Anybody who still believes Donald Trump’s appeal to the Republican base arises from any remotely concrete policy agenda — this or that adjustment to trade or immigration policy, say — ought to pause for a moment to consider the candidate’s appearance this weekend at the Rolling Thunder Memorial Day rally in Washington. The putative purpose of the rally is and has always been to honor Vietnam-era prisoners of war. This year they cheered remarks from the candidate who last summer insisted that being captured by the Vietnamese disqualified John McCain from heroism.
News coverage of the event emphasized the ironic juxtaposition, but the full implications may be worth a bit more consideration. Taken literally, here was the equivalent of the NAACP cheering David Duke: a pro-Vietnam POW group warmly receiving the figure who has made the most disparaging remarks about Vietnam POWs of any presidential candidate in history, and quite likely any candidate for public office of any kind. Indeed, Trump was not only permitted to address the rally, but was the only candidate invited to do so. The notion of inviting Hillary Clinton (who has never disparaged Vietnam POWs) was dismissed out of hand. “Just like asking Jane Fonda to show up, it’d be a very, very bad thing,” one biker told the New York Times. Clinton reminds the Rolling Thunder crowd of Fonda, and Fonda is Rolling Thunder’s enemy number one for her 1972 trip to North Vietnam, where she posed with anti-aircraft guns. Fonda has apologized profusely for this implied slight to the military that took place more than four decades ago. Trump, on the other hand, has refused to apologize for the explicit insult to the military that took place less than a year ago, but for which he has been forgiven anyway. One pro-Trump biker explained to the Times that they “have very short memories.” What a description of a group ostensibly organized for the singular purpose of preserving memories!
Rolling Thunder is not a numerically significant portion of the Republican base, but it is a symbolically significant one. It is the ne plus ultra of conservative America’s willingness to overlook any and all flaws in the Republican front-runner and embrace deeper markers of social solidarity. Like just about everything else in the Republican base, the ostensible purpose turns out to be a flimsy pretext for a political movement that is actually rooted in sublimated identity politics.