Carl Hoffman on the Religious Fervor of MAGA Rallies and Bob Woodward on The Wrong Man For the Job

After the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week I barely even want to talk about this madman who may actually be responsible for putting a third Supreme Court Justice on the bench, but I did read two books about him last week. I don’t know why I do these things to myself, besides that it feels like a civic duty.

First up, Liar’s Circus: A Strange and Terrifying Journey Into the Upside-Down World of Trump’s MAGA Rallies, by seasoned journalist and investigative reporter Carl Hoffman. Hoffman has spent his career traveling to far-flung, dangerous locations — rainforests of the Congo, living among headhunters in New Guinea among them — but he maintains that such immersion is the only way to understand this social-cultural anthropology.

So it’s with a certain sense of frustration that he admits he doesn’t understand what’s going on right now in his own country, and begins attending the frequent rallies thrown by the Trump campaign. I had no idea how frequent, really — they all blend together when I catch up on news highlights — but as this disturbing work of “immersive contemporary anthropology” shows, they’ve significantly impacted Trump’s standing and perception.

This is on-the-ground reporting of what the atmosphere at MAGA rallies is like, including its attendees’ racism, spread of misinformation, and rampant belief in conspiracy theories, as well as their genuine concerns, misguided and not troubled by data as those may be. Although he quotes directly from supporters who allege things like “serious Satanic stuff going on in this country,” Hoffman doesn’t always clarify where those beliefs come from. I know they’re not always able to articulate it, but I would’ve appreciated more of an effort, or research on the author’s part.

He gives off a palpable sense of exhaustion, even burnout, in these conversations. And following his thought process through the rallies was frightening. I can’t think of another word for it. You can see the bizarre hypnosis they evince.

What this book most revealed wasn’t anything illuminating about Trump voters, even the most fervent ones — “Front Row Joes,” they call themselves, who make a hobby of attending as many of his rallies as possible, spending days in line to get up close. Instead it reveals more of the evangelical-religious intensity of the rallies, and how they’re fueling fervent, unwavering support for Trump. Multiple times Hoffman paints a scene of near-religious ecstasy, disturbing as that is, and observes that “for the first time I began to grasp what people drawn to cults might feel.”

And he examines a wide strip of the country that has been hard hit economically, and thus is susceptible to that populist idea of a “mythical, nostalgic greatness.” He also fact checks some important points while observing how well attended these rallies are (pre-Covid) and how unusual that is for presidential campaign events, although noting that the 100,000 people who attended an Obama rally in St. Louis in 2008 outnumber any Trump event.

This is informative although felt mostly like familiar territory, and left me depressed. He’s back to throwing these rallies again, Covid be damned, and this lays out how strongly they drum up a kind of blind, passionate excitement, which leads to the votes he needs in states where he needs them, where presidential candidates don’t even traditionally spend much time. Yeats kept ringing through my head reading this: The worst are full of passionate intensity. (September 1, Custom House)

Thank you for putting a little less of his face on this one.

But now let’s really get to the worst. Rage is journalist Bob Woodward’s follow-up to 2018’s Fear. Woodward is not only a journalist of absolute highest renown dating back to his investigation of Watergate, he’s a smart, prescient observer and analyst. He recalls here in an interview about Fear, when asked for his “bottom-line summary of Trump’s leadership, responding, “Let’s hope to God we don’t have a crisis.'” Well.

The 17 interviews Woodward conducted with Trump beginning in December 2019 cover the lead-up to and the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, providing an alarming picture of the chaotic, disorganized, emotional atmosphere Trump cultivates. He had declined interviews for Fear but allegedly expressed regret to aides about this decision, so this time he cooperated.

Woodward writes at the end of this that he feels weary. I felt the same reading it (that’s not to say anything negative about the writing or content, which, depressing as it is, is vitally important especially in these immediate pre-election weeks).

The biggest bombshells are already out — Trump’s admission that he purposely played down the severity of the pandemic, his fawning letters with Kim Jong-Un. The excerpts from these are worth the price of admission alone. They left me speechless. As did a moment when Trump relates to Woodward that KJU told him he had his uncle killed, beheaded, and displayed with his head on his chest on steps where “senators” (Trump’s word, not mine) walked past. He uses it as an example of politics being “tough” there, which again. Speechless.

He writes to Kim after their 2018 summit in Singapore that the American media “[has] great respect for you and your country.” Do what now? Meanwhile, in private, he likened their meeting to meeting a woman and knowing immediately “whether or not it’s all going to happen.” He is a vulgar pig.

Trump even gifts Woodward a poster-size picture of himself with KJU, while marveling at his own largesse because it’s his “only one”. What is even happening here? I can only imagine how surreal this must have been for Woodward, because reading about it is surreal enough.

Trump harps on the same points he always does and has “his own facts”, namely: “Nearly everyone was an idiot, and almost every country was ripping off the United States.”

He bullies others and lauds himself, talks in circles and until you hardly know which way is up anymore, in an Alice in Wonderland-esque dream-state. (Stick a pin in Alice; we’ll come back to her.) At one point former Defense Secretary James Mattis comments on the bullying, saying he got over public humiliation in second grade. Trump ignored him and continued tweeting.

Despite much of the most influential material here already being reported, Woodward’s strength is in his fact checking and analysis, and the way he tells it. He’s blunt, and exasperated — he merely follows up each of Trump’s outlandish statements or claims with the truth. Like after Trump extols his relationship with Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan, claiming they get along although everyone says he’s a “horrible guy.” Woodward follows this by reminding the reader that Erdogan “is a repressive leader with a terrible record on human rights.”

The problem is that Trump never allows a pesky fact to get in the way of what he wants to be truth. As with every other book that’s emphasized the myriad problems of this administration, the unprecedented and illegal ways they’ve manipulated government and power, it’s clear that Trump’s boldfaced lying doesn’t matter. His supporters emphatically explain it away, or admit he lies and it’s fine with them, and Trump refuses to be pinned down on anything. He’s a con artist of exceptional ability, I’ll give him that.

A recurrent concept here is how he can never stay on topic (I mean, welcome to my reviews, but they’re the pinnacle of narrative organization compared to his stream of consciousness ramblings). Multiple people, from Mattis to Dr. Fauci to Woodward himself come up with analogies to try and describe what it’s like to speak to him, with his gnat’s attention span and constant whiplash-inducing redirects.

Something that did shock me was Jared Kushner’s “recommendation for understanding Trump”: a reference to the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, when he says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.” Woodward distills this as a strategy of “endurance and persistence, not direction.”

Kushner was explicitly saying Alice in Wonderland was a guiding text for the Trump presidency.

Let that sink in. Or a fact that Woodward explicitly tells us to ruminate on: also according to Kushner, “Twenty percent of the president’s staff think they are ‘saving the world’ from the president.”

One of his final points is to consider the number of top national security figures who have left their positions holding the belief that the US president was a danger — “an unstable threat” — to his own country.

Please don’t allow your fatigue from the last year(s) to win, or exhaustion at the relentless barrage of bad news, or over the way that we’re forced to listen to authoritarian-esque proclamations of what the truth is when we see with our own eyes that it isn’t, yet it seems like no one cares. Today is National Voter Registration Day. This is one of the most important elections of our lifetimes. Please stay informed, please vote. As Woodward powerfully ends this book asserting, Trump is the wrong man for the job. Rage couldn’t be a clearer thesis for that. (September 15, Simon & Schuster)

34 thoughts on “Carl Hoffman on the Religious Fervor of MAGA Rallies and Bob Woodward on The Wrong Man For the Job

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    1. I barely had the energy, to be honest! I’m feeling depleted, just considering everything we’re up against and how bad this year has been and yet people still make excuses for him…Mitch McConnell will still push through the vote to fill RBG’s seat…just all of it is such a hideous mess!


      1. I know the feeling…I’ve stopped myself from becoming angry about the SCourt Justice nomination. It is inevitable. Hoping that this situation fires up the Democratic base and They take back WH and Senate. That is the silver lining in this cloud of gloom.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I know what you mean. It does feel inevitable at this point but the hypocrisy is making me sick. I can’t even look at Mitch McConnell without my blood pressure going up. And I agree, I hope this motivates some people to vote…trying to find some silver lining in all of it..

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks for taking TWO for the team💜💜💜 I have Woodward’s book but am too fatigued to listen to it right now. But, I will. I’m sitting here with my absentee ballot, which we will drive to the election office tomorrow. This is the most important election of our time.

    Oh, and that quote from Alice in Wonderland? I used to deliver it to my staff whenever they couldn’t clearly articulate their objectives. We’re governed by idiots with a naked emperor preening before the world.

    Excellent, excellent review and I promise you…I read EVERY word🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know the feeling. I read it much slower than I thought I would because I also feel so fatigued. I hate that I do, but I do. It’s just been so much over these last months and I see how they still fall over themselves to defend him, and I feel like I’m living in an alternate universe. I’m glad you were so prepared to vote!! Meanwhile I ordered my absentee ballot nearly a month ago and still haven’t received it…

      I can’t believe you used that Alice quote too, but for much better purposes!! Even Woodward was completely taken aback. Who talks like that? Who excuses his behavior and leadership style like that? They are all such power and money-hungry sycophants.

      And thank you for the support…it means a lot since I felt as exhausted writing this as I think both of these authors did. Sigh.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I have had “Fear” sitting on my book shelf for so long but haven’t gotten to it and now Woodward comes out with “Rage” and I’m like so intrigued but at the same time so overwhelmed. When it comes to this president I just can’t. He sets my teeth on edge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know the feeling. I read them because I want to keep informed but it does become overwhelming. And just frustrating — so much is blatantly, inarguably wrong and illegal yet he gets away with it. It’s an impressive con, I’ll give him that. But it worries me especially about how our relationship to truth and reality have changed. He’s just been a horrible influence in every way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read the Woodward book yet, but thanks for mentioning the bit about Kushner saying Alice In Wonderland is a “guiding text for the Trump presidency.” This might help explain his response to the coronavirus crisis. Trump’s remarks about Kim’s uncle’s severed head was new to me too.

    There is no bottom to Trump’s loathsomeness. The same goes for his cronies and relatives, especially the corrupt Ken doll who became his son-in-law. The only people who make me angrier are the politicians and pundits who apparently had no idea how much damage the Trump gang would do to the country.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really laughed out loud at the corrupt Ken doll! Kushner is loathsome too. He comes across so weaselly. But what you mention is exactly the problem — Trump might be a nightmare, but there are so many people enabling him and allowing this and that’s what’s truly frightening and leaves me feeling even more despondent about the future.


  4. Thank you for reviewing Rage. It’s a book I very much want to read, but I don’t have the heart for it. Every time I read the news, I feel sick to my stomach. I always thought Sri Lanka has the most despicable politicians. But I don’t know anymore… I can only hope things will change in November. Take care!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel sick over all of this today. If I’m having a bad day I can barely even read the news because it’s too much. Then to be reading this when Justice Ginsburg passed away was just the worst. This was tough to read but reassuring in that I trust Bob Woodward greatly and to get his take and analysis on this felt helpful. But otherwise, awful. I hope things are better from November too, trying to stay optimistic! Take care of yourself too 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I want to read these but I don’t have the emotional fortitude right now. I’m tired of arguing with a people I know who still support the president. I’ve given up waiting for the scales to fall from the eyes of these people — if it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not happening. But on the subject of Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong Un, in Bolton’s book he mentioned how Trump’s main concern when Pompeo came back from an unsuccessful attempt to meet with him was whether he’d given the dictator a CD of Elton John’s Rocketman that Trump had autographed as a present, saying that when he called KJU a little rocketman, it wasn’t meant as an insult. (I may have already mentioned that before — I can’t remember).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same — I truly don’t think there’s anything that will change their minds at this point, which is horrifying. He’s not a deity, what the fuck? And arguing with them makes no sense anymore either. They’re unwilling to accept reality so facts and logic don’t carry any weight. In Hoffman’s book he mentions trying to use facts against some conspiracy theory argument and the person just nodding knowingly and something like, yes, of course you wouldn’t know anything about it and that’s what they want you to think, etc. So it’s over at that point.

      I heard that story, I can’t remember if you told me or I read it in reviews. He’s such an idiot. Imagine that being your primary concern, give my dumb present to this dictator. I’m running out of ways to say how much I hate him.


  6. You are a reader with fortitude to tackle these two. I’ve used the word “cult” many times to describe the hardcore supporters of this man – I believe truly nothing he could do would dissuade them from voting for him. It’s mind-boggling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was already in a down mood over all the news last week, so really, I honestly don’t know why I read them right then! Glutton for punishment, maybe? But I agree, there’s really nothing he could do to dissuade them. We’ve seen it all at this point. It’s his magnetism that still leaves me with questions. But I guess that’s always the case with cults.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great reviews! I don’t know how you managed to get through either of these books, let alone both of them. Just reading the news these days makes me feel anxious and helpless. I’ve pre-ordered Obama’s new book. It’s not out until mid-November. I fervently hope it doesn’t turn out to be just a consolation prize.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I can’t wait for Obama’s book too. I’m trying not to get my hopes up too high, and I think it’ll also be difficult, just to be reminded of what it’s like to have an eloquent, articulate, intelligent president. Sigh. It’s the same for me, even just the news makes me anxious but I don’t know, it’s like I have to feel aware or informed so I read these. I don’t know if it actually helps though…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Why, oh why, do we do this to ourselves? I still haven’t been able to read Rage—only the first few pages—but it stares up from my Kindle every time I open it, just waiting. Part of me thought about just skipping it, assuming that the worst anecdotes had already thoroughly made the rounds, but I see these horrific episodes can’t even compare to the full picture.

    Now, somehow Liar’s Circus has completely escaped my radar until now. It sounds interesting, and I’m usually here for political analysis, especially when it comes to actually examining what voters are really thinking. But it sounds like this might leave a lot of unanswered questions. I still might check it out, but I’m not sure how much more reading about his rallies I can take.

    To be fair, I might just be a little cranky because I took a deep dive last weekend into a few pro-Trump books and … yeah. Big mistake.

    Fantastic reviews, as always! But dang. Depressing, depressing, depressing.


    1. Oh no, which pro-Trump ones did you try? They all just seem like such propaganda, and I think anyone who leaves his administration and stays on good terms with him wants to shore up their own future political possibilities. As we’ve discussed before, even when he’s gone, the frenzied, outspoken support he’s stoked for far-right issues (and the open pride they show in being disgusting) isn’t going away. But I think it’s admirable that you at least try to hear them out in their own words. That’s something I’ve been unable to do. Reading these is often painful enough.

      But I do think both of these are worth reading, Rage especially. Woodward is just such a consummate professional, and to sense his exasperation, even a measured but barely concealed horror, was something that I needed to see. I want to see more members of the media horrified by him and highlighting why this isn’t normal, because we’re reaching a dangerous point of allowing it to become normal. It galls me that the NY Times still sometimes legitimizes him, like in what they wrote after the debate, something about it being a storm of ideas or something ridiculous like that. Excuse me, wtf? Were we watching the same thing? I didn’t hear a single “idea” in that screaming bullying mess.

      Liar’s Circus was good in how well he captured what those rallies are like and why they’ve been the lifeblood of his campaign. The way he described a cultlike, religious frenzy-type atmosphere explained a lot to me, also in terms of the unwavering support these people then provide for him. I found the analysis a little thin, or just things I knew already, but that insight was very illuminating. And it was really depressing, because the author just comes across as exhausted. I mean, I can’t even imagine. He’s been in war zones but THIS is what broke him. How can you not feel beaten down by extension, you know?


  9. Two great reviews, as amusing as the subject is depressing. Obviously Trump has damaged the office of President and the image of the USA immensely. He is just unbelievable, the debate with Biden was shameful. But, and please don’t think I am a Trump apologist, I would be interested to look at what actual concrete things he has achieved which are bad, as opposed to all the hot air and stupid uttering…I suppose I am kind of clutching at straws that his idiocy and odiousness is being contained so that no long term damage is done??? Would appreciate input from US citizens on what is happening on the ground in the US, as I am an ignorant Brit!! I have hazy ideas about him taking refugee children from their parents and cutting healthcare??? And nonsense about building a wall – which I assume he has not done??? So much guff and flummery around the man. I can only imagine how impossible it must be for his advisers to talk to him. It’s amazing how much tolerance and enabling there is of bullies in our world too. You see it at all levels, but never expect to see it at the head of the world’s largest democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right, he IS a lot of hot air, and luckily like a Batman villain he’s been stopped on many of his more devious evil plans. But that’s damaged our standing in a way I fear will be irreparable for a long time to come.

      And he’s accomplished plenty, sadly, especially since he has Republican control in the Senate to help drive a lot of policy through. I would say his biggest ‘accomplishment’ is stuffing the courts, from Supreme on down, with extremely conservative judges who will shape US policy accordingly for many, many years to come. This is devastating. Then his tax reform, which was massive and gave tax cuts to big corporations while removing a lot of benefits for the middle class (the amount of health/medical-related writeoffs I could use went up to such a high minimum that even I likely won’t reach it, so will just have to pay them all without any benefit to my taxes, for one example). And it was a farce that it would benefit our economy by creating more jobs for the middle class or whatever lies he sold it on, it’s done nothing but be a boon to billionaires and corporations.

      Healthcare has been sliced and diced as much as he could, which wasn’t massive, but still he’s done what he could to make it worse for anyone not rich. For example, days after I filed the first step for my husband to come to the US, he made it illegal for LEGAL immigrants to use any form of public healthcare. That means, if my husband were to come on a green card and be in a period of unemployment while job seeking (100% likely) or get a job that doesn’t offer insurance or poor benefits, whatever might prompt him to look elsewhere for adequate coverage, he won’t be allowed to use the public hospital health insurance program, which gives you a sliding scale of payment and you do all your medical appointments at the public hospital (it’s what I have, since I was denied an Obamacare subsidy for being married without my husband here, then ended up making too much for it anyway, which sounds great except I also can’t afford the “open market” insurance rates despite my higher income this year, and especially considering that I need medical treatment more than once a year. Fabulous!) So this rule means that before he gets the green card, he has to prove that he can afford private insurance (exorbitantly expensive) as it’s now illegal for him to have any kind of public medical assistance. Despite being a legal immigrant/immediate family of a US citizen. Perfect. So these were among his executive orders, of which there have been so many, to fundamentally change legislation that has touched more people than I think realize it. Again, not to mention what his court appointees will do — we could face rollbacks of LGBTQ rights, abortion, etc.

      He’s also working very hard to remove certain Obamacare protections, like that people with preexisting conditions can’t be denied coverage (private insurers still do it — I was rejected). But although he assures his supporters that protection will remain, the documentation proves otherwise.

      Business Insider just did a good walkthrough of what he’s managed too:

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this, invaluable. I will now be able to argue back when people try to argue he is not so bad. Also (whisper it softly) rumour has it there is an ex pat mom round here who is a Trump supporter, she comes from the Midwest and is big on Church…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I could expound on more of it in detail, but the health insurance and tax issues have obviously been the dominant topics for me this past year so those are what I know best in how he’s screwed me. There’s been plenty of other shit he’s responsible for though, and actually I think you don’t hear as much about it because he has these big smoke and mirror dramas that detract from all of the smaller but devastating things he’s pushing through in the day to day. It’s horrifying.

      And omg, really?! It’s funny because most expats are way more liberal! I did a big survey once in Berlin for expats where they were recruiting people who identified as either Democrats/Republicans, and they contacted me afterwards asking if I could please refer any Republicans because they had next to none! But yes, midwest + church almost always = Trump supporter. What is she doing there??


  11. Wow, I can’t believe you’re able to make yourself read these books! I don’t feel an obligation to read them, because I feel like I already know what I need to know about this president and I don’t think I’d enjoy them either. I do appreciate getting to hear about them from you though 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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