Trump’s America was Sort of Fascist, But Mostly a Deeply Stupid Decline
In the weeks since the election, it was tough to describe Donald Trump’s coup attempt as a coup attempt because it was fumbling and shambling and he posted skeins of bizarrely punctuated tweets that were basically “I WON THE ELECTION” followed by, “If I kill myself, no one would even care!” Since the god-emperor lost to the most mentally decimated candidate the Democrats could’ve run, he has been lobbing cartoon bombs at the columns of democratic legitimacy. Like all things Trump-related, it has been both hilarious and grotesque. The public life of clammy end-stage Rudy Giuliani has somehow gotten even weirder since his cameo in Borat: He did a press conference thing with soy sauce snaking down the side of his face, had a noticeable outrage pwomp in front of the Michigan State Legislature, and prodded an Indian woman to say “all Chinese look alike” in court to prove some weird point about voter fraud. Tucker Carlson was accused of being a member of the Pizzagate pedophile ring simply because he asked for any evidence of this “massive electoral fraud.” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany held various stilted press conferences in which she blinked rapidly and spoke in vague and heated terms about all the many serious things the Trump Administration would soon be looking into very strongly. Trump’s crack B-team of vampires resembled a federal jobs program for anyone who’s ever complimented him on Twitter: It was headed by Sidney Powell, whose idea of a fancy lawyer outfit is a leopard-printed cardigan. They came up with nothing more than a haphazard combination of strongly-worded executive nuh-uh’s, whimsical lawfare, and improvisational sloganeering in hopes that a federal judge would think Trump is normal.
This monster-pig shipwreck act barrelled down a darker avenue of possibility when the Washington Post leaked a tape of an hour-long phone call that involved Trump trying to Fat Tony Georgia’s secretary of state into finding 11,000 votes to flip the state’s electoral results. The call quickly turned into an unknowable and unanswerable dispute, like watching a fat old housecat trying to draw through a maze.
But for all the grim precedent-busting that the last five years have delivered, it’s difficult to overstate the significance of a horde of MAGA chuds storming Capitol Hill as Congress was certifying the presidential election results — even if it amounted to a flailing temper tantrum that could be described as ComicCon on crack. This unprecedented attack on America’s electoral integrity, Constitutional order, and peaceful transfer of power happened on behalf of the personal ego trip of an insane game show host and nothing more. The aftermath played out much like every other major Trump controversy that has led to this. He began with a trademark stretch of ignominious silence, then moved on to a monstrous and indefensible public statement.
In the most myopic interpretation, this Capitol Hill Putsch stemmed from months of Trump’s anti-democratic antics and subsequent refusal to concede, while high-profile Republican politicians turned into the Pointing Spiderman meme, either wholeheartedly endorsing falsifiable election fraud claims or hinting at solidarity with the president. The GOP tried to harness the energy of their perpetually aggrieved base to win the Georgia runoffs, so they indulged Trump’s bungling flirtations with authoritarianism hoping he’d tucker out and go to bed after being afforded one more scoop of ice cream.
In the days after Trump began his quest to reclaim his rightful second term, a “senior Republican official” told The Washington Post:
“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”
The hole of America has been gold-plated, and the GOP submitted themselves to a crude, shoddy, bizarre, erratic pussy-grabber whose most consequential pre-presidential decision was firing Meatloaf on live TV. Trump was always too incompetent to do anything with his presidency beyond cheesy venality, because there was never anything more to Trumpism outside of personal gratification and self-dealing. Trump was only ever interested in whatever got and kept him on TV — and, in turn, whatever got and kept him in power — and this, of course, corresponds with many Republican strategies for various cynical reasons.
The GOP de-anchored themselves from the norms of majority rule and political equality, and it drifted America into the kind of involuted, manifestly unworkable, and multiply leveraged luxury wreck that Trump has spent his entire life dumping into Atlantic City. It was fairly obvious that once there was a conflict between keeping this guy in the Oval Office and maintaining a decades-long conservative project, Republicans would cut bait. When this moment would arrive was uncertain.
It has been difficult to label the Trump Administration as fascist, in part because the word has served as a blithe colloquial metonym for things I don’t like, and it was also unlikely the Donald and the GOP ever had any grander totalitarian ambitions. Four years of hyperbolic #resistance pundits making facile Hitler comparisons didn’t help either. Even when you peel away this grisly coup attempt, this critical moment of national atrophy has the shape and feel of something fashy, even if America isn’t literally in the midst of 1984 and the Holocaust combined.
Historian Robert Paxton observes several phases of fascism. It arises from a deadlock of constitutional government, a weak liberal opposition, and an advancing left. A grinding, blunderingly vicious base begins to think if we want things to stay the same, things will have to change, and fascist leaders have historically leveraged this sentiment into a power grab, either through unprincipled opportunism or ideological dishonesty. “Trump is not essentially a conservative,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “Trump is an anti-liberal. They’re not the same phenomenon. But he may be the most effective uprooter of liberalism in my lifetime.” Conservative elites who refuse to work with their political opposition collaborate with fascists because they feel unable to govern without further reinforcement.
In a more specifically American context, this is an ideology the places a primacy on the rule of big money, militarism, narrow forms of patriotism, and scapegoating the most vulnerable. It is tied to a misdirected sense of catastrophe and frontier myths about moral regeneration through violence. This sounds a lot like the Republican Party and the most schizophrenic quarters of its base. But really, the pockmark of America’s civilizational decline is the overall lack of courage to push back against these forces. E.O. Matthiessen once quipped that America was the only nation to move from innocence to corruption without a mediating stage of maturity. Trump is how he is because of his gaudy net worth and because of America’s reflexive deference toward men of similar stature; this has not just coddled but cultivated his every poisonous whim.
This whole nation is trapped in Trump’s gilded and claustrophobic life, but in the longer shots, it’s easier to see that a fascist threat exists beyond the treacherous spectacle of a deeply stupid man. Donald Trump does not become president of a nation by accident, even if there’s a slapstick element to it. A country would have to be depraved enough to produce someone like Donald Trump in the first place, sick enough to let someone like Donald Trump seize power, distracted and deluded enough to justify his casual public defilements, and defeated enough to almost run it back again.
As of December 2020, 87 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s job — a sign that a not-insignificant portion of Red America is either ideologically permissive of or susceptible to fascism.
This threat looms beyond the bad actors. This is a shitty reality TV show.
The same way Sarah Palin can see Russia from her house, Donald Trump can see his eternal glory on a television set. His slapdash performances of executive seriousness stem from his idea of A Very Successful Man, which is determinedly stuck in the year 1985. He likes women and being famous, so he got into beauty pageants and reality TV. That put him in a position to understand the presidential election is just a badly acted, billion-dollar TV show full of insincere campaign coverage and manipulative ads. America turned the pursuit of its highest office into a careening soap opera full of meaningless dross; the campaign trail is, by design, a regressive process centered around furious trivial arguments, assigning blame, and plunging your finger into open wounds. It turns out when the electoral process devolves into a fake and dysfunctional parody of itself, any half-bright con man could waltz in and kick the implicit rules in the crotch. But Trump is no half-bright con man. His unvarnished bigotry and cheesy showbiz thirstiness made him the ultimate contestant.
Trump offers voters permission to occupy the statistical American mean: a flabby waistline, barely literate, treasuring property above all else. Before politics, he lived his singularly episodic life chasing feuds and preposterous vanities; his uncanny style made for some compelling tabloids and network television drama. The demeaning antics appalled the Anderson Coopers and Rachel Maddows of the world, who would whimper and flail and outrage over the venal gossip of a vainglorious fraud, but it never made a dent in his popularity. Voters don’t need Politifact to know what Trump is about. They see it in his low-brow cruelty.
Trump understands that WWE America loves watching the preening stiff get whacked with a steel chair. And what he said about the 16 non-Trump Republican contestants in 2016 was true: The rest of the Clown Car GOP lineup was full of religious stooges, robo-babbling stand-ins for unseen interests, and whimps with crooked or blood-soaked records.
Republicans who postured as tweedy Buckleyites spent 50 years preaching rich people bromides like “trickle-down economics” while glibly offering the flag, Willie Horton, and a succession of freedom-and-God speeches. Millions of voters responded to “conservative principles” because that soaring bland rhetoric was always coupled with the more effective politics of resentment: Big-government liberals and coastal elitists are to blame for your problems.
In the far-right world, every successful villain has always been worse than the last. Portrayals of Al Gore as the second coming of Lenin or John Kerry as a secret communist agent are idylls of a more quaint national politics. The race element took Obama-hatred to horrifying places, and Trumpian license pushed the visceral disdain for Hillary Clinton beyond the realm of sanity.
Red state voters, like Trump, absorb all this riffraff from a position of perfectly passive abstraction; they’re watching a television show in which the main character beats up enemies, and all they expect is that it delights them each and every day with new antagonists and plot twists. “Mussolini did not have a philosophy,” philosopher Umberto Eco writes. “He had only rhetoric.” Trump hoovered the hardcore race nuts on Day One of his campaign with an opening “crime and rape” salvo while pledging to erect a 2,000-mile-long rape defense barrier and finagle the Mexican government to pay for it. He spent the following year cleverly leveraging that single tumor of die-hard adoration all the way to the Oval Office.
The watchdogs in the political media can’t resist a car wreck, which works only for the wrong parties, in all the wrong ways. Trump gets to be on TV, which is all he wants; the news media gets to do salacious stories about the president and watch the ratings go up and up, which is all media executives want. An audience that has been alienated from mutual truth and any sense of clarity for decades either LOL’d along the way or yelled at this perturbing spectacle in some combination of snark, contempt, and all-caps disgust.
Like every TV contest, the presidential race discourages reconciliation and encourages belligerence and conflict. Trump’s thin-skinned dealings with reporters were highlighted by calling Megyn Kelly a period-crazed bias monster and mocking the neurological condition of a New York Times reporter by impersonating a writhing disabled person at a rally. He would do a weird fey bullying thing in response to questions he can’t answer, either by calling the press “fake news” or encouraging violence against journalists, and many didn’t hesitate to whip out the lügenpresse comparisons. Trump would go into headline-making mode, shredding one party-approved hack after another while voters ate it up and spent the whole primary howling for blood. His first debate with Hillary Clinton turned into the Ali-Frazier of political events, with 84 million people tuning in.
There was never really a sober discussion of his proposed Muslim ban or lust for waterboarding or encouragement of police violence or his urge to take out terrorist’s families. Mostly, media figures just bayonetted each other over pussy-grabbing or the Central Park Five or Miss Universe’s weight.
All of Trump’s opponents seemed overwhelmed, out of touch, and behind the curve in comparison. By the time the other Republican candidates finished their mass-suicide-squad routine and Hillary faceplanted in all the wrong states, a tail-chasing, sewer-mouthed, bellicose pervert was doling out a comic-book-villain carnage speech for his inauguration.
A single day into his presidency, Trump compelled an embalmed White House Press Secretary to insist beyond the evidence of photographs and television footage that the attendance of his inauguration was higher than Barack Obama’s first inauguration to a press corps that knew he knew he was lying. All presidents lie, though few have done it quite as relentlessly or thirstily or with as much unaccountable personal dampness as Trump. He began to use Fox “News” as a Human Centipede to generate and sustain the roiling anxieties and curdled impulses that simultaneously fuel, and are fueled by, his politics and the programming he so hungrily devours.
Trump was unable to stop being a reality star, and you could tell the pressure cooker presidency was getting to him because his pugnacious tenacity began to play out as a series of taunts and muggings and increasingly sweaty arguments. Trump from the start had been playing a part, but his acting got worse as time went on. He went from bulldozing rebel to the Teflon avatar of a brutal, arbitrary, and manifestly untenable status quo. Trump became the mother of all pop-culture anti-heroes, a despised cross of Charlie Sheen, Jimmy the Greek, and Mussolini. His ability to play heel and statesman, menace and raving buffoon, was either maestro manipulation or his stale cheese whiz brain melting out of his mouth — but you’d have to tune in tomorrow to find out. He was too dumb to figure it out, and his paralysis played itself out on the Super Bowl of political stages. It was great television, but Trump surely did his part to hurry along the florid denigration of American politics.
His multi-frontal assaults on empirical reality built on one another — from “alternative facts” to QAnon — until the baldly racist fabrications and self-serving falsehoods morphed to dehumanizing and blearily apocalyptic rhetoric. He is both the most important character in this busy trashscape and one of its most avid consumers.
The relationship between Trump and the outrage industry is simple: He would govern by telling someone whose name he’d soon forget to fix a problem he didn’t care enough to understand, then he’d watch Fox and Friends to see how well he was doing, then pundits would feed him some greasy conspiracy they blithely plucked from the alt-right sludge canals, then Trump would repeat the rumor he had just heard on TV, then liberal media would shriek over Trump’s Dangerous and Irresponsible statements like a whistling teapot, then Trump would counterpunch in a scrambling tantrum-swept presser or in an amphetamized midnight Twitter shart, then reply guys would respond with a deranged tweet of their own, then scatterbrained MAGA acolytes would up the dickish hyperaggression. The process repeats and escalates into more bitter and redoubled grandiosity.
Trump’s narcissism is so malignant that it alters basic ethical equations. He called a bunch of torch-bearing Nazi’s “very fine people” after their Charlottesville rally resulted in the life of a young woman being snuffed out by a vehicular terrorist. This could be because he has the level of morality typically seen in the flatworm community or because these Confederate-wannabe freaks were rocking MAGA hats. He treated “illegals” as subhumans and referred to MS-13 as “animals.” After clashes between BLM and the police finally collapsed into a grim loop of defiant protest and an unaccountable police-state indiscriminately gassing and thrashing those protesters, Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts the shooting starts” — a racially-charged quote from 1967 Miami Police Chief Walter Headley. More recently, he did his own whiny book-burning thing by threatening to withhold funding for schools using the 1619 Project, directing all federal agencies to cancel all white privilege and critical race theory programs, and delivering a speech about “patriotic education.”
The singular imperative of cable news is less to inform voters than to keep them twitchy enough to sit through all those catheter commercials for the next hit of outrage. After sufficient immersion in this disinfotainment dynamic, viewers do not reason through the information they receive as much as they respond to changes in tone, and the president watches television in the same blank and fulsome way as any other brain-rotted adult in America.
In the absence of any meaningful national politics outside of Trump’s endless prissy vendettas, a chief executive as multiply uninterested and howlingly absent as him managed to shape the tenor and ambient everyday mood of the nation. His singular achievement was making America a prisoner of his every blowzy clubhouse feud, forever, in an endless reflexive escalation that exists primarily in defiance of the idea of an ending. Racists became more racist and America experienced a total loss of our collective grip on reality. Puppies and cancer kids were the only groups left untargeted. Trump had us arguing over things that aren’t supposed to be questions, like, are Nazis bad?
Even as Trump’s presidency winds down, it is still jarring how unbelievably cheap and checked-out his communications remain, and how luridly it still resonates with MAGA chuds. His reelection bid was something much more like fan-fiction than politics, and while all of it centered on him, there were variants of it available for those who were either cable-addled or internet-damaged. Adoring fans bought into this manic spectacle narrative that was mostly a congeries of brutal and incoherent fantasies about Trump’s enemies and their soaring cosmic perfidy. The people involved in the coup have reached a point where they reject democratic governance because they engage with a fully separate media consumptive universe where Trump can’t lose, ever.
This is especially troubling because confusing and frightening indignities really are happening, every day. Each violation of our Constitution and civic peace gets absorbed, rationalized, and accepted by hooting football fans who are addicted to owning the libs. While Trump and his cackling marks thrill to all this — the drama, the action — they are celebrating their right to dish and take offense without consequence or reason, while armed state agents do all the dirty work necessary to keep their party raging.
Over 74 million Americans looked at a clownish bully, and the naked fascism that came along with his deceit and buffoonery, and still voted for him — either because they share these values or found it to be a delightful troll. It took a sprawling and metastatic pandemic to sink Trump, which also speaks to some remarkable institutional failures, one of which being the media’s failure to reckon with their responsibility for creating a hate-driven, absurdly credulous populace.
As the stakes of politics are grafted on to pure entertainment, the fascistic flare-ups dissipate into a refreshing timeline until the next one arrives, memeable and something to sneer and gawk at in bleak amusement, the seriousness of it all buried under bluster until stupidity and cruelty are conflated and confused utterly.
If fascism were to ever arrive in America, we’d be too busy yelling at toxic abstractions to even notice.
At some point after the Cold War, the right’s Reaganite optimism hardened into a form of apocalyptic pessimism. What was supposed to be the glorious end-of-history Pax Americana mostly stagnated into a bunch of adult infants squabbling over healthcare and budget deficits while the Kardashians became a thing for some reason. Disillusioned conservative elites eventually pivoted from American exceptionalism to American degeneracy to present themselves as the avant-garde of a modern revolution. Foreign enemies were swapped out for domestic ones: Western Civilization is doomed and the (white) American way of life is under threat from immigration, political correctness, liberal media, academia, cultural Marxism, globalists, transgenderism, the establishment, the left, and the Dems.
Conservatives have a built-in conception of themselves as True Patriots, the arbiters of Real America. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” asked Tucker Carlson about Kyle Rittenhouse, who traveled from Illinois to Wisconsin with a rifle he was legally too young to own and murdered two Black Lives Matter protestors. On a higher level, elected Republicans fancy themselves as competent administrators or as loyal party members. This rosy self-deception created a cognitive distortion of their own righteousness, and when coupled with the intoxicating and titillating thrill of power, helped them rationalize all of Trump’s most befuddling behavior.
In a 1968 article for The Atlantic, James Thomson, an American East Asia specialist, explained why many officials did not resign or speak out in public as the war in Vietnam was failing spectacularly. He called it the “effectiveness trap”:
“The inclination to remain silent or to acquiesce in the presence of the great men — to live to fight another day, to give on this issue so that you can be ‘effective’ on later issues — is overwhelming. Nor is it the tendency of youth alone; some of our most senior officials, men of wealth and fame, whose place in history is secure, have remained silent lest their connection with power be terminated.”
You should never underestimate a person’s ability to rationalize themselves into anything — the McRib is enough proof. There is a certain flubby majesty to a mediocre steak salesman holding an entire political party hostage. To loyally serve in Trump’s negligible honor is a stupid choice, if also one that makes a bleak sort of sense in a culture warped by vacant power-worship and reflexive servility. His terms of enlistment are clear, and to follow Trump’s vengeful command and idiot lies is to leave everything on the battlefield. Chris Christie and Anthony Scaramucci offered themselves up as human punchlines and all they have to show for it is a brief stint as a fast-food errand-boy and a leaked phone call with accusations of auto-fellatio.
The OG Trumpist die-hards like Steve Bannon invented, post hoc, “national conservatism” to frame the president’s confounding gambits as ideological ambition: His brain-dead politics was, of course, the tough-guy anti-Wall Street, anti-foreign wars, anti-immigration alternative to the dweeby trickle-down pyramid scheme of establishment Republicans. Others in the Trump Administration, like the anonymous author of a 2018 New York Times op-ed, thought they could guide “the president’s amorality” and “erratic behavior” toward more familiar Republican policy.
Various party cynics and masochists devoted themselves to anticipating every colicky fart that rumbles out of Trump’s mouth, in fear of his spastic wrath or a whimsical ousting or his hooting fans calling them a pedophile because they had a gravy stain on their tie once.
On the domestic front, the Trump era delivered orthodox Republican governance in spades. There were some Potemkin populist rallies concealing a cabinet stuffed with generals and unqualified billionaires, an administration run by former lobbyists and cronies, and a White House roster of Trump’s dull and preening family, superannuated goblins, the least principled members of the GOP lickspittle community, and whatever waiver-wire flotsam was available to plug in the holes. The president funneled millions of taxpayer dollars into his Mar-a-Lago resort and his frequent golf retreats. Republicans worked to dismantle the Affordable Care Act without offering anything better — but, Trump promised something tremendous! — and, predictably, the number of uninsured Americans ballooned. A probable sex offender was confirmed to the Supreme Court and district courts are now stuffed with Federalist Society cranks. The sugar-high economic surge was made possible because of a $1.5 trillion crater in the federal deficit, and the CARES Act leveraged a pandemic-spurred depression into the largest transfer of wealth to the mega-rich in American history.
What separates Trump from a regular Republican is he exists in a consequence-free zone of great privilege and pure totalizing shamelessness, which results mostly in an unreasoning battle to displace sacred norms with his own sour self. His inability to grasp subtext took the euphemistic racism and the debased rank fascism that was previously latent in Republican appeals and turned them explicit — mostly because it was politically expedient, and also because it was the most convenient thing for him to do besides mashing a big red applause button.
Trump flailed and fumed and feinted his way through turning his administration into an authoritarian personality cult, defenestrating officials who have contradicted his lazy dictatorial aspirations. He fired FBI Director James Comey after he probed into his campaign’s alleged ties to the Kremlin and tweet-bullied Attorney General Jeff Sessions into quitting after he recused himself from the federal investigation of Comey’s swift dismissal.
His autocratic tendencies appeared in familiar chiding ways when he ordered the “totally not a” Muslim ban or increased the number of migrant children in concentration camps or when he ordered federal police to kidnap and throw Portland BLM protesters into unmarked vans or when he unleased tear gas on D.C. protesters so he could grab a goofy photo-op. Like a lesser celebrity encountering a more famous one, Trump fawned over dictators — including Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duerte, and Kim Jong Un — hoping the aura of their absolute power and cruelty would rub off on him.
The simple stuff is simple in the way that all the most purely Trump behavior is exactly the oafish power play it appears to be. Mostly, he demands subordinates to just fix it for him, sometimes in tones of peevish impatience and at other times in oily simper, even when it’s clear that whatever he’s doing is not working, or unethical, or some dreary combination of both. Social scientists who have studied the erosion of values and the growth of corruption inside companies have found, for example, that “people are more likely to accept the unethical behavior of others if the behavior develops gradually (along a slippery slope) rather than occurring abruptly.” When certain behaviors are normalized, people stop seeing them as wrong.
Republicans found themselves in ideological lockstep with Trump and used his popularity as a vessel for railroading their unpopular agenda through Congress. It was in their political interest to never see their leader face any meaningful accountability, and it temporarily short-circuited any checks and balances that would’ve restrained a manifestly corrupt game show host. Former House Leader Paul Ryan gummed up the Mueller investigation early on and the Nunes memo helped undermine its credibility. Various party opportunists lined up to back Trump’s endless fudgy thundering with overbearingly violent reprisals of their own. Senator Tom Cotton penned a New York Times op-ed to float the idea of an open-ended military-response to BLM protests; Senator Ted Cruz introduced a bill to criminalize Antifa; Attorney General William Barr suggested that federal prosecutors should charge protesters with sedition; and Representative Matt Gaetz once tweeted, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?”
Politicians have spent their careers following rules and calibrating their language and giving pious speeches about morality and our founding principles. It appears at this point that Trump could actually shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still bask in the adoration of his devoted fans, so their hope is that the rules that so flagrantly do not apply to him might not apply to those who lift him up. Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the lure of the forbidden a century ago, describing the carnival as a realm where everything banned is suddenly allowed, where eccentricity is encouraged, where profanity trumps piety. The Donald became the carnival king ruling over an alternate universe where there’s no difference between moral and amoral, where everyone is implicitly unshackled from basic causality or consequence or at least the need to offer a plausible enough pretense of decency. The alt-right understood the dark allure of unrestrained nihilism before many members of the Republican Party, and they unleashed blatant racism and transphobia and misogyny from its euphemistic cage.
When Marshal Philippe Pétan, the leader of collaborationist France, took over the Vichy government, he did so in pursuit of restoring a France that he believed had been lost. By his reckoning, collaborating with Nazi Germany was crucial, because it gave him the ability to fight the real enemies: the French parliamentarians, socialists, anarchists, Jews, and other assorted leftists who, he believed, were sapping the nation of its vitality.
The existential threat from “the left” is the conservative stock excuse to justify anything the Republicans need to do to restore a dying nation from cosmopolitan decadence. “No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America,” Patricia McCloskey said in a recorded video for the 2020 Republican National Convention. (She and her husband face felony weapons charges for threatening and brandishing guns at BLM protesters outside their St. Louis suburb home last June.) Thanks to a wild-eyed binge of right-wing disinformation, perpetually indistinct conspiracies, and defiant and incoherent fearmongering, screaming red-faced Republican voters have developed an insane victim complex where they live beneath a veil of monsters they’ve painted on their own bedroom walls. Whatever harm Trump has done to democracy or whatever corrupt self-dealing he does shrinks in comparison to the horrific alternative: they/them pronouns or a local Cheesecake Factory being replaced with a shawarma shack.
It’s been long suspected that some of the biggest hypocrites in America are right-wing Christians, and evangelical pastors rationalized Trump’s behavior by offering dubious scriptural precedents: Like King David, the president is a flawed sinner but he offers a path to salvation for a fallen nation. If you’re convinced America is living in the End Times, at least the president empowers Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General William Barr to save a fallen nation from a far worse fate. Anything Trump does, then, can be forgiven.
All these rationalizations and justifications predictably turned the Trump Administration into a survival of the slickest situation full of flunkies and suckers. It also became the political calculation of many members of Republican Party leadership when justifying their opposition to impeachment last February. They saw the evidence of Trump leveraging America’s foreign policy tools to force the president of Ukraine to investigate a domestic political opponent and decided to acquit the president in haste. GOP officeholders knew Trump was innocent — their public reasoning was incoherent, but their internal calculus was clear. Trump got away with extorting a foreign country, and it is the nature of his presidency that moments like that come and go frequently, arriving in rude and grandiose ways before being swept away by the next gust of noise and fury, and the one after that.
The consequences of this decision became clear a month after, as Trump willfully and childishly duffed a federal counteroffensive to a rampaging pandemic that plunged the nation into a depression and has shedded 127 9/11s worth of lives in name of the American Way and various industries’ bottom lines. He excommunicated anyone who so much raised an eyebrow at his convoluted insanity, leaving him with a small-but-dependable crowd of groveling supplicants who would gladly jettison professionalism and competency in favor of flattering Trump’s elephantine self-grandeur.
Trump’s government responded to this pandemic in the same way it responds to anything else — with weird lies and distracting skirmishes and a proliferation of cheesy scandals, led by an unpleasant man so obviously overmatched and confounded by the basic day-to-day continuity of it. Our hollowed-out state fails daily; it has somehow forgotten how to do anything but inflict and retroactively justify suffering. The Trump presidency has unfolded much like Trump’s life — a series of compromises forced upon other people.
Trump never has a plan, let alone one for losing the election; he simply moves from one flubby gilded hustle to the next, and whatever mess he leaves behind is by definition not his problem. There was never a chance that Trump would respond to an electoral defeat in anything other than the most egregiously undignified way. The only remaining check on him would be the voters — and he found ways to juke them, too. “MAIL-IN VOTING WILL LEAD TO MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE,” Trump tweeted last May. “IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.” He spent the late-summer months trying to sabotage the U.S. Postal Service and uttered baffling lies about election integrity in a cat-handed attempt to disenfranchise tens of millions of mail-in votes.
The election came and went after a near-week-long thrill, but it was boringly unobjectionable. So amid the last thrashing, whinging, sopping-wet days of his presidency, every rancid development was ominous in ways so overt that they qualified more as pending than looming. The various theories and gambits and hybrid rationalizations that Trump has deployed since losing the Democalypse 2020 are vague by necessity.
There is nothing more concrete to find because the point is more or less to keep the less-discerning types in a sufficiently blind and grift-amenable frenzy. Trump’s own fervid counter-narrative is communicated almost entirely in clammy garbles of mini-stroke illogic, and the soap opera plot that Republican sycophants have memorized runs in perfect parallel to observable reality. Q went so far as to heralding Trump as the modern Caesar, declaring these post-election antics as him “crossing the rubicon.” What is Trump’s Gaul? … New York Fashion Week?
Out of refracted spite and out of habit, Trump and various members of his party whipped up a hazy hysteria about the election being unfair and tainted as if it were just another outrage on TV. They sowed public doubt by baselessly questioning the results in a fit of incontrovertible breakthroughs-to-come and clock-killing bluster until it incited an exceptionally oafish coup attempt.
Trump didn’t participate in the siege himself, of course, because he doesn’t walk as a matter of fact and he doesn’t do his own errands. Hundreds of people who live to unleash the full idiotic force of American sadism bum-rushed Capitol Hill under the impression that they were fulfilling their patriotic duty or serving their own unenlightened self-interest, although Trumpism does not recognize a distinction between the two. Funny enough, the same people who bitch endlessly about cancel culture tried to cancel democracy itself.
In the embarrassing aftermath, former allies have assembled in front of whirring cameras to performatively condemn and impeach Trump because they realize the jig is finally up. Republicans and many business tyrants permitted the Mad King to indulge in whatever stupid, grasping, childish cruelty he desires because they are members of a superstructure that would’ve politically and financially benefitted from a second Trump term. If they were sincerely opposed to anti-democratic insurrectionary activity, they would’ve condemned this president months ago. These people are dimestore Adolph Eichmanns stifled by anomie and enmity, waiting for the flashpoint that would determine if they were on the right or wrong side of power. Their fence-sitting has aided and abetted white supremacist terrorism, the denigration of democracy, and lurking fascism.
In an alternate universe where this hamfisted coup was successful, there was nothing in the past five years to suggest that any elected Republican would’ve stepped in to meaningfully challenge it.
Republicans are not making a principled stand for anything. They’re kicking Trump’s while he’s down.
The Republican Party is in an inherent conflict with American democracy. The GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections and has earned fewer votes in the last four Senate elections, but has won the highest office and maintained control of the Upper Chamber three times each. They are cushioned by the Electoral College and an electoral system that disproportionately overrepresents rural states. Republicans understand they are a part of a bigger, decades-long political project to entrench their increasingly minoritarian rule. If they simply accept their oligarchic agenda polls horribly, they face a choice between broadening their appeal and devising ways to thwart their opponents.
Conservatives are disinclined to surrender this fight because their movement has been usurped by intractable ideologues that believe the protection of wealth is an issue of fundamental liberty and universal programs like Medicare-for-All are no different than Literal Stalinist Totalitarianism. A party that wins without winning the most votes will turn against democracy itself. “If Republicans don’t challenge and change the U.S. election system, there will never be another Republican president elected again,” said Senator Lindsey Graham immediately after the election. If the gap between popular will and the Republican platform grows wide enough, necessary suppressive measures like gerrymandering and poll closures will become increasingly extreme.
Mitch McConnell is widely considered to be America’s foremost hypocrite, though he is only hypocritical at face value; his savvy weaponized dullardry conceals the reality that Republican arguments are a series of frantic and doddering pivots from one isolated and unsupported claim to the next. When he refused to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court for 293 days in Obama’s last year as Chief Executive, he did so based on an obscurantist reading of the “Biden Rule” that dubiously feinted toward the idea that a president shouldn’t nominate a justice during an election year — but it was obvious this was being made up on the fly.
The Senate majority leader opportunistically, if not unsurprisingly, ditched that principle when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away last September and a GOP-controlled Senate rammed through Amy Comey Barret while the 2020 presidential election was in full swing. McConnell’s behavior isn’t as hypocritical as much as it is ruthless in securing a viable future for his rotten party. Flip-flopping on a justice confirmation during a presidential election year is fully consistent with the principle of entrenching Republican power at all costs, and he secured a veto point against any future progressive agenda for generations.
This sort of brutal powerplay isn’t anything new, of course. Republicans have backed tax cuts and tough-on-crime and Voter ID laws as part of a tasteless gambit for personal profit and political expediency, then produce racist rationales to advance them.
When Richard Nixon called for “law and order” and declared drug use public enemy №1, one of his top advisers famously revealed: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” Nixon deployed the tactic called Southern Strategy, which made the policies and vocabulary of discrimination implicit, and its mechanism is best described by a prominent Republican strategist named Lee Atwater:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N****r, n****r, n****r. By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N****r, n****r.’”
Ronald Reagan perfected this blueprint to usher in the kind of neoliberal austerity that would decimate America’s facsimile of a safety net and solidify the racial caste system created by slavery and Jim Crow. Slogans like personal responsibility or government is the problem were draped over a raw refusal to address various glaring inequities. Sneering and barely coded fearmongering about crack babies and welfare queens justified a racialized authoritarian push to bloat mass incarceration and starve government services. White Americans began associating universal social programs with giving Black Americans an unfair advantage. Republicans kept on serving up piles of euphuistic and increasingly deranged rhetoric to tricorner-hat audiences horny for explanations of how Obama phones were transforming the American Eden into a Venezuelan garbage heap.
Republicans were routed in 2008 as a repudiation of George W. Bush’s rampant mismanagement of a horrifying war in Iraq, a blimp wreck of an economy, and the flooding obliteration of a major American city. Recoiling from a massive landslide, a McConnell-led GOP chose to harness the delirious energy of the most racist and conspiratorial corners of their base in the short-term thinking they can quell it if/when the ginned up mania swells into an uncontrollable giddy fury. They haven’t shown any interest in slamming the lid back on Pandora’s box because this ruse produces fairly consistent electoral success and policy wins. But there’s a relationship between what you feed and indulge in your base and what they’ll demand of you. In this tense and queasy dynamic, a national Republican will, to some degree, bend the knee to the lofty bloviating ramblings of the Tea Party, Birtherism, Trump’s personality cult, and eventually, QAnon.
The ideology that has assumed Trump’s image and energy — and, in the process, effectively replaced the coded version of it that was once understood as conservative politics — is grounded in a very specific and very deep sense of entitlement and perpetual aggrievement. Conservative behavior is poorly explained by white privilege and excellently explained by an aversion to addressing racism; they think it is the divine right for those with wealth to take and keep everything they want and for everyone else to deal with it without complaint or recourse. Where Republicans dutifully nuanced the subtext, Trump made this demand at gunpoint.
Political theorist Roger Griffin offers the most succinct definition of fascism — “Palingenetic ultranationalism,” or “rebirth of a nation” — meaning fascism in this nation would be rooted in unique and specific American cultural touchstones. It would be less Third Reich and more Idiocracy. While Trump is the most important person in Trumpism, he also stands for something both bigger and smaller than himself: He is a graceless, gloating, recursive celebration of a power that is wholly negative and exists only to blame and punish and deny.
The shades of American fascism would be colored by a nation created on liberty and equality while enslaving an entire race, committing genocide and invading parts of Mexico in pursuit of manifest destiny, resorting to a Civil War to abolish slavery, turning former slaves into prison slaves, decades of racial apartheid, and ending legal segregation while increasing race-based mass incarceration. The Ku Klux Klan has been considered a proto-fascist movement, while Jim Crow and American eugenics became the basis of the Nuremberg Laws.
The retrograde bigotries and biases that President Trump so assiduously leverages are old and stubborn, if not agitprop paraphrasings of reactionary cable news programming. A sizeable portion of the electorate had built an entire system of being and belief around them before Trump slapped his gold-plated branding on it and put it all up for sale. “The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death,” as Susan Sontag put it in her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism.” What is understood at the glamorous aesthetics of fascism is more of a reflection of its garish aspirations than its mundane and deceptively familiar essence. There is a popular perception that adhering to fascism requires one to be a hypercompetent criminal mastermind; a recent historical account depicts the Fürher as a “gibbering super junkie.”
The public expression of American fascism would look a lot more like the anti-stay-at-home demonstrations or the Million MAGA March than it would the Hitler Youth. It would mandate the Pledge of Allegiance and Christian prayer before school. It would be the Punisher logo worn on a policeman’s riot gear, or the police in Cincinnati replacing the American flag with a Blue Lives Matter flag. Rather than a North Korea-style military parade marching down city streets, flag-adorned fans can indulge in the militaristic pomp of NFL pregame ceremonies. There wouldn’t be a coordinated mass movement of brownshirts working in tandem with the state, but a greater flux of stochastic terrorism or something like the Troubles — Walmart El Paso shooting or the Charleston church shooting — or Proud Boys standing by at protests for racial justice, incubated in the murky alt-right fever swamps and egged on by a right-wing political machine increasingly dependent on their support. Police violence and impunity would be more limitless and flagrant, with greater numbers of white supremacists among their ranks, as Don’t Tread On Me nuts jeer from the comfort of their couches. Increasingly radicalized right-wingers jonesing for their next dopamine hit of outrage will gravitate to even more overtly Verhoeven-ish upstarts like Newsmax or One America News Network.
None of these are inherently fascistic themselves, of course, but they would coalesce into a litmus test to determine loyalty to Maximum America. As Sarah Churchwell writes in The New Statesman:
“American fascism will be ultra-American. It will reject the atheism and statism of European models; it will be self-righteous, certain of its own innocence, and understand itself as libertarian. Nativist agrarianism goes to the heart of these American populist mythologies, as it did to the rhetoric of both Mussolini and Hitler, promising to regenerate the nation — to make it great again. It elevates an authentic, preferably rural, national folk and defines them as ‘real Americans,’ while denying first the loyalty, then the citizenship, then the humanity of everyone else.”
American fascist policy would manifest itself through apartheid and neoliberalism. Radu Cinpoes writes, “the authoritarian state … is only concerned with political power and as long as it is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty.” Authoritarianism would be outsourced to increasingly deregulated and unaccountable corporations, placing their employees in a techno-feudalist situation reinforced by a brutalized police-state and a sophisticated surveillance apparatus. There would be a further, more drastic curtailing of voting rights under the guise of but America is a constitutional republic or protecting against highly dubious (if not easily falsifiable) claims of voter fraud while maintaining elections in their most superficial form. Voter rolls would be purged and racialized gerrymandering and voter suppression would be upheld and more frequent.
American fascism is an echo of history powerfully besotted with violence, rolling through domestic rot and international imperialism. Trump is the delusional sales guy symbolizing a psychological retreat away from a rampaging pandemic and a collapsing economy that correlates with state violence. A nation that is both desperately strident and shockingly servile has created what Michel Foucault calls a “spiritual fascism” that exists inside all of us: Our proclivities toward egoism, selfishness, contempt, and hatred. Trump’s guiding star is his megalomania because relentless self-interest drives our culture and consumption economy, producing willful blindness by greed and willful ignorance by contempt.
Every piece of right-wing violence further increases their command of the political space, even if what transpired on Capitol Hill was heedless, feral chaos. The people in the coup had no idea what to do because they were C-tier Instagram influencers taking selfies around various random objects and trying to sell each other second-hand Infowars caffeine pills. They could be manipulated by the hum of their own refrigerator, let alone people in power.
The tension between Trump’s grandiose threats and signature soggy inertia have made for some uneasy days, but fortunately enough, America still has an acceptable enough democratic framework to blunt the worst of his overwhelming coarseness and avarice. But the promise of Trumpism was that the big man would take care of you if you took care of him, less by affirmatively doing anything to help you than by punishing the people who were not you, and not like you, and who you did not like. The urge at the heart of Trumpism won’t go away with Trump. The overt politics of anxious and amorphous grievance is a liberation movement of sorts: Trump’s bottomless demand for more has empowered an untold number of similarly unappeasable and demented Americans who consider themselves entitled to the same bulletproof impunity in which he glories every day.
While the president is loath to share anything with anyone, the aspect of his appeal will surely outlast him. But it is difficult to imagine Trumpism led by starchy bow-tied goobers like Tom Cotton, Dan Crenshaw, Ben Sasse, Ted Cruz, or Josh Hawley because these nerds are Republican Elizabeth Warrens hyped up by people who read too much Politico. It seems unlikely that Tucker Carlson would surrender his eight-figure gig of staring into a camera in stagy perplexity, or that Donald Trump Jr. relinquish his day job of shitposting and appearing in tweaked-out interviews on daytime programming. Maybe one day we’ll be ruled by the MyPillow guy declaring Martial Law on anyone who doesn’t use pillows made of fiberglass insulation. Maybe Trump will be our Napoleon in exile, babbling from a leather seat on an OAN late-night talkshow rallying his voters to lash out at a flummoxed GOP establishment dragged into a chaotic tailspin. Maybe this was all one last gasp of a movement wheezing its way toward permanent minoritarian status.
Whether the Trump Administration is fascist or not depends on where the line is drawn between true believer and opportunist. This was a presidency staffed with fascist figureheads, employed nationalist thinking, demonized marginalized groups, justified violence against dissenters, threatened to strip rights from the press, buttressed its leader from any consequence, and mythologized a past to sell a narrative of cultural rebirth. Trump has branded his ascent to power as the apex of, and grim reckoning for, conservative media’s rancid generation-spanning grift — they mutated into a sprawling Trump-specific noise pollution complex that repeated fascist slogans and egged on white supremacy. This was all propped up by a political party riding a wave of fascist sympathies out of pathological self-interest and to ram through an oligarchic agenda. Whether because of intensifying negative partisanship or permanent frontal lobe damage, a large part of Red America doesn’t appear to have a particular hankering to punish the GOP for this behavior.
The Republicans likely had no particular plan to create a fascist movement, and Trump certainly doesn’t have the attention span or managerial skills for anything outside of Twitter spats and self-congratulating. But anyone in power who deploys fascist rhetoric lays the groundwork for future fascism, and empowers fascist movements needs to be at least viewed through the lens of fascism. The damage is already done.
The fact that this force made it to the halls of Capitol Hill is concerning enough.