Donald Trump is a white terrorist. This is true in both the literal sense and on a more metaphorical level. As part of Trump's coup plot he incited his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. It's also true that throughout his presidency and beyond, Trump and his agents have used the propaganda tactic known as "stochastic terrorism" — in which a leader encourages violence while maintaining vaguely plausible deniability.
This is part of a larger pattern of behavior. Trump's behavior and rhetoric repeatedly emphasize destruction, violence, conspiracy theories, apocalyptic imagery and threats of other dire outcomes if he and his neofascist movement are not returned to power.
Trump effectively channels the ways that whiteness, which was invented with European colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade, has functioned as a force of terror, violence, intimidation and existential threat against Black and brown people all over the world. One of Trump's favorite tactics is white victimology. His ability to frighten white people about their personal and collective safety — and to present himself as their protector and savior — is one of his greatest powers.
As shown in a recent fundraising email, Donald Trump is using that dark and evil power to great effect. That email begins with the ominous phrase, "We regret to inform you…", which is familiar to too many Americans who have lost family members and other loved ones in service to their country. Those words, however, simply direct users to a site where Trump solicits donations for his fascist campaign — or, just as likely, his PAC and legal defense fund.
That Trump and his acolytes would use such a tactic as part of their fascist grift — when, in reality, Trump despises all the best aspects of America as a nation and society — is vile even by his standards. Let us not forget that this man avoided military service during the Vietnam War by having a doctor lie for him about nonexistent bone spurs. Or that he mocked Sen. John McCain, a genuine war hero and Vietnam POW who refused to abandon his men in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," as a "loser," saying, "I like people that weren't captured." Credible reporting also suggests that Trump has called U.S. troops killed in combat "losers" and "suckers."
But condemning Trump's behavior is in no way sufficient to defeat him and the neofascist threat he represents. You can't shame those who have no shame. Trump and the current Republican Party have repeatedly shown that they do not care about human decency or virtue; they worship power above everything else, and delight in provoking outrage and disgust among their political opponents (and decent people in general).
Democrats all too eagerly walk into this trap, and then wonder why they are losing the battle to save American democracy. Rick Wilson, the prominent Republican strategist turned "Never Trumper," explained this to me in our recent Salon interview: "We're in a post-shame world, a post-hypocrisy environment. You can't shame Republicans anymore."
The political work of stopping Donald Trump and the Republican fascists requires understanding how and why their appeals to fear, violence and terror are so effective, and then developing the strategy and tactics to counter them.
White Americans who have greater anxieties about death are more likely to support Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. Authoritarians are also more fearful of social change, difference, ambiguity and those outside their "tribe."
What do we know? Social psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly shown that white Americans who have greater anxieties about death are more likely to support Donald Trump and the MAGA movement. Republicans and other "conservatives" are also more likely to exhibit social dominance behavior and to have authoritarian personalities. Such personality types and cognitive orientations translate into a tendency to fixate on negative and frightening images and concepts. Authoritarians and others driven by social dominance behavior are also more fearful of social change, difference, ambiguity and those outside their "tribe," in-group, close family and imagined community.
Social scientists have shown that the white supremacist "great replacement" conspiracy theory is believed by a majority of Republicans and Trumpists. This is rooted in the fiction that white people are in danger of annihilation or imminent destruction by Black and brown people. It has motivated numerous violent crimes, including the massacre by a white supremacist of ten Black people in a Buffalo supermarket last May.
White right-wing evangelicals and Christian nationalists are the most loyal members of the Republican base and Trump's most enthusiastic supporters. Their religious mythology emphasizes "end times" and other eschatological fantasies and magical thinking, focused on visions of widespread destruction, death and calamity. Some believers actually hope to see mass death and suffering as a sign of the coming "Rapture" and their eternal salvation.
Social demographers have repeatedly shown that there is actually more early death, suicide, murder, criminality, poverty, prescription drug abuse and other forms of human misery and suffering — on a per capita basis — in "red state" America than in more cosmopolitan, progressive, affluent and dynamic "blue" cities and regions.
Because so many Trumpists and "conservatives," especially in rural America, are surrounded by suffering, they are hypersensitive to threat and anxiety about their own mortality. Moreover, many people who live in damaged red-state communities incorrectly generalize that the entire country is suffering in the same ways they are. Such fears and anxieties about death and mortality are reinforced and amplified throughout the right-wing echo chamber.
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The resulting impact becomes even more intense because so many Americans are locked in ideological and cultural silos, and rarely communicate or have any meaningful contact with those who possess different values. In a new essay for the Nation, historian Stephen Berry explains how whiteness, violence, rage, and fear came together on Jan. 6, 2021:
"I didn't know something could be so terrifying and embarrassing at the same time," tweeted the comedian Jess Dweck. The riot may have been a saturnalia of stupid, but we need to take it seriously. There is abroad in the land an entitled minority, marinating in grievance, convinced that something is being stolen from them. What is being "stolen" — an election, a "way of life," a "birthright," a "Lost Cause," Christmas — doesn't matter. Always it is a defensive white male fantasy based on insecurity, helplessness, and rage….
At the base of most contemporary American conspiracy theories is a white male fantasy that indulges the feeling of being aggrieved, abused, dominated, or violated, precisely to justify the legitimacy of the ensuing white male vengeance and demonstration of power and control. Nothing tastes better in the white male mouth than indignation — not a job and not a paycheck. The historian Gordon Fraser calls it the "libidinal pleasures of paranoia" and traces the impulse from the "Illuminati Crisis" in 1798 to Pizzagate in 2016.
White fears of annihilation, destruction and obsolescence, set against an increasingly diverse society, are fueled by how the Republican Party and larger "conservative" movement have, for decades, advocated and enacted policies that have literally caused physical and emotional harm to their own voters. As a practical matter, this perverse incentive structure functions to create more white rage and white despair at "the system," "elites," "big government" and so on, which Republicans weaponize and redirect against Black and brown people and anyone else deemed to be the Other or somehow un-American.
If working-class whites fear annihilation and obsolescence, that's not entirely irrational: For decades, Republicans have advocated and enacted policies that harm their own voters.
This is an old American story, built on divide-and-conquer tactics and the "psychological wages of whiteness." White people with money and power know how easy it is to manipulate poor and working-class white people through appeals to white supremacy, racial resentment, entitlement and fear. In the immortal words of Lyndon Johnson, "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you."
In that sense, Trump and the Republican fascists are not doing anything new. Sinclair Lewis famously warned that fascism would come to America wrapped in a flag and carrying cross. That was prophetic; one can't expect Lewis to have predicted the MAGA hats. Instead of running away from Trump and what he represents, tens of millions of white Americans are instead cheering him on as their herald, hero, and savior. Such mass delusions are a defining feature of fascism and other such destructive political ideologies and visions.
America is being consumed by a compulsion towards self-destruction. Time is running out. Will the American people choose life or death? They will soon find out.