J.D. Vance didn’t invite Donald Trump to Ohio, where the former president gave a lengthy, rant-filled speech at a rally on Saturday—and it’s easy to see why. “J.D. is kissing my ass. Of course, he wants my support,” Trump said to those who gathered in Youngstown, making a reference to comments Vance—currently the Republican nominee for Ohio’s Senate seat—made during the 2016 election. At the time, Vance was trying to cultivate some distance between himself and the then presidential candidate, whom he had referred to as “cultural heroin” and “America’s Hitler.”
But Trump went on to smooth things over with the venture capitalist and bootstraps enthusiast. “This is a great person who I’ve really gotten to know,” said Trump. “Yeah, he said some bad things about me, but that was before he knew me, and then he fell in love. Remember, I said that about Kim Jong Un—he fell in love, and they said, ‘Oh, Trump was saying he fell in love.’ Actually, he did.” So there you have it: J.D. Vance is just like Kim Jong Un—surely a winning campaign message.
Vance and other Republican nominees in tight races are trying to keep their distance from the former president, according to a report from The New York Times from over the weekend. “The optimal scenario for Republicans is for Trump to remain at arm’s length—supportive, but not in ways that overshadow the candidate or the contrast,” Republican strategist Liam Donovan told the Times. Trump is too divisive and controversial, pushing away at least as many swing voters as he brings in.
But what the Times’ austere analysis perhaps leaves out is that Trump is also increasingly deranged. His Youngstown rally, even by the former president’s recent unhinged standards, hit operatic new heights of myopia, narcissism, and self-delusion. Much of the speech read like a dark and gritty reboot of his 2016 address at the Republican National Convention: “We no longer have a border. Our country is being invaded. It’s an invasion by millions of illegal aliens,” Trump said, one of several references to the racist “great replacement” theory. “The economy is crashing. Your 401(k) is collapsing,” he continued. “Shooting, stabbings, rapes, carjackings are skyrocketing.”
Mostly, though, he just wanted to talk about himself. In a series of self-pitying screeds, he claimed that the “death penalty” would be brought against him if he had “spied” on campaigns the way he claims he was spied on during the 2016 election—yes, he’s still bringing up grievances from more than six years ago. He went on to characterize the seizure of highly classified documents that he’d been hoarding in his personal residence as an “unhinged persecution.”
But even this was just part of the buildup to what ended up being a full QAnon passion play, as the rally culminated with Trump fulminating—reciting a series of grievances over swelling strings. His followers, commanded to raise their fingers in salute, did so—resulting in a scene that looked like it was freshly plucked from Leni Riefenstahl’s back catalog. The swelling music over which he ranted was eerily similar to the QAnon anthem “Wwg1wga”—a reference to the conspiracy theory’s slogan, “Where we go one, we go all.” The one-finger salute was also a nod to the title of that song. Two other speakers at the rally, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, have promoted QAnon over the last several years. Trump himself has recently posted or reposted several QAnon-linked images on his “Truth Social” platform.
“Now we are a nation in decline. We are a failing nation,” Trump said, riffing on what has become a familiar theme in his speeches—referencing high inflation and energy costs and the need for more domestic energy production. It was very much akin to traditional fascist mythmaking: Only one man can restore the glory and wealth and prestige of the motherland, and that person is a real estate developer–con man turned insurrectionist.
Though Trump’s eventual embrace of QAnon was pretty much foreordained, it’s still disturbing. The conspiracy theory is propped up by his most devoted followers, who believe, among other things, that he will be reinstated as president of the United States and that the Democratic Party is run by a cabal of child sex traffickers. That combination of extreme loyalty to himself and an extraordinary antipathy to his rivals is what he has always promoted among his supporters. As Trump has become more and more obsessed with the investigations engulfing him—into the attempt to overturn the 2020 election, into his apparent theft of hundreds of classified documents, into his corrupt businesses—it only grows more necessary to play more directly to those most willing to believe his claims of victimhood.
His growing coziness with QAnon also speaks to his increasing self-pity; as his approval rating sinks to new lows, Trump needs the comfort of the truest of the true believers. Self-obsession has always been a major part of the Trump brand, but during the 2016 campaign, he was able to occasionally focus on matters beyond his narrow self-interests. Six years later, he has finally banished all other concerns from his mind; he’s cast himself as a unique victim in the history of American politics—the stakes of every election are merely a chance to win redress for the harms to which he has been subjected. His speeches are endless litanies of grievances. Sometimes those grievances involve others—typically the hundreds of people who have been convicted for trying to violently halt the peaceful transfer of power. But mostly they’re just about himself and how he is being targeted by the legal system solely because he was such a great president.
This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that Joe Biden was referring to when he laid out the case against “MAGA Republicans” who were out to subvert democracy. That speech was treated by many in the media as being too overtly political if not beneath the office of the presidency itself. Biden’s invocation of “semi-fascism” was characterized as dubious at best. But Trump wasted little time in proving Biden’s point: Within days, he responded by wrapping himself in the symbolism of a conspiracy theory that inspired a Michigan man to murder his wife just one week ago. Not all of the former president’s utterances make the news these days—due to a combination of his removal from his preferred social media platforms and a correction, perhaps even an overcorrection, to the wall-to-wall coverage of everything he said and did between 2015 and 2021. But with the midterms approaching, Trump is using his spotlight to call for retribution and vengeance and aligning himself with a movement well known for its propensity for violence. Alarms should be sounding.