Donald Trump threw one of his rallies Saturday night in rural Alabama, which was a good place for him, and dared to tell cultists to get the vaccine as he did.
He got back a smattering of boos or groans, because this was, after all, a Trump rally in Alabama, which is a larger, less enlightened Arkansas and the state with the lowest vaccination rate in the country, a tad behind Mississippi. Arkansas is now all the way up to 46th, just behind the progressive paradise of West Virginia.
Then Trump said that, of course, you must have your freedoms, but, still, you should get the vaccine and "if it doesn't work, you'll be the first to know."
Advocating for the vaccine was responsible behavior and thus out of character for Trump. That's at least until you consider the politics, which I'm getting ready to tackle after a paragraph or two.
By responding to the sounds of audience displeasure with that sentence of utter indecipherability--"you'll be the first to know" if the vaccine doesn't work--Trump let everyone know he was otherwise himself, the brief glimpse of adult decency notwithstanding.
Yet something seemed oddly comforting about the moment. It turns out the Trump cult is not entirely a Trump cult. Some of it is independently ridiculous in a Trump-transcendent way.
If we can separate Trump's megalomaniacal madness from elements of even greater madness among Trump's rally-goers, then maybe both he and they can be weakened. A madness divided against itself might run over itself ranting and raving.
I mentioned the politics. And that is getting interesting.
In recent days, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, trumped as a Trumpian by Sarah Sanders, made a public service announcement saying she got the vaccine and wanted people to think about getting off Google and maybe getting a shot, too. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had already started preaching for the midterms that the vaccine was the nation's way out of this serious problem and that overcoming misinformation was the key.
And now this from the mouth of the madman himself.
Last week an article said Trump was resisting encouragement to advocate for the vaccine because he feared it would upset his base. So, what happened to change things in that week? Joe Biden and Afghanistan happened.
It's pretty clear two things are in play.
One is that Republicans are sensing at the highest levels that the virus could get really bad in two dire ways--for children in school and for the economy of us all. Many Republicans are deciding the better politics now is to get on the record that they advocated getting the vaccine, at least as long as they hasten to stress personal freedom and assail mask mandates.
The second is that Biden has dropped in approval from north of 50 percent to south. He's done that by being utterly inept in Afghanistan. And inept is the one thing he needed not to be under his narrow voter mandate to be steadier and less a spectacle than drama king Trump.
At the moment, the decisive American political center seems to be newly there for the taking. Suburban independents of a moderate nature who turned against Trump because of his behavior--and accepted Biden because he was both empathetic and experienced, but mainly because he wasn't Trump--might now be contemplating switching back.
Afghanistan's chaos is not yet an American political sea change. It simply warms up as one. Republicans are getting out ahead of it.
Am I saying there is now a more credible prospect that Trump could be elected back into the White House in 2024?
Pretty much, yes.
The madman got 74 million votes a few months ago, the second-most ever. Even though that was 7 million fewer than Biden, the Electoral College could have flipped with a couple of hundred thousand votes cast differently in Arizona and Georgia, now newly restricted in ballot access for likely Democratic voters, along with Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Trump at his highest probably could not win the popular vote over Biden at his lowest. But that's a tragic irrelevancy under our anti-democratic system. National polls mean nothing. Turnout and seesawing voters in a half-dozen or fewer states mean everything.
So, on Saturday night in Alabama, there was a new tactical opening for the heavy favorite to be the next Republican presidential nominee. He was suddenly saying that people must be free, and he's all for that, but that he got the vaccine and kind of wishes everybody would.
If Biden was going to try to hand back the presidency, then the would-be recipient needed to try to insulate himself against a worsening pandemic, even if it offended a few cultists who turned out to be even nuttier than he.
Trump can probably reel them back with a border wall and an insurrection.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.