The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From Trump’s perch, every slope is a slippery one

Aide Waltine Nauta opens a curtain for former president Donald Trump as he arrives for his victory party in Iowa on Monday night. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
7 min

After more than eight years of watching Donald Trump give political speeches — sigh — it’s easy to identify his tics.

On Wednesday evening, a clip from a speech Trump gave in New Hampshire circulated widely on social media. It was confusing, particularly when abstracted; many of the responses offered criticisms of Trump’s mental acuity.

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The clip begins with Trump standing at a lectern, reading prepared remarks from a teleprompter. (This is easy to tell; when he does so, he tends not to move his head, and his patter is more robotic.)

“We’re also going to place strong protections to stop banks and regulators from trying to debank you from your—” he says before looking away from the prompter. “Your political beliefs, what they do!” he then continues, riffing. “They want to debank you, and we’re going to debank—”

Uncomfortable with how his sales pitch was going, he shifts.

“Think of this,” he goes on, still off-prompter. “They want to take away your rights. They want to take away your country.”

That is the eternal conclusion of just about everything. Every change that can be framed as negative is described as such, and every negative is then framed as existential. Over and over, just a 77-year-old boy standing in the meadow relentlessly identifying everything he sees as a wolf.

It is perhaps the case that you don’t even know what Trump is talking about. That’s fair. Often, Trump’s assertions are simply plucked from a broader right-wing conversation, and his shorthand remarks can only be parsed by others similarly immersed.

“Debanking” is the term used by conservatives to refer to decisions made by banks not to offer their services to some clients. After the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was booted as a client by a number of businesses, including payment processors and his bank.

Early the next year, the increasingly right-wing Heritage Foundation identified “bank account deplatforming” as the new “cancel culture,” after the Canadian government began efforts to block accounts that were funding a convoy of trucks disrupting its capital, Ottawa.

If this was the new cancel culture, there wasn’t much canceling. Last year, a group of Republican state attorneys general sent a letter to the chairman of JPMorgan criticizing the bank for closing conservatives’ accounts. The bank stated flatly that it wasn’t doing that.

Anyway, you get the point. Trump started talking about this thing that pretty obviously isn’t a significant element of the American economy and, while making the point he would keep it from happening to his supporters — itself something of a deviation from the traditional Republican free-market philosophy, no? — he just rearranged things to get to the point: “They” are going to take your rights on the way to taking your country.

Over and over, the same argument unfolds: A thing occurs within a limited context — or even might theoretically occur! — and it is then presented as The Thing That Destroys America.

What did Trump say next in that speech? More of the same.

“They want to take away your rights. They want to take away your country,” he said. Then another pivot: “The things they’re doing, all-electric cars. Give me a break.”

This one you’re familiar with, I assume. Trump has continually argued that the Biden administration is trying to force people to buy electric cars instead of (as is actually happening) trying to encourage them to do so, given the greenhouse gas emissions from traditional cars.

Trump and his allies offer similar climate-change related variations with some regularity. A year ago, it was natural-gas stoves, which Republicans (including Trump’s former White House doctor) suggested were going to be forcibly stripped away from the general public. They were not. Trump frequently invoked other efforts to improve America’s environmental impact, making a point of defending incandescent lightbulbs (remember when he complained that LED bulbs made him “look orange”?) and, infamously, toilets that use more water when they flush. All of this was aimed at framing the government as oppressive and anti-freedom.

Other slippery slopes suggest a more acute threat to his supporters, like the “debanking” one. The best and most obvious example here is the endless invocation from Trump and his allies that the former president’s indictments should serve as a warning: Similar punishments could happen to his supporters, too.

That one is true. If a supporter kept classified documents at his house or defied a subpoena demanding their return, or if they put into motion an effort to undermine a presidential election, leading to a violent attack on the Capitol, or if they were part of a conspiracy to subvert an election, or if they violated criminal laws governing how businesses operate — each of which Trump is alleged to have done — they might also be arrested and face trial.

That’s not Trump’s case, of course. His argument is that he’s just being targeted for being Trump or, more specifically, for opposing the powers that be. As far as I know, there has not been a widespread manifestation of this fear, though. No broad purge of conservatives on contrived charges.

There was a sweeping law enforcement effort that resulted in the arrest of hundreds of Trump supporters, of course — the effort stemming from the Justice Department’s investigation into the Capitol riot. This is also why Trump and allies such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) insist that those imprisoned for participating are being unfairly targeted: not because they actually were, but because it’s more useful to pretend or think so.

In the first days of President Biden’s administration, Tucker Carlson, then on Fox News, took issue with Biden’s declaration during his inaugural speech that the government would uproot white-supremacist extremism. Who are these people? Carlson hyperventilated. Does he mean you? Three years later, it seems not.

There was a moment when the right identified a heavy, anti-right hand from federal officials: when the Justice Department said that parents complaining at school board meetings were domestic terrorists. Which it didn’t actually do, but why worry about such details?

This line of argument has been present since Trump first ran for office, but it was energized by the coronavirus pandemic, a period in which real restrictions were placed on people (because hundreds of thousands of people were dying). Among those imposing such restrictions, of course, was the then-president, Donald Trump.

That’s what the video that gained so much traction on social media is really demonstrating — not that Trump lacks mental focus but, instead, that his focus is relentlessly on casting things his opponents do as dangerous to the country and his supporters.

Oh, by the way, a warning if you are using social media: According to Trump in 2021, technology companies target right-wing voices.

“If they can do it to me, they can do it to you,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay.

And, again, that’s true: If you use your social media accounts to energize people attacking the Capitol on your behalf, those companies can shut down your account.

You have, once again, been warned.


A previous version of a photo caption with this article misstated the first name of Trump aide Waltine Nauta as Walter. The caption has been corrected.

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