On election night in 2016, Donald Trump paid homage to America’s “forgotten men and women”, vowing they would be “forgotten no longer”. Those who repeatedly appeared at his rallies knew of whom he spoke. Veterans, gun enthusiasts, bikers, shop clerks. Middle-aged and seniors. Life had treated some harshly. Others less so.
Some had voted for Barack Obama, only to discover hope and change wasn’t all it was advertised to be. Regardless, the Democratic party’s urban and urbane, upstairs-downstairs coalition didn’t mesh with them. Or vice-versa. Politics is definitely about lifestyles.
In his new book, Michael Bender pays particular attention to those Trump supporters who called themselves “Front Row Joes”. They attended rallies wherever, whenever. It was “kind of like an addiction”, Bender quotes one as saying.
No longer did they need to bowl alone. Trump had birthed a community. Their applause was his sustenance, his performance their sacrament.
One Front Row Joe, Saundra from Michigan, was a 41-year-old Walmart worker. On 6 January, in Washington DC, she made her way up the west side of the US Capitol.
“It looked so neat,” she said.
She also said she and other Trump supporters who stormed Congress did not do so “to steal things” or “do damage”. They had a different aim.
“We were just there to overthrow the government.”
The next day, Saundra flew home. Trump’s wishes, real or imagined, were her command. Later in January, two days before Joe Biden’s inauguration, Senator Mitch McConnell declared that the mob had been “fed lies” and provoked by Trump.
Bender covers the White House for the Wall Street Journal. Frankly, We Did Win This Election is his first book. It is breezy, well-written and well-informed. He captures both the infighting in Trump’s world and the surrounding social tectonics.
Trump goes on the record. The interview is a solid scorecard on who is up or down. He brands McConnell “dumb as a rock”. The loathing is mutual – to a point. The Senate minority leader has made clear he will back Trump if he is the nominee again.
Liz Cheney occupies a special spot in Trump’s Inferno. The Wyoming representative, daughter of a vice-president, now sits on a House select committee to investigate 6 January. But to most of Trump’s party, six months after the insurrection, what happened that afternoon is something to be forgotten or at least ignored.
Mike Pence dwells in purgatory.
“I don’t care if he apologizes or not,” Trump says of his vice-president presiding over the certification of Biden’s win. “He made a mistake.”
Once before, in their second year in office, the two men reportedly clashed over a political hiring decision. Back then, Trump reportedly called Pence “so disloyal”.
Pence still harbors presidential ambitions. Good luck with that.
Bender’s book is laden with attention-grabbing headlines. He reports Trump telling John Kelly, then White House chief of staff, that Hitler “did a lot of good things”. Trump denies it. Kelly stays mum. More than 30 years ago, Trump’s first wife, Ivana, let it be known that he kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches by his bed. Everyone needs a hobby.
Bender writes of Trump urging the military to “beat the fuck” out of protesters for racial justice, and to “crack their skulls”. The 45th president’s asymmetrical approach to law enforcement remains on display. “Stand back and stand by” was for allies like the Proud Boys. Law and order was for everyone else. Political adversaries were enemies.
Trump now embraces the supposed martyrdom of Ashli Babbitt, an air force veteran who stormed Congress on 6 January and was killed by law enforcement.
“The person that shot Ashli Babbitt,” he said this week. “Boom. Right through the head. Just, boom. There was no reason for that.”
To say the least, that is highly contestable.
Members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, cowered behind the doors Babbitt rushed. Hours later, the bulk of the House GOP opposed certifying Biden’s win. The party of Lincoln is now the party of Trump.
Focusing on the 2020 election, a contest under the deathly shadow of Covid, Bender conveys the chaos and disorganization of the Trump campaign. After a disastrous kick-off rally in Tulsa, Trump began looking for a new campaign manager. Brad Parscale’s days were numbered. He was a digital guy, not a major domo.
According to Bender, Trump offered the job to Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee – and niece of Mitt Romney, the Utah senator, 2012 nominee and, in Trumpworld, persona decidedly non grata. Her reply: “Absolutely not.”
Trump also sent word to Steve Bannon, his campaign chair in 2016. He declined too. Bannon was banished from the kingdom for trashing Trump and his family. But he understood the base better than anyone – other than Trump himself.
There was a reason Saturday Night Live spoofed Bannon as the power behind the throne, and that he appeared on the cover of Time. There was no return to court but Trump did pardon Bannon of federal fraud charges. Not a bad consolation prize.
Parscale was demoted and kicked to the curb. Within months he appeared in the news, shirtless, barefoot, drunk and armed. His successor, Bill Stepien, brought Trump to within 80,000 votes of another electoral college win.
Bender makes clear that Trump is neither gone nor forgotten. His acquittal in his second impeachment, for inciting the Capitol attack, only reinforced his desire to fight another day.
“There has never been anything like it,” Trump tells Bender. So true.