Kudos to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi for, well, telling it almost like it is in his recent piece titled “Donald Trump Just Stopped Being Funny — Win or lose, Trump’s campaign threatens to unleash the Great American Stupid” (August 21, 2015).
Truth is, I was beginning to write a blog on much the same subject when I found Taibbi’s piece and decided that he’d written much of what needs to be said on the subject, at least for now. Except that he got the headline wrong.
I was going to title mine “Donald Trump: An American Proto-Fascist”. There. I’ve used the f-word to describe Trump, and I feel much better.
Let’s look at the term proto-fascist for a minute. The meaning of proto is simple enough: a precursor, an early stage. As in prototype. A first draft, as it were.
Agreeing on a uniform definition of fascism though has long confounded historians and political scientists alike. But since this is my blog, let’s go with my current favorite:
“A political aesthetic of romantic symbolism, mass mobilization, a positive view of violence, and promotion of masculinity, youth and charismatic leadership” (David Renton, Fascism: Theory and Practice, London, Pluto Press, 1999).
(As an aside, does anyone else find it creepy that there’s a book titled “Fascism: Theory and Practice”; sort of like “Fascism: A How-To Manual” or perhaps “Fascism for Dummies”? But I digress.)
Taibbi opens his piece with this episode that suddenly made Trump no longer funny in his eyes.
“So two yahoos from Southie in my hometown of Boston severely beat up a Hispanic homeless guy earlier this week. While being arrested, one of the brothers reportedly told police that ‘Donald Trump was right, all of these illegals need to be deported’.
“When reporters confronted Trump, he hadn’t yet heard about the incident. At first, he said, ‘That would be a shame.’ But right after, he went on: ‘I will say, the people that are following me are very passionate. They love this country. They want this country to be great again. But they are very passionate. I will say that’.”
They love this country. They want this country to be great again. A riff on Trump’s ubiquitous campaign slogan, rife with the requisite flourish of nationalistic, romantic symbolism. And all the more incendiary when played before large, angry crowds.
Make America great again by bombing the hell out of ISIS, or Syria, or Iraq, or the Russians, or perhaps immigrants if that’s what it takes to protect our sacred borders, our national manhood. Build a wall and make Mexico pay. Bring jobs back to America and make China pay. Because they’re beating us. They’re killing us. Because of our stupid, weak leaders.
“Trump is striking a chord with people who are feeling the squeeze in a less secure world,” says Taibbi, “and want to blame someone – the government, immigrants, political correctness, ‘incompetents,’ ‘dummies,’ Megyn Kelly, whoever – for their problems.
“Karl Rove and his acolytes mined a lot of the same resentments to get Republicans elected over the years, but the difference is that Trump’s political style encourages people to do more to express their anger than just vote. The key to his success is a titillating message that those musty old rules about being polite and ‘saying the right thing’ are for losers who lack the heart, courage and Trumpitude to just be who they are.”
Proto-fascism, pure and simple. And, if we’re not vigilant, incitement to racial, ethnic and gender violence.
“You know,” Trump recently told a large Alabama audience, “if this were another country, we could maybe call for an expedited election, right? I would love that. Can we do that? I’d like to have the election tomorrow, I don’t want to wait.”
Or this one, from Yahoo Politics: “Donald Trump is defending his controversial immigration plan, telling Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that the 14th Amendment — which guarantees citizenship to all people ‘born or naturalized in the United States,’ including children whose parents came to the country illegally — is unconstitutional. ‘It’s not going to hold up in court,’ Trump said on The Factor Tuesday.” Which court? The Donald Trump court of course.
As to the promotion of masculinity (“I’m very rich, I’ve created a tremendous company and I build the greatest [tallest?] buildings in the world”), check out the Huffington Post’s “18 Real Things Donald Trump Has Actually Said About Women”, and let me know if you have any remaining doubts about Trump’s misogynistic and patronizing contempt for women.
But perhaps the most troubling of all the elements of Trump-style proto-fascism is the take-no-prisoners, chest-pounding, tough-guy image that he works so deliberately to cultivate.
A telling survey question is asked in various countries to measure the strength of the rule of law: “Which is more important — a strong leader or democracy?” In Russia, two-thirds currently favor a strong leader. I can only guess what the response might be among Trump acolytes. Trump as wannabe Putin. Think about it. But I’ll leave it to Matt Taibbi to wrap up this argument in his own special way:
“Trump isn’t really a politician, of course. He’s a strongman act, a ridiculous parody of a Nietzschean superman. His followers get off on watching this guy with (allegedly) $10 billion and a busty mute broad on his arm defy every political and social convention and get away with it.
“People are tired of rules and tired of having to pay lip service to decorum. They want to stop having to watch what they say and think and just get ‘crazy,’ as Thomas Friedman would put it.
“Trump’s campaign is giving people permission to do just that. It’s hard to say this word in conjunction with such a sexually unappealing person, but his message is a powerful aphrodisiac. Fuck everything, fuck everyone. Fuck immigrants and fuck their filthy lice-ridden kids. And fuck you if you don’t like me saying so.
“Those of us who think polls and primaries and debates are any match for that are pretty naive. America has been trending stupid for a long time. Now the stupid wants out of its cage, and Trump is urging it on. There are a lot of ways this can go wrong, no matter who wins in 2016.”
There are a lot of ways this can go wrong, Taibbi cautions, no matter who wins in 2016. Maybe his title wasn’t so bad after all, because you and I had damned well better stop laughing and get to work upping our engagement in the face of this madness. Here are a few thoughts.
Challenge Trump’s lies, distortions and evasions. Write letters to the editor, OpEds and online comments standing up for truth and reason. Demand concrete governing proposals, from Trump and from all candidates. Facts matter and details matter. “Trust me” cannot be tolerated as a presidential platform in a rational democracy.
Stand up against bullying in the political arena as in the schoolyard. Let the media know that you are outraged by the relatively passive response to Trump’s bullying of interviewers and journalists, and by his out-sized and too-often unchallenged access to broadcast, online and print media.
Support candidates both Republican and Democratic who stand up to Trump’s sexist, racist and anti-immigrant memes, and who refuse to be pushed to the anti-democratic, proto-fascist right to compete with Trump for the votes of the angry and the cynical.
Speak out against the politics of slogans over substance. Engage friends and colleagues on the important issues of the day. Stand up for social justice, democratic values and a sane foreign policy. History demands that we fight the impulse to avert our eyes and hope for the best.
And, above all, don’t be passive about Donald Trump’s candidacy. He might bring to mind any number of f-words, but funny sure as hell isn’t one of them.