October 28, 2020 7:00 am
President Donald J. Trump talks to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, prior to boarding Marine One en route to Joint Base Andrews, Md. to begin his trip to Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Nevada. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

President Donald J. Trump talks to members of the press on the South Lawn of the White House Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, prior to boarding Marine One en route to Joint Base Andrews, Md. to begin his trip to Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Nevada. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

President Donald Trump made a showy entrance in his motorcade on the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway race track in West Salem on Tuesday night, every inch the demagogue as he waved to the cheering crowd and bounded on stage for his second superspreader rally this week in Wisconsin  — a state that is experiencing a massive COVID-19 spike. 

Fresh from celebrating the rushed, one-party installation on the Supreme Court of his nominee Amy Coney Barrett, at a Rose Garden event that recreated exactly the nomination ceremony that turned the White House into a COVID hot spot, Trump was gleefully unapologetic about the public health disaster his administration has overseen.

“We gotta get your governor to open up,” he declared, ignoring the fact  that Republicans and their allies have successfully blocked Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-at-home order and, recently, his indoor capacity limit on bars and restaurants.

Bragging about his own quick recovery, Trump said, “COVID, COVID — you know when they’re gonna stop talking about it? Nov. 4.”

It’s as if Democrats invented the pandemic just to hurt his re-election campaign.

You can understand why Trump is so cavalier. He simply doesn’t care about Americans who get sick and die. But what about his cheering fans, packed cheek-by-jowl into the stands at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway. What’s in it for them?

It’s not, as Trump claimed, his great handling of U.S. trade deals, which he said will double Wisconsin dairy farmers’ milk exports to Canada and kick off a manufacturing renaissance — “probably the main reason I ran.” Neither agriculture nor manufacturing have experienced a major turnaround on Trump’s watch. (Nor did Trump mention the fate of the Wisconsin-based Foxconn plant, which the president called the “eighth wonder of the world” when he was taking credit for a deal that was supposed to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the state, but which has  barely managed to create a couple of hundred.) 

Rather than his tenuous policy claims, it seems to be Trump’s defiance on behalf of his aggrieved fans that gets people excited.

“You elected an outsider as president who is finally putting America first,” he told the crowd at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway, adding “I’m the only one standing between you and the leftwing mob.”

Trump’s defiance extends to the pandemic itself and to people who take public-health precautions to try to contain it. Trump mocked Joe Biden throughout his speech, calling him “soft and weak and too scared to be president” — and describing Biden hiding in his basement to avoid catching COVID-19.

It’s a breathtaking posture for a president on whose watch hundreds of thousands of Americans have died, addressing a crowd in a state which, as my colleague Erik Gunn reports, on the day Trump spoke, “smashed through previous records to set all-time daily highs for COVID-19 infections, and also deaths.”

In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson challenges the liberal truism that working-class white voters who vote Republican are “voting against their own interests.”

Instead, Wilkerson writes, white Americans have, for generations, shown that they are willing to go to great lengths to defend their membership in society’s dominant caste. From the earliest days of the country to the present, when white people have felt that their station is threatened they have reacted violently, aggressively, seemingly irrationally to defend their status. The willingness to accept short-term setbacks, even serious losses of economic security and health, need to be weighed against the enormous, hidden value of white supremacy to insecure whites.

Demagogues who appeal to people’s longing to shore up their sense of privilege as members of a superior caste attract adoration, Wilkerson writes, because their success and strength and domination become the success and strength and domination of their followers.

Wikerson marshalls volumes of historical research to support her point.

In the 2020 election season, Trump’s posturing makes a great deal more sense when viewed from this perspective.

“By the way,” he told the crowd at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway, “I’d love to do stimulus,” but he won’t release another round of desperately needed coronavirus relief funds because  “crazy Nancy”  wants to  “give money to her Democrat-run states.”  Here in Wisconsin, a “Democrat-run state,”  the crowd cheered.

If ever the trade-off between white power and self interest has been tested, it is being tested now.

Mike Pence is planning to visit the state on Wednesday, despite an outbreak of COVID-19 on his staff.

It’s not just Trump. Wisconsin Republicans and their allies have made obstructing any public-health response to the pandemic their brand.

Trump specifically thanked Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce for their help locating the venue for his rally — and blamed Gov. Evers for blocking his plan to hold it at the La Crosse airport (in fact, the mayor and other local officials as well as a group of doctors opposed holding the event there because of the risk of COVID spread).

Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the recent stay on Evers’ capacity limits on bars and restaurants is Pro-Life Wisconsin. 

The “pro-life” group argued in its appeal that protecting the public against illness and death from COVID-19 unfairly interfered with their ability to fundraise.

This is complete and total moral bankruptcy.

Democrats and their allies have begun to arrive at the hopeful conclusion reported by my colleague Melanie Conklin that 2020 could be a coattails year, and that state Republicans, even in gerrymandered districts, even, possibly, the powerful Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, could be vulnerable. 

After all, at some point, the fever has to break. At some point the die-hard fans, seeing the hospitals fill up, the economy wither and Trump’s grandiose promises go unfulfilled, have to begin to weigh their own survival against the fairytale of white triumph over “flag-burning radicals” and “deadly sanctuary cities,” and all the other symbols of an inevitable demographic reality that whites are going to be a minority in the United States within the next generation.

Plus, as the wheels come off the Trump wagon, politicos are bound to be looking over their shoulders. As he was thanking local supporters at his rally, Trump gave Wisconsin Republican Party Chair Andrew Hitt a shout-out, adding a little zinger at the end: “if we don’t win we’re gonna fire you so fast.”

Plenty of serious Trump fans will go down fighting. But most likely there will not be enough of them to make the “red wave” Trump talks about. (Unless, through the courts, Republicans manage to hijack the election, which is definitely possible.)

Still, the issue of personal survival weighs on people, including Republicans. 

Screenshot of ad for survival kit from Trump rally
Screenshot of ad for survival kit from Trump rally

I happened to catch Trump’s La Crosse Speedway rally on a rightwing website that, as its newscasters waited for Trump to arrive, ran ads for a survivalist company that makes ready-to-eat meals your family can store for years in a bunker. The meals, the ad pointed out, could be helpful during the pandemic. 

It’s a lot easier, though, to just wear a mask.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.