To many observers, Donald Trump’s mid-October appearance at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex Amphitheater on a warm Friday afternoon might have seemed like the desperate ploy of a candidate running out of gas and heading for a defeat of historic proportions.
The crowd was not especially large and the venue was not at full capacity, in contrast to a visit earlier in the week by President Obama to whip up support for Hillary Clinton. Similarly, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders drew more people than Trump in another Greensboro Coliseum Complex venue during campaign stops in previous months. North Carolina was considered a must-win state for the Republican nominee, and multiple visits by Trump and his running mate, Mike Pence, demonstrated that they understood the stakes.
Trump’s talking points seemed to heighten the emotional charge of every issue important to his disaffected conservative base — gun rights, crime, abortion, immigration and trade, to name a few — while making little attempt to appeal to the moderate and independent voters thought to be the crucial swing votes in the election. Far from any measure of conciliation in response to allegations of sexual assault against multiple women, Trump denied any wrongdoing, mocked the women for their looks and then furiously attacked the press for publishing the stories, characterizing the media as “sick,” “corrupt” and “destroying our country” with “lies” in his Greensboro stop.
“On Nov. 8 the arrogance of Washington DC will come face to face with the righteous verdict of the American voters,” Trump predicted. “I’m asking all Americans — Republicans, independents and Democrats — to join us in our campaign to defeat the corrupt establishment and give our government back to the people.”
Five days later, in his final debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump telegraphed his disdain for democratic institutions by refusing to say whether he would accept the results of the election if he were not declared the winner. “I will tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you in suspense.”
Conventional media analysts and virtually everyone else had assumed that revelations before the election that Trump had bragged about grabbing women’s genitals would decimate support among key constituencies in his electoral coalition, including white women, suburban independents and some Christian fundamentalists. Journalists and political professionals were stunned to see Trump carry not only North Carolina, but the traditional Democratic strongholds of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin on election night.
While attacking and then taking over the Republican Party and broadsiding a Democratic Party whose leadership was confident in their technocratic prowess, Trump built a political base of people who feel ignored by major civic institutions. His supporters feel contempt for both political parties, the mainstream media and academia. On issue after issue, Trump has characterized American society and foreign policy as collapsing, while presenting himself as the only one who is strong enough to turn it around. As Jedediah Purdy, a law professor at Duke University, has observed, Trump is unique among American politicians in that he rarely invokes the Constitution.
“Whether you’re left or right, whether you’re Barack Obama or you’re Ted Cruz, an image of the country’s national community being based on Constitutional text and principles has been a very standard refrain for American politicians,” Purdy told host Frank Stasio on North Carolina Public Radio’s “The State of Things” on Feb. 1.
The only part of the Constitution Trump really talks about is the Second Amendment, Purdy said, and even then he mainly uses it as an opportunity to talk about fear of criminals.
“He talks about the country instead in terms that are ethno-national and religious in a variety of ways,” Purdy said. “It’s us versus the Mexicans, it’s us versus the Muslims, it’s us versus the criminals, it’s us versus the terrorists. He said more than once in the campaign that Christians need to band together the way that Muslims do, implying that this is a Christian nation.”
Trump’s appeals to a kind of nationalism that privileges whiteness and Christianity, his lack of respect for democratic institutions, and his posture as a tough negotiator with the singular ability to deal with a cataclysmic crisis have prompted many scholars, journalists and citizens to question whether the United States is drifting towards authoritarianism, if not fascism, totalitarianism or some other form of autocracy. Whether or not death camps are the logical conclusion of Trumpism, we might consider the fragility of democracy and how easily civilized societies of the past have slipped into barbarity.
“I think for 30 years, part of the reason Democrats as well as Republicans thought so little about inequality, thought so little about insecurity, thought so little about the things in their own lives that gave people the sense… that stuff was falling apart and things were bad, was that they believed they were living at the end of history and there were going to be no more ideological challenges to the order of things, no more crises like this one,” Purdy said on “The State of Things.” “And so what did they not do? They didn’t correct the role of money in politics. They didn’t correct the ideologically distorting effects of gerrymandering. They allowed inequality and insecurity to become the everyday experience of an enormous number of people with no sense that there was anything wrong with this, or that there was any alternative.”
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Political philosopher Hannah Arendt described conditions that seem chillingly relevant today in her classic text The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1950: “Totalitarian movements are possible wherever there are masses who for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organization.”
Arendt wrote that both the Nazis in Germany and communist movements in Europe after 1930 “recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction.”
Behind the political theater, narcissism and obvious pandering of Trump’s public presence, his reclusive chief strategist has a cogent worldview that’s worth studying. After serving as CEO of Trump’s campaign, Steve Bannon resigned as chairman of Breitbart News Network and took the position of senior counselor to the president. In late January, Bannon received an appointment as a regular member of the National Security Council, giving him a voice in United States foreign policy, along with domestic affairs.
Bannon described Breitbart to journalist Sarah Posner as a platform for the so-called “alt-right” during an interview at the Republican National Convention in July 2016.
“He denied that the alt-right is a white nationalist movement but he basically admitted that it’s an ethno-nationalist movement, and he pointed to these far-right, authoritarian populist movements in Europe that were the model for the alt-right,” Posner told host Amy Goodman on the Jan. 27 broadcast of “Democracy Now!” “And he said that these national movements were alive and well in the United States before President Trump became a candidate for president, that he did not create this movement. And Bannon actually credited someone else with spurring this movement, and that’s Jeff Sessions.”
Sessions’ name should be familiar. The Republican senator from Alabama was an early supporter of Trump. Sessions failed to receive Senate confirmation for a federal judgeship in 1986 after it came to light that he had joked as a federal prosecutor in Alabama that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “okay” until he learned its members “smoked marijuana.” On Feb. 8, he took the oath of office as the new attorney general for the United States.
[pullquote]“Totalitarian movements are possible wherever there are masses who for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organization.” — Hannah Arendt[/pullquote]Bannon’s nationalist ideology includes a belief that Christianity, capitalism and the West is undergoing a crisis and is at the beginning of a global war with radical Islam. He outlined his beliefs in remarks to a conference hosted by the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican in the summer of 2014 via Skype from Los Angeles. During the call, Bannon urged what he called “the church militant” to not only stand behind its beliefs, “but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will literally eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,025 years.”
He went on to say, “But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.”
During the question-and-answer portion of Bannon’s call, he articulated a complicated view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, while expressing a measured admiration for traditionalism, an obscure European movement of the early 20th Century with ties to fascism.
“I’m not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy,” Bannon said. “However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States. I think it’s what can see us forward.”
Bannon explicitly acknowledged the connection between traditionalism and fascism in an earlier comment: “When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he’s got an advisor who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th Century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.”
Bannon added in his remark to the conference at the Vatican the West should be “very much on guard” against Putin, who he described as an intelligent leader who appeals to social conservatives in the United States. “Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand,” Bannon said. “However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you’re facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive, that is really a situation — I’m not saying we can put it on a backburner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.”
Preoccupation with global jihad has characterized much of Bannon’s political and creative work over the past decade. A 2007 film proposal written by Bannon depicts the US Capitol sometime in the near future with an American flag in which the stars and stripes have been replaced by the Islamic crescent and star while the Muslim call to prayer emanates from the seat of government.
That narrative dovetails with a set of charges advanced by Frank Gaffney, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, to the effect that Muslim radicals have been actively working to infiltrate and subvert US government agencies and civil society, including the conservative movement, for the purpose of instituting shariah law. Glenn Beck, the conservative media personality, explored the same material in a 2012 film called The Project, helping to spread the idea to a mass audience of conservatives. Gaffney and Beck have both raised flimsy charges that conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist acted as an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Gaffney also promoted the false claim that President Obama was born in Kenya. (Sound familiar?)
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Donald Trump was exposed to Gaffney’s work before Bannon joined the campaign, having cited a study by Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy when he announced his plans for a Muslim ban in late 2015. Referring to himself in the third person, the then-candidate rolled out the plan during a Pearl Harbor Day campaign rally in South Carolina.
“Donald J. Trump is calling for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” he said. “We have no choice. We have no choice…. There is a great hatred toward Americans among large segments of the Muslim population.”
The demonization of Muslims — by taking the actions of a few radicalized violent persons and painting members of the entire faith as either active terrorists, apologists of secret enablers — has continued after the election. As an example, Breitbart, characterized by many analysts as an amplifier for Trump’s agenda, published a Feb. 2 article that describes the mainstream Council on American Islamic Relations as “jihad-linked” and its executive director as “a leading advocate for Islamic radicals.”
The paranoia surrounding Islam echoes the antisemitism that provided a scapegoat for the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s.
“The most efficient fiction of Nazi propaganda was the story of a Jewish world conspiracy,” Arendt wrote in the Origins of Totalitarianism. “Concentration on anti-Semitic propaganda had been a common device of demagogues ever since the end of the 19th Century, and was widespread in the Germany and Austria of the ’20s. The more consistently a discussion of the Jewish question was avoided by all parties and organs of public opinion, the more convinced the mob became that Jews were true representatives of the powers that be, and that the Jewish issue was the symbol for the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the whole system.”
The content of anti-Semitic propaganda was neither new nor original to the Nazis, Arendt emphasized, but the Nazis effectively used it to mobilize society.
While issuing hysterical warnings about the threat of Islamic radicalism, Trump has made explicit appeals to Christian identity while stoking a sense of victimization.
“Christianity, it’s under siege,” then-candidate Trump said at Liberty University in January 2016.
And seven days into his presidency, Trump granted an interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network hours before issuing executive orders temporarily suspending refugee admissions and indefinitely suspending resettlement of refugees from Syria. The president indicated he would carve out an exception for Christian refugees.
“They’ve been horribly treated,” he said. “Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you come in, but if you were a Christian, it was impossible and the reason that was so unfair — everybody was getting persecuted in all fairness — but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.”
Politifact labeled Trump’s claim that it was “impossible” for Christian refugees to enter the United States as “false.” The site wrote: “Christians make up a very small fraction of Syrians admitted under the refugee program, but they have been able to enter the United States. There is no evidence that this is an outcome of discriminatory policy. Refugee admissions skew in favor of Christians in other countries.”
“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations,” Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Incredibly, Trump surrogate Scottie Nells Hughes more or less admitted a similar strategy to a panel of dumbstruck journalists on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show” three weeks after the election.
“One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say, ‘Facts are facts,’ they’re not really facts,” Hughes said. “Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water — everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.”
Fittingly, the first example offered by one of the journalists on the panel to counter Hughes’ radical statement was Trump’s unsupported claim that he only lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.
“First I’ve got to pick my jaw up off the floor here,” said Glenn Thrush, then with Politico. “There are no objective facts? I mean, that is — that is an absolutely outrageous assertion. Of course there are facts. There is no widespread proof that three million people voted illegally. It’s been checked over and over again. We had a Pew study that took place over 15 years that showed people had more likelihood of being struck by lightning than voting illegally in an election.”
President Trump has continued to stick to the baseless claim.
When a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to present evidence of voter fraud, he attempted to brush it aside, saying, “As I said, I think the president has believed that for a while based on studies and information he has.”
Only a couple days earlier, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor, had refined Hughes’ idea while defending Spicer’s false statements about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration.
In a Jan. 22 interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Conway said, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood and they’re giving — Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts to that.”
Masha Gessen, who came to the United States as a refugee from Russia in the early 1990s and returned to her native country to work as a reporter, has observed a similarity between Trump’s falsehoods and Vladimir Putin’s perverse relationship with the truth. Three years ago Gessen and her wife returned to the US because of the increasingly anti-gay climate in Russia. Gessen predicts in a Dec. 23 article in the New York Review of Books that the alliance between the two world leaders will ultimately prove short lived, but she argues that for both men, lying as a mode of discourse is more important than the specific content of their lies.
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“It’s not just that Putin and Trump lie, it’s that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself,” Gessen wrote. “Take, for example, Putin’s statements on Ukraine. In March 2014 he claimed that there were no Russian troops in newly annexed Crimea; a month later he affirmed that Russian troops had been on the ground. Throughout 2014 and 2015, he repeatedly denied that Russian troops were fighting in eastern Ukraine; in 2016 he easily acknowledged that they were there. In each case, Putin insisted on lying in the face of clear and convincing evidence to the contrary; and in each case his subsequent shift to truthful statement were not admissions given under duress; they were proud, even boastful affirmatives made at his convenience. Together, they communicated a single message: Putin’s power lies in being able to say what he wants, when he wants, regardless of the facts. He is the president of his country and the king of reality.”
Trump’s assault on the press as an institutional bulwark of democracy has been well documented.
On his second day in office, Trump disparaged the press as “the dishonest media” at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
“The reason you are my first stop is that I have a running war with the media,” Trump said. “They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth. And they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community. And I just want to let you know the reason you’re my No. 1 stop is exactly the opposite. Exactly the opposite. And they understand that, too.”
Of course, only 10 days earlier, Trump had tweeted: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
Then on Jan. 26, Trump attacked the press again in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity for accurately reporting that more people attended President Obama’s 2009 inauguration. “The media — much of the media, not all of it — is very, very dishonest,” Trump said. “Honestly, it’s fake news. It’s fake. They make things up.”
On the same day, in a rare interview with the New York Times, Steve Bannon said, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.
“I want you to quote this,” he added. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”
It’s unlikely that the media was the intended audience for Bannon’s statement; most journalists are wired to respond to intimidation by rededicating themselves to bold and fearless coverage.
“This is an effort to delegitimize the media in the eyes of the Breitbart audience, the Trump base more broadly,” journalist Sarah Posner told “Democracy Now!” host Amy Goodman, “by suggesting that the media has dishonestly covered Donald Trump, when in fact the chief complaint that has been lodged against the media by the Trump administration and amplified on last night in that [Fox News] clip that you just played is based on hard facts about numbers that Donald Trump doesn’t like.”
Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in the judiciary have also raised widespread alarms among legal analysts and politicians alike.
As a candidate, Trump telegraphed both his xenophobia and his disdain for the judiciary when he suggested in June 2016 that a federal judge of Mexican heritage who was born and raised in the United States would be biased in a case involving a lawsuit against Trump University.
[pullquote]”The more consistently a discussion of the Jewish question was avoided by all parties and organs of public opinion, the more convinced the mob became that Jews were true representatives of the powers that be, and that the Jewish issue was the symbol for the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the whole system.” — Hannah Arendt[/pullquote]Any doubts that Trump would change his behavior when he took office evaporated when he responded on Twitter to US District Judge James L. Robart’s order to suspend key aspects of the president’s exclusion order. In a Feb. 4 tweet, Trump called Robart a “so-called judge” and his ruling “ridiculous.” The next day, he piled on by tweeting, “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and the court system. People pouring in. Bad!”
And following a federal appellate court decision upholding the stay, Trump called the ruling “political,” implying that it doesn’t have a sound legal basis.
As a measure of how far outside democratic norms Trump’s behavior falls, the speaker of Britain’s House of Commons has suggested that Trump shouldn’t be allowed to address parliament on his next official state visit to the United Kingdom.
“However, as far as this place is concerned, I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and sexism and our support to equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations,” Speaker John Bercow said on Feb. 6.
It seems unlikely that the Republican-controlled Congress will investigate the multiple ethics concerns that have arisen from Trump’s tangle of business interests or initiate impeachment proceedings in relation to possible violations of the emoluments clause or untoward dealings with Russia. GOP lawmakers have a historic opportunity to realize longstanding goals such as dismantling the Affordable Care Act and defunding Planned Parenthood, and likely want to avoid the distraction and drama that would be caused by the impeachment of a president, especially a fellow Republican.
The most effective check on the power of the president is likely to be the Fifth Estate, a concept developed in the French Revolution to describe the people — supposedly the source of Trump’s power. The United States, unique among the world’s democracies, also has the advantage of having a federated system, with a separation of powers between the states and federal government, and cities that hold significant power.
There are abundant examples of defiance and civil resistance in response to Trump’s election. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s #AlwaysNewYork speech vowed noncooperation with any attempt to create a Muslim registry, a pledge to protect immigrant families threatened with deportation and a promise to block any effort to restore stop-and-frisk policing is one. An effort in Los Angeles to establish a $10 million legal fund to help immigrants fight deportation is another.
The massive Women’s Marches in cities large and small across the country, along with solidarity marches around the world, demonstrated that a major segment of society is adamantly opposed to Trump’s policies. The instantaneous response to the exclusion orders, with cab drivers striking in solidarity in New York City and lawyers flooding into airports — some armed with judicial orders — to assist travelers demonstrated imaginative engagement at the spear-point of Trump’s oppressive policies. More recent actions, like protesters blocking a police van carrying an undocumented woman in Phoenix who had checked in regularly with ICE on Feb. 8, and preventing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos from visiting a Washington DC middle school on Feb. 10, are examples of people — to paraphrase 1960s student activist Mario Savio — putting their bodies on the gears of the machine.
Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism that “statesmen and diplomats,” along with “benevolent observers and sympathizers,” often expect revolutionary movements to normalize when they take power. “What happened instead was that terror increased both in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in inverse ratio to the existence of internal political opposition, so that it looked as though political opposition had not been the pretext of terror (as liberal accusers of the regime were wont to assert) but rather the last impediment to its full fury.”
The unavoidable conclusion is that the time to oppose totalitarianism is before it takes hold rather than after it has fully developed.
“I’m utterly pessimistic,” Masha Gessen told journalist Fernanda Eberstadt for a Jan. 8 article in Salon. “I’m not aware of any aborted autocracies in modern history. Democracy is an aspiration, and it is defenseless against people who use it in bad faith. America’s advantage is that it has an incredible rich cultural environment, a vibrant public spirit. Can we learn from other countries’ mistakes? The only thing to do is the exact opposite of what Germans, Poles and Hungarians did, which is wait and see. We must panic and protest, presumptively assume the worst.”
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