Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Comedian Dave Chappelle is making headlines for his “Saturday Night Live” monologue in which he joked, among other topics, about Kanye West’s recent antisemitic comments.
Chappelle’s barbs on the subject included tongue-in-cheek advice on how West should have handled the resulting firestorm, and a quip about the decision by sneaker manufacturer Adidas to drop the rapper as a business partner.
But comments he made about former President Donald Trump deserve even more attention than the ones about Ye. And they should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who thinks the former President is going to quietly fade away.
Chappelle pivoted about halfway through his 15-minute opening monologue to the topic of Trump, remarking that “I’m watching the news now, (and) they’re declaring the end of the Trump era.” He then melded his acerbic comedy with a simple truth that everyone wishing Trump would disappear from the political landscape needs to hear: Trump’s base hasn’t come close to abandoning him.
“I’m just being honest with you, I live in Ohio amongst the poor whites,” he said, adding, “A lot of you don’t understand why Trump was so popular (and) … very loved.” Chappelle — who acknowledged in his monologue that he’s a Democrat — then delivered a comedic explanation for why Trump is adored by his followers.
He joked that Trump was an “honest liar” who told the unvarnished truth about a system set up to help the rich and powerful. And he recounted how Trump openly admitted as much during a 2016 campaign debate: “He said, ‘I know the system is rigged because I use it.’ ”
The comedian then joked about how Trump, accused during that debate by Hillary Clinton of not paying taxes, shot back: “That makes me smart.”
Chappelle shared that for many working-class Americans struggling to makes end meet, Trump’s “honesty” in revealing that the rich and powerful have been taking full advantage of a system designed for their benefit only enhanced his stature.
Now, we can debate all day why people really “love” Trump. Was it for the reasons Chappelle suggested? Or was it that, for some, there is a perverse appeal in his bigotry and defense of white nationalists? Is it his “owning the libs”? His tax cuts that greatly favored the wealthy? It may be a mix of all those reasons — or entirely different ones. But there’s no disputing that in polls taken before last week’s election, Trump was far and away the top choice of Republicans to be their 2024 presidential nominee.
A New York Times/Siena College poll found in mid-October that 49% of Republican voters favored Trump as the party’s 2024 presidential nominee. His closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, got 26% support. That poll was taken before the GOP came up short in the midterms.
Since then, many in the party are blaming Trump for Republican candidates’ lackluster performance at the ballot box, noting that the high-profile candidates he endorsed lost key, marquee races. Trump’s most notable losses span the country, from US Senate candidates Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Blake Masters in Arizona, to his choices for governor in battleground states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
Still, there is no reason to believe that core Republican voters will be dissuaded from supporting Trump despite last week’s election debacle for which he has been roundly blamed. Trump was still the top 2024 choice of the GOP base despite his botched handling of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic (as polls in 2020 showed), and his role in riling up the crowds responsible for the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
If his base has overlooked all that, it’s hard to imagine that all his supporters will abandon him just because Republicans didn’t get the “red wave” they were expecting.
There’s another deeply concerning reason why Trump’s support will not simply evaporate. As historian and expert on autocracy Ruth Ben-Ghiat explained in a 2021 interview, Trump is an authoritarian leader who has developed a cult-like following. Trump has “followed the authoritarian playbook with propaganda, with corruption, with incitements to violence,” she said. This makes Trump’s bond with his supporters unlike anything we are accustomed to seeing in American politics.
And in an article she penned last year for The Economist, Ben-Ghiat said that Trump’s “influence will not dissipate until the institutions of democracy formally confirm misconduct, for example with a court conviction.” That is why in her view “it is so important to hold Mr. Trump accountable.”
But who knows if Trump will ever be “held accountable” and what the impact would be on his supporters if he ever were to be? Doing so may make his followers cling to him even more tightly — despite what millions of Americans, including even some Republican officeholders, may want.
Given reports that Trump is expected to announce his 2024 presidential run this week, I’d predict that he won’t be going away any time soon, even without having delivered the “red wave” his supporters had so fervently hoped for.