The most revealing moment of Donald Trump’s Monday rally in Dalton, Georgia, came before he took the stage: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” rounding out his usual playlist of Phil Collins, Billy Joel, and the Village People. It’s not the only time it’s been included, but Major Tom sitting in a tin can, untethered from the world, felt especially apt in the wake of the “Trump tapes,” which have settled not one but two pressing questions: “Coup? Or grift?” Coup and grift. “Does he really believe this stuff?” He does. Trump’s no longer playing the odds. He’s lost in his imaginary numbers, floating in a most peculiar way.
It was a high-energy rally (and thus likely helpful to Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue) but lacking in the shtick—the one-man skits, the impressions, the litany of “illegal alien” horrors—that normally makes his events so compelling for the fans. In its place were the numbers he promised on the Brad Raffensperger call. The numbers were the performance, more Manichaean than his usual showmanship: You either believe or you don’t. If you believe, they were an incantation; if you don’t, they were a numbing jumble.
The duration of his rant—on the call, in Monday night’s recitation of electoral wrongs—and its obsessive depth make for a tone familiar to anyone ever cornered by a conspiracy monger. The words were Trump’s, or at least those of “Trump media,” as he put it on the call, but the tune was well worn, a droning song long sung by habitués of The Conspiracy—the big one. And there is always a big one. Q, George Soros, the Chinese Communist Party; or The Manchurian Candidate made flesh, The Parallax View IRL, the grassy knoll, Dallas’s or Oliver Stone’s; further back, freemasonry, the antagonism against which was so great that in the 19th century it spawned a political party based on nothing but conspiracy theory, much like the MAGA party dreamed of now on Parler.
Maybe that suggests a better way to phrase the question: Grift, coup, or dream? Yes, every way. On the call Trump pledged to deliver numbers both “massive” and “minimal” but in either case “exact.” He kept his word. The number of states he’ll soon win—remember, he believes—ratcheting up from six to seven to eight. “You watch…what’s going to be revealed,” he declared, like a magician fooled by his own trick. He said 2,506, and then 4,502, headed toward the magic 11,780 and beyond—15,000, 66,000, 86,880, an ecstasy of grievance and counting. (The sum unmentioned, like the coronavirus that caused it, was 350,000, the death toll passed sometime between Trump’s call and his rally.)
Trump used to point to the press huddled in a cage at his rallies and declare they wouldn’t report the real numbers in attendance. (They did.) Last night he said it was the new numbers, those of votes that shouldn’t have been and votes that never were, that the press wouldn’t explain. And he was at least partly right; I won’t, because they all add up to the same. In Trump’s mind, victory; here on earth, a grim measure of the lengths to which the whiteness at Trumpism’s center is willing to go to cling to its delusion.
Such is the grift, the coup, and the awful dream in these fragile few weeks before January 20: the sacrifice of democracy, integrity, and even simple math in order to relieve Trump’s “movement,” as he calls it, of the reality that Black people in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit could really undo a president, a commander in chief, a white man. The white man, in the eyes of Trump supporters who since his defeat have amped up circulation of musclebound Trump memes. Trump as revolutionary hero; Trump as space warrior; Trump as a sort of giant steroidal baby in a bodybuilder’s bikini, one bulging bicep labeled “TRUTH,” the other “AMERICA,” “GOD” spelled out in white across his crotch.
In Dalton the numbers kept coming: the dead, the double-counted, the underage, the illegal. The crowd grew quiet, bored but in awe: A man who knows that many numbers must be potent indeed. What most of us heard on the call as nonsense knits itself for the faithful into the seamless cloth of numerical supremacy.
I should mention that the rally was ostensibly dedicated to supporting the two Georgia GOP Senate candidates, but I was as bored by his teleprompter recitation of their virtues as he was. So, too, the crowd, interested in Loeffler only inasmuch as she’ll “fight for Trump,” words with which they shouted her off the stage during her blink-and-you-missed-it appearance. But stump Trump did nonetheless, a sign that even as he’s gone all in on his belief in what was once only a long con, he remains canny enough to keep a finger on the pulse of his party. Or rather, a fist wrapped around it, one that squeezed: He warned Senator Mike Lee, in attendance, that he was “angry” (Lee has said he won’t support Ted Cruz’s challenge to state electors), and he promised to return to Georgia in ’22 to campaign against conservative Georgia governor Brian Kemp, who many of his supporters now say is a minion of the Chinese.
He had a message for Mike Pence too—the same one he delivered to Raffensperger. “I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” he said, alluding to the conspiracy theory in which Pence could overturn the election on Wednesday. “Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.” What happens then? He’s replaced by General Flynn in Trump’s shadow regime? Or, as Trump supporter L. Lin Wood proposed to his million Twitter followers, he’s arrested and executed?
Neither, of course. It’s the fantasy of violence that has captured the GOP more than the fact of it, Trump’s bloodless coup against a party that was never as fully Trump-owned as outsiders believed, that is now his real success. QAnon’s “Storm” and the Proud Boys’ “boots on the ground” are as much distraction as they are essence, just like the warmed-up Confederate legends with which Trump, con man, lures his lurching base to the lost cause of Trump, madman.
In Dalton the two Trumps as one summoned the shade of General Henry L. Benning—as in Georgia’s Fort Benning. The actual Benning was no common traitor. He worried that the Confederacy wouldn’t be committed enough to slavery, and in 1861 warned of a Georgia led by “Black governors, Black legislatures,” and “Black everything” should white rule fail. Who, wondered Trump, would “they”—Raphael Warnock? Stacey Abrams?—replace Benning’s fine name with now? “Give me a couple of names,” he goaded. He had one: “Fort Trump—how about that?” The base bellowed. “Yeah, let’s change the name!” crowed Trump, performing the joking/not-joking two-step by which he takes self-glorification to new extremes (see: “the chosen one”; “12 more years”). Within hours former senior Trump adviser and self-declared “alpha male” Sebastian Gorka was tweeting “Fort Trump” to his million followers.
The temptation is to tell yourself that none of it matters anymore, or that it won’t after January 20. The rally was indeed backward-looking. “Remember the caravans,” Trump murmured, almost as if to remind himself of the good times. “Lock her up,” chanted the crowd, titillated even now by the thought of Hillary Clinton behind bars. But Trumpism isn’t a time warp, it’s a time eddy. A spiral looking always inward, marveling at its glistening hates, each of which promises to come round again as the eddy grows. Once this was a con played on Republicans by a saner and more cynical Trump. Now it’s a whirlpool of earnest delusion, Trump’s own, a vortex, self-sustaining. And it’s going to keep sucking for a long time.
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