Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Right’s Increasing Fringe-ification

. . . and what it could mean for Trump.
January 19, 2022
The Right’s Increasing Fringe-ification
A supporter holds a 'Trump Won' sign at a rally by former President Donald Trump at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on January 15, 2022 in Florence, Arizona. The rally marks Trump's first of the midterm election year with races for both the U.S. Senate and governor in Arizona this year. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Much of Donald Trump’s most recent rally—his first of 2022—involved speakers saying just what you would expect: The election was stolen. The crowd at this rally was so huge that he must have won the last election. He’s being persecuted. COVID is real but the Democrats are making it worse by discriminating against white people for vaccines and COVID treatment. Everything is rigged against him. Some bombast, some bluster, a never-ending stream of lies. And of course, conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory—the Big Lie, always, but also conspiracies about what happened on January 6th.

Trump allies such as Mike Lindell and Andy Biggs showed up alongside him, and Steve Bannon, of course, took to his webshow to claim the rally would lead to the 2020 election being decertified—something for which, of course, no mechanism exists. Kari Lake, the likely winner of the Arizona GOP’s gubernatorial primary, called for Dr. Anthony Fauci and “anybody who was involved in that corrupt shady, shoddy election of 2020” to be locked up. And Rep. Paul Gosar sent up the QAnon Bat signal: “Can you feel the storm building? It’s America.” The apocalyptic endpoint of QAnon’s conspiracies are where all of their political opponents are arrested and then murdered, and here was the former president surrounding himself with implicit hints and explicit statements of those aims.

As Charlie Sykes summarized on Monday, the rally was a glimpse of the Republican future, and “it looks very much like the past, but even more deplorable. And, frankly duller.”

In some ways, though, the rally may signal a subtle shift in Trump World. The people who turn out for his rallies now are not the same as the Republicans-sick-of-Republican-leadership who turned out in 2016. They have even shifted from the MAGA/KAG crowds of 2020. The fights over Jan. 6th and over vaccination policy have further radicalized them. They are, in some respects, evolving past Trump. And they are tired of hearing the same old thing. Some of the people in the crowd wanted a lot more.

Take the example of Michael Protzman and his Dallas-based QAnon movement. Protzman, who went to Arizona for the rally, is part of the QAnon splinter group that believes JFK Jr. and other dead celebrities are in hiding and fighting the Deep State with Trump, in addition to believing in a genuinely disturbing genealogical vision of American history. The members of Protzman’s group were excited to be at the Trump rally, but as the night wore on and Trump’s speech was proving to be just the same old shtick, they started making comments:

Trump being replaced by someone else? Trump being played by JFK? Or even, “what a waste of time, same old meaningless shit”? These are people who were recently referring to Donald Trump as literally a descendant of Jesus via Lincoln’s undead son-as-Libyan-prince (don’t ask), and now they’re bored by him. A sect that drinks bleach water in ritual. A sect that thought myriad dead celebrities were in the crowd behind Trump. They are moving on from him.

Another case: Ron Watkins, site administrator of the conspiratorial and racist imageboard 8chan (and one of the people who pushed Q), is now an Arizona congressional candidate. On a live chat, he was asked if it was really Trump at the rally–and he had to explain that it was really Trump and not a “body double.” Such bizarre notions are now as common among the prominent QAnon figures as they are among the microinfluencers, like one so-called “starseed” (don’t ask) who claimed this week that “The real Donald was executed but his soul saved. He was a fallen Angel who wanted redemption.”

The pro-Trump YouTube channel Right Side Broadcasting Network had a reporter in the crowd, and some of the people he interviewed went far beyond even what he was comfortable with. One of them was pushing a Q-adjacent conspiracy that California Governor Gavin Newsom is a clone, saying, “The real Governor Newsom has had his military tribunal at Gitmo, and he’s been executed.” How do you convince people who believe such nonsense that waiting to vote for Trump in 2024, or ordinary congressional Republicans in 2022, is the solution to the crises they detect all around them?

Another RSBN interviewee said that COVID was the apocalypse and the vaccine the literal mark of the beast. This gets to the core of what Trump is dealing with. He pushes one major lie over and over again—the Big Lie, that the 2020 election was stolen—but simultaneously wants to claim credit for his administration’s funding of vaccine research. Which is true, but the people who support him believe in countless COVID conspiracies. In an interview with Candace Owens in December, Trump promoted the safety of the vaccine, asked people to get it, and had to argue with her about it. When he and Bill O’Reilly said they got the booster on O’Reilly’s “History Tour,” the crowd booed them. And Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, has made noise around this, trying to take a harder line than Trump against vaccines (whether or not it will work to out-Trump Trump).

And again, COVID is only one part of the broader radicalization, the fringe-ification of American conservatism. While Trump was rallying in Florence, Arizona, Michael Flynn and his ReAwaken America Tour were in Phoenix’s Dream City Church. The lineup featured a wide range of pastors, COVID conspiracy theorists, and Trump World figures. Lindell spoke at it as well, and Eric Trump was on the program. The speakers there referred to Trump as a sort of symbol—Donné Clement Petruska discussing “Trump Prophecies,” for example, and Joe Oltmann speaking on “Election Fraud Has Been Proven, Now What’s Next?” Oltmann’s Telegram feed calls for mob violence, so that may be a hint. The people at the ReAwaken America Tour are fellow travelers with Trump when he is useful, but the mix of Christian nationalist, prophetic or otherwise, with COVID deniers and other conspiracy theorists, could have any figurehead they wanted. Flynn, the face of this tour, who nowadays travels from Christian nationalist event to Christian nationalist event, did not bother going to Trump’s rally.

None of this means Trump’s support will necessarily fade. If the radicalism of the right feels centrifugal right now, the desire to win elections will soon likely exert a centripetal force instead. If Trump runs in 2024, people will fall in line behind him.

Still, cracks are forming in the enthusiasm around him.

The most difficult part of riding a tiger, as the saying goes, is dismounting—and Donald Trump is riding a tiger of conspiracy-theorizing, apocalypse-chasing, murderous wackos. Some of the most cultish, and perhaps dangerous, people among his supporters are starting to show their impatience with Trump the politician. Trump the symbol is what they want, and if he cannot deliver, they seem to be thinking that maybe he can be replaced.

Thomas Lecaque

Thomas Lecaque is an associate professor of history at Grand View University. Twitter: @tlecaque.