Fans of President Donald Trump cheer as he speaks during a campaign rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
It won’t surprise me if Donald Trump gets reelected.
He shouldn’t, of course. It would usher in a second term that would make the corruption and cruelty of his first term seem mild by comparison.
But it’s entirely possible he will beat former Vice President Joe Biden, not by the kind of judicial chicanery many of us fear or due to relentless Republican voter-suppression tactics, but just outright. If you don’t think it can happen, you haven’t been paying attention.
The liberal in me wants to be optimistic Trump will lose. The believer-in-common-sense in me wants to think there’s no way this evil clown, a science-denying, remorseless oaf who has had more than 225,000 Americans die of COVID-19 on his watch, could possibly prevail.
But the pragmatist in me knows it’s possible, and the reason is simple: Trump is more a cult leader than a candidate, and cult members show up.
There are certainly stray percentages of Trump’s wealthy supporters who look past his narcissism and sadism and see him as a useful fool who will bring them tax cuts and conservative judges. And there are one-issue voters and some who simply can’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat.
But the core of Trump’s base ceased long ago to be a political party, becoming instead a group of people whose lives and identities revolve around Trump.
They view him like this: He can do no wrong. He alone can fix the changing world that so frustrates them. Any word against Trump is a treasonous slur. Any news critical of Trump is fake. Any news making Trump look good or his opponents look bad is real. The world, and the facts, must bend toward Trump.
The president has done all he can to nurture that fervor.
He denounces those who speak against him. He lies with deafening frequency, and labels anyone who questions those lies as a liar, or worse.
He has made it OK for white people to let their hatred — of immigrants, of liberals, of Blacks and Muslims and feminists and “globalists” (wink, wink) — fly free. He has recast white power as a perverted form of patriotism. He has made ignorance and intolerance badges to be worn proudly at rallies where calls for the jailing of political opponents, threats against the press and the booing of public servants unite his followers in orgies of unbridled id.
That makes him dangerous, both as a leader of people who violate their own self-interests to stay loyal to him and, of course, as a political candidate. As I said, cults show up.
That’s why there are no polls, no recitations of early voting numbers and no anecdotes of Democratic voter enthusiasm that will make me believe Biden has this election in the bag. He doesn’t. He’s facing a man who pulled off one of the greatest cons in American history, and the con man now has the full force of a complicit Republican Party and the U.S. Supreme Court behind him.
In 2016, we learned a large swath of the nation was gullible enough to buy what Trump was selling. For those who didn’t sell our souls to the huckster, it was a tough fact to process.
Four years later, with evidence of the con, evidence of the incompetence, evidence of the abject stupidity and mismanagement, piled from floor to rafters, it’s again hard to process the fact that there are enough Americans out there to reelect Donald Trump. But trust me, there are.
We all have friends or loved ones who’ve fallen into this pit. When was the last time you heard them accept a fact that makes Trump look bad? When was the last time you saw them deny a harebrained conspiracy theory that bubbled up from the Trumpian fever swamps?
Beyond that, when was the last time you heard President Trump admit to any kind of mistake? Or acknowledge that he was wrong? Or say anything that showed even a sliver of self-reflection?
There was no last time, because there hasn’t been a first time. His narcissism is bottomless, same as that pit your friends and loved ones have fallen into.
Once people fall deep into the alternate reality Trump has created, getting out is near impossible. It would require them to admit they were conned, admit they let a flashy meathead lure them down a rabbit hole with promises that could never be kept.
Accepting you’ve been scammed is mentally painful. It’s hard to pull yourself away from hardcore believers once you’ve invested your time and money and soul. It’s hard to let go once a movement defines you.
So when thinking about this election, play the odds. Are Trump’s supporters more likely to have a sudden revelation about their leader or simply stick with him?
They’ll stick. They’ll show up in droves.
That means the rest of us need to be in this election with more than just commensurate force. Consider it less an election and more a national intervention, one that could stretch well beyond Election Day.
Because if you think Trump will lose and go quietly, again, you haven’t been paying attention.
And if you think he can’t win, I have news for you: This isn’t a candidate, it’s a cult. And cult members show up.