I get what Alex Wagner is trying to say about Trump rallies, but I think she’s off on several points. For starters, there’s really nothing surprising or especially meaningful about the fact that you can find genuine joy at a Trump rally. Wagner points out that Trumpism is an invitation for people to unmask themselves, but there’s an element of unmasking and discovery in many, if not most, mass gatherings. I’ll give you three examples from my own life.
Back when I was on Dead Tour, I’d routinely have people pull up alongside my car and give me a big smile or a double thumbs up. It often took me a moment to understand that they’d seen my Dead bumper sticker and assumed that I’d be a friendly member of the tribe. The actual concerts were like this on a large scale, with people from all corners of the world converging for a common purpose and then creating a temporary micro-culture filled with extraordinary good will and its own transgressive set of rules and values. The music was the organizing event, but the ability to impose our will and overwhelm the cops for three days in this city, and then three days in that city? That gave us a feeling of real solidarity and power that we lacked when we were back home and atomized across the country.
Another example was the memorial service for my close high school friend Bobby Sheehan, the bass player for Blues Traveler, who passed away in 1999. The service was held in a large church in Brooklyn, and the whole surrounding neighborhood became its own culture for about six hours that day. The occasion couldn’t have been sadder or more tragic for the people involved, but it wasn’t long before everyone was walking around with giant smiles on their faces, ecstatic to see old friends and genuinely elevated by the discovery that there were thousands of people sharing their grief. There was something transgressive about feeling so much happiness on such a properly somber occasion, but that didn’t prevent it from happening on a wide scale.
The last example I’ll provide is the Yearly Kos convention that was held in Las Vegas in 2006. Most of the conventioneers in that inaugural conference had only known each other previously by pseudonymous usernames. We actually had both our usernames and real names on our badges, so we were doubly unmasking ourselves. It seemed like half the attendees were skipping or walking on air, and that was the result of finding like-minded people in a country still in the grip of the Big Post-9/11 Fear. Two years earlier, we had been isolated, shouting impotently at our televisions. Now we were getting down to work to win Congress back from Denny Hastert and Tom DeLay–and bring an end to the war. When we had been alone, they picked us off as unpatriotic, but now we had strength and support in numbers. It felt like our transgressions had been washed away.
In all these cases, people came together, revealed themselves and discovered fellow travelers, and then acted in ways that were frowned upon in the broader culture. In the first and third examples, the transgressive behavior was half the point.
A Trump rally isn’t really any different. People come together and act like assholes. They don’t mistreat each other. They take joy in finding people who won’t judge them for making racist jokes. They discover they’re not alone. They build a temporary culture where transgressive behavior is rewarded rather than punished.
But should we accept Wagner’s summation on this point?
To deconstruct the complicated and visceral relationship between Trump and his supporters, those on the outside must begin to grapple with the oddness of the proposition itself: Trump, in all his baseness, offers his believers something that is, strangely, spiritually elevated.
Again, there is certainly something that raises the spirits when you find yourself in a newly permissive space where you can share sins without judgment. It’s Dionysian in that respect, like an orgy or house party filled with booze and drugs. It doesn’t surprise me that the QAnon cult is now attaching itself because that creates the familiar aspect of a mystery only known to initiates. Only Deadheads truly understood Dead shows and only Blues Traveler fans understood what had been lost when Bobby Sheehan died. Only readers of the comment threads at Daily Kos knew what those name tags meant at the first Yearly Kos conference.
These are all familiar things we encounter whenever we engage in spiritual or in-group activities. But there’s a big difference between a Trump rally and the ethos of celebrating the life of a lost friend or trying to stop a war or strangers-stopping-strangers-just-to-shake-their-hand. The latter are examples of naturally uplifting and life-affirming collective actions. The former is about forming an in-group for no larger purpose than to disparage those who remain outside.
I refuse to call a Trump rally “spiritually elevated.” Anyone who has ever watched a public rally led by Hitler or Mussolini knows that people were enraptured and transformed. But this was a manifestation of man’s worst impulses frothing out of the depths of hell. It wasn’t elevated in any proper sense.
Wagner isn’t wrong to urge us to better understand how Trump maintains his support. There is definitely a joy in transgression, and Trump never stops transgressing and giving his supporters permission to do the same.