The white SUV, its rear half sagging close to the roadway, moved slower than other vehicles on a stretch of I-85 recently in North Carolina. As approaching headlights bounced off its rear window, a message appeared.
A message — complete with a certain four-letter expletive — was stenciled in large white lettering on glass near patches of rust on the vehicle’s frame on a chilly Thanksgiving night in Gastonia that let everyone know the driver is not a fan of President Joe Biden.
No other drivers reacted. No one honked. No one flashed their high beams. No one gestured with a thumbs up or middle finger.
It was just another night, with just another obscene political expression in a country that seems to have become desensitized to them. And no one is more expert at cultivating or taking advantage of this national numbness than Donald Trump.
Everyone seems numb these days, though not all that “comfortably,” as the band Pink Floyd once described its mental state.
“He’s told us what he will do,” Liz Cheney, a former GOP lawmaker who was vice chair of the House panel that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot, told CBS News recently. “People who say, ‘Well, if he’s elected, it’s not that dangerous because we have all of these checks and balances’ don’t fully understand the extent to which the Republicans in Congress today have been co-opted.”
Tucker Carlson said recently that he would vote for Trump in 2024 and decided to do so because the FBI raided the former president’s Florida estate to recover classified documents he took from the White House. Being raided by federal agents has nothing to do with how any individual would perform in perhaps the world’s most high-pressure job. Nor is being served a federal search warrant for military secrets a qualification for a second stint as commander in chief.
Carlson’s metric is just one more outrageous Trump-related assertion sent into the cable news and social media ether. Since the then-reality television star and real estate executive came down that golden escalator in Trump Tower in July 2015 to declare his first presidential candidacy, such questionable and fringe comments from Trump and his backers have accumulated, higher and higher.
More and more numb we all have gotten.
The former president has not let up, recently referring to his political foes as “vermin,” in the language of 20th century authoritarians. As ever, Trump has seemed emboldened by the outrage that followed. After all, his poll numbers never seem to take a hit — as he bragged about Monday on Truth Social.
He is leading Biden in many polls despite using rhetoric like “2024 is the final battle” and warning his supporters that “either they win or we win. And if they win, we no longer have a country.”
Trump’s recent words were followed by a wave of media essays and op-eds warning that a second Trump term could bring violence, with veteran journalists using descriptors like “authoritarianism” and “dictatorship” and “tyranny.”
His most likely 2024 general election foe, Biden, has noticed how Trump tries wearing us all down with his repeated bold promises and threats.
“Trump is not even hiding the ball anymore. He’s simply not hiding the ball. He’s telling us what he wants to do,” Biden said at the second of the three Massachusetts campaign events on Tuesday.
“But let’s be clear about … what’s at stake in 2024: Donald Trump and his MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy,” Biden added. “And that, again, is not hyperbole. That’s a fact. The former president makes no bones about it. Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to what he has to say.”
The former president was asked about those media reports Tuesday evening, during a one-on-one interview with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity in front of voters in Iowa. What Trump initially had to say was one part deflection and many parts desensitizing.
Trump initially dodged Hannity’s questions about worries from many on the left — and some on the right — about whether he intends, if elected again, to rule as a “dictator” and “abuse power.” He later flippantly said he would indeed act like a dictator “only on Day One,” so he could enact his promises to secure the southern the border and open drilling in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. But how often do dictators give up their expanded powers? History is clear: not very often — and not very peacefully.
By Wednesday morning, right on cue, Trump’s political action committee fired off a statement that was vintage The Donald. It attempted to flip the matter onto Biden, by stating there already is a “dictator in the White House.” But, more broadly, by keeping the notion of an American dictator in the media and social ether, Trump once again was working hard to desensitize the country.
A major cog in this numbing machine is the filtering of information through partisan media outlets and corners of social media that deal in conspiracy theories, falsehoods and disinformation.
“Here’s the thing: We already know what would happen under a Trump presidency. Why? Because he’s already been president,” Hannity said at the top of the so-called town hall. “Lower taxes, stronger growth, a secure border, peace in the Middle East, new trade deals, energy independence.
“There was no dictatorship,” the conservative opinion-maker added. “We did not lose our constitutional rights.”
But, as Washington Post editor-at-large Robert Kagan wrote recently, we would not necessarily have to. In short, if critics of President Trump Version 2.0 are being prosecuted merely for opposing or charging him with crimes, but middle-class Americans can afford a house or have a little more cash in their pockets, so what? And what better way to set the stage than to keep putting the word dictator, and other bold declarations, out into public circulation?
“The fact that this tyranny will depend entirely on the whims of one man will mean that Americans’ rights will be conditional rather than guaranteed,” wrote Kagan, also a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But if most Americans can go about their daily business, they might not care, just as many Russians and Hungarians do not care.”
Put another way: Has Trump already succeeded in ensuring the Desensitized States of America is just numb enough for him to pull off a return to the White House?
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which often first appear in the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter.