Fascism R Us?
The question is not whether Trump is a fascist, but rather, does fascism describe those who would elect him?
Aside from a fête honoring beloved friends who moved away, I cannot think of a time when there were more upset people in my living room: clutching poor folks’ Xanax in salt-rimmed glasses, last Thursday night we assembled to watch The Donald deliver his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. We had expected to laugh and jeer, but what actually happened wasn’t funny (at least anymore). Our experience watching the last night of the RNC was somewhat unexpectedly traumatic. Like David after the dentist, our drugged response was, simply, “is this real life?”
Ivanka Trump’s introduction of “my father” — too eerily close to “mein Führer” if you ask me — was, at least in regard to historical and generic norms, the perfect spousal convention send-up, signified creepily by her father’s hip-holding hug after he slinked across the dais to give his address. As Ivanka flawlessly delivered what many regard as a smashing political debut, my friend Mary Anne — Dr. Taylor, to be more precise — declaimed that her pleasing policy highlights were exactly opposite of the republican platform. That slack-jawed reckoning with Ivanka’s contradictory framing was soon replaced by the patented Steven Spielberg “Oh shit face” (SSOSF) and, eventually, five academics screaming back at Trump as he barked a series of authoritarian commonplaces: conventionalism, aggression toward the unconventional, mystical stereotyping, tropes of “strong-weak,” generalized hostility, projection (usually about the other of color, but sometimes Islam), and sexual obsessiveness — all of it was there (See Held, 143). While Trump may very well have a staffer reading Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology for inspiration, we must remember that The Donald does not read books, and that Junior declared in his speech that the clan has no use for academics and experts. Reading Trump as Schmittian too narrowly focuses on his person instead of the strategies and tropes that already circulate in culture and history (Schmitt’s “friend/enemy” distinction included). We should not look to Trump to understand his campaign or discern some sort of shrewd strategy because I think the strategy steers this ship, not The Donald and his staffers. As former Bush II speechwriter Micheal Gerson observed, the flap over Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech is the consequence of a “staff failure, indicating a weak campaign apparatus.” Trump is sorta like a cultural gallbladder on autopilot, channeling and redirecting social bile, but not in any studied way. This is to say that Trump is of a type and in some sense interchangeable with another of the same set of qualities. Instead of focusing on Trump, which is what he likes anyway, I think we should try to understand the people who support his presidency, or better, the relationship between Trump and his followers.
I think Trump’s campaign is better understood as replicating a structure or even a genre of political discourse, which was empirically researched and exhaustively detailed by Theodor W. Adorno and his colleagues in The Authoritarian Personality, first published in 1950. Although flawed, the Frankfurt School’s approach to understanding fascism integrated psychology and sociology in a way that expanded on Freud’s emerging theory of group psychology in the early 1920s. Adorno later summarized his approach to understanding authoritarianism as an attempt to flesh out Freud’s theories, which he believed anticipated the arrival of Hitler (see “Freudian Theory”).
After the first World War, Freud attempted to explain social movements as a way to relax conflicts internal to every individual but experienced collectively. Although the details are complex, the story is relatively simple: for most people, our egos are fragile and insecure, and we do all sorts of things to shore ’em up. That insecurity is a consequence of an internalized “superego” or “over-I” that demands conformity and inspires a punishing guilt:
In our research . . . we are led to make two reproaches against the super-ego of the individual. In the severity of its commands and prohibitions it troubles itself too little about the happiness of the ego, in that it takes insufficient account of the resistances against obeying them — of the instinctual strength of the id [in the first place], and of the difficulties presented by the real external environment [in the second]. Consequently we are very often obliged, for therapeutic purposes, to oppose the super-ego, and we endeavor to lower its demands. Exactly the same objections can be made against the ethical demands of the cultural super-ego. It, too, does not trouble itself enough about the facts of the mental constitution of human beings. It issues a command and does not ask whether it is possible for people to obey it. (Civilization 108)
Freud averred that “love thy neighbor as thyself,” for example, is a punishing demand because it is impossible. Humans have thus developed all sorts of techniques — especially the use of drugs, legal and otherwise — to provide relief from superegoic demands (for Jacques Lacan, the principle demand is to “enjoy!” and for Slavoj Žižek, “consume!”). Love is such an intoxicant; so, too, is watching movies, enjoying music, and sipping margaritas. The simple story is that authoritarian leaders are intoxicants, mediating the cultural superego or installing his or her own in its place. The Trump campaign, in other words, is a kind of drug. From a Freudian vantage, then, changing the mind of a Trump follower is almost impossible because he has invaded the psyche and installed his sense of “law and order” there. To change the mind of a Trump supporter is to change the person s/he believes themselves to be. The Trump supporter has the conviction of an emotional tie or affective bond.
For Adorno, the pickle is understanding this emotional tie: how is it created? In addition to examining thousands of interviews with “ordinary” people, Adorno was particularly interested in analyzing fascist speech and argued, in a nutshell, that fascists are fiendishly repetitive in their style — sloganeers supreme — but deliberately scant on policy. The bond is decidedly not in the details, but in the infantalizing effect of repetition — like the game of Peek-a-boo with an infant. Trump’s simplistic, playground language has all the hallmarks of an adolescent’s taunts and braggadocio (“very very”), inviting his supporters to regress with him. Anderson Cooper brilliantly called him out on this technique:
We tend to regress to an early state of being, to our adolescent selves, in search of love. “One of the most conspicuous features of the agitators’ speeches, namely the absence of a positive political program and of anything they might ‘give,’ as well as the paradoxical prevalence of threat and denial,” Adorno explains, is that “the leader can be loved only if he himself does not love” (“Freudian Theory” 127). The authoritarian leader demands love, idealizes him or herself for a superegoic installation, and engenders a classically political form of identification: the leader’s narcissism becomes our own, and attacks on him or her are attacks on “us.”
The achievement of this emotional bond with a leader happens through the intoxication of repetition, most especially in speeches. Of course, radio and television commercials have relied on “jingles” for a century, and we all know the chorus to “Dancing Queen” (one doesn’t have to think long about what Abba really means; it’s an iteration of the sonata form, but like a kind of childish repetition anticipating a pleasurable return to the home key or tonic). We are all familiar with the labor and memorable success of auditory repetitions. But, in politics, it is doubleplusgood if a repetition in speech is associated with an evil Other who threatens to take our hap-penis — or money, or guns, or religious convictions — away. For example, the ascendant chant of the first three, Kafkaesque days of the RNC, “lock her up,” yielded to newer articulations of “building the wall,” a guiding metaphor of Trump’s campaign that evokes the warnings of Roger Waters and Adorno in equal measure: Pink Floyd plumbed the affective bonds of an adolescent, fascistic identification with a brilliant concept album and film (“Mother should I run for president? Mother should I build a wall?), while Adorno made a career of thinking-through how Hitler happened:
The term “rabble rouser,” though objectionable because of its inherent contempt of the masses as such, is adequate insofar as it expresses the atmosphere of irrational emotional aggressiveness purposely promoted about our would-be Hitlers. If it is an impudence to call people “rabble,” it is precisely the aim of the agitator to transform the very same people into “rabble,” i.e., crowds bent to violent action without any sensible political aim, and to create the atmosphere of the pogrom. . . . The speeches [of autocrats] . . . are so monotonous that one meets with endless repetitions as soon as one is acquainted with the very limited number of stock devices. As a matter of fact, constant reiteration and scarcity of ideas are indispensable ingredients of the entire technique. (“Freudian Theory” 119).
Here “rabble” refers to an infantalized citizenry, of course, a support-system of teenagers in their 40s, 50s and 60s. To be sure, there are also a limited number of “stock issues” for Trump, and he repeats them compulsively without details, replete with unclear or abstract referents, nouns, and pronouns.
As Trump spoke on and on and on at the end of the final evening, his self-idealizing ad-libs extended what was presumably a strongly vetted and semi-structured address into a 75-minute, (dry) drunk-uncle screed recounting his worst hits. The monotonous address sent a few of my friends out of the room because they “couldn’t take it anymore.” For the left-leaning ear, it was as if Ivanka staged an Abba sing-a-long, but then The Donald emerged playing early Norwegian death metal. At least to us, the concluding address of the RNC felt and looked like the Nuremburg rallies chronicled by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will (1935) and parodied in Pink Floyd — The Wall (1982) and so many of Marilyn Manson’s stage shows during the “Antichrist Superstar” era: everyone who has grown up watching screens knows what it is supposed to look like. The perfect iconography (and plastic surgery) was in our faces. The tone was nationalist and angry. Instead of regalia there is a red tie. The Donald’s hand gestures recalled those of dictators from the past, but for those who support him the address was really the drug of love. Hence his parting terms of endearment, “I love you.”
Of course, the “you” Trump loves is nothing more than ghostwriter Tony Schwartz’s idealization of him in The Art of the Deal, which his followers are projecting back to Trump in a cycle of narcissism. For this reason, the final evening of the RNC was not “just sad and weird,” it was predictable and alarming — so much so that The Washington Post set a new precedent by publishing an Anti-Trump Op-Ed on their front page yesterday. Still, the Post went for an “authoritarian” adjective, not “fascist.”
Debriefing with tobacco with my friends on the patio— which is what the alcohol allows us to do without too much guilt — we took up the question of whether Trump is a fascist. The term “fascist” is muddy, mostly used as an epithet these days as George Orwell predicted and called for, and more than a few critics and commentators have hedged against using the term to describe Trump. “Fascism,” they say, should be a term used for an authoritarian personality who encourages a violent overthrow of the extant order, and “Trump is, fundamentally, a blustering political opportunist courting votes in a democratic system; he has not called for the violent overthrow of the system itself.” This observation should give us pause about “the system,” because the system includes us, and because ruptures of violence and massacres have become weekly events. Trump may incite violence, but the “system” is where we need to locate the follow-through.
Nevertheless, I have some sympathy with this hesitation; I think Trump is more accurately described as a “pervert,” in both the common sense (he warps social norms; he expresses incestuous desire, and so on) and the Lacanian sense (he knows what he is doing but does it anyway). Still, I think our tendency to focus on any individual as a fascist is a misstep and a failure to understand the authoritarian mood of our time as systemic and cultural. Following the insights of structuralists and poststructuralists alike, we would do better to focus on relationships, on the connections between bodies, on the relation between a given public and a persona, or on the bond an electorate imagines between itself and a leader. To be sure the Trump persona harbors all the qualities of “narcissistic personality disorder” and the authoritarian personality exhaustively detailed by scholars last century. My argument here is not that Trump is a fascist. It is, rather, that fascism as a relational structure makes Trump possible. My concern is the about the public — and more narrowly an electorate — who loves Trump because he loves himself — like, a lot — and because they have embraced the perverse political philosophy of “fuck it!” (Interestingly, Michael Moore came to the similar conclusion on his blog today.)
I want to come to a close by mentioning the pleasures of cinema and watching television, because I think the success of Trump’s candidacy is closely related: we take pleasure in watching screens because the relentless demands of society — the superego — get suspended in favor of the moral compass and rules of a fantasy world. Screened entertainment, precisely because it is intoxicating, also allows us to confront the horrors of our world in a presumably “safe space.” For example, one of my students, Dr. Sean Tiffee, wrote his dissertation about so-called torture porn, which he argued allowed moviegoers to confront their anxieties about the torture that happened after Nine-eleven. In this way, even when unpleasant, screened life provides us opportunities to express feelings that are socially unacceptable (hatred) or work-through cultural traumas that we don’t yet have the language for (Nine-eleven). I’ve already argued that the Trump campaign is indeed like a reality show in which viewers get to make investments without having to make commitments; this is the logic of television viewing and movie going, and it’s also the logic of group psychology. Some of Trump’s followers can actually see the train-wreck the rest of us see, and yet, they are investing anyway.
This summer I taught my “Rhetoric & Film” course, as I do every summer here at the University of Texas. The course is a survey of film theory heavily skewed toward “screen theory” (a term that indexes a British meld of psychoanalysis and film critique, equal parts semiotics and psychoanalysis, Christian Metz and Laura Mulvey). Unquestionably Riefenstahl was in mind when I watched Trump’s acceptance speech, as I had just shown the opening sequence of Triumph of the Will some weeks ago. But another film I screened better captures what I think last week’s RNC Convention projected: Fritz Lang’s chilling masterpiece, M (1931). In this film a serial killer of children, played by Peter Lorre (it is implied he is a pedophile), represents anarchy, and the community is distraught and anxious to have him captured and tried. Lang brilliantly juxtaposes the police and the mob — much like The Wire series did — to suggest “the people” will support the authority who can capture the killer and bring him to justice. The mob finally captures the guy and sets up a kangaroo court in an abandoned booze distillery — remember Christie’s mock trial at the RNC? — but just as the assembled community move to kill the killer, the police arrive and subject the “criminal” to state sanction. Regardless, as the late Thierry Kuntzel argued, the film registers the will to fascism in a people through fantasy: they don’t care if it’s the state or the mob who will exact order, they just want order; if not the police, then the mob. If you want to understand why Hitler succeeded for the German people, Lang’s thinly veiled allegory provides an answer. And to jump-cut to today: If not The Donald, then it would have been The Cruz.
Over the past month we have witnessed the killing of people of color by police, the killing of the police by people of color, and a series of massacres across the globe. These events are terrible, but amplified as “breaking news” in a relentless parade by the so-called news media helps enflame the sense of anarchy and a crumbling social order. Our “news feeds” and “Tweets” on social media websites seem to have become a parade of sanctimony, too. While the murdering is real and must be stopped, the perception of a dystopian Purge-style society falling apart is not. Enflaming such a perception of the world, however, is how at least more than half of us will become fascists. Deity forbid that there is a mass shooting the day before the election.
Cited Stuff to Check Out
Adorno, Theodor W. “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.” The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Eds. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continuum, 2002. 118–137. (PDF here!)
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961. (PDF here!)
Freud, Sigmund. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990. (E-book here!)
Held, David. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.