The most telling exchange in Donald Trump’s Waco, Texas, rally Saturday didn’t come from Trump himself. It came at the beginning, when aging rock star Ted Nugent was warming up the crowd.
“I want my money back,” he yelled. “I didn’t authorize any money to Ukraine, to some homosexual weirdo.”
Moments later, speaking on Real America’s Voice, a far-right television channel, former Fox News correspondent Ed Henry called Nugent’s words “about Zelenskyy” and about funding for Ukraine “amazing.” He then summed up the Trumpist movement’s race to the bottom in one succinct line: “He is channeling what a lot of Americans feel.”
Yes, he is. And so did virtually every speaker at Trump’s marathon rally. One after another, they looked at a seething, conspiracy-addled crowd and indulged, fed and stoked every element of their furious worldview. I didn’t see a single true leader on Trump’s stage, not even Trump himself. I saw a collection of followers, each vying for the affection of the real power in Waco, the coddled populist mob.
To understand the social and political dynamic on the modern right, you have to understand how millions of Americans became inoculated against the truth. Throughout the 2016 Republican primaries, there was no shortage of Republican leaders and commentators who were willing to call out Trump. John McCain and Mitt Romney, the party’s two previous presidential nominees, even took the extraordinary step of condemning their successor in no uncertain terms.
Yet every time Trump faced pushback, he and his allies called critics “elitist” or “fake news” or “weak” or “cowards.” It was much easier to say the Trump skeptics had “Trump derangement syndrome,” or were “just establishment stooges,” than to engage with substantive critique. Thus began the coddling of the populist mind (ironic for a movement that delighted in calling progressive students “snowflakes”).
Disagreement on the right quickly came to be seen as synonymous with disrespect. If “we the people” (the term Trump partisans apply to what they call the “real America”) believe something, then the people deserve to have that view reflected right back to them by their politicians and pundits.
We see this in the internal Fox News documents that surfaced in the Dominion defamation litigation, in which Dominion Voting Systems sued Fox News for broadcasting false claims about its voting machines after the 2020 election. Repeatedly, Fox leaders and personalities who did not seem to believe that the 2020 election was stolen referred to the need to “respect” their audience by telling them otherwise. For these Fox staffers, respecting the audience didn’t mean relaying the truth (a true act of respect). Instead, it meant feeding viewers’ insatiable hunger for confirmation of their conspiracy theories.
I saw this phenomenon firsthand early in the Trump era. I was speaking to a small group of evangelical pastors about how white evangelicals no longer valued good character in politicians. Compared with other Christian groups and unaffiliated Americans, white evangelicals went from the group least likely to believe that “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties” in 2011 to the group most likely to excuse immoral politicians in 2016.
In that conversation I discussed the 1998 Southern Baptist Convention Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials. Passed during the height of the scandal around Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, it declared a Christian commitment to political integrity in no uncertain terms.
“Tolerance of serious wrong by leaders,” it said, “sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”
When I reminded the group of that language, a pastor from Alabama raised an objection. “That’s going to sound elitist to lots of folks in my congregation,” he said.
I was confused. Here was a Baptist pastor telling me that his congregation would find a recent statement of Baptist belief “elitist.” It became clear that many Baptists believed their own resolution when it applied to Clinton but not when it applied to Trump.
Politicians are always tempted to pander, but rarely do you see such a complete abdication of anything approaching true moral or political leadership as what transpired at the Waco rally. It began with that ridiculous and irrelevant statement about Volodymyr Zelenskyy (what does his sexual orientation have to do with the rightness of Ukraine’s cause?); continued with MyPillow’s Mike Lindell repeating wildly false election claims; and ended with an angry, albeit boilerplate Trump stump speech that was also littered with falsehoods.
And if you think for a moment that there’s any Trumpworld regret over the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, the rally provided a decisive response. At the beginning of Trump’s speech, he stood — hand over his heart — while he listened to a song called “Justice for All,” which he recorded with something called the “J6 Prison Choir,” a group of men imprisoned for storming the Capitol. The song consists of the choir singing the national anthem while Trump recites the Pledge of Allegiance.
It’s common to critique the Trumpist movement as a Donald Trump cult, but that’s not quite right anymore. He’s still immensely influential, but do true cultists boo their leader when he deviates from the approved script? Yet that’s what happened in December 2021, when parts of a Dallas rally crowd booed Trump when he said he’d received a COVID-19 vaccine booster. And does anyone think that Trump is a QAnon aficionado? Yet in 2022 he boosted explicit Q content on Truth Social, his social media platform of choice.
There may have been a time when Trump truly commanded his movement. That time has passed. His movement now commands him. Fed by conspiracies, it is hungry for confrontation, and rallies like Waco demonstrate its dominance. Like the pirate standing in front of Tom Hanks in the popular 2013 film “Captain Phillips,” the populist right stands in front of the GOP, conservative media, and even reluctant rank-and-file Republicans and delivers a single, simple message: “I’m the captain now.”
David French is a columnist for The New York Times.