The poisonous fear of Donald Trump: A recent history of the most politically destructive emotion

Donald Trump has risen to the top of the GOP field by stoking the fear of the right. Here's what it means

Published November 23, 2015 10:58AM (EST)

Donald Trump (AP/Nati Harnik)
Donald Trump (AP/Nati Harnik)

“Paris attack should end criticism of 'militarization' of police. NYPD getting ready.” So said the neocon historian Max Boot on Twitter over the weekend, with a link to a New York Times report on the formation of a “standing counterterrorism force” within the NYPD. “After the next attack, the pundits will say 'This should end your criticism of the government,'" quipped Salon’s Ben Norton.

We’ve been down this road plenty of times before. By now, it’s easy to predict how human beings will react to unexpected attacks like the ones in Paris. Of all human emotions, fear may be the most contagious, and the terrorists know this well. As we see whenever there is a downturn in the stock market and countless investors begin quickly pulling out, or when, prior to federal deposit insurance, bank runs spread like dominos as depositors panicked, mass fear can be like a forest fire, and without rational introspection, it is bound get out of control. Of course, fear is a invaluable emotion that prevents human beings from acting recklessly or just plain stupid, but it can quickly become irrational and dangerous — and in many cases, it is a gift to authoritarian politicians.

The infamous Reichstag fire of 1933, which Adolf Hitler called a “sign from God,” is a prime example of how useful fear can be for aspiring dictators. Marinus van der Lubbe, the young communist who set the Reichstag building (the German parliament) on fire as a kind of rallying cry against the growing fascist movement, was clearly unaware of the power of fear (or, as some conspiracy theorists believe, the Nazis were the true arsonists). The day after the fire, Hitler was granted the Reichstag Fire Decree by the German President, Paul von Hindenburg, which suspended many civil liberties and provided Hitler with greater emergency powers as Chancellor. Thousands of communists were arrested, and in the Reichstag elections during the following month, the Nazis gained enough of a majority to pass the “Enabling Act,” which gave Hitler a de facto dictatorship, providing him with the power to enact all laws without parliament. With the scapegoating of Jews, communists, and other minorities, the Nazis managed to further their power, and provide enemies to the people in times of economic desperation.

Today, Republicans and neocons like to invoke the Nazis when discussing Islamic extremism, yet, as the past week has illustrated, these same politicians are the ones who most resemble their fascist forefathers. In July, I wrote about the worrisome parallels between Trump’s rhetoric and that of fascism, and what it says about the modern Republican party. The likeness has become even more disturbing after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Trump has always had the strong man attitude of a fascist. As Benito Mussolini used to brag about making the trains run on time, Trump has more or less ran a campaign on promises about how he will single handedly (with an iron fist?) make America great again and stop losing to China and Mexico and Iran and any foreigners that dare get the upper hand on The Donald.

The racism and nativism of the Trump campaign (and his competition) is even more disquieting. His anti-Mexican rhetoric has been a cornerstone of his campaign, and now, after the Paris attacks and with the Syrian refugee crisis, anti-Muslim rhetoric has taken hold. His affirmative response to a reporter asking whether he would implement a database tracking Muslims (which he has since attempted to backtrack after the horrified reaction) was terrifying, as if Trump was concerned about being out-Trumped by his competition. “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases,” said Trump, “We should have a lot of systems." When asked about how a Muslim database would be different from requiring Jews to register in Nazi Germany, he replied, “You tell me,” while explaining how he would make this all happen as president: “It’s all about management” (Thats what got the trains running on time, after all).

Just as the Nazi’s used the Reichstag fire to their advantage, creating fear of a communist conspiracy (which was nonexistent), Republicans have used the atrocities in Paris as a campaign tool, crafting various conspiracy theories about sleeper cell refugees and anti-West Muslims looking to implement Sharia law in Cleveland, Ohio. Ultimately, this is what fascism was (is) all about: manufacturing and spreading fear. Fear of some foreign ideology invading and destroying a countries traditions, or as Umberto Eco (who grew up in fascist Italy) calls it in is essay, "Ur-Fascism," the “fear of difference.” There also tends to be a fear (or obsession) of some kind of conspiratorial plot against them. As Eco writes:

“At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.”

Fear is a very powerful weapon indeed. Sometimes, it is enough for the majority of citizens to willingly give up civil liberties, or to stop criticizing the militarization of the police, or to become bigoted against those who look different to them. It was certainly strong enough fourteen years ago, when the Patriot Act was signed into law one month after the attacks of 9/11. And the Islamic State is counting on it to be strong enough this time around as well. They are especially counting on European and American nationalists and sympathizers to make the lives of Muslim immigrants and citizens miserable enough (perhaps by making them register in a database?) to make them sympathize with anti-West Islamic fanatics. To destroy the “grey zone,” as an ISIS publication calls it, which was “critically endangered [after] the blessed operations of September 11th.”

Both Islamic and Western fascists want a clash of civilizations, and they play into each others hands. ISIS creates mass panic and provide politicians like Donald Trump the perfect political tool of fear, while Trump and his GOP cohorts create a toxic anti-Muslim atmosphere that ends up creating more recruits for ISIS, or as President Obama said, “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate.”

Just a month ago, it would have been hard to imagine the GOP primary becoming even more toxic, but ISIS helped make it happen. Even worse, Trump has made a comeback in the polls, and is now around ten points ahead of his next competition.

After the Reichstag fire, Hitler made the following remark about the communists: “These sub-humans do not understand how the people stand at our side. In their mouse-holes, out of which they now want to come, of course they hear nothing of the cheering of the masses.” Let us hope the people, the masses, are smart enough to reject the fear and intolerance that the GOP has made its prime selling point.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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