Opinion: What’s really working for Trump

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Editor’s Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including The New York Times bestseller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

Former President Donald Trump is a cultural phenomenon. His dominance in the Iowa caucuses over well-funded and high-profile competitors this week proved it. For his legion of passionate supporters, he is more than a politician. He is like a sports team or a rock band that helps define who they are as much as the families and communities to which they belong.

Republican rivals, led by former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have been unable to shake the loyalty of voters to Trump. Indeed, the entire “anti-Trump” contingent in the party, from conservatives who want to replace him to the handful of moderates who want to purge everything he stands for, hasn’t shown it can move the needle. Trump keeps coming out on top.

There are many reasons behind the passionate loyalty that Trump commands within the base. Many of the ideas that he has championed, including his nativism and skepticism about US alliances overseas, resonate with voters in the evangelical, working class and rural coalition that has constituted his base. Many of his policies as president, such as corporate tax cuts, tariffs on China and deregulation, sit well even with Republicans who don’t have a strong taste for his political style.

There is also the purely practical calculation. In a party that has become fiercely partisan in recent decades, there is the perception that Trump offers the best odds of reclaiming the White House in November’s election, despite his performance in 2020 and detrimental influence in 2022. (Never mind that polls show that, if the election were held now, Haley would romp to victory over Biden while Trump and the president are essentially tied).

Given that Trump has successfully sold election denialism to his supporters, the argument that the four indictments of the former president are a form of persecution makes sense to them. In Iowa, an entrance poll showed that a large number of Republican voters don’t believe that Biden won the 2020 election and many would consider backing Trump even if he is convicted of a crime.

To understand Trump, however, it is also important to recognize that he has become a cultural phenomenon within large swaths of the GOP. He has been able to sell his role in politics as something akin to a sports team, a popular musician or a social media influencer.

His “base” supports him without any reservation and without any sense of doubt. There is an unusual level of zealousness whereby they identify with him at the most personal level. Any attack on him is an attack on them.

Unlike most other presidents, Trump has had no problem diving into salesmanship. Uninhibited by concerns about decorum and tradition, Trump has aggressively figured out ways to market himself like a cultural product, not a standard politician, knowing that this would forge much deeper ties.

Others also are marketing to his fans. In Boones Mill, Virginia, as CNN reported, Trumpians can go shopping in Trump Town USA to buy silvery Trump Balls ($125 for the larger set) or bumper stickers depicting the former president urinating on Putin.

Dozens of other independent stores cater to Trump fans around the nation. The person wearing a MAGA hat is akin to a New England Patriots fan brandishing their sports gear.

To be sure, Trump is not the first president to command strong cultural currency with voters that goes beyond traditional political attachments. Stuffed toy bears identified with President Theodore Roosevelt became a phenomenon in the early 20th century.

During the 1930s, saloon owners famously hung portraits of President Franklin Roosevelt over their bars and Americans purchased photographs of him to hang in their homes. There were President Ronald Reagan dolls in the 1980s while Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster from President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign remained iconic throughout his two terms, making its way to t-shirts, college dorms and more. Relatives have gotten in on the action as well: President Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy sold “Billy Beer” during his presidency.

And other presidents, such as John F. Kennedy were perceived by parts of the electorate as more than just an elected official. Kennedy, to many Americans, was larger than life, a sign of a new age — all of which made his assassination in 1963 so tragic.

Yet there is no president who has devoted the same kind of attention to marketing himself as a cultural phenomenon as Trump. Trump’s rallies are famously comparable to rock concerts, with attendees dressing up in MAGA garb, brandishing as many goods as they can purchase and waiting on pins and needles to hear their favorite lines. The former reality television star’s success in selling himself as a cultural product has paid off.

It’s not just the merchandise, however that reinforces Trump’s image, it is the broader persona, the hold he has found in substantial swaths of red America.

To Trump’s supporters, he is the star of their political team and nothing can shake their commitment to him. Rational appeals about the inconsistencies of his rhetoric, the dangers of his positions and the practical reasons for choosing someone such as DeSantis, who has more experience governing in traditional ways, don’t mean much to the fans whose homes are stuffed with MAGA hats, shirts and coffee mugs.

Although some pundits wondered if the passion for Trump would fade, thus far it seems that the emotion is all still there.

The worrying thing about Trump is that he is not just another celebrity. He is potentially on his way once again to the White House — where whoever sits in the Oval Office holds the keys to nuclear weapons and makes enormously consequential decisions about policies in America and life around the world.

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