Triumph of the Win: Trump’s Ugly Cult of Vengeance
Remember when Trump’s refusal to concede was funny?
It wasn’t that long ago. Triumphant celebrations of a return to normalcy echoed through social media and across brunch tables everywhere. The fundamental absurdity of Trump’s election fraud claims seemed tailor-made to the specifically-liberal brand of snark that delights in tittering at the asinine impotence of their enemies over a mimosa or three. It looked good there for a minute, didn’t it? Not the bang of an authoritarian second-term hellscape but the whimper of a press conference in the parking lot of Four Seasons Landscaping.
And then it kept going.
The hour grows late and no one is laughing anymore. Four days ago, the enemy quite literally breached the gate when Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building and attempted to stop America’s democratically-elected government from carrying out its codified duties. The police, when not actively aiding the insurrectionists, seemed surprised. The long-slumbering media seemed surprised. So did the spineless political ‘opposition’ and Trump’s gutless collaborators in Congress.
Everyone who hasn’t been paying attention is very surprised right now, and everyone else is tearing their hair out.
For the last five years, people repeatedly wondered aloud what anyone sees in a politician like Donald Trump. The rhetorical question was traditionally followed by a laundry list of all Trump’s defects: he is a liar, a fraud, gauche, a poor speaker, his hair is awful, he does not fulfill his campaign promises, he stands for nothing, his businesses filed for bankruptcy four times in 19 years, he has been credibly accused of multiple rapes, COVID, and so on.
The crime of the American people — the one that may damn us all — is that too few people took the time to seriously ask that question. We spilled gallons of digital ink on the question of who Trump supporters were as people and what their problems were, but we seldom asked why those people saw Donald Trump, specifically, as the solution to those problems. What music did they hear in his words? What makes the love they feel so personal and so deep?
Why did 75 million people vote for Donald J Trump — 12 million more than in 2016? Why did his approval rate never dip below 35% at any point?
What motivates the people flooding Washington DC at frighteningly regular intervals with frighteningly anti-democratic objectives?
“We are going to win! Win! WIN!”
The enormous crowd takes up the cry. Uncountable commingled voices rise up with fury and defiance and joy to send that single syllable reverberating through the heart of Washington DC.
It is November 14th, 2020 — an earth’s age ago — and I am surrounded on all sides by teeming throngs of Trump supporters here for the Million MAGA March. With every unified shout of “WIN!,” the people here answer the question of Trump’s appeal. This is why they are here, why they keep coming back, and why their violence will escalate for the foreseeable future.
“We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be so sick and tired of winning!” The quote sticks in the mind, iconic. As with so many things Trump says, the words seem childish to the point of absurdity, yet also cut to the heart of something real. That quote, alone and without context, perfectly summarizes Trump’s big pitch to the American people.
A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking Trump primarily lures supporters with promises of material prosperity. Trump yammers endlessly about his own wealth, the stock market, job numbers, unemployment figures, and so on — but always in the present or past tense, never in the future. Trump does not promise percent increases or make precise campaign promises. His plans are always vague: a bigger, better, more beautiful tomorrow. When Trump trots out the numbers, he uses them only to bolster his actual point: that he has won. Everything he says strives to prove that he, and by proxy his supporters, are winners.
Everyone likes to win, of course, but most of us want to win something, not simply win for its own sake. And at first, Trump’s campaign had at least some element of a promised prize. In 2016, Trump promised a return to dignity for the humiliated rust-belt proletariat long ignored or scorned outright for “clinging to their guns and religion” by the one-time party of the working man. He offered them the restoration of their former jobs — and former status — through promised draconian limits on immigration and withdrawal from free trade agreements. That Trump’s own party helped murder the long-dead world they longed for didn’t matter for people starved for their own version of hope and change.
The inevitable and baked-in Republican failure to fulfil that promise mattered a great deal, however, for what came next. Trump could not bring back the automotive and coal jobs — no one can — but he could supply the feeling of superiority his constituency dreamed would accompany the return of the old America by transitioning entirely to the other major plank in his platform: the cult of winning.
At this point, winning constitutes the entirety of his pitch; there are no longer any other considerations. He speaks primarily of victory, the goalposts that demarcate conditions for winning, and the enemies he will humiliate. The big, beautiful wall to defeat immigrants. Tax reform to defeat Liberals. Getting rid of Obamacare and replacing it with “something better” to erase the legacy of a President he claimed was illegitimate. Big numbers, beautiful numbers, more and faster than anyone before.
Understanding Trump’s platform as victory for its own sake brings clarity to the often-baffling interactions between Trump supporters and those not in the fan club. Attempts at policy discussion run head-first into the political equivalent of a bar full of sports fans. “Trump’s tax cuts hurt the working class while providing tax loopholes to trust fund kids,” you might correctly say to someone on the right, and ten years ago you would have received a coherent response. A more regressive tax policy is more just. Trickle-down economics. These arguments are, in my opinion, flawed, but they are at least arguments that address the individual point and allow for further discussion.
Trump supporters do not engage this way. Instead, any criticism of President Trump’s strange and haphazard policy decisions summons a plague of locusts in red hats all screaming some variation of the phrase “cry more.” It is fruitless to search for any deeper policy position, at least within the die-hard Trump supporters that constitute 35% of the country. These people did not remain committed in hope of prosperity or the betterment of their personal lives. They signed up to win, to win until they become sick of winning, until they achieve total and final victory and at last gain certainty, deep down, that they are winners.
It can never happen, of course; there is never enough. Trump is more a drug dealer than a politician. His supporters can no more get sick of winning than a junkie can get sick of heroin. You only get sick if you stop using.
Unless, of course, you overdose.
Winners, Losers, Vengeance
Addiction happens when some fundamental human need goes unfulfilled. Trump supporters need to feel like winners because they are afraid — nearly to death — that they are losers.
Most if not all the Trump supporters we have encountered in our four years on the frontlines of Trump’s America feel they have been cheated in some way. This is hardly an original observation, but far too many people get bogged down in trying to determine whether or not it’s objectively true. Are Trump supporters actually worse off than non-supporters? Are they truly disadvantaged, objectively or comparatively?
Objectively, as a group? Probably not. Individually? It gets more complicated. We would love to see a survey that targeted just that 35% of unconditional loyalists, or just the people who travel to Washington DC for a bit of the old ultraviolence.
For this conversation, however, it does not matter whether Trump voters are right to feel cheated. They believe it, as deeply as anyone can believe anything, and that belief informs their actions.
If you want to understand the far right, move past the quicksand of statistics and follow their train of thought to the end of the line.
Plenty of people in our society feel like they’ve been screwed over somehow. The difference between the disenfranchised left and the disenfranchised right is that the left understands that systemic problems often explain unfair individual outcomes. Systemic racism means Black people have fewer opportunities and suffer more abuse at the hands of authorities. Classism and capitalism keep people trapped in wage slavery and make it difficult for them to rise above the station of their birth. Prisons churn out criminals, broken or absent mental health services churn out addicts, hospitals churn out bankruptcies.
For people on the right, however, every word of that last paragraph was dangerous collectivist drivel designed to strip individuals of personal responsibility. Individuals succeed and fail based on their own merits. Any allusion to larger societal patterns are attempts to gain handouts and whitewash the moral failure that directly leads to individual misfortune. Communist propagandists such as myself deliberately attempt to convince you that it’s not your fault in order to enslave you in a cycle of dependency that robs you of agency and forces you to vote Democrat for the rest of your life. Or so the story traditionally goes.
The American political right is in some ways fractious — neoconservatives, evangelicals, libertarian atheists, nationalists — but they are united in their belief that if people would simply get out of the way, an Invisible Hand would take care of everything. For the evangelicals, it’s God. For the Libertarians, it’s capitalism. For the ethnonationalists, it’s genetics. Regardless of the nature of the Hand, the principle is the same. The core tenet of right-wing politics is: The system produces just outcomes. Individual attributes alone determine success or failure.
When things are going well, no worldview is more comforting. Whatever you have, you earned it. Your material possessions serve as proof that you are of God’s elect. And those with less than you? If they’d worked as hard as you did, they would stand where you stand today.
You can dismiss a lot of apparent injustice with this outlook, save yourself a great deal of time and discomfort. Every time a Black man gets shot to death in this country, an army of conservative and centrist pundits emerge to explain all the ways he was “no angel.” It is deeply comforting to believe that if someone was shot by a cop, they deserved it. It similarly soothes the conscience to believe that the deep linkage between race and class in this country stem from individual failures, be they moral or racial.
I remember, with vivid and nostalgic clarity, how good it felt to believe the world is just.
But this worldview comes with baked-in psychological danger. When things go poorly — when calamity comes knocking, when you’re fired or broke or fucked up in some unalterable way — your suffering carries moral implications as well as material ones. If the system produces only just outcomes, and you are doing poorly, then clearly you are deficient. Weak.
There’s a reason it’s Trump’s go-to insult. In a true meritocracy, “Loser” is the worst thing you can possibly be. Every loss is a moral judgement. If you were a better person, these things would not have happened to you.
When someone who embraces the ideology of systemic perfection fails catastrophically, they face a crossroads. They can revise their ideology, as I did. They can commit suicide, as I nearly did. Or, they can find some outside force to blame. Some malicious actor who contaminated the perfect system. Corrupted and twisted it.
It is not your incompetence or moral failure that has brought you low, but your enemies.
The people who stormed the Capitol last Wednesday signed on to Trump’s platform because they wanted to be winners. A Trump loss — and a Democratic win — makes these people losers, and this is the one thing that simply cannot be.
Ironically, this rejection of psychologically unbearable reality — born of radical individualism — brings its adherents full-circle back to the collectivism they despise. The call is coming from outside the house, of course; it is the malign cabals who insist on targeting them as a larger group. White, male, Christian, conservative: the logic remains consistent regardless of which identity you insert.
The end results of this far-right collectivism is very different from the systemic critique of the left, which holds that power structures lead to unjust and inegalitarian outcomes. Instead, shadowy and menacing forces deliberately and directly interfere with the perfect system to steal wealth, power, and status from all the groups that should by rights be on top of the social order.
As Trump’s failures and disappointments mounted over the course of his presidency, the President increasingly focused attention on the many forces he believes conspire to keep him — and by extension his supporters — from achieving the victory due to them by birth and ability. The corrupt Democratic party. Shadowy “globalist forces”. The Deep State. Antifa. And, above all, the “fake news media” that continuously slanders him by speaking truth.
Now, in the final days of the Trump presidency, the cult of the winner reaches its catastrophic end, and not with merely a whimper after all. The heady success of the insurrection quickly routed by the astounding backlash against those who carried it out. Trump silenced on every social media platform, his followers dropping like flies as well. Insurrectionists arrested en masse, doxxed, humiliated by the media they hate before the eyes of all the world. Winning is out of the question, and so the movement turns its back on broken promises to embrace the only thing left to it: the utter destruction of the enemies who stole their victory from them.
A ravening swarm of millenarian nihilists hell-bent on revenge rises, phoenix-like, from the Bonfire of Trump’s Vanities.
Predicting the future is a dangerous business, especially while we are slipping so quickly into the abyss of the unknown. We do not know whether this rage will manifest as domestic terrorism, further assaults on government institutions, kidnappings and murders of government officials seen as responsible for the theft of victory, attacks on social media companies and the people who work for them, riots, or any number of things we cannot yet imagine. But it is hard to imagine that it will not manifest. There are too many die-hard cultists, too many narcissistic injuries, for anything like normalcy for a very long time.
Brunch remains cancelled.
Abandon your preconceptions of the possible. The laws of political physics shift and change beneath our feet. Americans think of political conflict as a battle of rhetoric waged on the fields of public opinion and the ballot box. Clausewitz would remind us that there are other means of politics, and though we may yet avoid actual war, soldiers are amassing on the battlefield. Calls for a “Million Militia March” on DC for the inauguration even now circulate across Telegram, Parler, and whatever other channels remain open to the vengeful dead.
Our troubles are just beginning.