Trump Is Following a Fascist Playbook as He Drives America Toward a Cliff
Jeffrey Goldberg in a damning piece in The Atlantic pulls no punches. We have entered the most debased and dangerous phase of the Trump presidency, one that began with an (until recently) little remarked upon rally in Florida, one at which “Trump gave tacit approval to the use of violence against immigrants.” Trump, as Goldberg points out, offered a “typically soulless” message, trying “to provoke feelings of deep insecurity among his followers, in the style of an expert populist preacher,” and attempting to stroke “their egos by referring to them as America’s true elite.” He also bemoaned the limits we place on law enforcement, in this case the Border Patrol, in a rambling and somewhat incoherent passage that his followers certainly understood.
“We don’t let them and we can’t let them use weapons,” Trump said. “We can’t. Other countries do. We can’t. I would never do that. But how do you stop these people?”
A woman in the crowd had an answer: “Shoot them!” she yelled. (I’m paraphrasing from Goldberg’s account.) The president responded with a joke — not a rebuke, not a correction, but a joke.
“That’s only in the Panhandle you can get away with that stuff.” He stopped for a moment to take in the crowd’s roaring approval. “Only in the Panhandle!” he repeated. This essentially “encouraged — in the greasy, joking-not-joking style he has perfected — the normalization of violence.”
This is straight from the fascist playbook, outlined by Jason Stanley in How Fascism Works, a book that is required reading at this moment in history because it describes better than almost any other text the current cultural zeitgeist.
Think about what he said and what he didn’t, and consider the echoes of early assaults on democratic norms here and abroad. We have the attack on the elites and the proclamation that Trump’s base. — read “the volk” — are the real Americans. We have the othering of Hispanics as invaders who must be met with military force, which the pretend elites will not allow. We have the glorification and normalization of violence.
Trump is neither Hitler nor Mussolini. Nor is he quite like the other fascist and proto-fascists out there. He often couches his authoritarianism and racism in a jokiness that gives him a level of plausible deniability. It is an elastic use of language that allows his supporters to be as publicly racist and xenophobic as they wish to be, without having to admit to their racism. It’s a neat trick, but it is effective — and prototypically American.
This language has left the mainstream press in a predicament. How to describe it without crossing the “objectivity line”? I think it should be easy. “If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck,” as my friend and former newspaper colleague John said. And yet, major news outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post are struggling with this.
The lead page of the Post’s app this morning offered a small-print headline that says simply that Trump attacked local leaders after he visited El Paso and Dayton in the wake of this weekend’s mass shootings, while the lion’s share of the page’s real estate was granted to a piece about Trump’s regrets over his brother’s death and the president’s commitments to dealing with the opioid crisis. The imbalance favors, the president, of course, granting him the kind of legitimacy as an elected official and as a human being that he objectively does not deserve.
The Times’ failures this week are well documented, as this Nate Silver tweet shows:
The Times altered the page for later editions, but ultimately has not learned its lesson — as this morning’s lead app page shows.
Look at the language used in the headlines. This is a direct result of a mainstream press unable to parse the tone and the words to see the actual meaning of what Trump is saying. I’m not defending him or them, obviously, just pointing out Trump’s ability to cross the line without there being any consequences for himself. He knows who is listening. He knows how they think, because they think like he does, and he knows his best route to retaining power is to stoke their resentments even as he uses language that the mainstream press has trouble characterizing.
The Times, in its reporting on yesterday’s visits, offers a good example of what I’m talking about. The story on how he “stokes divisions” carries an underlying assumption that Trump might act in a normal presidential manner, then shifts to an equality of blame, all the while using language that lets Trump pretend to be something he is not.
“President Trump visited Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso on Wednesday on a day intended as a show of compassion to cities scarred by a weekend of violence, but which quickly devolved into an occasion for anger-fueled broadsides against Democrats and the news media.”
The day “devolved,” the Times writes, apparently without any help from Trump — and nary a mention in the lede of Trump’s racist and white supremacist language, which both led up to and contributed an ideological foundation to the shootings.
“Mr. Trump’s schedule was meant to follow the traditional model of apolitical presidential visits with victims, law enforcement officials and hospital workers after calamities like the mass shootings that resulted in 31 deaths in Dayton and El Paso and that created a new sense of national crisis over assault weapons and the rise of white supremacist ideology.”
Here we have the assumption of normalcy, which we should’ve abandoned a long time ago. The Times and other outlets keep raising this specter, which is absurd.
“That plan went awry” — again, no agency involved here, it just happened — “even before Mr. Trump, who has acknowledged his discomfort with showing empathy in public, departed Washington.” Poor Donald has trouble being in touch with his feelings. “On Tuesday night, he tweeted that Beto O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman from El Paso, should ‘be quiet.’” Actually he tweeted a lot more, disparaging O’Rourke’s childhood nickname as a signal to his white supremacist friends that O’Rourke is a traitor.
“Both Mr. O’Rourke and (former Vice President Joe) Biden are running for president and have been particularly harsh in their criticism of Mr. Trump after the two shootings, and Mr. Trump rose to the bait.”
This reduces O’Rourke and Biden’s very real rage at the president to a campaign stunt. The Times is doing the president’s work for him here.
“The result was the latest example of Mr. Trump’s penchant for inflaming divisions at moments when other presidents have tried to soothe them, and further proof of his staff’s inability to persuade him to follow the norms of presidential behavior.”
Again, an attempt to normalize. He “inflames divisions,” which violates norms; he is not, apparently, engaging in overt racism. And, ultimately, this is his staff’s fault for failing to “follow norms.”
The press does this because a) they have been cowed by years of GOP attacks on them as biased, b) they are creatures of habit unable to alter their thinking, and c) Trump uses language and tone that they have trouble interpreting in the kind of nonpartisan, supposedly even-handed manner they have been told they need to use. Trump, by constantly attacking the “fake news media” and calling it the “enemy of them people,” only further cows the press.
What should be clear by now is that the mainstream press lacks the tools needed to keep the nation from following this monster over a cliff. Trump’s stated mission — to “Make America Great Again” — is a lie based on a myth; there is no greatness being offered, and the past being held up as a lost Eden never existed. The press seems incapable of acknowledging this.
In reality, Trump is engaging, as Goldberg said, in an “ongoing effort to make the American presidency a vehicle in the cause of marginalizing and frightening racial minorities.” His entire presidency is based on resentment and hate and, as Goldberg says, “there is no reason to hope that he will reform.” Our only hope is to remove him from office.