Donald Trump has made a variety of comments this week that suggest he’s open to new reforms on national gun policy. It’s an open question as to whether anyone should believe what the president has said – Trump’s truth allergy is well documented – but his rhetoric rose to the level of receiving a warning from the NRA about going too far.
With this in mind, there was an interesting exchange this morning between Trump and a reporter during a brief Q&A on the White House south lawn.
Q: Does your base support background checks?
TRUMP: I think my base relies very much on common sense and they rely on me in terms of telling them what’s happening.
The use of the phrase “what’s happening” immediately brought to mind the assertion the president used last summer, when Trump told a group of supporters, “Just remember: what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
The implication at the time was that the president expected his base to look to him as the authority on truth, not what people might see and read.
Today offered an extension on the same thought: as far as Trump is concerned, his base will follow his lead, no matter the direction. As he put it, these are Americans who “rely on” the president to tell them “what’s happening.”
I’m not sure he’s wrong.
At the heart of a cult of personality are several key elements, including the belief that the leader is always right. If the leader says up is up, then that’s what his followers are expected to believe. If the leader changes his mind and says up is down, then that becomes the new truth, replacing the old one.
Trump’s suggestion this morning was that it doesn’t much matter whether his base supports background checks or not. If he supports the policy, his backers will support the policy – because it’s his policy. The president will simply tell them “what’s happening,” at which point they’ll nod in approval.
It’s how a cult of personality works.
In theory, in a democratic political system, the relationship between a president and his or her base can get a little tricky: supporters expect their leaders to follow their wishes, not be told what to think. But Trump seems to be of the opinion that this is a risk worth taking, in part because background checks are so popular, and in part because he has confidence that in his base’s eyes, he can do no wrong.
This is the same man, of course, who’s on record saying he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue, and not lose political support.
By and large, Trump hasn’t tested this assumption. On the contrary, he’s generally pursued an agenda that satisfies his base, rather than challenging it. There aren’t many examples of the current president going to his base and effectively declaring, “I know you’re not going to like this, but I’m asking you to stick with me and trust my judgment, even if you’re uncomfortable with my decision.”
But as of this morning, Trump seems to be operating from the assumption that he can do as he pleases, immune from his base’s pressures, because he can tell his supporters what to think. After having seen more than a few of his rallies, I suspect that may very well be true.