Donald Trump's fascist Circus Maximus: Pay attention to what's going on below the surface

As our nation slides toward becoming a decadent empire ruled by a madman, consider the destruction we can't see

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 12, 2020 1:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump watching democracy burn (Getty Images/Salon)
Donald Trump watching democracy burn (Getty Images/Salon)

Over the past week, President Trump's Circus Maximus of American fascism reached full bloom.

In ancient Rome, the Circus Maximus was the largest coliseum. It hosted chariot races, gladiatorial combat, hunts of wild animals, sporting events, parades and other grand happenings.

Like the Roman Empire in its decline, the United States is now vomiting up grotesque spectacles.

To that end, Trump's regime uses spectacle as a means of distracting the public from its assault on democracy, the Constitution, the rule of law, and the American people. Trump's fascist Circus Maximus is also a way of intimidating his foes and further seducing his cult members and other followers.

Last Tuesday, President Trump gave his annual State of the Union speech. On Twitter, political scientist and Washington Post contributor Brian Klaas described the event as "the logical conclusion of populism: a series of misleading lies and fear-mongering dressed up as theatrical spectacle that aimed to show one team 'winning' rather than the serious business of governing and improving people's lives."

Of course, Trump lied with great enthusiasm about the country's economy, his health care plans, the country's overall well-being, his proposals for the future and many other matters both small and large.

Republicans cheered their Mad King, while Democrats were disgusted and stunned. Some, understandably, did not subject themselves to the spectacle of Trump's unrepentant assault on reality, morality, truth and virtue. Writing at the New Yorker, Susan Glasser explained the entirety of this horrible scene:

No wonder Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday night was such a painful spectacle, in which the nation's divisions were indelibly exposed by the raw visual of blindly cheering Republicans and outraged, slumping Democrats. Republicans in this strange new era of demagogic takeover applaud policies they don't agree with because they come from their leader. Democrats cannot even bear the sight of the President. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, who made the consequential decision to pursue Trump's impeachment knowing that it would end up this way, pronounced herself so disgusted by Trump's "manifesto of mistruths" that she carefully and deliberately ripped up her copy when he finished speaking — a performative act of partisan disgust that predictably left her supporters cheering and Trump himself obsessively complaining.

In all, Donald Trump's State of the Union address had less to do with serving the American people as a whole — since the very idea of public service and the common good are beyond his comprehension — than with offering him a stage on which to display his worst aspects parts and to throw political red meat to his most die-hard supporters.

Likely at the urging of White House adviser Stephen Miller, an overt white supremacist, Donald Trump erased nonwhite people from the country's history. He spoke not in dog whistles but through a virtual air raid siren, promising evangelical Christian nationalists that he would continue to advance their agenda of subverting the Constitution and transforming the United States into a theocracy.

Last Wednesday, Trump's Republican servants in the Senate "acquitted" him for abuse of power, obstruction of Congress and other obvious crimes related to the Ukraine scheme and his plans to blackmail or bribe that country into interfering in the 2020 presidential election on his behalf. Trump's show trial in the Senate had no witnesses. Now that he has been crowned an American king by his Republican flunkeys, Trump's "innocence" is never in doubt, despite the obvious evidence of his many obvious crimes against the Constitution and the rule of law.

Writing at the New York Review of Books, Fintan O'Toole elaborates on this:

The reason why evidence is irrelevant to Trump's trial is not just that the evidence itself is inconveniently damning. It is that this doctrine of the president's will as the source of all authority must not be undermined by the manner of the trial. At the heart of Trump's defense is the justification that underlies all authoritarian rule. The leader is special. He is not like us because he has unique instincts. His gut (or divine inspiration or mystical ability to discern the true will of the people) leads him to make the right call. And the gut cannot be questioned: the job of everyone else in government is to accept what the leader does first and find the reasons for it later….

The Senate is supposed to be acting as a kind of court. But it is showing itself to be a court in a different sense: almost all Republican senators are now quite openly behaving as courtiers….

O'Toole then previews where King Trump's coronation may lead the country, observing that Republicans "cannot question what the president has done because that would violate the principle that his reasons are unquestionable":

What is lost for them and for Trump in this process is any possible claim that the president has been vindicated by a genuine trial of the evidence against him. What is gained is the assurance that, if Trump wins a second term, he can indeed do whatever he wants.

Donald Trump has used impeachment to propel himself forward like James Caan on roller skates holding on to the back of a motorcycle in the 1975 dystopian science fiction film "Rollerball."

On the same day as Trump's coronation in the Senate, Attorney General William Barr announced a new policy under which all investigations of alleged criminal behavior by presidential candidates or their senior staff members are prohibited, except with his personal approval. As a practical matter this means that Trump is free to break the law with impunity and that the Department of Justice has been weaponized against the Democratic Party and Trump's other "enemies."

On Tuesday of this week, Barr continued his assault on the rule of law by rejecting federal prosecutors' sentencing guidelines for Trump minion Roger Stone, who has been convicted of lying under oath in connection with the Russia scandal. In response to this nearly unprecedented political intervention, four career federal prosecutors withdrew from the case, and one resigned from the Department of Justice. 

NBC News reported that Barr's intervention in the Stone case is part of a much larger effort. Instead of serving as the nation's leading law enforcement officer, Barr is instead acting as Trump's de facto personal attorney and agent: "The U.S. attorney who had presided over an inconclusive criminal investigation into former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe was abruptly removed from the job last month in one of several recent moves by Attorney General William Barr to take control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump, according to multiple people familiar with the matter."

Trump will likely pardon Stone for the crimes he committed in service to his longtime master. Like other autocrats and de facto crime bosses, Trump rewards his servants' loyalty to further cement his control over them.

Last Thursday morning, Trump spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. In what is supposed to be a nonpartisan event, Trump attacked Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats for participating in a "conspiracy" against him by daring to impeach him for his abuses of the Constitution and the rule of law.

Trump even accused Pelosi of being a fraud who does not really pray and by implication does not believe in God. Because Trump is a malignant narcissist who inhabits his own delusional alternate reality, he likely sees himself as equivalent of God, and indeed has called himself "the chosen one." In his warped worldview, any criticism of Donald Trump, or any attempt to hold him accountable for his behavior, is an assault on the deity.

Later in the day, Trump assembled his coterie of sycophants and minions in the East Room of the White House, where like Stalin, Hitler, Caligula, Nero or some other autocratic fiend from the worst annals of human history, he promised that retaliation and destruction would be visited upon those people who dared to oppose him.

Trump again claimed that he was a "victim"; his heroism in the face of such great and evil opposition was the stuff of legend. As the Guardian reported, his speech "quickly turned into a screed against all of the investigations into his administration, starting with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference. 'We first went through Russia, Russia, Russia,' Trump said. 'It was all bullshit.'"

Trump's court performed on cue, clapping, nodding their heads and smiling in approval.

At the Daily Beast, David Rothkopf summarized Trump's Circus Maximus week this way:

As the week drew to a close, a chilling realization settled in on the nation. Our most corrupt, unfit, demented and malevolent president has been given more power than any other human being in our history. He has been told he is above the law, incapable of committing a crime. He has been told that Article II of the Constitution grants him unlimited powers. He has been told he does not have submit to the oversight of the Congress.

He is, in other words, free to be himself. And we all know who that is — except perhaps Senator Susan Collins and the other Senate suckers who expected that somehow our felon-in-chief had learned a lesson from this impeachment ordeal. Trump is a man who thinks the law is for little people, that the rich can buy their way out of any legal predicament. He thinks character and courage and duty, the traits displayed by [Marie] Yovanovitch and [Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman], are for suckers. …

Rothkopf continued by observing that "a concerted focusing on cheating at the ballot box" has been "one of the few consistent initiatives" of Trump's erratic administration, which has "never been so empowered to abuse [its] power as a way to maintain that power. Punishing truth-tellers and witnesses is the technique mob enforcers use to escape the consequences for their crimes."

Such punishment is now "a signature tactic of the most powerful president in American history and the most dangerous and corrupt public official the United States has ever known," Rothkopf concluded. "Few weeks in our history ... have made it so clear what the people of the United States must do if they wish to preserve our republic."

While Donald Trump was celebrating his victories over the forces of democracy and accountability, the cruel gears of his regime continued to turn. One should never forget that the overall goal of Trumpian spectacle is to distract the public and the media from the harm he and his agents are doing to the country and reality itself.

Contrary to his numerous false claims, Trump has released a proposed 2020 federal budget that guts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act, already under siege by Trump and his Republicans, will be further targeted. The ultimate outcome will be to take health care away from tens of millions of Americans.

The Trump regime's assault on human dignity and freedom continues with its Social Darwinist campaign to eliminate the "useless eaters" by cutting food stamps, assistance for the disabled and other programs which aim to make the United States a more humane society.

Ultimately, the Trump regime's gangster-capitalist assault is a gross moral hazard, in which the tax code becomes a means to redistribute public money to the very richest individuals, families and corporations. Under Trump's proposed budget, the Pentagon, as always, will receive even more money while the country's infrastructure continues to fail, public health is neglected, diplomacy is abandoned, and public education and the environment are reduced to ruins. 

Trump's detention centers for nonwhite migrants and refugees will be expanded under the proposed 2020 budget. Trump's wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — a monument to hate and nativism — will be fully funded. Of note, the Trump regime has recently won endorsement from the courts to expand its "Muslim ban," and has also received permission to follow through on a plan to restrict nonwhite people from poorer countries from immigrating to the United States.

On Twitter, Donald Trump imagines himself to be the fictional characters "Superman" and "Rocky." In his Circus Maximus performance, Donald Trump also likely sees himself as Russell Crowe's character in the sword-and-sandal epic film "Gladiator."

In that role, Trump has slain all his foes in brutal combat. He turns to face the crowd, while screaming "Are you not entertained?" But Donald Trump has no coliseum and is no great warrior. He only has Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber, where his cult members, advisers, servants and followers assure him that he is the greatest warrior of all, not to mention their king, emperor and godhead. 

Unfortunately, the age of Trump is not a movie. It is all too real.

Historian Timothy Joseph offers this truth about the Roman Empire's lessons for America:

To this point, however, a Temple of Lady Liberty and Trump along the lines of the Temple of Roma and Augustus has not yet been constructed.

But the Senate impeachment trial has shown us how far along the identification of leader and state has moved in the Trump era. A central part of the president's impeachment defense is, as we have seen, that the personal will of the president is indistinguishable from the will of the state and the good of the people.

Will the GOP-led Senate's endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations — and consequences — of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic's rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur.

All empires rise and fall. In the year 410, the Roman Empire was brought down when the Visigoths sacked the capital city. America is a failing democracy where the pale horse of death is not being ridden by foreign "barbarians" but instead by our own supposed leader, America's first mercenary president leading an army of zombie-like cult members. Instead of resisting forcefully and fighting for their democracy, most Americans are either indifferent to the struggle or actively cheering on the invaders with tweets and selfies.

By Chauncey DeVega

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

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