The new word of the day to describe Donald Trump in the mainstream media is "diminished." The former president, after weeks of threats, finally had a rally Saturday in Ohio and it was a merely a shadow of what he was able to pull off when he was president. As Heather "Digby" Parton writes, "nobody really cared" beyond the "MAGA faithful." The rally was "reflective of how diminished Mr. Trump has become in his post-presidency, and how reliant he is on a smaller group of allies and supporters who have adopted his alternate reality as their own," writes Jeremy Peters of the New York Times. Trump's speech was "low-key, digressive and nearly 90 minutes long," Peters adds, noting that "[s]cores of people left early" due to the tedium.
On Saturday, Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey of the Washington Post also reported that "some around him and in senior positions" in the GOP want Trump to be sparing in his endorsements and attempts to get attention by leeching onto state and local campaigns. They are "fearful that losses and a diminished brand could backfire by allowing Democrats to maintain control of the House and Senate and weaken his standing before the next presidential contest," the Post reporters write.
This round of "Trump-is-diminished" reporting follows a similar round just three weeks ago, in which similar stories in the New York Times and Washington Post covered the seeming paradox of Republican politicians cowering in fear of Trump, even though, as Philip Bump of the Post wrote, "his actual voice has been enormously diminished."
No doubt, in the eyes of people who are not fascism-curious, the rally in Ohio Saturday was a pathetic-seeming affair. Trump's speech was a rambling, whiny mess, in which he predictably harped on the Big Lie, and rambled on about the same obsessions he trots out in every speech, right down to the "lock her up" chants aimed at Hillary Clinton in 2016. The crowd was mostly cranks, the kind of people you'll cross a street to avoid being trapped in a conversation with. And the opening act, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., was even more unsubtle than usual about being a racist weirdo.
But in this, nothing is new.
Trump has always been a tedious, long-winded narcissist, and his fans always get visibly bored listening to his ever-longer bellyaching sessions he calls "speeches." Yet they show up anyway, again and again. They showed up at the polls in 2020 in eye-popping numbers, only beaten because Democratic voters were even more determined to throw Trump out. And while it is undoubtedly boring to listen to Trump go on and on with his lame conspiracy theories accusing Biden of stealing the election, the Big Lie has real power to propel Trump to victory in both the 2024 Republican primary and in the race for the White House.
That's because Trump supporters, whatever he might like to believe, are not attracted to his non-existent wit or charm. Trump's appeal has always been about what he represents. His followers see the country morphing into a more egalitarian and diverse nation, and feel deeply threatened, believing that white conservatives should have an unquestioned right to rule over the rest of us. Trump is popular mainly because his followers believe that, due to his shamelessness and unending aggression, he's their best vehicle for establishing the authoritarian rule that is their only real hope of retaining control over a changing nation.
A new poll from Monmouth University shows that 32% of Americans — essentially the Trump base — claim to believe Trump's Big Lie that Biden stole the election. This number remains unchanged since January, despite a total lack of evidence, a multitude of debunkings, and repeated accounts by GOP officials in the states confirming that the election was fair.
Evidence doesn't matter to Trumpers, however, because the Big Lie isn't really about the literal truth about what happened in the 2020 election.
Like most myths, both religious and secular, Trump's Big Lie speaks more to a deeper belief held by the right, which is that they and they alone deserve to rule. Anyone who votes against them, therefore, is inherently illegitimate. As Adam Serwer recently wrote in the New York Times, Republicans view the Democratic coalition of people of color and white liberals as "usurpers" and "Americans they consider unworthy of the name." Their belief that the election was stolen feels true, even if it is not literally true, because they ultimately don't think the people who voted for Biden should have had that right in the first place.
Biden himself trotted out the D-word recently, insisting that "the Republican Party is vastly diminished in numbers" after Trump. The comments were widely criticized because Trump's showing of 74 million voters, while fewer than Biden's 81 million, was still more people who voted for a Republican than ever before in the history of this country. At the same time, Biden was correct in saying that Trumpers are a "significant minority of the American people," as that 32% number attests. Of course that 32% believe, through Trump, that they can install themselves, perhaps permanently, as the ruling faction, much in the way that authoritarians across the globe are seizing control of democratic governments.
They're not wrong to believe this. The pathway to forever-Trumpism is not mysterious. Trumpers already control the GOP, with the majority of Republican voters citing a belief in the Big Lie to the Monmouth pollsters. Barring some major intervention, such as being arrested, Trump's path to the nomination is clear. Once he gets it, he'll be able to rally massive support. It's not just because he turns out crackpots who otherwise don't vote. Traditional Republicans, even the ones who told pollsters they don't believe the Big Lie, would clearly rather vote for a fascist than a Democrat, as the 2020 election showed. Plus, Trump's pathway to stealing the election is being cleared by Republicans in state legislatures who are passing oodles of laws meant to keep Democrats from voting or invalidating their votes if they do turn out anyway.
Trump's massive ego leads him to believe he presents a terrifying threat, but his real superpower is getting his opponents to underestimate him. It's just hard to listen to that bloviating gasbag whine and believe that anyone could bother to give him the time of day, much less the power of the presidency.
But it's not about Trump. It never was. It's about a very real movement of people who have a visible and sound strategy for undermining democracy and installing themselves into a position of permanent minority rule. Most of them may not show up at rallies to listen to Trump complain about nonsense for an hour and a half, but they definitely vote. With the aid of GOP voter suppression, they can overcome the majority that is Democratic. The Trumpers may be falling out of sight, but they are still there and ready to strike. That threat should never be out of mind.