(Getty/Alex Wong)

"Donald Trump is destroying truth": Scholar Jason Stanley on the rhetoric of American fascism

Author of "How Fascism Works" says Trump and Republicans "are doing everything they can to suppress democracy"


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Chauncey DeVega
December 11, 2018 12:00PM (UTC)

Last Friday, the public became aware of more details about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal. Donald Trump has been accused of committing a felony by working through his personal fixer and attorney Michael Cohen to pay off Trump's alleged mistress Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence. This is a violation of campaign finance law, because this money was used to keep facts from the American people that could have impacted their decision to vote for Trump or Hillary Clinton in November 2016.

It has also been reported that there were at least 14 attempts by Russian operatives to make contact with Donald Trump and his presidential campaign. At no point did Trump or his inner circle inform the FBI of these contacts. Moreover, publicly available information also shows that the Russians --presumably operating with either the tacit permission of President Vladimir Putin or under his direct orders -- had already established a working relationship with Michael Cohen and other members of Trump's inner circle.

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Mueller and federal prosecutors in New York have also revealed another important detail about the Trump-Russia collusion scandal: Cohen was contacted by a Russian operative in 2015 who wanted to create "political synergy" and "synergy on a government level" with the Trump campaign.

Information released last week and in prior weeks has also highlighted the business dealings and other contacts that Paul Manafort, who served for several months as Trump's campaign manager, also had repeated business dealings and other contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Ukrainian political operative who is widely believed to be an agent of the Russian government.

In response to the growing mountain of evidence against him, Donald Trump has continued to lie about the facts and to proclaim that he has somehow been exonerated by Mueller's investigation. The last week of revelations, and Trump's reaction to them, continue to show that the president of the United States is operating from a fascist-authoritarian playbook. He believes he is above the law and public office is a way for him to enrich himself, his family and other cronies. As with other authoritarians around the world, Trump's assault on democracy is also a way of expanding the power of a global kleptocracy, of which he is a prominent member.

How does Donald Trump manipulate language to stay in power and to maintain the loyalty of his supporters? How is violence central to his appeal and popularity? How does Trump's behavior resemble a crime lord or mafia boss? How has this ensured the complicity of his voters and other supporters in Trump's campaign to undermine American democracy?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and the author of several books, including "How Propaganda Works" (2016) and his most recent, "How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them."

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Two years into Donald Trump's presidency, how are you feeling?

My earlier book, "How Propaganda Works," was published the month that Trump declared his candidacy. It focused on demagoguery and language. Watching what has happened with Trump over these two years, I feel panic about Trump's use of immigrants as scapegoats. It is a strange and scary thing watching these familiar storylines from history play themselves out.

In a rising fascist or authoritarian movement there is pleasure in seeing the "out-group," whoever that may be, suffer harm. Violence and suffering functions as a type of fuel for those such as Trump and his supporters.

Trump has "blooded the hounds." When you start getting your supporters to inflict great harm on people and to be complicit in moral monstrosities, then they subsequently go along with you. They're guilty too. In some ways that is how the mafia and organized crime works. The leaders or bosses get people to do crimes with them and then they're complicit. That is where the loyalty comes from. Trump's rallies and other events fulfill that function.

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Anger is encouraged. Fear is amplified and people are whipped into a panic. Then Trump promises he's going to protect them. His supporters are made to feel resentful and angry at the fear, and what and who they believe is causing it. What keeps me up at night with worry right now is how Trump's supporters are being encouraged to take the law into their own hands. There is so much complicity right now with Trump's cruelty. An obvious example is the "family separation" policy. A majority of Republicans and other Trump supporters favored it.

We are among the few public voices who have consistently described Donald Trump and his movement as fascist. When you make that diagnosis, what criteria are you using?

There are the conspiracy theories. The destruction of truth. The white supremacy, which is America's native form of fascism. You have the mythic past and this constant hearkening back to a great past -- Trump's "Make America Great Again" -- that's somehow threatened by liberals and progressives. There is huge spending on the military and budget cuts everywhere else. There are attacks on labor unions. You have moral panics by conservatives and sexual anxiety. There is also the constant fear-mongering and right-wing panics about foreigners and immigrant groups posing a rape threat to white women.

I study rhetoric. The language you hear from Trump is evocative of and channeling what you heard from National Socialism and Hitler.

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America's multiracial democracy is a work in progress. The country has only been a democracy on paper for about 50 years. This arrangement can easily be undone. Donald Trump and his aides and advisers are white nationalists, if not de facto white supremacists, by virtue of their policies, alliances, words and deeds.  

There is absolutely no guarantee, you are correct, when you have a president and movement such as Donald Trump and his followers. Trump is telling you what his intent and values are. These are not "dog whistles." He's telling you. Drawing on its old roots in the America First movement, Trump's "Make America Great' program is an ethnic white nationalist movement

When I first started writing about Trump in 2015, I was not allowed to use references to Germany. Even a year ago people were saying, “Oh, to use the term fascist is irresponsible.” For instance, fascists are explicitly anti-democratic. Now, all over the country, in Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and elsewhere, we see the Republican Party doing everything they can to suppress democracy and the people's will and voice -- before, during and after the 2018 midterms. The Republicans are anti-democratic and are explicitly attacking America's multiracial democracy. It is out in the open.

What is the source of Donald Trump's power? Why is he so compelling to his public?

There are a number of things going on with Trump on a detailed linguistic analysis level. Trump does a lot of things with side comments which on the surface are peripheral to the main conversation and his superficial meaning. Observers are quick to say that Donald Trump is rambling. But in fact there are all these messages spinning off that are not part of the main point. You see this when Trump says  "Crooked Hillary" or "goofy Elizabeth Warren." Whenever Trump uses an adjective it is usually a negative. The point of a lot of Trump's speaking is to insult. It is not intended to convey information. Trump's language is designed and intended to raise panic and fear, and to insult.

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Donald Trump leads a cult of personality. But there is a deep psycho sexual libidinal aspect as well in why Trump's public is so loyal to him. This is common with fascism.  

The whole idea of fascism is that the nation will be realized in the leader. Actual love is the goal. It is not a material transaction based on policy per se between Trump and his supporters, or between authoritarians and fascist leaders and their supporters more generally. History shows us that the worse it gets the more the supporters will dig deep and have greater loyalty to the fascist-authoritarian leader.

What is Trump's propaganda model? How is he using it to maintain control?

Trump is ignoring everyone who doesn't support him. Trump will try to gain the absolute devotion, or as you put it, love, of his core base of supporters. There is a concern here that Donald Trump is working his supporters up to a level of love and devotion where they will protect him by extrajudicial means.

If Trump's presidency and this society were to devolve and go in an even more grim direction, Donald Trump will not need majority support. Trump will just need maybe 40 percent of the American population.

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To that end he is delegitimating all the ordinary institutions of democracy. This includes the free press and the news media. Trump is representing reality as "us versus them." When you reduce everything to winning and losing then truth becomes irrelevant. And when truth becomes irrelevant, then you do not have a democratic culture anymore. Democracy itself is imperiled.

Donald Trump is destroying truth and replacing it with myth.

There is a deep culture of loneliness in America and in the West right now. In so many ways America's popular culture is spectacular, gross, loud and empty of meaning. I would suggest that many people in this moment in history are experiencing a profound crisis of meaning. But then you have someone like Trump come along who promises to fill their emptiness and give them a sense of meaning and community.  

That is a very incisive point. This is signaled to by Hannah Arendt in the seminal work "The Origins of Totalitarianism." It is vital for the fascist leader to destroy any kind of community: This makes people feel alone, atomized. Then, when the people feel lonely and anxious and scared, the fascist-authoritarian presents himself as the person and force who will unify them. That’s why you have the enemy of fascist movements being class movements such as unions and labor. Social democracy is the enemy. You paint it as "communism."

This is why Republicans try to smear ordinary Democrats as frightening "socialists" and "communists." It is a standard tactic.  Yes, alienation is key. How do we counter alienation? We are going to need some kind of cross-class coalition across the color line.

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And what of the claim, now disproved but still alive like a zombie, that it was "working-class anxiety" that put Trump in the White House?

The response to the Great Recession was, in my opinion, catastrophic. People are right to be suspicious of the government. On the other hand, it's not like black Americans adopted fascism.

What about Trump's enduring appeal among white evangelicals? Trump is far from a "man of God". He is a proud and unrepentant sinner. What does this reveal about fascism, authoritarianism and Donald Trump?

Again, Hannah Arendt is very important here. She argued that they want the leader to be someone the elite regard as vulgar. Trump's public gains pleasure out of that. Trump's supporters want to see the elite forced to bow and scrape in front of someone they regard as vulgar.

There is another concept which is important here as well. The fascist leader is a "little big man." He's a big man because he has achieved spectacular success in the world at large, but he's a little man because he's just a "regular person," someone like his supporters.  Trump once was asked what he meant by "poor white trash." He said, “They're people just like me, except they’re poor.” That phrase "triggering the libs" is instructive here too. What does "triggering the libs" mean? Trump, by his very presence in the White House, enrages "liberal elites," and that is what Trump's supporters and other right-wingers enjoy.

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Unlike many other critics and observers, I do not think that white Americans have been duped into supporting Trump and the Republican Party even though their policies have damaged the majority of white people, in material and economic terms. Too many liberals, progressives and others hold on to that narrative like a baby's blanket. Trump's voters made a decision to support a plutocrat and an authoritarian and they should be held responsible for that decision.  

Nevertheless it is still helpful to talk about false consciousness, because Trump supporters really do believe that they are superior to other people. That is patently and obviously false, of course.

Trump's supporters are also convinced that they somehow deserve the goods of society more than others, and they do not. They are also being tricked into believing that they deserve things that they are not going to get. Ultimately, Trump's supporters are being led into a state of permanent expectation and then the subsequent dashing of those expectations.

What happens when those expectations are let down?

Unfortunately, we can look at our own country. How difficult is it for people to give up the idea of white supremacy? A couple of years ago, Black Lives Matter was trying to warn us that white people were not giving up white supremacy. The reaction was very extreme. White supremacy is the dashed expectation.

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What are you most afraid of? What are you most hopeful for?

I'm most hopeful that this movement will lead us to recognize that we have to address this country's long-standing problems. As long as this country permits huge economic inequalities and racial inequalities it is going to be susceptible to fascism. Whites as a group need to realize that they should not allow white supremacy because it opens them up to being exploited. Unfortunately, rarely has the hope for a better future and society been realized in moments such as these, with Donald Trump and all that he and his movement represent.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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