The most revealing moment during Donald Trump’s town-hall interview that aired on Fox News on Wednesday night wasn’t about his past service as president or even his future desire to regain that position. Instead, it came when a woman named Kim stood up to ask Trump a question.
“Do you know who you’re caucusing for Monday?” Fox News’s Bret Baier asked.
“I am proud to say I am a caucus captain!” Kim replied.
“For?” Baier prompted.
“President Trump!” Kim replied, pointing at the former president.
“With a white-and-gold hat!” Trump interjected.
“I have that white-and-gold hat,” Kim replied.
Kim’s question was about immigration; Trump answered it about as you’d expect. Fox News panned over the audience as he did so, showing a man in the front row looking intently at the camera. In the man’s hand was a white hat, with “TRUMP CAUCUS CAPTAIN” written in gold letters.
That’s it, in a nutshell. Trump is famous and powerful and viewed by many Americans as the country’s salvation. He is also a guy who spent decades tailoring his ability to get people to buy stuff with the word “Trump” on it, figuring out how to build loyalty to his brand both with gimmicks and by cultivating the sense that customers were entering his world of luxury.
So that goofy hat wasn’t just a hat. It was a symbol that Kim was part of Trump’s essential inner circle. Kim and her fellow caucus captains are, for the next week or so, some of the most important people in Trump’s world, and that hat proves it. Proves it more so than the schlocky, Atlantic City-style loyalty cards Trump’s campaigns have often hawked — though those had a similar effect on his supporters.
This is what Trump gets about politics that his opponents don’t: Voters — and particularly his voters — want to be part of something outside of themselves. Trump has effectively commuted their frustrations about the world into a sense of optimism about how he’ll overcome or destroy those frustrations.
Over on CNN, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley were engaging in a political debate aimed at informing Iowa voters about their policy differences. It was a very traditional event, though more inflected with Trump-style aggression than a similar contest might have been a decade ago. It was a reflection of how most candidates aimed to build support for a long time, and it was jarring in how it diverged from Trump’s performance on the more-watched-among-Republicans channel a few slots over on Iowans’ cable boxes.
DeSantis and Haley sparred against each other for most of the debate’s two hours instead of targeting the actual front-runner. But, then, the front-runner has done a terrific job of building a quasi-religious base of support, making it fraught for those seeking to appeal to his base to offer criticisms of him. Which is why he’s the front-runner in the first place.
That room in Iowa where the Fox News discussion was taking place was, by all measures, a safe space in which Trump could operate. He didn’t need to worry about significant pushback from the Fox moderators; the channel learned a painful lesson in the wake of the 2020 contest about crossing Trump. He didn’t need to worry about the audience because even those who supported other candidates seemed to be caught up in the energy of the room.
One audience member, a teacher, began her question to Trump affirming that she planned to caucus for DeSantis. Nonetheless, she told the former president, she was “extremely grateful that in your first term, you accomplished so many great things.”
Trump’s candidacy and appeal are, as they always have been, rooted in the sense he gives to his supporters rather than the factual accuracy of his claims or the reality of that catalogue of “great things” for which he endlessly claims credit. Throughout the town hall, he offered claims that were obviously false, such as that the stock market’s rise is because he’s doing better in the polls or that there were no terrorist attacks in the United States during his term or that oil production peaked when he was president.
There’s been one subtle change to his pitch since he first ran eight years ago, though. Then, he simply promised that he would achieve incredible results once he became president, making all sorts of assertions about how easy everything would be. Now, though, those promises can be compared with reality (or could be, were his opponents less concerned about irritating his voters). So Trump has created a new angle to his patter: He accomplished so many great things and was just about to accomplish more, until 2020 happened.
Here’s a good example.
Fox’s co-moderator, Martha MacCallum, noted criticism from Haley about the increase in the federal debt when Trump was president. This is one of those issues that Trump knows most Republicans don’t really care that much about, except to the extent that it can be used as a cudgel against opponents to block funding for things they don’t like. So instead of simply shrugging about the increase, Trump claimed that it was all the coronavirus’s fault.
“Very simply,” he said, “we were starting to pay down debt. We were going to pay down a lot of debt. When covid came along, if I didn’t inject this country with money, you would have had a depression the likes of which you’d never seen. You had to inject money.”
Nah. Even before the pandemic triggered a need for new spending, which it legitimately did, the federal debt was increasing at a pace consistent with how it had grown from 2015 until Trump took office.
On a quarterly basis, the government consistently spent more than it took in during Trump’s presidency. The government wasn’t paying down the debt; it was adding to it.
But, what, Caucus Captain Kim’s going to point that out? Was Baier, whose employer is almost as fervently committed to Trump’s success? If you’re enveloped in Trump’s world, it’s easier to simply accept that, returned to office, he’ll fix that problem. That he was just about to until covid or Biden interrupted him.
You can’t defeat this fealty among Republican primary voters by out-debating Trump, not that Trump gave his opponents the chance to do so. You can’t simply point out his false claims, however ridiculous, and get people to view Trump differently. A year or so ago, in the weeks after the midterms, it seemed as though Trump’s grip on the party had waned, providing an opportunity for someone like DeSantis.
And when Trump’s Atlantic City casinos went under, it probably looked like his business career was similarly on the ropes.