A right-wing extremist fired ten shots into a crowd of Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Austin last weekend, killing Garrett Foster. The incident is eerily reminiscent of the El Paso shooting last year, the Tree of Life Massacre in Pittsburgh and, more than anything, of the murder of Heather Heyer almost exactly three years ago in Charlottesville. We live in an atmosphere of ever-intensifying violence and concomitant resignation as heinous acts such as these become increasingly quotidian facts of life in Donald Trump’s America.
Decrying “violent clashes” that are “worse than Afghanistan,” the president has taken “a tough stand” on the “carnage,” and ordered federal agents into the streets of America’s cities. And yet, these paramilitary troops, equipped for warfare and armed for combat, have not been deployed to confront the white nationalist terrorists that President Trump once described as “good people.” Instead, federal agents from the US Marshals Service, US Department of Justice, Federal Protective Service, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Protection, and the US Department of Homeland Security (to name a short list of the identifiable federal agencies at work) have been deployed to face down demonstrators in Portland protesting police brutality and racial inequality.
“We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York,” Trump told Chris Wallace last week. “All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.”
Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed Monday by two protest groups (Wall of Moms and Don’t Shoot Portland) alleges that federal agents have used violence “to stamp out peaceful and constitutionally protected protests” and that their mere presence as a federal domestic security force is unconstitutional. The lawsuit also claims that more than 100 agents were sent to Portland under “a policy to intimidate and deter protesters because of their views and beliefs.”
We have arrived at a chilling moment in American history, when right wing extremists brazenly attack and murder citizens demonstrating for racial justice, while the federal government sends anonymous, unbadged, indeed secret police in unmarked vehicles to arbitrarily harass and detain other citizens exercising their constitutional rights. Videos have emerged showing authorities without identification badges in unmarked vehicles arresting protesters in Portland. These incidents have sparked the state’s US attorney to call for an investigation into the matter. This moment feels so unprecedented that we beggar our political vocabulary even to conceptualize it. The Trump regime – “administration” seems inadequate now – is authoritarian, a dictatorship, a police state. Worst of all, it is hard not to conclude that it has finally embraced outright fascism.
“Police indiscriminately pepper-spraying Seattle protestors,” one social media friend posted this weekend. “This is a fascist state.” Another shared a post commenting on a quote from the Secretary of Homeland Security: “My agents are proactive & they arrest people before they commit a crime.’ Sec. of Homeland Security Chad Wolf. THAT’S FASCISM!” Still another posted that “America is a fascist horrorshow!” The real horror, however, is much worse than even that, and we ignore this truth at our peril.
Three and a half years into his term, President Trump certainly does look like a fascist in every respect but a brass hat – though, in fairness, Portugal’s fascist dictator Antonio Salazar also preferred business suits. He delights in strongman talk, celebrates martial power, derides the very foundations of liberal democracy, and advocates the deployment of the state’s monopoly of violence to quell dissent as he hectors mass rallies like a corpulent Il Duce.
What other word is there for a politics of domination that sends troops to trample on our most fundamental rights? How else can we describe a politics utterly focused on the unrestrained power of the state, wielded at the personal whim of a leader who has placed himself outside, or even above the law? What can we call a government that single-mindedly pursues policies of racialized nationalism, bigotry, and oppression? It really does appear that, if the jackboot fits, he should wear it. Trumpism is fascism.
Yet, as much as President Trump superficially resembles the fascists of our collective historical memory – Salazar, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Miklos Horthy – calling his politics “fascism” misses a much darker point. And if we do miss it, everything that we value about freedom, democracy, and human rights faces erasure.
Fascist movements, Hannah Arendt noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism, historically presented themselves as parties above partisan politics. They claimed to represent the interest of the nation as a whole, and “seized the state machine, identified [themselves] with the highest national authority, and tried to make the whole people ‘part of the state.’” Fascism conceives of the state apparatus as the means to dispense with the messy divisiveness of liberal democracy and unite the nation as an organic community. As oppressive as Fascist governments were historically, Arendt notes that they were invested in notions of institutional legitimacy and, somewhat paradoxically, deeply utopian.
Thus, after seeking the blessing of Italy’s king, Mussolini ultimately sought to found the authority of his dictatorship on the Chamber of Fasces and Corporations: an unelected body meant to represent the nation as corporate groups defined by their socio-economic functions – businesses, workers, the clergy, etc. – rather than as a community of citizens. While reserving supreme executive power for himself, Spain’s Franco created the Cortes Espanolas, representing “family, town and union,” the “organic” components of the nation, as an expression of Spanish “national will” and sovereignty.
President Trump, however, has little interest either in the unity of the nation, or in sovereignty, or in the integrity of the state and its institutions. Since he struck the dystopian note of “American carnage” in his inaugural address three and a half years ago, his administration has sought, at every turn, to sow division and conflict. The recent deployment of federal agents to Portland seems calculated to escalate unrest, rather than quell it.
One recurrent refrain from the media commentariat is, in fact, that the president’s policies are incomprehensible. Virtually every insider account of the Trump White House – even the favorable ones – depicts an administration flailing in chaos. Writing in the Washington Post four months ago, before the calamitous mismanagement of the pandemic became fully apparent, Max Boot, hardly a voice of the left, expressed amazement at an administration that “appears to grow more incompetent the longer it stays in office.”
Six weeks ago (even before the secret police came to Portland). the Director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe Thomas Wright struck an apocalyptically Wagnerian note: “We are in the Götterdämmerung now,” a period of growing chaos at the twilight of the Trump epoch when the president feels unrestrained and “free to follow his whims.” Three weeks ago, NRP’s Tamara Keith shared Wright’s eschatological hopes, highlighting the utter vacuity of the president’s policy positions and the paucity of his achievements as the November election looms. Keith marveled that President Trump has chosen “instead to reprise the most divisive and racialized themes of his 2016 campaign.”
There seems to be little coherence to Trumpist policy and Trumpian strategy – no point, no goal, no ultimate end, only, a social media friend posted in exasperation, “meanness for the sake of being mean, evil for the sake of being evil. Trump is like a cartoon villain who ties the fair maiden to the railroad tracks just because he can!”[*] There is only the wall, the Muslim ban, the shameful family separation policy and the internment of children in concentration camps, environmental policies to hasten global warming, the celebration of a perverse – and frankly, perverted – version of American history, the incitement of racist terrorists and the stifling of legitimate dissent… In the rare instances where there is a real policy with a real goal it is invariably a bon-bon tossed to his billionaire patrons or a gift for Dominionist Evangelicals.
To look at President Trump is to see a politics that makes no sense as politics, a politics that makes no sense even as fascism, whose successes – for we must acknowledge that, against all odds, he did win the 2016 election – and continued survival defy all rational explanation. But this is only because this politics is not actually about President Trump at all, nor is he at the front line directing it. Our political moment only makes sense when we recognize that it is not defined by Donald Trump but by a roiling mass movement of anger and grievance that he had the instinct or insight to latch onto and ride to the Oval Office. This is not “Trumpism” any more than National Socialism was “Hitlerism.” In either case, the person and presence of the leader is important, but it is a mistake to believe that the leader is either the instigator or the director of the movement. More accurately, he is its representative and agent.
The most striking characteristic of this movement is that it is not a “populist” politics in which a political party has mobilized “the people” to seize state power and pursue specific policy goals. If that had been the case, then the 2016 election would have been victory enough. President Trump could have taken his withdrawal from international agreements, the creation of a 5-4 (and perhaps soon a 6-3) conservative majority on the Supreme Court, the 2017 tax cuts, and the irrevocable dismantling of what remained of Johnson-era economic and environmental regulations back to the keening hordes at his rallies as evidence of his success. Yet, to hear the president and, more significantly, his supporters tell it, the last three and half years have been a time of constant “deep state” obstruction and policy failure.
Although President Trump has seized control of the machinery of state, and has remade it in his corrupt, nepotistic image, his movement’s rhetoric has only become more alarmist, more paranoid, and more desperate. It turns out that control the state apparatus was never the goal at all; the goal is nothing less than a social transformation that seeks to abolish the state itself in the pursuit of naked power. This is not fascism, but totalitarianism.
The mass movement driving this politics has its roots in the simultaneous collapse of the neoliberal economy and the expansion of late-capitalist consumer culture that reached its paradoxical climax in the Great Recession of 2007-2008. This was a profound trauma for many white Americans, who gained smartphones, persistent access to social media, and instant internet gratification delivered by Amazon.com at the exact moment that they lost any hope of upward mobility or even of maintaining their socio-economic position. It didn’t help, as Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in “Fear of a Black President,” that the leader of their country called attention to his racial otherness by noting his what he shared with Trayvon Martin, a Black youth murdered by a security guard hired to patrol a mostly-white gated community.
Not only had they lost all illusions of their affluence and socio-economic security, but they now recognized the president himself as the other. They lost everything, individually and collectively, including the entitlement to power and the state itself. Thus was born the totalitarian mass American, consigned to economic and cultural anomie, atomized, with no contacts to provide social cohesion save the ephemeral and mediated connections of social networking, and a frustrated sense of personal political entitlement.
“The fact that with monotonous but abstract uniformity the same fate had befallen a mass of individuals did not prevent their judging themselves in terms of individual failure or the world in terms of specific injustice,” Arendt wrote of a different generation, so like white America except in time and place. “This self-centered bitterness, however, although repeated again and again in individual isolation, was not a common bond despite its tendency to extinguish individual differences, because it was based on no common interest, economic or social or political.”
The mass American encountered their new reality as an existential shock so catastrophic that it undermined reality itself. “I am an American” they said to themselves in their collective social isolation, “and this is America. How could this have happened?” It was not supposed to happen; the social contract that had guaranteed life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the benefits of American exceptionalism had clearly failed, and they could not comprehend why; it made no sense.
Other Americans suffered just as much, and often more, but the trauma was much less of a shock. To be African American, an immigrant, non-Christian, queer, or a member of any othered or historically-marginalized group is to understand implicitly that the social contract is always provisional, dynamic and incomplete. Being “American” is not an entitlement but a project through which one negotiates and secures both the benefits and protections of the contract, and its obligations.
Yet, the mass American perceives themselves as the descendant, or at least the heir of the original parties to the social contract in 1776. It was, in their mind, not amended and extended throughout the last 250 years to include parties that had once been excluded – immigrants, African Americans, people whose identities and gender expressions would have seemed perplexing to the Founding Fathers – but distorted and perverted by people and ideas inimical to what they perceive as America’s founding values, and the corrupt state that served them. That is why the mass American deploys the rhetoric and iconography of the American Revolution; they are the revolutionaries of the Tea Party, “militiamen” like the Three Percenters,[†] they fly the Gadsden Battle Flag (“Don’t tread on me”), and are committed to making “America Great Again.” They are the original and authentic Americans, in their own minds, and they are going to “take their country back.”
President Trump’s role in all of this is to provide the movement with a focus and that allows the mass American to view the world in a way that not only preserves, but reinforces the premise of their “Americanness.” He is not a political leader so much as an ideological one, offering the movement a coherent narrative that justifies that premise in the face of a chaotic and contradictory reality. After all, Arendt wrote, “what convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” Thus, neither America nor “Americans,” as they conceive of themselves, failed or succumbed to the inevitable dislocations of history. Their birthright was stolen.
It is a process quite like what the historian Alexei Yurchack called “hypernormalization” in Everything Was Forever Until it Was No More, his history of the late Soviet Union. Trump is the “editor,” like Josef Stalin, creating a fictive hyper-reality more harmonious with ideology than reality itself. Indeed, it supplants the reality of facts with one of “alternative facts.” It does not matter to the mass American if everything Trump says is verifiably untrue; as Arendt noted, they have “convinced themselves that traditional historiography was a forgery in any case.” After all, the totalitarian masses desire, more than anything, an “escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency.”
With his assumption of control over the machinery of state, President Trump is now in a position to warp reality to match his message, at least for the benefit of the movement. Arendt writes that “totalitarianism will not be satisfied to assert, in the face of contrary facts, that unemployment does not exist; it will abolish unemployment benefits as part of its propaganda.” So, the president blithely muses that best way to manage the rising number of coronavirus infections is simply to reduce the number of tests.
From outside, it seems absurd to think that he could ever get away with it and, from the perspective of conventional politics – where politicians and parties pursue specific policy goals – it is shocking to hear him speak about it so candidly. After all, not only has the president shown his hand, but his malfeasance will be exposed to history when his administration inevitably comes to an end in November, or in 2024… or in 2028. In the normal course of American politics, that would certainly be the case; the sun even set on the one-party rule of the “Era of Good Feelings” inaugurated by Thomas Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800” when Andrew Jackson swept the National Republicans aside in 1828.
But this is not politics-as-usual, it is movement politics. Whatever their goals, virtually all movements, whether they are the Civil Rights movement, Progressivism, or Zionism, have historically to perpetuate themselves even after they achieve their policy goals by reinventing themselves and redefining their objectives. Thus, when Martin Luther King believed that legal segregation in the south had finally been eliminated, he altered his course to address the racialized economic inequality in northern cities – a worthy goal in and of itself – to keep the movement going.
What makes totalitarianism unique is that the movement itself is the goal. The movement exists to “organize as many people as possible” within the framework of its fictive hyper-reality, “and to set and keep them in motion” Arendt warns, “a political goal that would constitute the end of the movement simply does not exist.” Totalitarianism, and the totalitarian mass movement that has coalesced behind, or more accurately, around President Trump has means, but not ends – and its means is power.
Thus, the totalitarian movement does not recognize President Trump’s rhetoric of the growing “unrest” and “American Carnage” under his mandate as an admission of political failure, as some media commentators insist that it is. Nor are his warnings about a “rigged” electoral system and pervasive voter fraud is not meant to lay the groundwork for a contested election result that President Trump and his minions will use to cling to power and control the state apparatus. Rather, they are object lesson to the movement; evidence that the state itself has failed, that the state itself is the problem, and that there is much work yet to be done.
As flawed as it is, the state is founded on laws and the rule of law. Even when the law is applied unequally, it presumes equality – even for those people the mass American regards as external to the social contract, and the cause of its failure. The extreme measures of federal agents in Portland and other cities, are thus evidence of the failure of the state, the inability of laws predicated on equality to ensure order for the body politic, and the necessity of power.
President Trump has mobilized agents from the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS – agencies whose task is defending the nation against external enemies and securing its borders –not to protect citizens’ lives and property, or even to restore order, but to relocate the border defining the body politic within the nation and assault internal enemies.
The movement seeks to consolidate power in order to sweep the state aside; it seeks arbitrary power, deployed by the secret police and beyond the limitations of the state, in order to force coherence on an infinitely diverse, protean, ever-changing social order. The missing ingredient was arbitrary terror, but with the arrival of the secret police, all the pieces are now in place. We are witnessing a totalitarian revolution in the process of creating a totalitarian state, “a state in appearance only,” Arendt writes. “The Movement by now is above state and people, ready to sacrifice both for the sake of its ideology.”
In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four, O’Brien tells Winston Smith: ‘’If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” These are now the stakes in America.
It would be comforting to believe that the election of 2016 was a coup d’état that brought a sociopath to power through sinister and illegal means, that the Trump regime is somehow an exception to an otherwise healthy political culture and all that is necessary to restore it to health is the president’s removal – the excision of the cancer. However, it runs much deeper; President Trump is only the most loathsome and visible manifestation of a sickness that has metastasized throughout the body politic.
The totalitarian movement is not about its leader at all, he is “a mere functionary, he can be replaced at any time, and he depends just as much on the ‘will’ of the masses he embodies as the masses depend on him,” Arendt writes. “Without him they would lack external representation and remain an amorphous horde; without the masses the leader is a nonentity.” So defeating Donald Trump in November will not defeat the totalitarian revolution; it will be decapitated only long enough to find another head and coalesce around Tom Cotton, Matt Gaetz, or Tucker Carlson – leaders with the greater skills of true demagogues and the passion of true believers.
The mass American is even likely willing to lose in November, if they can take the momentary setback to regroup, refocus, and remobilize. This movement is playing a long game and they are confident that Joe Biden, who will be 78 years old on Inauguration Day, will be a one-term president. They will be back in 2024, and long after that. Having been mobilized, the totalitarian movement will remain mobilized; the unrest, the fear, the social decline that it creates and upon which it feeds, will likely be with us for many years to come. Defeating the president at the polls in November will not bring it to an end.
Yet, we must nonetheless defeat Donald Trump. It is beyond the realm of possibility that electing Biden will defeat the totalitarian movement, but it will keep us in the fight. If the history of totalitarianism documented by Arendt has shown us anything, it is that surrender is not an option, and that we must resist evil, even if our means are imperfect. We must fight to preserve, reinforce and, if necessary, reconstitute everything that the mass American seeks to destroy: our equality, our flawed democracy and, above all our humanity. Even if we only win a four-year pause, it will give us a chance to fight harder… To the end.
[*] Italics added for emphasis.
[†] The “Three Percenters” take their name from the belief that only three percent of the colonial population served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.
Photo courtesy of Business Insider