Column: What do we hear when Trump speaks?

  • Former President Donald Trump leaves the stage at a campaign rally Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Claremont, N.H. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha) AP — Reba Saldanha

  • Frank Palmieri, left, of Lebanon, N.H., salutes while listening to a rendition of the National Anthem during a campaign rally for former President Donald Trump at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H., on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News/Report for America — Alex Driehaus

For the Valley News
Published: 11/18/2023 6:01:09 AM
Modified: 11/18/2023 6:00:16 AM

Former President Donald Trump visited Claremont last Saturday for a campaign rally. I had never been to one of his rallies before but went to this one. I was very disturbed by what I saw and heard and by the interviews I read about it two days later in the Valley News (‘Harsh’ Trump thrills crowd, Nov. 13). In a nutshell, Trump’s supporters were terribly misinformed and mistaken about the former president. This alarms me for reasons I’ll get to later.

Sometimes rally-goers’ support for Trump was based on a misunderstanding of the facts. One man complained that nowadays “everything’s ridiculously overpriced” and that Trump is the candidate best-equipped to solve this inflation problem. Had he understood the basic causes of today’s inflation he wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic. According to the Monthly Labor Review, the unemployment rate is very low, and wages have been rising. That’s good news for many of the people at the rally. But that means that consumers have been spending more, demand for goods has increased and, as a result, businesses have been raising their prices.

Moreover, thanks to the lingering effects of COVID there are still supply-chain bottlenecks, which compound the problem of demand outpacing supply and push prices higher. Finally, energy prices have been volatile and high thanks largely to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western countries’ sanctions, which have put severe limits on Russian oil imports. Again, demand outruns supply inflating prices. There isn’t much any president can do about any of this.

Trump also promised, to the crowd’s delight, that if he were re-elected, he would order “the largest domestic deportation operation in America” to better control the southern border. However, during his four years in the White House, Trump had a chance to do just that but didn’t. The number of annual deportations was higher during both the Obama and Biden administrations than it was on Trump’s watch. And despite Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall along the nearly 2,000-mile southern border when he was president, he built only 15 miles of new wall and replaced only 350 miles of existing wall. (And Mexico didn’t pay for any of it.)

Another rally-goer liked Trump because, as she put it, “we’re facing annihilation from nuclear weapons” and presumably Trump would fix that. Yet while in office Trump dithered and delayed on nuclear arms control matters. He expanded America’s nuclear arsenal and undermined decades of arms-control efforts by withdrawing from several arms-control treaties. If anything, we now face an even greater threat of nuclear annihilation than we did before Trump became president.

At one point during the rally, Trump told the crowd to raucous applause that he is “working his ass off” for them. Perhaps that’s true now that he’s running for office again. But when he was president, he reportedly watched TV for hours every day and played golf at least once a week— nearly twice as frequently as Obama did when he was president. As far as I know, unless you’re a professional golfer, playing a round of 18 holes doesn’t qualify as work. Nor does watching TV.

Other people’s support for Trump stemmed less from a poor understanding of facts than from misguided impressions of his character. People applauded how well Trump was handling the 91 indictments against him for tax fraud, illegal business practices, election tampering and inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. As one man put it, “How many guys would stand up to those slings and arrows?” presumably part of a political witch hunt designed to bring Trump down. It remains to be seen whether people will still be impressed if Trump is convicted of any of these charges. More to the point, this man seemed oblivious that there must be at least some factual basis for bringing these indictments in the first place or else a judge would have immediately thrown them out for lack of evidence.

I was also struck by another audience member’s concern that if Trump doesn’t win the election, “they’re going to come after us” and that “he’s standing in the way of them coming after us.” This rally-goer was parroting one of Trump’s favorite campaign claims. But what wasn’t clear was who “they” are, how they were going to come after us and why they haven’t come after us yet either before Trump was president or after he left office. Nor was it clear how Trump is standing in the way of coming after us now.

Finally, convinced that Trump’s objectionable persona might improve, one woman at the rally said that Trump “is rough around the edges. … But he has the potential to go beyond that.” I suppose that anything is possible. But Trump has already had seven years in the political limelight and hasn’t softened the edges yet. If fact, they have become even rougher. At the rally he referred to his political opponents and others who don’t support him as “communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections.” That doesn’t sound like softening around the edges. In fact, historians reflecting on his speech a few days later noted that this language bears a striking resemblance to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pronouncements during the rise of fascism in the 1930s.

All these crowd reactions were troubling. But the problem isn’t simply that people are misinformed. The problem is, as history shows, that in any democracy an ill-informed electorate that blindly accepts and reiterates their leader’s platitudes without question can be a recipe for disaster. It helps push the door open to authoritarianism. Given what I saw, heard and read about the rally, I fear that this may be our future.

John Campbell is an emeritus professor of sociology at Dartmouth College. His latest book is Institutions Under Siege: Donald Trump’s Attack on the Deep State. He lives in Lyme.

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