Two Republicans are challenging President Trump for his party's presidential nomination in 2020. The first, former Gov. Bill Weld (R-Mass.), is genteel and moderate. The second, former Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), is brash and conservative.
Walsh is the perfect contrast with Trump, precisely because he's so similar. Walsh, like Trump, has only two years of political experience. Walsh, like Trump, is an avid Twitter user. His specialty, like Trump's, is talking into microphones (Walsh is a radio talk-show host). Walsh, like Trump, has said racist things. Walsh, like Trump, spread conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birth and religion. Walsh, unlike Trump, regrets them. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Walsh wrote: "In Mr. Trump, I see the worst and ugliest iteration of views I expressed for the better part of a decade." Walsh, unlike Trump, isn't Trump.
Not being Trump is Walsh's biggest liability among Republicans and his greatest asset with everybody else. Trump has an 84 percent approval rating among Republicans. Republicans don't just approve of Trump. They're crazy about him.
In January 2018, The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway, who opposed Trump as a primary candidate, said she was "elated" with his presidency. She listed as reasons for her elation Trump's judicial nominations, the U.S. departure from the Paris climate accord, deregulation, corporate tax reform, the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and — finally — Trump's "boorish attitude." I suspect this last one is the crucial factor.
Trump has done nothing that another Republican could not do, and do better. What distinguishes Trump from other Republicans is his behavior. According to a Pew survey released two years ago, Trump supporters cited his personality, not his policies, as what they liked most about him. People like Trump's personality more than his policies for the same reason that guys like the nudity in X-rated movies more than the plots. The vulgarity is the point.
Republican support for Trump is not about ideology or policy. It is psychological. For some Republicans, Trump isn't just their president. He is their Leader, in whose success they are heavily invested. In Trump's downfall they would see their own. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, "If we undercut the president, that's the end of his presidency and the end of our party."
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt noted the "suicidal loyalty" of members of totalitarian movements. The most disturbing aspect of a totalitarian movement, according to Arendt, is "the true selflessness of its adherents." They are willing to undergo pain and persecution so as not to jeopardize their status as members.
Trump and his supporters have a sadomasochistic relationship. At a rally earlier this month, after Trump publicly ridiculed one of his own supporters for his weight ("That guy's got a serious weight problem! Go home. Start exercising"), the supporter responded by saying, "I love the guy. He's the best thing that ever happened to this country."
Recent polls show that farmers continue to support Trump even as his trade war with China harms them financially. "With such people," the social psychologist Erich Fromm wrote, "it almost seems as if they were following advice given them by an enemy to behave in such a way as to be most detrimental to themselves."
"We've just got to accept the pain," Graham said.
Fromm discerned authoritarian tendencies in sadomasochistic individuals. "The courage of the authoritarian character is essentially a courage to suffer what fate or its personal representative or 'leader' may have destined him for," Fromm wrote. "To suffer without complaining is his highest virtue — not the courage of trying to end suffering or at least to diminish it. Not to change fate, but to submit to it, is the heroism of the authoritarian character. He has belief in authority as long as it is strong and commanding. His belief is rooted ultimately in his doubts and constitutes an attempt to compensate them."
Some of Trump's supporters — it's unclear how many — have doubts about the president and are compensating with blind admiration.
Walsh's task is not just to say that the emperor has no clothes but to show — politically, not visually — just how repulsive this president is when naked.