Jeff Sessions made Trump mad

There was no Nixon cult or Bush cult. Even the very popular President Reagan never had a cult. So what makes the Trump Republican Party a cult?

One answer is that Trump critics are shunned by other Republicans. Mitt Romney is called a “Judas” for his vote to convict Trump. But a Democrat who voted to convict Clinton might also have been shunned.

In my view, what makes the Trump GOP a cult is that the demands of loyalty go far beyond anything in American political history.

John Bolton is about as conservative as Republicans you’ll find. Recently, he wrote a book that mentioned that Trump had demanded a quid pro quo in his conversation with the Ukrainian President. It’s hard to see why this is a big deal. First, because it’s obvious that there was a quid pro quo. Second, because Trump chief of staff Mulvaney admitted there was a quid pro quo in a very public setting. And third, because the Trump people insist that even if there was a quid quo pro, nothing wrong was done.

So Bolton’s remark was of no importance. And yet Republicans responded by calling Bolton a “tool of the radical Dems“.  Mulvaney got away with it because he was willing to backtrack, to claim he was misunderstood.  (BTW, why does Trump continue to fill his administration with traitors and backstabbers?)

On the other hand, GOP members of Congress often get away with opposing a particular Trump initiative, as when they refused to support Steve Moore and Herman Cain for the Fed. So what explains the difference with Bolton?

The Trump cult is all about Trump as a leader, not a policymaker. You can disagree with this or that policy, but you are not allowed to do anything that might undercut his image as a leader, especially something that embarrasses him in front of the general public. Obviously, the general public doesn’t care who is appointed to the Fed.

The Trump cult has two components, the true believers and those who are support Trump for policy reasons and/or out of fear. Lindsey Graham and I both know that (in Grahams’ words) Trump is a “race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot”, but Graham pretends to support him anyway.

Among the general public, very few support Trump out of fear, and none vote for him for that reason. Rather Trump supporters are divided into those with blind faith in him and those who support his policies like tax cuts, deregulation and conservative judges. Trump’s skill at demagoguery has gradually produced an increasing number of voters and politicians in the former group.

Many people don’t know what actually happened in the mass suicide at Jonestown. The metaphor “drink the Kool-aid” now means to be taken in by a charismatic leader. But a substantial portion of the 918 deaths at Jonestown were murder, not suicide. A cult includes plenty of true believers, but also those too terrified to dissent.

Even some Trump critics are a part of the cult. Reporters have asked some retired GOP figures who don’t like Trump why they don’t speak out more. They report that they are afraid of being shunned by the local GOP, and some even claim they are afraid for the safety of their family. Unlike at Jonestown, those safety fears are probably groundless, but they are new in American politics. GOP members who disagreed with Reagan did not fear for the safety of their families.

Most politicians are at least somewhat cowardly. But that is also true of most non-politicians, including me. The real question is not why they behave in a cowardly fashion under these circumstances, rather where do “these circumstances” come from? How did Trump create this cult? Even FDR (who shared a few similarities with Trump) was never quite able to achieve this sort of stranglehold over the Democrats, despite being far more popular and far more powerful at getting things done.  I don’t see the appeal of Trump, but millions obviously do.

I think the best way to understand the Trump cult is to look at ordinary voters, not the sort of well-informed voters that read blogs. These average voters don’t pay much attention to policy issues. They are the engine that drives the Trump cult.

Take the sad case of Jeff Sessions. He was far and away the most Trumpian member of the US Senate. Long before Trump, he was opposing free trade, opposing entitlement cutbacks, and calling for immigration restrictions. If Trump died tomorrow, many GOP Senators would breath a quiet sigh of relief and go back to supporting freer trade. But not Jeff Sessions. He’s a true believer, and would carry on the white nationalist torch.

Sessions has decided to run again for the Senate in Alabama. He might win in the end, but he’s having trouble getting the support of GOP voters. Many don’t know that he loyally served Trump for years, and only recall that Trump mocked him for recusing himself from the Russia probe. Of course he was required to do that because he was involved in the case being investigated.

Here’s the reaction of Alabama voters:

The negative effect of Mr. Trump’s barrage against Mr. Sessions became clear in interviews with 20 Alabama voters. Most brought up the recusal with no prompting. Many said they held it against their former senator, though some admired him for sticking to his principles. And even those who couldn’t recall what exactly Mr. Sessions did had heard enough to understand that whatever happened was bad for the president.

“I know he did something that made the president mad,” said Susan Woodman, a retired speech therapist who came away from the Huntsville event undecided but impressed with one of Mr. Sessions’s rivals, Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn University football coach.

People who are not members of a cult do not automatically assume that anything that “made the President mad” was wrong.  I’m guessing that those women who refused to let Trump grab them by the pussy also made Trump mad.

Susan Woodman may not be the typical voter.  She’s probably less well informed than average.  But I think her case gets at something important about the Trump cult.  At its core, this isn’t about specific policy issues.  Trump himself has been all over the map; indeed he was once a Democrat.  If it were about the issues, then Trumpistas would love Jeff Sessions.  He’d be winning in a landslide.   If Trump cared about how his agenda would do once he left office, he’d have already endorsed Sessions.

The core of the Trump cult is blind loyalty to the President.  That’s what makes Trump different.  All presidents have a certain degree of loyalty from their supporters, but Trump is in an entirely different league.  Reagan was an actor who became President.  Trump is a President who became an actor.

The Dems only have two guys who appeal to swing blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt, and one of them is a socialist who turns off a different kind of swing voter.  Trump understood that Biden was the only one who threatened his job, and set out to smear him with an avalanche of lies.  He was even willing to engage in highly corrupt practices to do so. It worked.  People now know that Biden did, “something that made the President mad”. With Biden (unfairly) tarnished, I see little chance that the Dems will be able to defeat Trump.  Trump’s a much more skilled demagogue than anyone they can nominate.  The Dems seem to have no Bill Clinton or Barack Obama to fight back.

Last year I predicted the Dems would self-destruct, and it’s coming true. I’m old enough to recall when the Dems did the same thing against another corrupt Republican running for re-election presiding over a prosperous economy ginned up by measures designed to help in the short run but hurt in the long run. The Democratic Party should be re-named “The Committee to Re-elect the President.”

PS.  Ed Muskie was the Biden of the 1972 campaign.  Nixon’s people used “dirty tricks” like forged letters to discredit Muskie.



21 Responses to “Jeff Sessions made Trump mad”

  1. Gravatar of Bob OBrien Bob OBrien
    11. February 2020 at 13:19

    “Biden (unfairly) tarnished”

    Did Joe not know that his son was taking large amounts of money from a corrupt company? He should have recused himself instead of firing the prosecutor. He did not and thus was very fairly tarnished!

  2. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    11. February 2020 at 13:38

    I am afraid in this golden age of information people are not seeking out objective analysis and instead seek out confirmation bias. And in the fractured media environment people are easily able to immerse themselves in an echo chamber of their choosing. So I think Trump supporters are the worst but the Iowa caucus shows Democrats can be just as bad. During the 2008 Democratic primary it was obvious that caucuses were undemocratic and the delegate allocation from caucuses was distorting the nominating process. Obama supporters doubled down on caucuses and said they were a superior expression of popular will to primaries. Fast forward to today and everyone but Bernie Bros understand caucuses are undemocratic and dumb and should be replaced by primaries.

  3. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    11. February 2020 at 13:40

    Bob, even Trump supporter Erick Erickson knows what’s been fabricated against Biden is BS:

  4. Gravatar of Becky Hargrove Becky Hargrove
    11. February 2020 at 13:53

    Perhaps there is still a chance for Amy Klobuchar, and it’s hard to see how Trump could damage her the way he has been able to damage some candidates.

  5. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    11. February 2020 at 14:22

    Tom Brown, the smarter Trump supporters know Biden getting the prosecutor fired is a big nothingburger…so what they do is throw in another baseless allegation that Hunter got the job as part of a money laundering scheme. So American taxpayer money was going to Burisma who was then paying Hunter a salary for doing nothing. I mean if you are going to concoct conspiracy theories out of thin air they should at least have some impact on Americans…and so the money laundering scheme actual makes it relevant to Americans. So the zombie Trump voters are fine with Fox News anchors just gasping and throwing their hands up and mugging for camera when talking about the Bidens, but the smarter ones have taken the initiative to actually come up with what I think is a more compelling baseless conspiracy theory. 😉

  6. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    11. February 2020 at 16:39

    A rather weak post by professor Sumner, who makes rather absurd claims like “Even the very popular President Reagan never had a cult” which I’m sure Lou Cannon Reagan’s biographer might disagree with and certainly David Stockman might (read his excellent The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed).
    As for Trump’s impeachable offense, since I thought Nixon did nothing really wrong, I was OK with Trump trading foreign aid for dirt on Biden. As a dual national, libertarian, and citizen of the world, I don’t view political corruption as any big deal, since eventually the truth will out. In Greece, Thailand and the Philippines, where I’ve lived for over a year, it’s much worse. In LBJ’s US south, they used to stuff the ballet boxes and LBJ was an OK president (too bad he fell for inflationary monetarism –aka Modern Monetary Theory– however, with his failed ‘guns-and-butter’ policy)

  7. Gravatar of bob OBrien bob OBrien
    11. February 2020 at 16:44


    Regarding: “Bob, even Trump supporter Erick Erickson knows what’s been fabricated against Biden is BS..”

    Our country did not spend $32,000,000 investigating this. Actually I have not seen the results of any investigation of this by anyone including Erick Erickson so I have no idea if there is anything to it. Erick does make the point that Biden definitely had the appearance of a conflict of interest. In my book Biden should have recused himself and thus deserves the unfavorable press he is getting.

  8. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    11. February 2020 at 17:01

    Bob, He did not interfere with Hunter’s company at all, as it wasn’t being investigated.

  9. Gravatar of Nate Nate
    11. February 2020 at 19:41

    Scott, what’s your opinion of Fox News? Most otherwise reasonable people I know who are the type to have blind faith in him watch a ton of it, is that also your experience?

  10. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    12. February 2020 at 07:24

    The Democrats seem to be making the same mistakes as in the last primaries, maybe even worse. They tear each other apart. Sanders will be around for a long time, maybe even in the lead, but the Democratic establishment still doesn’t want him, so they might play dirty again. Not to mention Bloomberg with his very own “post-democratic” ideas. These epic battles might drag on forever. From this perspective, things couldn’t be going better for Trump.

  11. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    12. February 2020 at 08:38

    If Sanders’ problem is not appealing to moderate voters, how strong was Trump’s appeal to moderate voters in 2016?

    Anyone remember Trump’s campaign, in which he said he’d raise taxes on high incomes, provide great health insurance at low prices and not cut entitlements? Does the fact that he’s trying to do the opposite matter?

  12. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    12. February 2020 at 08:40

    >> Dems tearing each other apart >>

    Remember the GOP establishment’s view on Trump?

  13. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    12. February 2020 at 09:33

    Remember the GOP establishment’s view on Trump?

    Yeah, but they folded surprisingly quickly. There were also few attempts to manipulate the Republican primaries. Those primaries were so free and so fair that even an anti-establishment outsider like Trump could win. Are the Democrats as fair? Will they submit? The left is very reluctant to submit to a leader. That is their strength — and their weakness.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that Sanders is the best candidate. I think he would bring back a lot of swing voters, especially those weird people who voted Obama before switching to Trump. For the rest, Sanders could win through mobilization. He seems to be a mirror image of Trump. Who else is gonna beat Trump? Who would govern best is another question, but the Democrats’ best campaigners seem to be Sanders (and maybe Buttigieg).

  14. Gravatar of Gene Frenkle Gene Frenkle
    12. February 2020 at 11:01

    Christian List—Bernie’s campaign is effectively over. Only Warren’s voters would be second choice Bernie voters so that gives progressives less than 35% of the vote in N.H. Plus Bernie is the cheater having cheated in caucuses in 2016 and because of that the DNC has reduced the number of caucuses. Bernie could possibly be the delegate leader at the end of the contests but delegate leader is entitled to nothing pursuant the rules Bernie agreed to when he joined the Democratic Party in 2015.

    Furthermore Trump ran as a moderate in 2016 and got the support of moderates. What the 2016 Republican primary shows is how deeply unpopular conservatism is and how intellectually and morally bankrupt the Republican Party had become.

  15. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    12. February 2020 at 11:16

    He still has to prove he can gain ground with minority voters, but Buttigieg may be the Obama or Bill Clinton of this cycle.

    And Biden has many more problems than just the Trump smear job. He hasn’t run a good campaign and he’s not a good enough fundraiser.

  16. Gravatar of rwperu34 rwperu34
    12. February 2020 at 14:48

    Biden was never going to get the nomination, as he shouldn’t have. This has nothing to do with Burisma and everything to do with Biden being a terrible candidate. The polls you may (or may not) be referring too as him being “the guy” are nothing more than name recognition. Trump is such a doofus he fell for this! It’s important to remember that although these clowns have been campaigning for what seems like an aeon, the real process just started last week!

    Klobuchar is your electability candidate. She’s got the best chance to beat Trump, but you sacrifice some policy.

    If you want charisma, then Mayor Pete is your guy. Compared to Obama? Come on! Obama was average at best in this regard. He’s only better than the older Bush in my lifetime and not in the same universe as Bill Clinton.

    If you want someone to “fire up the base” it’s Bernie. I’m not a huge Bernie fan, but there are a lot of similarities between his 2016-2020 run as Reagan in 1976-1980. We are really living in a bizzaro world compared to then. Instead of too high inflation hurting us it’s too low. Instead of labor running amok it’s capital…etc. If he got the nomination and got hot at the end (basically what happened with Reagan), I could see a runaway win ushering in a new age of progressiveness similar to the way Reagan gets credit for the wave of conservatism in the 80s.

    If you want a policy wonk, then it’s Warren. She’s toast, so nothing to see here.

    There is simply no reason to run Biden. He’s got all the weakness of Hillary and none of the strengths of the other candidate.

    This election is going to be very similar to the last one regardless of who runs. Maybe Klobuchar is 52% vs Trump while Warren is 48% while Warren gives you 52% policy while Klobuchar gives you 48% (or whatever).

  17. Gravatar of Caesar Caesar
    12. February 2020 at 16:19

    Trump has surged with Hispanic and Other voters according to Yougov from before the election 2016 and today
    Hispanic +21
    Other +41
    Whites -3
    Blacks +8
    Republicans are turning more nationalistic and racist, and are getting a larger share of the minority vote. They are not going away anytime…
    Lol: Trump is winning the Other vote according to yougov, he has a majority support among Other.
    Use the Chinese to promote immigration restrictionalism, that would be hilarious.

  18. Gravatar of Michael Sandifer Michael Sandifer
    12. February 2020 at 19:48


    I think Warren tries to be a policy wonk, but she’s actually very inept in that area. She’s full of big, dumb ideas. That’s not to say she’s a dumb person, but her ideas are awful.

  19. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    13. February 2020 at 08:41

    Nate, Fox is part of the problem, but it goes much deeper. Early on, Fox opposed Trump.

  20. Gravatar of Larry Larry
    14. February 2020 at 23:58

    Trump gets some support for his policies, but that isn’t the important bit. Trump is popular because his supporters think that Dems hold them in utter contempt and that he respects them. He is also very entertaining and drives his opponents into madness that leads to hysterically bad decisions (Crossfire Hurricane). If Dems do not address that, they will lose. Bernie will lose. Biden will lose. Next B?

  21. Gravatar of Anonymous Anonymous
    16. February 2020 at 19:04

    “He’s a true believer, and would carry on the white nationalist torch.”

    Are you saying Jeff Sessions is a literal white nationalist, i.e. he wants to make the U.S. an all-white nation, or is this one of your jokes?

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