When Trump Says ‘People,’ He Means ‘His People’

Fifty years ago, reviewing Toni Morrison’s novel “Sula” in this newspaper, a critic wrote that Morrison was “far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the Black side of provincial American life”; that to “maintain the large and serious audience she deserves” and transcend the “limiting classification ‘Black woman writer’” she had to “address a riskier contemporary reality.”

Morrison, who would go on to win Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, bristled at reviews like that, which seemed to suggest that she needed to write about white people. She chafed at the notion that writing primarily about Black people was a limitation rather than a liberation. In a 1981 New Republic interview, Morrison put a point on it: “From my perspective, there are only Black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”

This idea, that the parameters of the word “people” can be defined by a speaker or writer, came rushing back to me recently as I was reviewing the increasingly erratic posts and comments of Donald Trump.

Intellectually and creatively, Trump is the antithesis of Morrison, but if I come to understand that when Trump says “people,” it is confined to his people, then his inane utterances make more sense to me. In fact, the whole of the MAGA universe begins to make more sense to me.

On Sunday, Trump posted on Truth Social, claiming Comcast, MSNBC’s owner, and “others of the LameStream Media” will be “thoroughly scrutinized” because they are “THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE” who should pay “for what they have done to our once great Country.”

“The people” here means his people, the only worthy and legitimate people, the only ones worth defending because they are the only ones defending him. When he says “our once great country,” he means the country when it most benefited those most devoted to him, at a time when the racial hierarchy was more fixed, the patriarchy was more entrenched, immigrant communities were often whiter and gender identities were more rigid.

There’s a reason Trump never attempted to govern as a unifier and isn’t running for re-election as one. Instead, he’s deepening his attachment with loyalists. He wants to reshape America into a nation where his will rules, the law is his tool to punish others and he is exempt from punishment — where his throngs are rewarded for their adoration.

It isn’t as simple as saying that Trump wants to drag the country backward. He wants to do something far more destructive: He wants to marry the country’s more intolerant past to a more autocratic future. He wants to bend his brand of straight white male nationalism into a kind of totalitarianism. That his definition of “the people” is implicit, not overt, only helps him. The fact that there are women, people of color and L.G.B.T.Q. Americans who support him doesn’t alter the fundamental nature of his appeal.

And I believe that many of his most ardent followers understand this intuitively. They idolize Trump because his craven desire for power, and the protection from prosecution that he believes it will provide, would also offer them a ride on his coattails.

A Trump autocracy would redound to their credit and they would be rewarded for it.

So they overlook Trump’s manifold legal jeopardies, such as the ruling on Tuesday by a New York judge that Trump committed fraud for years by intentionally misvaluing his properties for personal financial benefit.

Trump lashed out at the ruling in a statement posted on Truth Social regurgitating many of his familiar attack lines: calling the judge “DERANGED,” undermining the credibility of the prosecutor and claiming that attempts to hold him accountable are all part of an election interference scheme to prevent him from retaking the presidency.

But part of his complaint, which has become a cliché at this point, was that his civil rights are being violated and “If they can do this to me, they can do this to YOU!”

He and his people, the true people, are the new civil rights victims, in need of a defensive mobilization to prevent continued injury. Trump defense becomes self-defense.

And this works. Trump enjoys a commanding lead among Republicans competing for their party’s presidential nomination. In part that’s because he has the advantage of having already held the presidency, creating an aura of incumbency around him, lifting him and legitimizing him.

But his Republican primary standing is also because he is making a political militia of the Republican Party itself, with its core voters activated to defend him no matter what. The person who gave voice to the party’s most base instincts is the hero of the Republican base. He didn’t try to restrict them; he unleashed them.

He spoke to and for “the people.” He tailored a particular form of populism, one aimed at xenophobes and subversives.

This is, I believe, why Trump maintains strong support even as his legal troubles grow: He has been unflinchingly loyal to one portion of the body politic, and his followers are simply reciprocating.

They don’t worry about Trump torching the country if he’s re-elected, because they believe that they will frolic in the ashes. They believe that whatever benefits Trump will eventually benefit them. Trump has deceived his people into believing in trickle-down tyranny.

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