This week, an interesting narrative on the right came into sharp focus. It goes like this: When someone mocks Donald Trump, they are attacking America.
Ergo, criticism of Trump is unpatriotic. This has been an implicit, if subtle, theme of Trump’s all along. But it has become much more explicit this week.
Let’s take Trump’s recent spat with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen as an example.
After she rebuffed Trump’s Greenland overtures, calling the idea an “absurd distraction,” he accused her of making “nasty” comments and canceled a visit to Copenhagen. “She’s not talking to me. She’s talking to the United States of America,” Trump explained. “You don’t talk to the United States that way, at least under me.”
In other words, l’état, c’est moi—I am the state.
This, of course, is anti-democratic and offensive. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, “To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.”
Sadly, this is not entirely new territory for Trump. But if you want to understand how these things take root, one good place to start is with the Rush Limbaugh show.
On Wednesday’s show, Rush Limbaugh framed Trump’s position by paraphrasing it thus: “If [the prime minister is] gonna speak that way of me and by extension the United States, then I’m not going because nobody disrespects America like that under me.” Then, Limbaugh accused the prime minister of joining “this train of mockery of Donald Trump and, by extension, the country.”
Next, Limbaugh took it up a notch, explaining that Trump’s canceled trip to Denmark “is why people are showing up in droves at Trump rallies,” concluding that Trump’s popularity with his base is about “nothing more than patriotism!” Lastly, he explained that, to the media, “Patriotism is not fashionable.”
“I hate to use the word ‘hate,’ but in these people’s case it’s totally warranted and applicable,” Limbaugh said—referring to the media—that same day. “They hate. They hate us. They hate, viscerally, personally hate Trump. And they hate everybody that enables Trump. That means you and me.”
Trump, thus, is a stand-in—not just for America (although he is that, too)—but for the forgotten man. If you criticize Trump, you are, therefore, criticizing civilians.
If conflation of the nation and Trump means an attack on him is an attack on us, then it stands to reason that his counterattack would be not only the definition of patriotism—but also, an act of self-defense. This is the logical conclusion.
“This doesn’t surprise me in the least," says Brian Rosenwald, author of Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took Over a Political Party That Took Over the United States. "This is the subtext to the whole conservative media thing. What creates a market for this is that there’s a lot of people in America who feel not just ignored by the media, but they’re condescended to—they’re treated like rubes.
"One reason they’re so attracted to Donald Trump is that he fights for them,” Rosenwald continued. “He has given them a warrior who isn’t going to let them get pushed around… And so it makes sense to me that this would be the framing Rush would use.”
Rosenwald says there is a “complicated dialectic between host and listener,” but my hunch—in this case, at least—is that Rush is carrying Trump’s water more than he is reflecting what he thinks his listeners want to hear.
Of course, it’s worth asking why Limbaugh has to go to the trouble of advancing these narratives.
Could it be indicative of the fact that so much of what Trump says cannot be defended from an intellectually honest standpoint?
Trump’s electoral strategy has always been premised on enthusiastic support from his base, which means he cannot afford any sort of attrition—or loss of enthusiasm. There’s no space for you to be a “cafeteria Trumpian” who agrees with him on some things, but criticizes him on others.
But if we believe that attacks on Trump are really aimed at us, then the only rational thing to do is to circle the wagons around Trump, and start punching back.
Adopting this worldview puts you at odds with people who have not yet made this illogical leap of faith—a fact that only reinforces your victimhood worldview.
Once you buy into Limbaugh’s premise, it pretty much justifies anything Trump says or does—which is a pretty scary place for America to be.