Donald Trump is not a fascist––probably.
His ex-wife Ivana once claimed he kept a volume of Hitler’s collected speeches in a cabinet by his bed, and read from time to time the fuhrer’s vision of human life as a pitiless war of all against all. “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them,” he told Vanity Fair in 1990. But consider something the architect of Trump Tower, Der Scutt, once said on how to evaluate the truth value of Donald Trump claims: “divide by two, then divide by four, and you’re closer to the answer.”
Trump worships armed force, pronouncing at a rally in August in Derry, New Hampshire: “I believe in the military and military strength more strongly than anybody running by a factor of a billion.” (Applying Scutt’s formula, that means Trump believes in military strength 125,000,000 times more than Lindsey Graham, who opened his presidential campaign with a promise to go to war with Iran.)
When Trump speaks in the subjunctive mood, he can certainly sound like an aspiring dictator. Regarding a $2.5 billion plant Ford intends to build in Mexico, he announced that “every car, every truck, and every part manufactured in this plant that comes across the border, we’re going to charge you a 35 percent tax—O.K.?” The Constitution, of course, grants Congress, not a president, the power to tax. Maybe it’s just ignorance on his part. Or maybe, by “we” he’s referring to the Congressional coalition he’s building in his spare time between stadium rallies. But if Trump has ever made reference to any understanding of the three coequal branches that govern the United States, I haven’t noticed it.
He refers lustily to his passion to destroy the malcontents stabbing America in the back, longing for the days when they received summary executions: “So we get a traitor like Bergdahl, a dirty rotten traitor [pause for applause], who by the way when he deserted, six young beautiful people were killed trying to find him, right? . . . You know, in the old days:bing, bong.” (Trump pantomimed cocking a rifle.) “When we were strong, when we were strong.”
Too much to expect procedural niceties—innocent until proven guilty?—from the guy who in 1989 took out full-page ads in four New York newspapers, headlined: “Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police!” There followed a 600-word essay: “What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we know it. . . . How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits? Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS.” It went on to relate a tale from some mystically perfect past, where he witnessed “two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again. I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave the citizens of this City.”
The ad was Trump’s response to the arrest of five kids for the vicious rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park. The kids were coerced into confessions, later proven to be false, by the same police force Donald Trump insisted had been intimidated into politically correct timorousness. Last year, after the five families settled for $41 million in compensation for the years the accused youths spent in prison, Trump published an op-ed calling the settlement “ridiculous.”
“These men do not exactly have the pasts of angels,” he claimed. At the time of the event, one of “these men” was 14 years old.
A demagoguery so pure
Trump has now provided more “specifics” about his immigration plan: a forced population transfer greater than any attempted in history, greater than the French and Spanish expulsions of the Jews in 1308 and 1492; greater than the Nabka of approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from British-mandate Palestine; greater than the 1.5 million Stalin consigned to Siberia and the Central Asian republics; greater than Pol Pot’s exile of 2.5 million city-dwellers to the Cambodian countryside, or the scattering of Turkey’s Assyrian Christians, which the scholar Mordechai Zaken says numbers in the millions and required 180 years to complete. Trump has promised to move 12 million Mexicans in under two years––“so fast your head will spin.”
Only then will he start building the wall.
But all Republican politicians say stuff like this, right? They all want a wall, they all want to bury criminals under the jail, they all crave war, even if they’re not quite so explicit about it.
Not quite, actually. Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage. Think of Barry Goldwater, who was so frightened of the racists supporting him that he told Lyndon Johnson he’d drop out of the race if they started making race riots a campaign issue. And Ronald Reagan refusing to back a 1978 ballot initiative to fire gay schoolteachers in California, at a time vigilantes were hunting down gays in the street. Think of George W. Bush guiding Congress toward a comprehensive immigration bill (akin to that proposed by President Obama) until the onslaught of vitriol that talk-radio hosts directed at Republican members of Congress forced him to quit. Think of George W. Bush’s repeated references to Islam as a “religion of peace.”
Trumpism is different. Donald Trump is the first Republican presidential front-runner to venture a demagogy so pure.
But isn’t he just giving Republican voters what they want? Isn’t this attention-starved shell of a man, a salesman ideationally hollow at the core, only following the smart money? A friend of mine argues that Trump would be perfectly willing to shift his “core” issue from immigration if the political winds change. Too shallow to venture dictatorship: he doesn’t have anything to dictate. Which actually is the opposite of encouraging.
In the Derry event referenced above, Trump went into a familiar riff: “China is killing us! They’ve taken so much of our wealth. They’ve taken our jobs. They’ve taken our businesses, they’ve taken our manufacturing.”
Then an audience member cried out: “Our land!”
Trump paused, pondered, gave it back as a question: “Our land?”
Then, why not? He decided to roll with the thought: “The way they’re going, they’ll have that pretty soon.”
I think I know the conspiracy theory that perfervid Granite Stater was referring to. I heard it in Orange County about a decade ago. Chinese nationals were buying up residential real estate to make a killing at the expense of the Americans who actually lived there. Trump clearly hadn’t heard it, but soon he will, and maybe he’ll fold that count into his rap. Watch for it.
Man and mob
My main interest, though, is that moment of symbiosis between man and mob. They feed off each other. The way his people eat up Trump’s unalloyed joy in bullying: the way a purse of his lips and a glance offstage summoned the security guard who ejected Univision’s Jorge Ramos from a press conference, like a casino pit boss with a whale who gets too handsy with the cocktail waitresses. Trump’s not-quite-veiled threat to Megyn Kelly: “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be. But I wouldn’t do that.” The body language he uses to intimidate a hapless and plaintive Jeb Bush during the second Republican debate.
If he’s just giving the people what they want, consider the people.
Consider what they want.
Last fall, the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of whites believe “discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” A brand new Washington Post/ABC poll finds 57 percent of Republicans support the most massive ethnic cleansing in the annals of humanity (or, what The Washington Post blandly calls “Trump’s tough positions on immigration”).
Pollsters at YouGov.com found that 29 percent of Americans (and 43 percent of Republicans) “would hypothetically support the military stepping in to take control from a civilian government which is beginning to violate the Constitution.” Which is quite a thing, considering that according to a 2012 Gallup poll 94 percent of Republicans consider Obamacare’s insurance-purchase mandates unconstitutional; not to mention the small technicality that the military taking control of the government for “violating the Constitution” is, in fact, violating the Constitution.
Then there is this. Evan Osnos of The New Yorker happened to be reporting on “white nationalists”—the polite term for neo-Nazis—when the Trump phenomenon began. The fortuitous coincidence ended up unfolding as a natural experiment. Osnos was able to watch in real time as his subjects embraced Trump as one of their own. Usually, such extremists judge Republicans as tweedle-dee to the Democrats’ tweedle-dum. That’s not how they saw Trump. TheDaily Stormer neo-Nazi web site endorsed him, advising its readers to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.” The leader of a white-supremacist think tank told The New Yorker: “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” although he did reflect “an unconscious vision that white people have––that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country . . . he is the one person who can tap into it.”
Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, a like-minded publication, observed: “I’m sure he would repudiate any association with people like me, but his support comes from people who are more like me than he might like to admit.”
But was Taylor correct? Asked if he would repudiate the endorsement of erstwhile Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, Trump’s response was less than resounding: “Sure, I would if that would make you feel better.”
The “f-word” has nearly vanished from everyday political discussion in America, and for good reason. It’s become the kind of epithet that stops thought instead of enhancing it. But serious people used to talk about the relevance of the German experience to American politics. In 1964, Philip Rahv, a founding editor of the marquee intellectual journal Partisan Review, wrote that the movement that nominated Barry Goldwater for president represented “a recrudescence on American soil of precisely those super-nationalistic and right-wing trends that were finally defeated in Europe at the cost of a great war, untold misery, and many millions dead.”
But within a couple of years, when student protesters were closing down universities through violence and the threat of violence, people like Ronald Reagan said that was exactly what fascists did, so he deployed National Guardsmen to keep campuses open––which student protesters called fascist in turn.
By the end of the 1960s both sides were throwing the f-word at one another with abandon. But in current American politics, the word has survived via the abject stupidity of many thousands of right-wing readers of one of the worst books ever published, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (2008), which made much of the fact that both Hitler and a heck of a lot of liberals were vegetarians.
The usage also survives among a considerably smaller number of only slightly less perfervid liberals. These folks borrow from the scholarship of outstanding historians like Roger Griffin, author of The Nature of Fascism, and Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism, and bastardize it into “checklists,” the most widely circulated from an obscure political scientist about whom I could find nothing else––Lawrence Britt––who would have us believe that when a politician checks off enough boxes like “rampant sexism” and “obsession with national security,” America will suddenly find itself locked into a totalitarian nightmare from which there is no escape except all-out war.
But this confuses a historically specific description with a usefully predictive model. It treats political development as a biological process, fascism as something nations “descend” into––the natural entropy of failed national institutions.
It’s a devolution to an older style of political thinking that felt perfectly logical in the 1950s and early 1960s, among writers for whom civilization’s descent into blood-soaked barbarism was recent memory. The writing that followed it was either explicitly or implicitly rooted in a Marxist style of thinking, which is to say a Hegelian style of thinking: if history was “supposed” to develop in a certain direction (toward socialism; toward liberal democracy), how, then, to account for the hard-right turn no one had predicted? The process of strong men taking advantage of weak men, with the strongman, his victims, and their willing executioners produced by the neuroses attending the breakdown of traditional ways of life, seemed to be encoded within modernity itself.
And some of this story still rings so very true. Fascist leaders promise national rebirth, the merging of a mystically perfect past and a transcendent future from a present fatally compromised by wickedness. (Niftily, the scholarly term for that, as if nodding to John McCain’s 2008 running mate, is “palingenetic ultranationalism.”)
But lots of political movements do that. And history is not a biological process; there’s no reason to believe that the alienation we see all around us need devolve into violent nationalism with its end state. Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina, and Chile, to cite the major cases, in the peculiar moments when their strong men arose, suffered weaknesses in their institutions that are just about unimaginable in the United States. For instance, it is hard to imagine a President Trump turning America into a one-party state. (Isn’t it?)
Movie matinee monsters
Which provides us with a delicate analytical problem, because, all the same, the postwar thinkers making sense of that experience bequeathed useful tools of analysis, now mostly lost to us because of the discussion-busting nature of the f-word.
So, in fact, did popular culture.
Ordinary people can become monsters. Everyone who experienced World War II knew that. How does it happen? Any attentive cinema-goer or TV-watcher of the 1950s would have a decent grasp of an answer. In Ace in the Hole, from 1951, a little-remembered Billy Wilder masterpiece, the effort to rescue a man trapped in a cave collapse in New Mexico turns into a lurid carnival as folks flock from miles around, with rides, concerts, and gambling. The party ends when the rescue fails, the man dies, and the revelers slink away in shame at how thin the veneer of civilization truly was. Likewise, in “The Shelter,” a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, a convivial suburban neighborhood hears a radio announcement that reveals an impending nuclear attack, everyone flocks to the town’s only fallout shelter, which can only accommodate three people, and the seething hostility, resentment, and racism none of them even understood themselves capable of surges to the surface––until the announcement is revealed as a false alarm, and the threads of trust that had bound a community together are revealed as irreversibly vulnerable.
There are many more examples. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, the director Wes Craven explains what horror films are really about: “fear, which is certainly one of the most primal, primal emotions.” About “the necessity for taking action or else not surviving . . . . They always sort of perceive where there’s sort of that subcutanenous, subconscious fear that’s in the culture at the time . . . post-World War II where you had culture coming out of shock of what they had just seen . . . these sort of horrendous events being perpetrated by the Nazis, and in a sense by everybody that went to war against each other.” Craven cited Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, “because that is a pure case of not a monster in the sense of Godzilla or something, but it’s a human monster.”
How did politicians become monsters? That question received its own postwar cinematic treatment. In A Face in the Crowd, TV creates a Frankenstein’s monster out of an unknown guitar picker turned into a national sensation via empty promises and an aw-shucks manner. Then a group of shadowy millionaires draft him as a front for their dictatorial political ambitions, the hayseed ubermensch becoming fatally drunk on his power in the process. Elia Kazan wrote in the preface to the screenplay: “we took cognizance of the new synthetic folksiness that saturated certain programs, and the excursion into political waters by these ‘I-don’t-know-anything-but-I-know-what-I-think guys.” (You know those guys. The ones you see on Fox News.)
All the King’s Men, the 1949 Academy Award winner based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, was the classic exposition. It told the story of country boy Willie Stark (based on Huey Long), who begins his political career crusading against injustice, until the seductions of absolute power and the frustrations of democracy find him surrendering to an abject lust for domination. Warren had witnessed Mussolini’s rise to power in the 1930s, and spoke of how the alienated nature of life in Rome’s slums made their denizens easy pickings for “inspired idiots” like Il Duce.
All the King’s Men was philosophically sophisticated, while A Face in the Crowd was pretty simple-minded. But both converge on an insight utterly lost to our intellectual moment. It’s an insight that speaks to the riddle in a thousand op-eds on the Trump phenomenon: what makes him so popular? Our mid-century American kin would never bother asking the question: it was too obvious. All that was required was a charismatic figure willing to say anything to animate the masses’ darkest prejudices, promising easy answers to intractable problems, offering frenetic action where conventionally constrained politics, sclerotic bureaucracies, and the messiness of democratic proceduralism promised only gridlock.
“At least the boss does something,” says one of the king’s men as he excuses the sins of the dictator he works for. Mussolini, famously, “made the trains run on time.” All it required was a demagoguery that was fully unleashed––the willing scapegoating of the enemy within as the only reason the masses’ desires are frustrated. Say, by promising to expel 12 million undocumented immigrants “so fast your head will spin.”
Describe Donald Trump to a mid-century social scientist and he would respond: of course he is in first place. And I’m fairly certain George W. Bush would fully understand that he could have further expanded his own massive grant of post-9/11 power were he only to scapegoat all Muslims. It is to his great credit that he did not. He seemed to have understood something the current crop of Republican candidates chasing after Trump do not—something about Pandora’s Boxes, toothpaste that cannot be put back into tubes, the demiurge. Bush was, unlike Donald Trump, unwilling to say anything.
George Bush, however, was constrained by a set of commitments in a way that Donald Trump is not: commitments to transnational corporate capitalism and its ideological handmaiden, neoliberalism. But Paul Krugman has recently noted an apparent irony. Donald Trump, the most frightening of the Republican candidates, is also the most sane in terms of economic policy, the most willing to challenge neoliberal orthodoxy. Among the measures he has nodded toward, in his vague, stream-of-consciousness, non-committal way: raising the taxes of the super-rich and single-payer healthcare. Krugman notes: “Mr. Trump, who is self-financing, didn’t need to genuflect to the big money, and it turns out that the base doesn’t mind his heresies. This is a real revelation, which may have a lasting impact on our politics.”
David Weigel of The Washington Post has written about how Trump has built deep support among blue-collar voters in places like Michigan by talking about trade deficits and the loss of American manufacturing jobs. He is the only Republican candidate to speak about the damage transnational capitalism inflicts on blue-collar Americans. A writer for Vox.com trumpets this as a welcome rift in the red-blue gridlock, suggesting it means the electorate is “more multidimensional than our partisan narratives tell us.” It is interpreted, that is to say, as almost a salutary thing: the Republican frontrunner, if you squint hard enough, is even a little bit liberal.
Our notional midcentury social scientist, or better historically informed pundits, wouldn’t be so sanguine. They would recognize the phenomenon that sociologist Pierre van den Berghe in 1967 labeled herrenvolk democracy: a political ideology in which members of the dominant ethnic group enjoy privileged provision from the state, as a function of the economic and civic disenfranchisement of the scapegoated group, to better cement dictatorship. This was why elites feared Huey Long’s promise of a guaranteed income––“Every Man A King.” This was how George Wallace governed Alabama. This was apartheid South Africa.
And this, more than anything else, is what horrifies the Republican establishment about Donald Trump. As Jonathan Chait has observed:
The official (i.e. non-Trump) Republican Party has experienced its activist base during the Obama years as an incessant and implacable series of demands for ideological purity. Republicans have dutifully complied with every policy demand. They have refused to increase taxes, even at the cost of programs they support. . . . It has never been enough. . . . Next to the tiny ideological bumps Republicans have obsessively smoothed from their record, Trump’s profile of deviations is incomprehensibly vast. . . . It must be galling for the party regulars to prostrate themselves helplessly before the base, purging any hint of independent thought, only to watch a formerly pro-choice, libertine if not liberal, Democratic donor waltz into the lead.
Chait chalks that up to the Donald’s success in matching the rageful affect of the Republican base. And of course that’s some of it. But the other part of it is that the economic neoliberalism with which the Republicans serve their donor base, and which most motivates conservative leaders, has always been an electoral albatross. What became known in the 1970s as the “social issues” helped distract Republican voters from their party’s economic agenda. Back then, according to Gallup, the public favored wage and price controls as the answer to inflation by a margin of 46 to 39 percent. Eighty-five percent liked the idea of a public jobs program on the model of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, with only 10 percent opposed. Even Ronald Reagan got elected and reelected not because of his embrace of neoliberalism but despite it.
The statistics are compiled in the perennially useful 1986 study Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics by Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers. One poll they cite from Opinion Research Corporation asked voters in 1980 whether “too much” was being spent on the environment, health, education, welfare, and urban aid programs. Only 21 percent thought so, the same percentage as in 1976, 1977, and 1978. Those who responded that the amount spent was either “too little” or “about right” was never lower in those years than 72 percent. The number favoring keeping “taxes and services about where they are” was the same in 1975 and 1980––45 percent.
The pattern continued well into Reagan’s presidency. In 1984, when Reagan’s approval rating was 68 percent, only 35 percent favored cuts in social programs to reduce the deficit, which of course was their president’s strenuously stated preference. Sixty-five percent believed such cuts were imminent. Yet that November, well over 60 percent of them voted for Reagan instead of the Democrat Walter Mondale.
George Bush was constrained by a set of commitments in a way that Donald Trump is not.
But as has been demonstrated time and time again by empirical social science, one reason white Americans frequentlyvote against candidates promising to support spending for the public good is the fear that their tax dollars will be spent on minorities at the expense of themselves. The herrenvolk democracy limned by Trump––in which downwardly mobile whites hear themselves promised economic protection that won’t be shared with the scapegoated Others––is a powerful tool for understanding why his popularity with Republican voters grows and grows.
But wait: Donald Trump is just a con man? Probably. And most definitely, his audience is a pool of very juicy marks. Let’s see how much comfort you can draw from that.
Direct mail hustlers
A few years ago, I wrote about what happens when you join the mailing list of conservative publications. You are instantly bombarded with come-ons for the “23-Cent Heart Miracle” that “Washington, the medical industry, and the drug companies REFUSE to tell you about.” You are promised “the insider’s code (which I’ll tell you) and you could make an extra $6,000 every single month.” You’ll be offered “INSTANT INTERNET INCOME . . . to put an end to your financial worries” and “give your family the abundant lifestyle they so richly deserve.”
My piece, which appeared in The Baffler and was entitled “The Long Con,” argued that such hustles were not incidental to conservatism but central to the Republican moment itself. They are part of the “strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers” who collaborated in “coral[ling] fleeceable multitudes all in one place,” inculcating “a cast of mind that makes it hard for either them or us to discern where the ideological con ended and the money con began.”
If you doubt that Donald Trump notches perfectly with this tradition, I recommend the documentary Trump, What’s the Deal? It was completed in 1990 but never released because of threats from its litigious subject but now, it’s available online. It’s the source of the quote, regarding Trump and the truth: “divide by two, then divide by four, and you’re closer to the answer.” In the film, you see Donald promising the most luxurious appointments available in his Trump Tower.
“We decided to go absolutely first class all the way,” Trump said, which was why Sofia Loren and the Prince of Wales were buying in (both lies). An interior decorator explains that the apartments, unlike the pink marble lobby, are anything but first class: “I’ve never seen more sloppily installed and more cheaply built kitchen cabinets.” (The installers were illegal Polish immigrants, whom Donald Trump did not pay.)
You see more of the hustle in Trump’s own book The Art of the Deal, where Trump claims he bought his Palm Springs mansion for $8 million cash, when he only came up with $2,000 cash. You see Trump building literal castles in the sky out of these lies––and, of course, since there is no con without a mark, you see people buying the lies, which is what lets the game work in the first place.
It’s not that his supporters don’t know he’s a con man; they revel in it. It’s what makes Donald a “winner.” Lying is an initiation into the conservative elite. In these respects, as in so many others, conservatism resembles the “multi-level marketing,” or pyramid schemes, that so many Republicans buy into. Closing the sale is mainly a question of riding out the lie: showing you have the skill and the stones to just brazen it out, and the savvy to ratchet up the stakes higher and higher.
Which isn’t fascism. It’s more like professional wrestling––with which, as we know, Trump has a long and storied history.
Or maybe it’s both.
A wrestler’s life
You know who else organized his life like a professional wrestler?
No, really: comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler would give the American hustler far, far, too much credit.
I will, however, compare the uselessness of the political press that bought into der fuhrer to our own. I recently read about Hitler At Home, a forthcoming University of Buffalo book by architectural historian Despina Statigakos. The author describes how Hitler’s advisors used his home life, and architecture, to manipulate the public, crafting spaces that, like movie sets, evoked the right emotions. “Then,” according the University of Buffalo News Center, “they invited reporters in for tours where they experienced Hitler in a setting that felt exclusive and emanated warmth. . . .”
“News outlets from home magazines to The New York Times portrayed the Nazi leader as a ‘country gentleman’ and cultured statesman with a mountain chalet––unaware that the image was propaganda created by an inner circle of experts for political ends.”
Whatever the ultimate meaning of Trumpism, I hardly think our political press will prove any better at safeguarding our liberties. Again and again, the editorial line has been that his latest supposed gaffe will finish him, when they’ve only preceded greater heights of popularity. The most recent variation on that theme came only days ago in The New Yorker,where John Cassidy wrote, “In the political world . . . there has been growing acceptance that Trump can get away with saying things that other candidates can’t . . . Until now, that is.”
Which is, of course, exactly what they said about Trump’s remarks about Mexican immigrants being rapists, and about John McCain being a loser for getting shot down, etc. It hardly matters that this time the “show-stopper” was calling Carly Fiorina ugly. What matters is our willful refusal to grasp that his appeal doesn’t fit the received categories of journalistic analysis, which journalists refuse to revise.
Political journalism is married to a discourse of consensus, that radicalism is always absorbed into the mainstream. So CNN headlined an article about its new poll finding that 43 percent of Republicans believe Barack Obama is a Muslim: “Misperceptions persist about Obama’s faith, but aren’t so widespread.” We were reassured, however, that “Most Republicans think Obama was born in the country.” As off-base as this is, it maintains a touching faith that politics can be governed by a simplistic version of Enlightenment rationality, in which false claims, once debunked, will somehow go away.
We want to think about Trump using our familiar categories, according to familiar norms, judging him by familiar rules. But what Donald Trump is all about is incinerating the existing rules––which are revealed as all too easy to incinerate. He breaks the system just by his manner of being. It’s humbling, because the system he breaks is the only one we know how to understand.
But with Trump, everything requires revision––for me as much as anyone else.