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Where conspiracy theories meet Jesus: Inside the ‘upside-down fantasy world’ of Trump rallies

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Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
As of Friday morning, the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States stands at roughly 198,000 people. Epidemiologists and other public health experts warn that the real number of deaths is much higher. By the end of this year, the virus may well have killed at least 300,000 people, conceivably many more. If the Trump regime is permitted to pursue its preferred “herd immunity” strategy, it’s reasonable to assume that several million people will die.

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Journalist Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage” reveals that Donald Trump knew that the coronavirus was a highly lethal plague that could potentially kill millions of people in the United States. The president chose to publicly lie about that fact and minimize the danger. Moreover, Trump has actively sabotaged coronavirus relief efforts in the United States for his own (perceived) personal, financial and political gain.

In this season of death, Trump is once again holding political rallies across the country where thousands of his followers gather, most not wearing masks, and revel in their defiance of public health. Attendees at such events can potentially spread the virus to thousands of other people. In essence, Trump’s followers are a type of human biological weapon.

Trump insists on holding these rallies because he is an apparent sociopath who lacks empathy, care or concern for other people. His need for narcissistic fuel is more important than the lives of others.

What of Trump’s followers? Why do they continue to flock to his rallies, which are literal death traps?

To most outside observers, such behavior appears as mass insanity, proof that Trumpism is a form of religion, a literal death cult.

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But the reality of TrumpWorld is perhaps even more frightening than that conclusion.

Carl Hoffman is the author of the critically-acclaimed bestseller “Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest.” Hoffman’s writing has also been featured in such publications as National Geographic Adventure and the Smithsonian.

Beginning with Trump’s impeachment and ending with the first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, Hoffman traveled some 5,000 miles across the country attending Trump rallies, and spent almost 200 hours talking with the Trump faithful who attend those events. Hoffman documents these experiences in his new book, “Liar’s Circus: A Strange and Terrible Journey Into the Upside-Down World of Trump’s MAGA Rallies.”

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In this conversation, Hoffman explains that Donald Trump’s rallies function as a form of alternate reality for his followers. This “upside-down world” is tied together by conspiracy theories, ignorance, racism and a longing for an earlier time in America where life was “simpler” because nonwhite people, LGBTQ people, women and other marginalized groups “knew their place” and white Christian straight men were understood as the most essential Americans. Hoffman also explores the similarity between Trump’s rallies and evangelical church revivals where the sick are healed, sinners are “born again” and the charismatic preacher is seen as a semi-divine prophet.

Hoffman also warns that Trump’s rallies — and the realm of Trump believers more generally — are infused with delusions like the fast-spreading QAnon conspiracy theory, and that such beliefs pose a grave danger to American democracy and society overall.

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This conversation has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

You have a unique insight into TrumpWorld given that you have attended so many of his rallies. Given all that has happened and is likely to happen in these final weeks before the 2020 election, how are you feeling?

I follow the news closely. I read the New York Times every day, I read the Washington Post. In general, I am a voracious consumer of the news. And yet I found that there is a profound difference between reading about something and being in the literal world of Trump at his rallies. That world was shocking to me.

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I was shocked to see how Donald Trump has an urge, a type of deep need, for authoritarianism. I don’t think it’s a plan. He is not smart enough. But with Donald Trump — and you see this at the rallies — his ego is everything. Trump is such a damaged human being. He is empty inside and has to fill that space. He cannot lose. To lose is the worst thing in the whole world for Trump, psychologically. I saw it at the rallies. It makes one’s hair stand up to watch this urge toward power in person. As I explain in the book, Donald Trump is a dangerous person and anything can happen with him as president during the 2020 election.

What does the mainstream media, along with the general public outside of TrumpWorld, fail to understand about his power over and appeal to his followers?

It’s weird to be at a Trump rally. The first place I went to for a rally was Minneapolis. I went the day before the rally to get a sense of what was happening. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never been to any of his rallies before that one. The first 10 or 20 people were lined up. In line was a Black man wearing a stars-and-stripes baseball shirt and a MAGA hat. I didn’t talk to anyone. I left. The next morning, I got there about 6 a.m. and the line had grown exponentially throughout the night. I learned that I had to start getting in line much earlier.

At first, I was shocked because there were many more Black people there than I had anticipated. But then, as I hung out at more Trump rallies, I realized that 100 or 200 Black people out of 22,000 is nothing. And then. of course the Trump campaign people pick Black people out and put them in “Blacks for Trump” T-shirts and then have them standing behind Donald Trump’s podium so that the cameras can pick them out.

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Donald Trump is a racist and a Trump rally is an overwhelmingly white event. Whether you see people engage in flagrant displays of outrageous racism or not, it’s a terrifically racist event. That slogan “Make America Great Again,” what does that even mean? What is a “great” America for people who are at a Trump rally? What they want is a world that looks just like a Trump rally.

The people at a Trump rally will tell you that what is great about being there is how everyone is alike. They are upfront about that. It is a very white world. The people at Trump rallies are very happy to have token Black people there who are wearing MAGA gear. Trump supporters do not want social change. The Black people at Trump rallies do not have any power. They do not threaten power. If you ask the people at the Trump rallies — I like to call them “Trumpians” — they will say right away, “Well, liberals always accuse us of being racist, and we’re not racist.” In reality, of course they are.

Trump’s rallies are a type of theater and scripted performance. What is the format?

Donald Trump’s world is an upside-down one. It is a fantasy world. One of the most popular songs at a Trump rally is “YMCA” by the Village People. There are 22,000 people pantomiming the letters YMCA at a Trump rally. The next person that comes on the stage is Vice President Pence. Out of 22,000 people, untold thousands of them are fundamentalist, evangelical Christians who think homosexuality is a sin. And yet their favorite song is a disco hit about having anonymous gay sex at the YMCA.

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This detachment from reality happens over and over again at a Trump rally. Trump will come out and say, “How many union people are here? Trump is for the working man. Trump is for the union man,” even though the Republican Party has relentlessly attacked unions for decades. A Trump rally is really a wild place where this man appears and says he is going to fix everything wrong in the world. He is going to fix every problem that you have in your life. Trump says the other people, the Democrats and people who don’t support him, are just dirt, they’re trying to ruin your life. They’re coming after you. But Donald Trump? He is going to fix your life. And he’s going to fix you too.

Donald Trump has been credibly accused of sexual harassment as well as sexual assault by numerous women. He has cheated on all his wives. He also wants to take away women’s reproductive rights and freedoms. Yet millions of white women are devoted to Donald Trump. How do they explain themselves?

The women at the rallies are some of the most incredibly zealous Trump supporters. One of the great cultural strains at play with the Trumpians are issues with work and masculinity. This is particularly true for white, non-college-educated men who traditionally were able to make a living — and a relatively good living — and support a family just with their hands and the strength of their back and their work ethic.

Such white men have seen the world shift in some pretty dramatic ways. Women and people of color have become much more educated and much more integrated into the workforce during these last few decades. Women are more educated than men now in terms of degree attainment.

Many of the men who support Trump feel really lost. The women who are their partners feel the same way. Maybe those women had to work too, as teachers or as nurses. But they bought into a very old, traditional model of masculinity. With that world shifting, Trump’s “working class” supporters feel completely adrift. At a Trump rally one sees so many women buy into those emotions.

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What are some of the shared values and beliefs at a Trump rally?

At a Trump rally, the biggest shocker for me was the extent to which everyone believes in the worst conspiracy theories. They do not read newspapers or follow the mainstream news. Trump’s supporters live in an upside-down fantasy world.

QAnon, for instance, is not some weird tangential belief held by a minority of nuts. QAnon is a mainstream cultural phenomenon among tens of millions of Trump supporters. It is also taken for granted that the American press is the “enemy of the people.” This would be repeated over and over again at Trump’s rallies on the speakers and the Jumbotron screen.

Moreover, there are a lot of people at Trump rallies who do not even watch Fox News. Again, they don’t watch any news at all. It was quite frequent for me to talk to somebody at a Trump rally, and they would tell me, “I do independent research.”

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Trumpians are not doing critical thinking. They are looking at Twitter. Many of them are also into OAN, the One America News Network. OAN makes Fox News look progressive.

The role of right-wing evangelical Christianity is very important in understanding Trump’s appeal to these people. Many of them believe we are in the end times. That makes it easy for them to succumb to conspiracy theories. It is all fertile ground for the fantastical world that Donald Trump inhabits.

Why do Trump’s followers listen to him? Because they are used to listening to fire-and-brimstone preachers raging about the end of the world and the end times. They listen to him because there are tens of millions of non-college-educated white people who feel their privilege somehow ending. The world is changing, and they are very frightened of that. These are not people who live in Chicago, New York or Washington.

Is Trumpism a cult? Are the rallies cult meetings?

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I do not believe that Trumpism per se is a cult. But I do think that Donald Trump plays off one of the great icons of American history and culture, which is the preacher.

When I first went to a Trump rally my assumption was that the lights would dim, and that Donald Trump would come out on the stage and there would be a spotlight on him. I was shocked and surprised to see that at a Trump rally it is hyper-lit — it is incredibly bright and there are no shadows. I shared that observation with a woman in Dallas. She explained to me that it is like church. Trump’s rallies are like a church revival. You want to see the preacher, and the preacher wants to see you. The idea of being “born again,” what does that mean? To be born again means you have to die. For an urban secular person, such thinking is very strange and foreign. But for millions of Americans it is all very mainstream and normal.

The idea of being reborn is something that happens because the preacher convinces you that the world is evil, and that you’re sinning so badly that you essentially die, and then he brings you back. At a traditional church revival, people faint, they pass out and then they come back to life and they are reborn. I have seen this happen at Trump rallies. I have watched people fall out at a Trump rally and then be carried out on stretchers and placed near the front row. To my eyes it is very clear and purposeful that the people who organize and plan Trump’s rallies are well aware of these echoes of the church and religious fundamentalism.

What do you think happens if Donald Trump is defeated by Joe Biden? As a group, will his followers become violent?

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That is hard to answer. Most of the Trump people that I spent time with at the rallies were not violent. They were not carrying weapons — you can’t bring a weapon into a Trump rally anyway. I believe the Trump people I spoke with at the rallies would accept the outcome of the 2020 election.

Yes, there is certainly a much smaller subset of people who are potentially violent and dangerous. And I don’t know what happens with them. Perhaps I am being too optimistic? Maybe I believe in the goodness and innate people of human beings too much? I do believe that Donald Trump will do anything to win and that he does not like to lose. But I do hope that if Trump loses by a wide enough margin that will, in and of itself, be enough for a peaceful transition of power after the election.

You immersed yourself in TrumpWorld through all these rallies. What do you know now that you did not before?

I am shocked at the deep and widely held belief in conspiracy theories and the extent to which the right wing, from Fox News to Donald Trump, have perverted the truth to the point where people question if the truth even exists.

I believe that the truth exists. I believe it is reported in such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post and other places, every day. But there are many tens of millions of people who regard anything that comes out of the country’s leading newspapers as “commie propaganda” or what have you. Such beliefs do not bode well for the United States.


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