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Jeff Sessions made Trump mad

Summary:
There was no Nixon cult or Bush cult. Even the very popular President Reagan never had a cult. So what makes the Trump Republican Party a cult? One answer is that Trump critics are shunned by other Republicans. Mitt Romney is called a “Judas” for his vote to convict Trump. But a Democrat who voted to convict Clinton might also have been shunned. In my view, what makes the Trump GOP a cult is that the demands of loyalty go far beyond anything in American political history. John Bolton is about as conservative as Republicans you’ll find. Recently, he wrote a book that mentioned that Trump had demanded a quid pro quo in his conversation with the Ukrainian President. It’s hard to see why this is a big deal. First, because it’s obvious that there was a quid pro quo. Second,

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There was no Nixon cult or Bush cult. Even the very popular President Reagan never had a cult. So what makes the Trump Republican Party a cult?

One answer is that Trump critics are shunned by other Republicans. Mitt Romney is called a “Judas” for his vote to convict Trump. But a Democrat who voted to convict Clinton might also have been shunned.

In my view, what makes the Trump GOP a cult is that the demands of loyalty go far beyond anything in American political history.

John Bolton is about as conservative as Republicans you’ll find. Recently, he wrote a book that mentioned that Trump had demanded a quid pro quo in his conversation with the Ukrainian President. It’s hard to see why this is a big deal. First, because it’s obvious that there was a quid pro quo. Second, because Trump chief of staff Mulvaney admitted there was a quid pro quo in a very public setting. And third, because the Trump people insist that even if there was a quid quo pro, nothing wrong was done.

So Bolton’s remark was of no importance. And yet Republicans responded by calling Bolton a “tool of the radical Dems“.  Mulvaney got away with it because he was willing to backtrack, to claim he was misunderstood.  (BTW, why does Trump continue to fill his administration with traitors and backstabbers?)

On the other hand, GOP members of Congress often get away with opposing a particular Trump initiative, as when they refused to support Steve Moore and Herman Cain for the Fed. So what explains the difference with Bolton?

The Trump cult is all about Trump as a leader, not a policymaker. You can disagree with this or that policy, but you are not allowed to do anything that might undercut his image as a leader, especially something that embarrasses him in front of the general public. Obviously, the general public doesn’t care who is appointed to the Fed.

The Trump cult has two components, the true believers and those who are support Trump for policy reasons and/or out of fear. Lindsey Graham and I both know that (in Grahams’ words) Trump is a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot”, but Graham pretends to support him anyway.

Among the general public, very few support Trump out of fear, and none vote for him for that reason. Rather Trump supporters are divided into those with blind faith in him and those who support his policies like tax cuts, deregulation and conservative judges. Trump’s skill at demagoguery has gradually produced an increasing number of voters and politicians in the former group.

Many people don’t know what actually happened in the mass suicide at Jonestown. The metaphor “drink the Kool-aid” now means to be taken in by a charismatic leader. But a substantial portion of the 918 deaths at Jonestown were murder, not suicide. A cult includes plenty of true believers, but also those too terrified to dissent.

Even some Trump critics are a part of the cult. Reporters have asked some retired GOP figures who don’t like Trump why they don’t speak out more. They report that they are afraid of being shunned by the local GOP, and some even claim they are afraid for the safety of their family. Unlike at Jonestown, those safety fears are probably groundless, but they are new in American politics. GOP members who disagreed with Reagan did not fear for the safety of their families.

Most politicians are at least somewhat cowardly. But that is also true of most non-politicians, including me. The real question is not why they behave in a cowardly fashion under these circumstances, rather where do “these circumstances” come from? How did Trump create this cult? Even FDR (who shared a few similarities with Trump) was never quite able to achieve this sort of stranglehold over the Democrats, despite being far more popular and far more powerful at getting things done.  I don’t see the appeal of Trump, but millions obviously do.

I think the best way to understand the Trump cult is to look at ordinary voters, not the sort of well-informed voters that read blogs. These average voters don’t pay much attention to policy issues. They are the engine that drives the Trump cult.

Take the sad case of Jeff Sessions. He was far and away the most Trumpian member of the US Senate. Long before Trump, he was opposing free trade, opposing entitlement cutbacks, and calling for immigration restrictions. If Trump died tomorrow, many GOP Senators would breath a quiet sigh of relief and go back to supporting freer trade. But not Jeff Sessions. He’s a true believer, and would carry on the white nationalist torch.

Sessions has decided to run again for the Senate in Alabama. He might win in the end, but he’s having trouble getting the support of GOP voters. Many don’t know that he loyally served Trump for years, and only recall that Trump mocked him for recusing himself from the Russia probe. Of course he was required to do that because he was involved in the case being investigated.

Here’s the reaction of Alabama voters:

The negative effect of Mr. Trump’s barrage against Mr. Sessions became clear in interviews with 20 Alabama voters. Most brought up the recusal with no prompting. Many said they held it against their former senator, though some admired him for sticking to his principles. And even those who couldn’t recall what exactly Mr. Sessions did had heard enough to understand that whatever happened was bad for the president.

“I know he did something that made the president mad,” said Susan Woodman, a retired speech therapist who came away from the Huntsville event undecided but impressed with one of Mr. Sessions’s rivals, Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn University football coach.

People who are not members of a cult do not automatically assume that anything that “made the President mad” was wrong.  I’m guessing that those women who refused to let Trump grab them by the pussy also made Trump mad.

Susan Woodman may not be the typical voter.  She’s probably less well informed than average.  But I think her case gets at something important about the Trump cult.  At its core, this isn’t about specific policy issues.  Trump himself has been all over the map; indeed he was once a Democrat.  If it were about the issues, then Trumpistas would love Jeff Sessions.  He’d be winning in a landslide.   If Trump cared about how his agenda would do once he left office, he’d have already endorsed Sessions.

The core of the Trump cult is blind loyalty to the President.  That’s what makes Trump different.  All presidents have a certain degree of loyalty from their supporters, but Trump is in an entirely different league.  Reagan was an actor who became President.  Trump is a President who became an actor.

The Dems only have two guys who appeal to swing blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt, and one of them is a socialist who turns off a different kind of swing voter.  Trump understood that Biden was the only one who threatened his job, and set out to smear him with an avalanche of lies.  He was even willing to engage in highly corrupt practices to do so. It worked.  People now know that Biden did, “something that made the President mad”. With Biden (unfairly) tarnished, I see little chance that the Dems will be able to defeat Trump.  Trump’s a much more skilled demagogue than anyone they can nominate.  The Dems seem to have no Bill Clinton or Barack Obama to fight back.

Last year I predicted the Dems would self-destruct, and it’s coming true. I’m old enough to recall when the Dems did the same thing against another corrupt Republican running for re-election presiding over a prosperous economy ginned up by measures designed to help in the short run but hurt in the long run. The Democratic Party should be re-named “The Committee to Re-elect the President.”

PS.  Ed Muskie was the Biden of the 1972 campaign.  Nixon’s people used “dirty tricks” like forged letters to discredit Muskie.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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