By Carl Hoffman
I wasn’t expecting much out of Liar’s Circus, a bit of investigative and immersive journalism by Carl Hoffman that recounts his time spent on the road attending a series of Trump rallies in 2019. I’d read so many books on Trump, Trump voters, and the Trump phenomenon that I didn’t think there was anything new to be said.
But after setting out on his “journey into the heart of darkness” and by the end concluding that he had indeed “been to Hades, to Mordor, had looked darkness in the eye,” Hoffman had managed to make me think the trip worthwhile. To be sure, the interviews with all the kooks and crazies and conspiracy nuts have by now become commonplace. One suspects that the rally attendees are performing as much as their leader. Do these people really believe in Satanic baby-killing rituals presided over by Hillary Clinton? Or that Michelle Obama is a man? It seems that at least among the crowd Hoffman chose to hang out with the answer is yes. Is that “terrifying” though, as the subtitle would have it, or just sad? Sad in an individual I think, but terrifying in the mass.
As familiar as the crazy seems, it’s fair to ask how representative it is. This is a point that Hoffman himself puzzles over. The die-hard Trump followers he engages with, who travel about the country going to every rally they can, might not be typical Trump voters. “In a way they all seemed too extreme to represent a good cross-section of Trump’s supporters,” he says at one point, before immediately checking himself. “But that’s wasn’t true. They were only slightly exaggerated versions of archetypes I came across repeatedly.” “The nonsensical conspiracy absurdity wasn’t espoused by some tiny percentage of rally goers, but by the vast majority of them.” Which makes sense when you think that they were getting it directly from the president himself.
The most valuable parts of the book, however, come from Hoffman’s deeper analysis, undertaken in the spirit of cultural anthropology. “I’d spent much of my career traveling the globe to understand cultures that were deeply unfamiliar to me, and suddenly my own felt nearly as foreign as that of the pygmies in the Ituri Rainforest of the Congo.” This alienation is not unlike that of the people he immerses himself among, who also feel as though the America of a previous generation had disappeared, but while Hoffman can empathize to a degree, and understand their cultural dislocation and alienation, he finally has no sympathy for the Trump fanatics. A Trump rally is a sort of religious revival, a Third Great Awakening, but the people have come to worship a Bronze or Orange Calf.
This is fine as far as it goes, and Hoffman is particularly good on the religious angle and the way a shift in the economy has affected an entire culture. There are people who desperately want to feel like they have more control over their lives, who want politicians more responsive to their needs and who will listen to them. But I think the identification of the Trump voter as “working-class white males without a college education” doesn’t go far enough. If this is all there was to Trump’s support then he would have disappeared long ago. The fact is, Trump also has his supporters among the affluent and well-educated, and even among minorities. I think the key question to ask is what he represents for them.
I say “represents” because Hoffman’s conclusion is that Trump himself is a complete zero.
Trump’s rise to power showed that America was just like everywhere else. We were no more immune to COVID-19 than we were to autocracy, corruption, and base idiocy. Trump was, in fact, the opposite of heaven-sent. A no one. He had cheated at everything. He had lost enormous sums of money, his own and other people’s. He didn’t read. Knew nothing of history. Had no judgment or honor. So much of his identity was simply the creation of a reality television producer, Mark Burnett.
It was Burnett who gave America the mythical figure of Trump the successful businessman. He wasn’t, but he played one on TV and I think for a lot of people that honestly came to the same thing. But I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Trump was a blank slate for his followers to project upon. This brings me back to the point about Trump voters being a broader coalition than just a group of bitter losers in the new economy. He certainly appealed to this demographic – a notorious scofflaw who could offer a kind of absolution from personal responsibility while blithely insisting that failure was winning – but there was more to it than that.
What Trump tapped into was an anger that cut across socioeconomic and even racial lines. That said, Trump’s rallies are overwhelmingly white, and the most disturbing scene in Hoffman’s book comes when a Black woman is hounded out of the line waiting to get into one of the rallies. “It was the purest racism I’d ever witnessed,” he writes, as the mask of bonhomie slips from the crowd.
Four years earlier Alexander Zaitchik had followed a course very similar to Hoffman’s, covering Trump’s 2016 campaign in The Gilded Rage and describing a group psychology dominated by feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, and hate. This has become a chronic condition in what Pankaj Mishra identified, correctly I believe, as an Age of Anger. It’s present on the left and right, among liberals and conservatives (whatever those terms mean today), and in the U.S. among Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s great achievement was in managing to seize the commanding heights of the anger economy. The rage machine of Twitter fit him perfectly, and he was someone that many people who had quite justifiably found traditional politicians unresponsive and unrepresentative could identify with.
Hoffman is “strangely optimistic” that America can move on. “From the great wound of Donald J. Trump, I hoped there might be an opportunity for wisdom.” I see no good signs. The conditions that gave rise to the politics of rage and resentment are going to get worse, and Trump did much to knock down the existing political and moral guardrails. We haven’t reached the bottom yet. In fact, I think we’re just getting started.
Review first published online January 17, 2022.