Sep 11, 2023

Opinion: A peek behind the MAGA curtain

Every now and then, it's important to watch Fox News in prime time. No, not because the programs are particularly good or because the hosts tell their audience the truth. Fox is writing Dominion Voting Systems a $787.5 million check for very good reasons, and it still faces a multibillion-dollar lawsuit from Smartmatic over the channel's election reporting. But to watch Fox News is to begin to understand millions of your fellow Americans. And there was no better time to start understanding the 2024 Republican primary contest than Thursday night, during Donald Trump's town hall in Iowa, hosted by Sean Hannity.

To watch the town hall was to start learning the answer to a key question: After everything, how can Republicans still be so loyal to Trump? But that word, "everything," is loaded with different meanings in different American communities.

When I look back on the Trump years, I see a dark time of division, corruption and social decay. After all, when he left office, the murder rate was higher, drug overdose deaths had increased, and the abortion rate had gone up for the first time in decades. America was more bitterly divided, and deficits increased each year of his presidency. His early COVID lies helped fuel an immense amount of confusion and almost certainly cost American lives. And his entire sorry term was capped by a violent insurrection fueled by an avalanche of lies.

If you watched the town hall, however, you entered an entirely different world. According to Trump's narrative, everything he did was good. His first term was a time of economic prosperity, energy independence, fiscal responsibility, a rejuvenated military, a locked-down border and fear and respect from foreign regimes. The only thing that marred his four years was a stolen election and his unjust persecution by the corrupt Democratic Party and its allies in the FBI.

In Trumpworld, the Trump past is golden, and the Trump future bright, but the present is a time of misery and darkness.

False narratives are often sustained by a few kernels of truth, and so it is in MAGA America. The economy was strong before COVID, and there were fewer Southern border crossings each year during Trump's presidency than during Biden's. The ISIS caliphate fell. And I don't know a single Republican who isn't pleased with Trump's judicial nominees.

Moreover, not all of Trump's opponents possess the cleanest of hands. There were, in fact, Department of Justice excesses during its investigation of his campaign's possible ties to Russia. A special counsel is investigating Biden's mishandling of classified documents. Hunter Biden is under criminal investigation, and his overseas business dealings are indeed unsavory, even if there is not yet proof of criminal wrongdoing. The withdrawal from Afghanistan turned into a chaotic and bloody rout of allied forces. Inflation remains too high.

In short, there is enough truthful criticism of the Biden administration to make it vulnerable to an election loss. And there remains sufficient false Trump administration nostalgia to make Trump the GOP nominee. Put both realities together, and the nation is facing RealClearPolitics polling averages that show Trump to be the overwhelming favorite for the GOP nomination and a slight leader in a potential general election matchup against Biden.

The two most telling moments on Thursday came from Trump's audience. First, they booed Mike Pence at the very mention of his name. Second, they shouted derisively at Hannity at the mere thought that Trump should perhaps tone down his rhetoric. Both moments emphasized the ferocity of their support for Trump.

That challenge is compounded by every event like Thursday's town hall, in which a relaxed Trump was "questioned" by a supine host in front of an adoring crowd. Hannity's performance was quite a contrast to Kaitlan Collins' pointed challenges to Trump during last month's CNN town hall. Yet both events advanced Trump's narrative. CNN's tough questions reminded MAGA of his alleged persecution. Hannity's coddling reminded MAGA of Trump's alleged triumphs. Both ultimately helped Trump deepen his bond with the people who love him the most.

The New York Times