Trump is Hitler (Part II)

Friday, July 24th, 2015 Politics


I had not watched Donald Trump’s July 8 interview with NBC News’ Katy Tur when I posted my (clickbait-titled) Trump is Hitler post on Tuesday. (I admit that I have actively avoided viewing Trump footage, in general, over the years—I am, for example, unfamiliar with his TV show about firing people.) But now that I’ve been through all 29 minutes of this particular sparring match, I’m compelled to double down on my contention that he really is reproducing the German dictator’s early tactics (say, 1922-1930) move for move.

It should go without saying that Trump is not doing this deliberately—he is not a neo-Nazi or a white supremacist—nor is he aware of the correlation, or even possessed of the wherewithal to understand the base mechanics of fascism (or even of government). But then, Hitler started out with the best of intentions, too: he simply wanted to save his beloved country from what he perceived as fatal internal weaknesses—of elected officials and, more urgently, people of a certain ethnicity, just like Trump—and, also like Trump, he was anxious to reinvigorate the armed forces for these and other purposes (“I’m more into the military than anybody,” Trump avowed in the NBCTV interview). Except in fiction, nobody sets out to be an instrument of bloodshed, poverty, social destruction or institutionalized injustice; nobody desires the role of destroyer (at least not consciously; Freud might say otherwise).

As I have already learned firsthand in the wake of my previous post on the topic, the comparison seems, to many, outlandish at best—Donald Trump, surely, is a figure of fun and his wild rhetoric and climbing poll numbers cannot be taken seriously. But make no mistake: this is not a joke, and should not be dismissed. “The idea that Trump’s appeal isn’t genuine,” Eric Boehlert of Media Matters cautioned two days ago, “or that the press has lured Republicans into supporting him is likely more comforting than acknowledging the truth: Trump, an ignorant, nativist birther, is appealing to an often-ugly streak within the conservative movement.” Disputing the dismissive language with which Trump’s ascendency has been reported, Boehlert stresses how “Fueled by hateful rhetoric and right-wing media programming, Republicans and conservatives have veered towards extremism in recent years. If the press had honestly documented that trend, today’s Trump phenomenon wouldn’t come as such a shock.”

Watching Trump interviewed at length (which, I freely admit, I should have done earlier) is extremely illuminating. Reading his quotations in the context of campaign-related news accounts does not do him justice—you need to see him to get the full effect. Clearly, it’s an effect that is as pleasing and rewarding and fulfilling to many thousands of Americans as it is viscerally repugnant and appalling to you and me (when it’s not uproariously and inadvertently funny, which is how Jon Stewart and others outside Stewart’s comedy wheelhouse are—somewhat nervously—choosing to regard it). You need to see Trump because the real force of his rhetoric doesn’t come across without the sound and the visuals: the coarse, accented voice; the ugly diction; the boardroom posturing; the glowering facial expressions; the spray-tan; the awful neckties and suits; the sneering condescension; the hair (which Trump knows is ridiculed, and affably defends: “My hair is just fine,” he insists). You can’t understand what’s happening until you look closely at this caricature of grotesque hubris and understand that precisely the elements from which you recoil are the ingredients of his stunning popularity.

Of course, I’m talking about class—not erudition or intelligence or political posturing or decorum, or wealth, but pure social class, the great American taboo subject. “Although most Americans sense that they live within an extremely complicated system of social classes and suspect that much of what is thought and done here is prompted by considerations of status, the subject has remained murky, and always touchy,” the late literary historian Paul Fussell wrote in his landmark study Class (1983): “Since I have been writing this book I have experienced the truth of R. H. Tawney’s perception, in his book Equality (1931): ‘The word “class” is fraught with unpleasing associations, so that to linger upon it is apt to be interpreted as the symptom of a perverted mind and a jaundiced spirit.'” Fussell elaborates, “At the bottom, people tend to believe that class is defined by the amount of money you have […] Nearer the top, people perceive that taste, values, ideas, style and behavior are indispensible criteria of class, regardless of money or occupation or education.” Elaborating on details of lower-class dress and grooming that he feels are actually intended to offend finer sensibilites (such as garish baseball caps or “legible” sweatshirts), Fussell concludes, “[dressing this way] says to those whose expensive educations have persuaded them that the ideal of dignity is the Piazza San Marco or the Parthenon or that the ideal of the male head derives from Michaelangelo’s David or the Adam of the Sistine Chapel: ‘I’m as good as you are.'” Fussell, I’m sure, would have instantly understood the basic meaning of Donald Trump’s candidacy: Trump’s enemy—his supporters’ enemy—isn’t Mexico or illegal aliens or ISIS or Muslims. It’s the American upper classes; the elite.

The overarching forces of American Conservatism—banks, corporations, business lobbies, energy consortia, the “military-industrial complex,” and the entrenched dynasties entwined with these interests—have done a masterful job over the decades of disguising themselves so as to ingratiate with the weakest and most ordinary amongst us: the simple, unassuming (white) workers and strivers; the downtrodden and oppressed (white) rural Christians; the bolo-tie wearers; the (white) truck drivers; the poor, struggling, honest, ordinary (white) people who didn’t go to fancy colleges and don’t live in big cities and advance fancy-sounding “European” (“socialist”) theories about how hard-earned dollars must be given to “urban” (black and hispanic) “moochers.” Through precise manipulation of (mainly Church-related) cultural imagery, and a crafted mythology of pioneering “small-businesses owners” who can succeed through honest toil, a legitimately elite contingency has managed to bond with its inverse demographic—to compel trailer-park residents and welfare recipients to look at, for example, George W. Bush (as pure a representative of extreme patrician wealth and its interests as has ever crossed the national stage) and say, “He’s like me; he’s on my side.”

On these terms, the failure of the Republican candidates in the last two national elections makes perfect sense. McCain was supposed to be a “salt of the earth” war hero, an independent Gary Cooper type (despite his nepotistic military career), but it turned out that he was mainly popular with the Washington D.C. press corps; nobody else liked him. The desperate gamble to re-up McCain’s cultural-underclass credentials by adding Sarah Palin to the ticket not only failed: the tactic revealed the panic involved; the awareness of the slipping mask that needed to be more strongly affixed. And Mitt Romney was a similar compromise-candidate whose “competence” (meaning, personally generated wealth) and reassuring Midwestern squareness were trusted to inspire confidence despite his peculiar mundanity—unlike Bush, he could not quite make himself come across as a regular joe, but he was nevertheless expected to appeal to voters by embodying that most hallowed of Randian archetypes: the successful, attractive “self-made” business titan (as if he were Henry Ford, if Ford had made foreclosures and layoffs rather than cars). Romney was genuinely predicted (by vast crowds of white Americans) to win handily, but, unfortunately, the outsourcing and the liquidation and the overseas factories were more visible and more toxic than Republicans apparently realized, and—most famously—the jig was up when a waiter’s phone camera told the real story of the contempt behind the curtain.

And that’s where Trump comes in. The voters who liked George W. Bush because he “owned” a “ranch” in Crawford Texas* and mispronounced “nuclear” and behaved like a drawling Texas good old boy (even though he was born in New Haven, Connecticut, attended Phillips Exeter Academy, was a cheerleader at Yale and graduated Harvard Business School) are now being presented with the real thing—a genuine vulgarian. The basic scam of Conservative American politics—the faux populism—is finally being exposed, because those carefully-groomed constituents trained to dislike “the elite,” taught to sneer at Obama’s putting Dijon mustard on hamburgers and John Kerry’s windsurfing and the Clinton’s million-dollar book deals and speaking engagements (one of the most incredible selective-example scams in the history of mass communications), are suddenly realizing that there’s no real difference (at least as far as class indicators go) between the top-tier representatives of the Left and the Right. (We on the Left, it almost need not be elaborated upon, do not have this problem because our ideology is built on respecting hierarchies of achievement and erudition; we don’t have to tie ourselves in rhetorical knots insisting that an Editor of the Harvard Law Review turned University of Chicago Law School professor is less competent or intelligent than a Hollywood B-movie actor from Eureka college who became a radio spokesman for General Electric or a Wasilla beauty pageant contestant who never read a book.)

Watching the NBCTV interview through this lens, it becomes increasingly clear that it is not the man’s ideas as much as the persona itself that appeals to his supporters—that precisely the traits that propel Trump off of any reasonable person’s radar are the ones that make him the Republican front-runner. It’s not the rhetoric, it’s the person they like, as evidenced by comments on the interview’s YouTube page:

We need someone who is good with money and stands up for himself like DT

He will turn America great again.

[He is winning polls] Probably because he’s upfront and honest about his opinions. Most politicians simply put up lies to garner votes.

Please spread the word around your communities. I genuinely think this man can help your people and ALL of us as well. He is right we are getting screwed. We ALL should be able to prosper in this once great nation that in my opinion will always be great. Even in our darkest hour we are better then the rest.

And when you then look at what Trump is saying (for example, about how he would conduct Middle East foreign policy) the juxtaposition is suddenly not funny at all:

TRUMP: With ISIS, you kill them at the head—you take the oil. That’s where they’re getting their money. If you bomb the hell out of it, you bomb the hell out of it. You’ve got to stop their wealth; they’ve got tremendous wealth.
TUR: What about civilians?
TRUMP: I’m talking about oil. I’m talking about oil areas. I’m not talking about civilian areas.
TUR: Civilians are near oil areas.
TRUMP: Oh, give me a break, Katy. Go ahead, next question.

All of this—the establishment disdain (which is entirely mutual); the underestimated populist fervor; the black-and-white rhetoric—is, as I’m saying, very familiar. As Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw wrote, “Many contemporaries made a mistake in treating Mein Kampf with ridicule and not taking the ideas Hitler expressed there very seriously”— through which, as Kershaw explains, “Everything could be couched in terms of black and white, victory or total destruction. There were no alternatives. And, like all ideologues and ‘conviction politicians.’ the self-reinforcing components of his ‘world view’ meant that he was always in a position to deride or dismiss out of hand any ‘rational’ arguments of opponents.” And Hitler, a “trooper with gypsy blood” (who appalled American supporter and Harvard graduate Ernst Hanfstaengl by “sugaring a vintage wine” during a visit) transcended and even exploited his Bavarian-peasant trappings: “He could have peppered [the wine],” Hanfstaengl wrote, “for each naïve act increased my belief in his homespun sincerity.”

Again, to be clear, I don’t believe that Donald Trump will be nominated or elected and I don’t believe he will rise in power to become a genocidal, warmongering dictator (despite his clearly-stated racist/interventionist views)—mostly because (as I wrote last time) the United States is a far more robust democracy than was the fragile Weimar Republic. But have no illusions: this is genuine demagoguery, which is working to expose a legitimate mass movement. Trump may prove harmless, but the dark and violent forces he is stirring—the fervent call to “make our country great again”—are very familiar and very real.

*It was not a functioning ranch and had been bought and donated by a church group shortly before his inauguration; once out of office, Bush sold it and moved to Preston Hollow, an affluent gated community outlying Dallas.