wants to increase police funding. “Is she crazy? How the hell do these people get votes? By cheating.”
Trump got almost misty-eyed talking about the fact that James’s lawsuit targets his daughter. “Ivanka, Ivanka…she’s a very good person.” He added that sons Eric and Don Jr. are good people too, but it was the threat to his daughter that got him emotional. He went on to say that his family and his supporters are facing “torment, persecution and oppression,” which riled up the crowd.
What maybe got the most attention, and deserved to, was the reappearance of an odd genuflection to QAnon toward the end of the rally. We’d seen it before in Youngstown, Ohio, when the organizers played what reporters described as “dramatic music”—treacly and tear-jerking—and others called “the QAnon theme song,” which caused supporters to hold one finger in the air in a QAnon salute. It was the soundtrack to Trump’s mournful denunciation of his enemies, including the FBI, the Justice Department, the media, Hunter Biden, airline delays, “and a president that is cognitively impaired.” He concluded: “We will never, ever back down…to the tyrants who are against us.”
While it’s easy to mock QAnon, and to point to evidence that its support is waning—the repeated claims that John F. Kennedy Jr. is alive and coming to save us just never turn out to be true, disappointing some of the base—the violent conspiracy theory retains a hold on a significant portion of Trump’s supporters. As Trump gets more desperate and his legal troubles mount, he’s been posting QAnon-related messaging on his Truth Social site. At its heart, remember, QAnon is a movement claiming that a cabal of Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are engaged in child sex trafficking and worse, and must be rounded up by an ascendent Donald Trump, sent to Guantánamo, and executed. It’s still fairly marginal, but Trump seems to be trying to change that.
And it was easy for reporters to find Q partisans in the Wilmington crowd. About Trump’s increasing use of Q symbolism, one woman told a reporter for the UK Independent, “I loved it, it was very emotional, very touching, very inspirational, very uplifting, and hopeful.” But another Q supporter showed the potential risk of Trump’s apocalyptic electoral claims: “I think it’s wonderful,” she said of Trump’s embracing Q—but also said she wouldn’t be voting in the November election.
“Hell no,” she said. “Would you vote in a broken election if you knew? If you knew the truth?”
Cheri Beasley narrowly trails the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate, Representative Ted Budd, who voted against certifying Biden’s victory. Her campaign is fundraising off Trump’s attacks, but, in this polarized state, it’s not clear that will make a difference. Not enough people remember the lessons of Wilmington, but Trump at least knows that making two Black politicians the face of the enemy will resonate with his base.