Politics / June 12, 2024

Donald Trump Jumps the Shark

The former president’s rants are more incoherent than ever. But he doesn’t need to make sense to keep his followers in the tank.

Chris Lehmann
Trump Las Vegas Rally

Donald Trump attends a rally on June 9, 2024, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

(Eric Thayer / The Washington Post)

In the midst of a summer barrage of shark attacks, the national news media has mounted one of its own, focused on an unusually convoluted Donald Trump stump performance. Before a Las Vegas crowd gathered in sweltering 105-degree heat, the 45th president delivered a jittery parable about sharks, boats, and batteries. The gist of it seemed to be that the powerful electric batteries on motorboats might pose a hazard of electrocution if the boat were capsizing—and this could be a mortal dilemma for a pleasure cruiser, if the craft were within 10 yards of a ravenous shark. The immediate context for Trump’s word-picture was his pledge to halt further production of electric vehicles—but what sharks, sinking boats, and Trump’s free-associative impressions of a nautical disaster have to do with that is anyone’s guess.

So far, commentators have rushed to mint the episode into a parable of their own: The Beltway media’s prim obsession with Biden’s public-speaking blunders as telltale signs of cognitive decline are a yawning double standard, since it’s often the case that Trump’s listeners have no idea what he’s talking about. A mediasphere that notoriously trained its unfiltered cameras on Trump rallies and other verbal performances in 2016, to the tune of some $2 billion worth of free media for the candidate’s campaign, continues its autopilot coverage of Trump’s delusional outbursts as symptoms of a national mood of protest and resentful score-settling. Meanwhile, Biden’s gaffes from the stump are axiomatically the worrying digressions of a disoriented old natterer in a bubble of denial.

This disparate handling of the two candidates’ grasp of reality undeniably persists as we barrel into the 2024 campaign season, but this analysis misses a key point: Trump’s verbal performance has long failed to matter to his mass following. What Trump says is far less consequential than how he says it: His Mad Libs vitriol aimed at a rotating cast of targets—the press, the invading immigrant hordes, the communist-led deep state, the rigged and tyrannical legal system—furnishes his following with a plug-and-play martyrology. This is by now a well-honed political transaction: Trump’s petulant tantrums dramatize his admirers’ utmost sense of persecution—and they do the same for him.

Jeff Sharlet’s account of the Las Vegas rally gives a sense of how this dynamic works. Sharlet opens his breakdown of the rally with the other big moment of Trumpian media titillation: The candidate greeted the crowd with an acknowledgment that they were courting heat stroke, and then brusquely announced, “I don’t care about you, I just want your vote.” That mock-cruel outburst then segued into another media attack: “See, now, the press will take that, and say, ‘he said a horrible thing.’” This self-aware opening feint set the tone for Trump’s afternoon-long tirade, Sharlet notes, while clueing the crowd in to his nimble brand of character assassination masquerading as grievance politics:

The crowd laughs. It’s funny, if you’re a Trumper, because it’s true. It’s a subtle move, because it is true, all of it at once: the felon does not care; and he says what he says to bait the press; and the press will take the bait (as I post this, I hear MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace repeating the bait as if it’s a gotcha); and his followers know they will. Which makes it ok that it’s also true, that he doesn’t care about them, because it’s worth it, to play those bastards for once. Trump plays them for you, which is why it’s ok that he doesn’t care about you. Because clearly he does; he hits them for you. “Funny” because it’s true.

Sharlet underlines a crucial point, one that’s routinely lost in the media sport of hypocrisy-spotting: Right-wing political rhetoric functions less as a mode of communicating ideas than as a model permission structure for what true-believing MAGA warriors can say and do to further the cause. It’s a trope that antedates Trump, rooted in the rise of shock-jock radio in the 1990s. My own crash course in its operations—and the Beltway press’s failure to recognize it—came in 2008, when Rudy Giuliani tried to woo voters as a pro-choice GOP candidate at the Value Voters summit in Washington. A throng of political reporters was on hand to cover Giuliani’s speech, and when it was over, duly wandered off. I stayed on to watch the next speaker, right-wing radio star Mark Levin, deliver a hateful misogynistic rant targeting then–Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton that culminated in deriding her appearance with the insult “her royal thighness.” For all the overheated attention given to Giuliani’s speech, it was a one-day story and a fizzled political overture. No other report on the event mentioned Levin’s performance, or the crowd’s enthusiastic response to it—but in its conjoined hatred and ardor, it was a prophetic foretaste of the Trump dispensation.

Likewise, Sharlet is among the only observers who mentioned the warm-up speakers at the Vegas rally, who were steeped in the Trump movement’s portrait of the 2024 campaign as an all-or-nothing redoubt of American spiritual warfare. Wayne Allyn Root, a Jewish convert to hard-right evangelicalism, fired up the MAGA faithful with this greeting: “This is the moment of our lives! This is the reason you were born! Fight like cornered wolverines! Attack! Attack like General George Patton! Never accept defeat! A battle for the ages! A battle inspired by God!”

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Georgia GOP Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene took up the same millennial refrain, with self-dramatizing flourishes of her own. “The fake news media want to constantly talk about, ‘Oh, President Trump is a convicted felon.’ Well, you wanna know something? The man I worship is also a convicted felon! And he was murdered on a Roman cross!”

Trump’s parable of the boat and the shark may fall well short of the Beatitudes or the parable of the prodigal son, but it fills the same structural slot in the MAGA catechism of power: Here is your savior, doing heroic battle with the forces of darkness on your own behalf. As Sharlet notes, even eight years into the Trump era, our establishment media remains stolidly tone-deaf to this messaging. “The proper political press rarely pays much attention to Trump’s warm-up acts,” he writes. “But the openers are the unregulated id of a Trump rally, messier expressions of the main event, demonstrations for the faithful of the correct expression of fealty. Trump’s people love him; the little-known preachers and rabble rousers like Root show them how to love their man best.”

Nor is this rhetoric confined to the rites of Trump worship on the campaign trail. The congressional leaders of the MAGA movement, such as House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan and his Oversight counterpart James Comer, have converted their committees into random search engines for Trump-sanctioned conspiracy fodder. These inquiries have, in substantive legislative terms, accomplished nothing beyond directing airtime to the pet grievances of the MAGA faithful. But again, that’s the point: When impeachment efforts founder on lies and agitprop, the pious grievance merchants simply move on to fresh material. Likewise, GOP operatives are embracing the messianic turn of the 2024 campaign as a grassroots mobilization strategy, fanning out to seduce low-information voters in sparsely populated rural districts with the gospel of Trump repurposed as make-believe policy. They whisper that once Trump is restored to maximum executive power, he will give them “med beds,” which will magically dispel all physical ailments once they gratefully sink into their embrace. After all, Jesus had a healing ministry too.

Against this backdrop, it does little good to scour Trump’s gnomic utterances for “gotcha” signs of cognitive decline. It’s never mattered to the MAGAverse that their candidate makes little sense on the stump; what’s much more telling is that he’s out there on the frontiers of their own collective dreamscape, fighting off the malevolent forces that charge all the world’s sharks and batteries with primal demonic power.

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Chris Lehmann

Chris Lehmann is the DC Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).

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