By Michael Brenner
Trump is dead – long live Trumpism! Donald Trump’s political demise is a personal implosion – his narcissistic self punctured by a thousand wounds from the slings and arrows of his vengeful victims, his erstwhile collaborators and scheming usurpers. Yet, the movement he inspired and instigated is very much alive. It is a grave error to equate the man’s fate with the fate of the vast body of followers who -at this time – constitute the most potent force in the country’s public life. That error is manifest in the celebration by Democrats at their ‘triumph’ in losing only one house of Congress at the mid-term elections. A closer examination of the vote leads to quite different, deeply troubling conclusions.
Outstanding is the ability of the most far-Right/neo-Fascist candidates either to beat back challengers or to come within a hair’s-breath of victory. That unhappy truth is exemplified by the following stunning outcomes: 1) Ron Johnson’s reelection as Wisconsin Senator – Johnson the 2020 denier, January 6 booster/defender, racist, and demonic demagogue on the public stage; 2) the near victories of Herschel Walker in Georgia and Kari Lake in Arizona whose harrowing behavior, gross slanders, and readiness to support resort to anti-democratic means to impose their demagogic program on the country are their trademarks. In any other era, we would have relegated them to the fringes as curiosity items. They have no historical precursors – except perhaps for the hard-core pro-slavery militants in the run-up to the Civil War. At that time, the Senate and the Governor mansions were occupied by some very nasty people; yet, not the near certifiable personalities we see today.
The self-congratulation on the part of Trump’s opponents for the 2022 results is delusional, too, as a measure of the national mood. Look at it in the light of other electoral evidence. Let’s recall that Trump garnered 70+ million votes in the contest with that drab personification of the status quo Biden two years ago – a man who threatened no one’s privileges or core interests; that’s 8 million more Americans than backed him in 2016. This after four years of graphic displays of corruption, crudity, criminality, blatant flouting of laws and rules and aberrant degeneracy. We can draw two plausible conclusions from those numbers: 1) since the election rightly can be seen as a referendum on Trump himself, the high level of support indicates a widespread acceptance of his manner, methods and outlook on the world. 2) since it is a reasonable assumption that millions of those who voted ‘yes’ on the ballot were put off by much of that performance, yet still voted for him, what he represents has deep, widespread sympathy in the country. At this writing in the first days of the New Year, surveys show him ahead of Biden in a conjectured head-to-head 2024 competition.
The GHOST DANCE was a sacrilized ritual that spread among the native American tribes in the West at the end of the 19th century. It was a plangent Cri de Coeur of peoples whose identity was being erased by the White Man. It expressed longing for restoration of a fading culture along with a desperate hope for salvation in another life. Trumpians are similar in one respect while different in another.
Trump supporters are insecure – in social status, anxious about job/career, by the rapidity of the country’s shifting demographic and customs, about their own prowess and the country’s. Many are forlorn souls who feel themselves victims of uncontrollable, hostile forces which have cut the ground from under them. Disorientation and suspicion pervade their social encounters. As they see it, the assaults on their way of life and self-esteem come from globalization, the suppression of patriotism, cultural relativism, the decline of Christian religion, dictation from government autocrats in Washington. They personalize those forces: immigrants, Blacks, liberals, Ivy League elitists. Their sense of abandonment and deprivation has more to do with the intangibles than the material – even though many have suffered the corrosive effects of economic predation while not recognizing its sponsors. Gnawing sensations of status decline are intimately bound up with the feeling that the United States is no longer theirs. From the country’s founding, an individual’s sense of worth has drawn critically from the belief that they were participants in a unique enterprise – original, superior and somehow endowed with a Higher Meaning. A shift in the complexion of their American universe calls all that into question.
The Trumpian vision of the Promised Land is fixed on an idealized image of a past that is disconnected from current reality. There is nothing conservative about this; the universal use of that term speaks to the intellectual slackness of the country’s political class. The movement is reactionary in purpose. And since it is prepared to use drastic means to regain something that manifestly cannot be restored, they are radicals. It is energized by blind faith that their mission will succeed. Unlike the plains Indians, they do not live in poignant despair.
The dread about the present felt by hard core Trumpians stems from the inability to compensate for the impoverishment of their personal lives by glorying in American greatness. Little in our post-modern society resonates with them as authentic; our sterile work yields an invisible product. The drama of the American experience, our collective pageant of progress, used to be the great booster of morale and imparter of meaning. That tonic has lost much of its potency- in good part because it’s not the same country, and we no longer reign supreme in the world. So, restoration becomes the imperative for impoverished individual self-esteem. It is those others who are errant.
Joining a passionate movement to fuse with others who share your anger, the same grievances, the same desperation itself acts as a nostrum. One no longer agonizes alone, our indictments are confirmed, and we can lose our unhappy self in the clamor of mass enthusiasm.
The now demonstrated vigor and staying-power of Trumpism signals that the movement will endure rather than melt away as the pundit world is forecasting. For it has emerged from the maelstrom of contemporary American life. It will not fade until our socio-economic-cultural conditions that produced it evolve into something healthier.
‘Trumpism’ – to use a shorthand label – should be understood as a political creed, as a pattern of behavior, as a movement, and – above all – as a set of feelings. Some ingredients are recognizable from the fascist movements of the 1930s and 1940s: racist hate; scapegoating of the alien “other;” mounting feelings of insecurity – economic, personal status, national; frustration over lost prowess; the scorning of elected democratic leaders condemned at once as “weak” (in not crushing the Islamic terrorists) and overbearing (in restricting the right to bear arms; in dictating draconian rules against discrimination, in imposing vaccines and quarantines). The intoxicating effects of this heady brew on America gave us the Tea Party and its offspring, and placed Trump in the White House.
To get a better fix on this psychology, let’s return to two indispensable classics: Eric Hoffer’s THE TRUE BELIEVER (Mentor 1951); Umberto Eco’s essay “UR FASCISM” (NYRB, July 22, 1995). 1 The formulation of Fascism’s distinguishing traits is borrowed from Eco; the quotes are all Hoffer’s.Here are the most salient and pertinent points.
Turning people away from authority figures, established institutions, and their creeds is an essential precondition for cementing their allegiance. The hallmark success of the 2016 campaign was to achieve exactly that, to break the ties that freed voters to follow their emotions and to allow their base instincts to prevail over reason in putting Trump in the White House. Maintaining that estrangement from the pointed-headed intellectuals, from the liberal elite, from a hostile press, from whomever preaches tolerance and generosity has been Trump’s priority – and greatest success. The trick is to spit out the white-hot rhetoric while dealing with many of the Establishment elements you need and are your self-interested allies.
2. A mythologizing of tradition that glories innate virtues and heroic deeds. Every people, every country has its gilded myths and legends stored in their collective unconscious. They eternalize exceptionalism, great accomplishments – and, occasionally, martyrdom (as among Poles, Serbs and Israelis) which adds a strong element of righteousness to their cause. In the United States, that obviously is what the slogan “Make America Great Again” is all about. It harks back to some fictional Golden Age when the United States was unanimously declared the world’s No. 1 – forever and anon. When the American Dream of inexorable betterment was a tangible fact; when Horatio Alger was the boy next door; when this truly was the land of the free and the home of the brave; when American soil was inviolate (Pearl Harbor and the British burning of the White House aside); when John Wayne rode high in the saddle. The dark side conjures threats to those myths by activist blacks, by Mexican “rapists and murders,” by ‘Islamo-Fascists’/Muslims, by overbearing liberal elites, by Russians aka “commies.”
At times of distress and insecurity, when the gratifications of consumer and spectator life ebb, we grasp for imagined past instead of dreaming for the future.
3. cat.Inmore They are uniform in their animus, in their objects of worship – and obedient to their leaders. They are anything but autonomous. They are animated by feelings rather than doctrine or ideology. Moreover, their stress on ‘liberty’ refers only to their own – not that of others, especially of anyone who opposes them.
4. to its foot-soldiers and camp-followers As() along witho()
5. , the bully, the enforcer. Supremacists
6. () – the harangue, the clenched fist. Those whose free-floating, simmering anger generates an irrepressible impulse to hit someone.
7 .Trump and his henchman traffic in hate – like all neo-Fascist demagogues they know instinctively that raw meat provides more emotional protein than anything else. So it’s “lock her up!; lock him up.” Insult, denunciations and ridicule. That provides catharsis as anger is vented, the adrenaline flows and we ‘ the enemy’ the way Hajis on pilgrimage to Mecca throw stones at the Devil. Primitive, but it works – we are dealing with primitive emotions.
In a settled society with an embracing corporate identity, we find proscriptions of both a cultural and legal nature that curb any impulse to action that hurts fellows. In the United States, that now is not the case. This devolution harking back to a harsher, darker age is only made possible by a cultural shift whereby hurting people has won new acceptability and there are many who take satisfaction from doing the hurting.
8. unit.” (85), e.g. blacks to the extreme of abducting children and scattering then to the four winds.m.
9. Cultivated paranoia is a feature of neo-Fascist movements and the autocratic mind set. It has proven an effective way to mobilize free-floating fears from diverse sources and channeling them in a direction that maximizes the power and control of those at the top. A staple of demagogues the world over, its remarkable achievement at present is to stimulate acute paranoia where there are no serious threats – objectively speaking. The United States is trail-blazing this pernicious tendency – as it does all post-modern phenomena.
10. Chaos is welcomed. This is so not only due to rejection of the order that is in place; also because in chaos egalitarianism reigns. One’s sense of failure, of inadequacy is lost in the maelstrom of tumult and destruction. Stability will return once the ‘New Order” is in place.
11. “Charlatanism,thostile Blind trust in the demagogic leader requires no collateral.
12. The demagogic leader is at once born and self-made. Born in the sense that it is his twisted personality that disposes him to aberrant ways of viewing himself and the world. Trump’s psyche is deeply scarred by narcissism – exacerbated by an array of other mental disorders. Those perverse traits can lead to sociopathology, a distorted divorce from reality, an infinite ability to manipulate and to hurt others. Initial success in gaining power and a following, facilitated by the tolerance acquiescence of those you abuse and bystanders alike, strengthens all those impulses and actions. You yourself become the true believer in the mad persona you have concocted for yourself. In effect, you become the caricature of yourself.
The general pattern with its progressive intensification of autocratic behavior applies to dogmatic leader with militant followers. They need not be psychotic like Donald Trump whose erratic, flaunt the rules, do anything attitude and actions are rooted in a mentally deranged character. Were a Ron DeSantis to be installed in the Oval Office, his conduct, too, is likely to become increasingly radical. The old notion that elected Presidents shift toward moderation out of a sense of responsibility for the country as a whole, doesn’t hold in this case. Once the person crosses all the lines of decency, tradition and honesty, he becomes a captive of his own demagoguery. That inner compulsion is reinforced by the passion of his followers and the dedication of his entourage to the dogma which brought the exhilaration of the world’s most powerful office. You cannot lead legions of true believers on the basis of expedient calculation alone. For they must credit your own belief in the cause.
Trump may be the ideal-type given his warped personality, and a lifetime free of any scruples. Still, the logic this progression will work even on a more stable person who cynically has chosen to play the role of Fuehrer (Ron DeSantos?) Recently, we saw newly revealed pictures of Hitler in the mid- 1920s standing before a mirror practicing his wild rhetorical gestures. By 1933-34, there was no need for practice. The gestures were Hitler. So, today, we see the deterioration in manner and speech in a Trump who progressively has become a caricature of his own twisted self. So, too, we see Ted Cruz – once sane if an ideological fanatic – degenerate into a hate-monger who sparks insults, lies and accusations at random.
Hence, in the light of the above, a fanatical mass movement can only intensify and reach new heights of extremity. It can be suppressed – but it cannot moderate. Once it reaches a certain threshold its own momentum will propel it to a climax of one sort or another – invariably a destructive climax. Any attempt to reach cross the barricade is futile – as Obama, Biden, the Democrats’ leadership, and The New York Times have shown us – however great their inability to acknowledge that cardinal truth.
Can the Trumpian movement succeed ?
NO – in the sense that it’s not possible to summon back the past. Nor can it fully satisfy the inchoate emotions of its followers given the driving, destructive impulses that prevent the construction of solid institutions to routinize them. YES – in the sense that it can inflict irreparable damage on our liberal democracy, and it can hurt persons and institutions. In short, it can destroy both the America that is and the essence of the ‘original’ America that they presume to cherish and long for but never have understood or appreciated. Already, the harm to our public institutions is so great – at the state as well as national level – that it is not hyperbolic to say that we are living in post-Constitutional America. In short, the Trumpians whose ecstasies supposedly embrace their version of the Great Spirit are in effect devotees of Kali’s danse macabre.
timid,dthe 2020 Presidential electionededwas Moreover, its paralyzed will casts it as easy prey that stirs the bloodlust of its voracious Republican predators – just as a cowering antelope on the Serengeti attracts the carnivores.
After unseating Trump, the Democrats enthusiastically launched into a celebratory jig. Joyful that the Republic has been saved, that democracy had triumphed, and that the country has rediscovered its good sense. Only slowly is it dawning on some that a demonstrable reconstitution of a decent liberal polity has not been achieved. Their only modest achievements are in the realm of ‘identity politics’ through executive action.
decisiveelementansSupreme .remain Functionally, this silent party majority forms a league of Franz von Papens. Amazingly, their obstinacy stiffens even though there is no threat – domestic or externally – to their dominating interests, even though their goonish shock troops act with intensifying atrocity.
Trumpians (including the Christian Right)likely upper crust ( or so)financialIn today’s culture, their raw greed is all-consuming. make that round .(Sub-total: 27%) isthe gun nuts, obsessivesabout 20% or somewhat more of the electorate, if we avoid double counting. They areso egomaniac and his horde. To state it bluntly, they have little social conscience. Many are ambitious, many are grasping, many are selfish, and most important – like the ‘deplorables’ – they too lack the core self-esteem to act responsibly.
The Christian Right is a growing, formidable, intractable element in the political equation.1 Its leadership has managed to achieve a remarkable fusion of the Evangelical wave with the rising radical/reactionary Trumpian movement – each reinforcing the other. They tap the same demographic, share the same sense of grievances and employ the same methods. The phenomenon has antecedents dating from the fascist past centered in Eastern Europe. They represented a modification of the Italian and Germany models. (Mussolini’s early career was that of an anti-clerical socialist. Naziism was an avowed an enemy of all religious institutions.) Their number is impressive, as is the union of autocratic state and church. They included the Spanish Falange, the homicidal Ustashi in Croatia, Slovakia’s fascist Hlinka Guard led by the Jozef Tiso – an ordained priest, Hungary’s Arrow Cross, and Romania’s Iron Guard. All of these fascist governments propagated a blend of hyper-nationalism with Catholic dogma.
This last feature distinguishes those cases from the American Christian Right. The latter draws membership overwhelmingly from Protestant denominations, especially Evangelical churches that have been growing at the expense of the traditional mainline churches. The latter have been remarkably passive in the face of this radical shift and its political consequences.
The peculiar features of this union of ecstatic religion and hyper-nationalism we are experiencing needs to be understood as uniquely American. What binds them together is a transcendent ‘Americanism.’ Americanism provides a Unified Field Theory of self-identity, collective enterprise, and the Republic’s enduring meaning. The blend had been a feature of American life from the very beginning – as delineated by Ales de Tocqueville. While its original, main driving force was Protestant, it came to transcend sectarian boundaries in a universally held belief that the country itself was born with a Providential blessing and mission. When one element is felt to be jeopardy, the integrity of the whole edifice becomes vulnerable. In the past, American mythology energized the country in ways that helped it to thrive. Today, it is a dangerous hallucinogen that traps Americans in a time warp more and more distant from reality.
As for the contemporary scene, we must keep in mind a central feature in the picture that tinges everything having do with public life. That is the extent to which the collective American super-ego has shriveled – even as the country’s exceptionalism remains an article of faith. The implicit guidelines that shape and constrain behavior no longer exercise the influence that they did. We think and act in a quasi-nihilist environment. The absence of a generally recognized, logical order means that many of us inhabit a variety of make-believe worlds. All of us experience the resultant static – static that makes it difficult to think more-or-less clearly and to act more-or-less rationally. In this setting, the most disadvantaged commodity is the truth. For truth-telling means forcing ourselves to recognize that we are mistaking a hall of mirrors for reality. And those mirrors – if ever aligned – form an infinite regression to nowhere.
Such is the aversion to truth that critical comment about some obvious falsity is taken as stunning blasphemy – by most, or an audacious act of courage – by a few.
“In so strange a time common integrity could look like courage.” YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO
So, who might be performing the Ghost Dance a decade from now
It will not be the Trumpians. For their fate is all or nothing – now or never. They’ve rolled the dice. Yes, for the immediate future the movement will grow and strengthen. In fact, it has gathered strength from a widespread belief that 2020 was rigged against him. Now that the Republicans have regained control of the Congress, they will use their power to block the Biden administration at every turn – no holds barred. Even when lacking formal majorities, they bent every sinew to buy-off or intimidate the one or two Democrats needed to neutralize that nominal majority – as they did under Obama. In any circumstances, the Trumpians will redouble their nation-wide guerrilla war. They are well-placed to do so. They are remarkably successful in setting the terms of national discourse. They have 3 or 4 broadcast networks that serve as their ‘public relations’ tools and propagandists.
A large part of the federal judiciary already is prepared to do their bidding at the drop of a legal appeal. The Supreme Court is a particularly valuable, if tacit ally. Most evident is its arrogation of powers that exceed those ensconced in the Constitution and tradition to rule on matters both legislative and executive. They already are being used aggressively to impose ‘a new order’ – a ‘new order’ conforming to the aims of an autocratic Republican Party. That encompasses fundamental issues ranging from civil rights and voting rights to Confederate-era “states rights” to corporate privilege. This method of achieving drastic political and social transformations is insidious. For it masks a constitutionally dubious remaking of American public institutions and practices as legally justified – indeed, required. Their strategic mastermind and orchestrator is the skilled manipulator John Roberts. He is well aware that.
Everything must look the same so that everything can change.
Moreover, we should bear in mind the formidable powers accorded the states under our federal constitution. Each has authority to deal with matters of education, voting, criminal justice, social programs et al. They are jealously safe-guarded and actively employed. Often, they run counter to preferences expressed in federal policies of both the Congress and the Executive. In states where the Radical Right predominates, that authority is being stretched to the fullest to advance its project of remaking America. Florida and Texas are two exemplars. Governors Ron DeSantos and his autocratic brother-in-arms Greg Abbott* have been vying with each other to prove the worthy heir to Trump through outrageous campaigns designed to repress every tangible expression of human decency. Their mission: Scorn the needy, the weak, the nonconforming, the ‘other;’ obstruct all those struggling to be free of hardship, those yearning for a dignified life. In effect warring on the Enlightenment and the humanistic principles that underlie the U. S. Constitution. Each won reelection by expanded majorities in November.
Were their like to emerge in another part of the collective West, they would be treated like Marie Le Pen – and castigated as moral outlaws by the nation’s political class. In today’s America they are simply another brand of eccentric celebrity.
The Supreme Court is facilitating this campaign by curbing the scope of federal legislation and Executive Order, by extending the reach of state powers, by endowing their use for dubious purposes with the ultimate legal imprimatur.
As for the non-Trumpian Republicans, and those don’t-rock-the-boat ‘independents,’ they smile contentedly secure in their financial status, looking on indifferently as the Democrats struggle to advance an agenda recognizable from its ‘moderate’ Republican ancestry, and complacent in the assurance that (for the well-off) their daughters could always get an abortion in Canada. In short – they don’t give a damn!
Americans have been abandoned by their elites.
There will be GHOST DANCERS. Not the Trumpians who either will triumph or implode. Nor their spawn who will be absorbed into the reactionary ‘New Order’ Rather, scattered bands of downcast greybeards with faded memories and pale visions of what might have been – of what should have been. Their step will be slowed by age and their rueful knowledge that there is no Great Spirit to rescue them. For they lacked the courage by which they might have rescued themselves.
*In the case of Abbott the cripple, could it be that the accumulated rage of 40 years in a wheelchair is now discharged in cruel attacks on the most vulnerable – and in today’s America without fear of penalty? This sort of sadism, a match to Trump’s mocking a spastic reporter, is a hallmark of a fascist personality.
- The Christian Right has been the subject of two insightful studies based on close observation: Chris Hedges American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (2008): and Matt Taibbi The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (2008)