This love! I don't know if you were able to see it last night, any of them. I mean, there's such tremendous love.
— President Trump on Wednesday's "The Rush Limbaugh Show" radio program, discussing his rally in Tampa the night before.
I guess love, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. President Trump didn't have the same vantage point at Tampa's State Fairgrounds' Expo Hall as CNN's Jim Acosta, the journalist who's become a living receptacle for the outpouring of anti-media hatred generated by our POTUS and his "enemies of the American people" rhetoric about our free — still, if barely — press.
For at least a couple thousand of the rally attendees on Tuesday night — including a small baby dressed by his parents wearing a giant "CNN Sucks" button and a woman in a lumberjack shirt whose vigorous one-fingered salute could sink a thousand ships — jeering and cursing at Acosta and other reporters felt like the main event, with Trump's rambling speech something of an anti-climax. The CNN White House correspondent — who's been known to shout a pointed question or two at the president, the alleged job of a free press in American society — captured the "tremendous love" on video.
"This love!"… indeed. There are some critical moments in world history that we refer to as "crossing the Rubicon" — a point of no return, like Julius Caesar's fateful decision to cross a forbidden river into Italy with his army and launch a civil war. But in America's agonizingly slow-motion descent into the riptides of autocracy, Trump's Tampa rally felt more like sinking to the bottom of the Rubicon while drowning in a white, frothy backwash of conspiratorial lunacy and misdirected rage.
But it was hardly a one-off. Thursday night, the 45th president is bringing this freak show to Pennsylvania, campaigning in Wilkes-Barre in an effort to help his xenophobic clone, Rep. Lou Barletta, pull an upset and win election to the U.S. Senate on an anti-immigration platform. As August blurs into the fall midterm campaign, Trump has vowed to hold a slew of such rallies for Republican candidates but — more importantly — for himself and his Hindenburg-sized ego.
Something has clearly changed. Mass rallies — and their disturbing Nuremberg-on-the-Susquehanna vibe, including violence and fistfights that were applauded from the podium by the ringmaster himself — have been a staple of Trumpism from that day in June 2015 when the short-fingered vulgarian descended the Trump Tower escalators to run for the White House.
But like a TV reality show desperate to prop up its once sky-high ratings for the launch of Season 3, the novelty of "The Apprentice President" is wearing off. There's no presidential campaign (besides the perpetual one) and the continued, tired chants of "Lock her up!" show that the audience still craves the villain who was killed off in the Season 1 finale. With the casual viewer increasingly bored, Trump rallies are instead becoming a refuge for fanatics of what the late historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style in America politics" — except Hofstadter never could have foreseen just how crazy, after all these years. Suddenly, the mercury at Trump's rallies is reading 1934 degrees and climbing.
Journalists who attended the Tampa rally said they were shocked at the number of attendees wearing T-shirts or other paraphernalia or babbling incessantly about the vast online conspiracy theory — little known or written about before this week — called "QAnon" or simply "Q",' in honor of its mysterious internet poster (or posters) claiming to have inside government knowledge of the secret Trump-led program taking down a web of child molesters involving top Democrats and Hollywood stars.
"This is the counterbalance to the fake news," Jamie Buteau of Ocala, Florida — who, along with his wife, wore QAnon T-shirts and waved signs at Tuesday's rally — told the Tampa Bay Times afterwards. Scattered throughout the Tampa crowd were placards reading "We Are Q or the conspiracy theory's cryptic motto — "Where we go one, we go all" — or promoting a debunked theory about the 2016 murder of a Democratic Party staffer, with the #QAnon hashtag.
I won't dive too deeply down the rabbit hole that's attracted the likes of Curt Schilling and Roseanne Barr into a cult where some believe that John F. Kennedy Jr. may have faked his death to become "Q" (you can, and should, read more about QAnon here, here, and here) — but the conspiracy theory pairs quite nicely with the media hate frenzy stirred up by the man in the Oval Office.
What's remarkable about the unbridled vitriol directed at working journalists like Jim Acosta is not that it exists — a kind of a Two Minutes Hate towards the media has been a feature of Trump rallies for more than three years — but that it's getting worse, with the beaming approval of the American president who continues to call reporters "enemies of the American people" and even boasted to the publisher of the New York Times that other despots have picked up the phrase. It's instructive that in 2011 — when an assassin wounded Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords and killed six others — people on the right toned down angry rhetoric (for a time) but Trump and his minions cranked up the volume even after five people were gunned down in an Annapolis newsroom.
Does any of this matter? In the last 24 hours, I've seen conservative pundits like Salena Zito on CNN — heavily vested in their view of Trump supporters as "forgotten Americans" and not crackpots — insist the media is focused on a small fringe that doesn't represent the 62 million Trump voters. I'll stipulate that the majority of Trump's true believers don't believe that Hillary Clinton leads a vast child-sex ring (although. based on my emails and whatnot, a majority does seem to hate journalists). But those folks showing up in Tampa or Wilkes-Barre are still critical to whether Trump can consolidate his authoritarian power in the White House, for two reasons.
First of all, Trump personally feeds on the energy in these big rooms. And so it's no accident that his aides are scheduling more and more of these mass rallies — using the impending midterms as an excuse (even though a lot of Republican candidates wouldn't be caught dead campaigning with Trump) — as the noose of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation closes in on the White House, amid new fears that ultimate insider Michael Cohen will flip. The echoes of the cheering throng are giving Trump newfound confidence — maybe false, maybe not — that he can fire Mueller or his overseers at the Justice Department or pardon the key players…and get away with it.
Second, Trump's various crises — the Trump-Russia scandal and growing evidence of interference in his 2016 election, his weak performance at a summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin — have done nothing to diminish the president's standing within his own Republican Party, which right now meets or exceeds the GOP presidents who've come before him. The naked tribalism on display at these rallies — and the images of a seemingly popular leader with a cult-like following, beamed coast-to-coast not just on state-run-media Fox News but even by "enemy of the people" CNN — is a glue that helps hold that tribe together, convincing its member that real news is actually "fake news."
We live in dangerous times. There now have been several instances of armed and agitated believers of QAnon or similar conspiracy theories making a scene, including a 2017 episode where a man fired a shot into a D.C. restaurant named in a totally fake scandal called Pizzagate. The certainty that people will get hurt or even killed is rising in tandem with the frequency and intensity of Trump's rallies. But the likelihood that the president will try to crush justice in the Mueller investigation with the backing of a deranged mob chanting "fake news" and "we are Q!" is also rising with the August heat.
There is no longer any rational reason (other than the sheer greed of higher ratings) for cable TV news to carry Trump's rallies with live, extended coverage — not when you consider TV journalism's stated policies of not airing hate speech and not providing a microphone for baseless, debunked conspiracy theories. It's perfectly fine — and largely keeping with pre-Trump practices — to send a camera crew and to report, after the fact, on any kernels of actual news, and to expose and debunk the president's false statements, which are increasing as we get deeper into his nightmare presidency.
But the growing insanity of Trump's rallies poses a threat to the free press, which is essential for making democracy happen. Showing some editorial restraint — and not airing unedited and unfiltered falsehoods and hate speech — would hardly make the media an enemy of the American people. In fact, that would be an act of tremendous love — for the truth.