Sunday, February 7, 2016

Trumpism: A Dangerous Phenomenon

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"We ought to keep all these foreigners out of the country, and what I mean, the Kikes just as much as the Wops and Hunkies and Chinks."
“He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’…” 
– From Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We’re not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed.”

– Elizabeth Drew, "The New Politics of Frustration," The New York Review of Books, 01/14/16.

It is tempting to compare the Presidential campaign of the pitchfork-populist billionaire Donald Trump with that of Lewis’ Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic Senator who is elected to the presidency in Sinclair Lewis' It Can’t Happen Here. Parts of this 1935 dystopian novel, in which women and minorities – those “who are racially different from us” – are stripped of their rights, dissent is outlawed, and a paramilitary force and concentration camps are established, may initially appear implausible, but it would be a mistake to dismiss any comparisons as ludicrous or farfetched. A large portion of the novel documents how liberties are stripped away and a draconian dictatorship ensues, but I think the most relevant chapters are the early ones that explore Windrip’s appeal before he was elected President and implemented his totalitarian system.

Similar to the Louisiana demagogue Governor Huey Long (whose presidential aspirations were upended by an assassin’s bullet while Lewis was writing the novel), the authoritarian Windrip appeals to America's“Forgotten Men” by promising drastic economic and social reforms while promoting a return to patriotism and traditional values. Posing as a populist, he is described as a “professional Common Man” who drew crowds of “hungry miners, dispossessed farmers, Carolina mill hands,” and on another occasion he filled Madison Square Garden with “Manhattan peasants” who were “facile material for any rabble-rouser.” The similarity between Windrip’s vulnerable supporters and Trump’s core constituency of unprosperous, resentful men, including “white nationalists,” is striking. Windrip’s chief antagonist and Lewis’ spokesman is a small-town, independent minded, newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, who values above all the “free inquiring critical spirit,” a character whom one commentator compares to the democratic socialist, Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. (I would suggest that the analogy is slightly misplaced since Jessup describes himself as a Liberal in which the transfer of resources is a lower priority than his indictment of “all cruelty and intolerance.”) Jessup excoriates Windrip as a bombastic huckster, a “vulgar and almost illiterate” actor who would “whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts  figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.” In sum, Windrip is an anti-intellectual, manipulative politician who has at best a capricious relationship with the truth. Sound familiar?

Trump is most (in)famous for his braggadocio and abrasive style. Because of his capacity as a “deal maker,” he promises that he “will get things done.” His mantra – America is a “crippled nation” that only he can correct – is sustained by false data and outlandish proposals. His most egregiously false claim is that of seeing thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11. Like Windrip, misinformation, trash talk and contempt for others have not damaged his electoral appeal for a certain white demographic: the economically insecure and socially depressed working class who cheer Trump’s phantasmagorical spectres of marauding foreigners. That demographic may yearn for the sanctity of the 1950s “white picket fence” family but working-class whites are losing a battle that began when the 1965 Immigration Act ended immigration procedures based on race and ancestry. Therefore, they thrill to Trump’s ethno-nationalist populism as he adopts his carnival-barking persona to fire up crowds, depicting Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug traffickers who must be forcibly expelled from the country. To keep them out, he will build a 2,000-mile wall while forcing Mexico to pay the cost. He may have garnered national and international outrage with his proposal for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” but he enthralls his followers whenever he demonizes “the other” because he validates their anger and resentment. In that speech, he cited the decision by FDR to intern Japanese Americans during World War II as a relevant historical precedent. Yet the passage of history has condemned that executive order as a terrible human rights violation and a “blemish on Roosevelt’s wartime record.” A federal study in the 1980s found "no justification in military necessity" for the program, which said it was caused by "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership." It would appear that Trump has no qualms about mobilizing a similar form of hysteria. Recall the repellent Sieg Heil outburst at a Trump rally. He knows he has the support of a vocal core that wants to turn the clock back fifty years when jobs were plentiful and whites were in the ascendancy – evidence and logic, be damned!

Trump supporters holding up homemade signs,, Claremont, New Hampshire, Jan. 2016. (Photo: Reuters)

When his detractors, whom Trump never passes up the opportunity to disparage, challenge his bullying hyper-aggressiveness and bellicose diatribes as un-American, unrealistic or unconstitutional, his supporters revile the messengers, especially anyone who calls Trump a bigot. Whenever the blowhard Trump utters insulting slurs against women, POWs or the disabled, he is given an uptick in the polls among some Republican voters as they love his swagger and “telling it like it is”: blunt certitude without a politician’s filter. For anxious blue-collar voters without a college degree, the Republican establishment consists of sellouts or is controlled by the power of money. By contrast, because of his business chops, Trump appears financially beholden to no one even though that perception is not accurate. They like the Trump brand, at least the one that he has sold them – even though again the reality is somewhat differentIn a compelling essay, conservative pundit David Frum argues that the revolt within the Republican Party has arisen because the grass roots object to the party’s austerity and its financial cosseting of the economic elite. The country may have recovered from the 2008 economic recession, but they have not as their wages have either flat lined or their jobs have been offshored to other countries, real issues arising from technological changes and globalization that need to be addressed. But Trump’s demagoguery only exploits their fears of losing their pensions and jobs to immigrants, Muslims, racial minorities, all encapsulated by the despised Obama. According to Frum:
Sixty-three percent of Trump supporters wished to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born on U.S. soil – a dozen points higher than the norm for all Republicans. More than other Republicans, Trump supporters distrusted Barack Obama as alien and dangerous: Only 21 percent acknowledged that the president was born in the United States, according to an August survey by the Democratic-oriented polling firm PPP. Sixty-six percent believed the president was a Muslim.
Cocooned in their psychic la la land, it is pointless to refute these idiotic canards. Given the memes of the aggrieved, Trump easily panders to nativist sentiments; he and his fictional counterpart share their prejudices. While Windrip dismisses foreigners as “degenerate,” Trump lashes out (with some justification) against the Chinese for their currency manipulation and the Japanese for their trade imbalance, and vows to make the world bend to his will “to make America great again.” Yet he has taken a liking to the swaggering mini-czar, Vladimir Putin – whom one could argue is his international doppelganger, and who has endorsed Trump as “an outstanding and talented personality.” That sentiment is shared by ultra-nationalistic, European far-right party leaders since his tirades against Hispanics and Muslims are consistent with their anti-immigration values. As though the tycoon was channeling the sentiments of his fictional progenitor – “we’ve got to change our system a lot,” and then proceeds to jettison American institutions, the rule of law and the Constitution – Trump menacingly hints that “ We’re going to have to do things that we never did before.

Journalist Michael D’Antonio reminds us in his biography, Not Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) that the former reality television star and real estate mogul’s expansive view of the truth, pugnacious manner and his solipsistic branding of himself as a genius are not new: these are qualities that he has practiced and honed most of his life. Shipped off to a military academy for his high school education, he later equated that experience with being in the military. That dodgy capacity – D’Antonio has an annoying tendency to excuse this behaviour and give him the benefit of the doubt – was also evident in the 1970s in his choice of a mentor, the lawyer, Roy Cohn, who was constantly on the cusp of prosecution for tax evasion or professional misconduct. Cohn argued that Trump should not be required to rent property to welfare recipients even though this practice was in violation of federal housing legislation. Trump lost the case, but he learned from that experience the skill of what later would be called dog-whistle politics: the employment of coded language that may mean something to the general population but is understood to be something different to a targeted subgroup. When Trump contended he should not rent apartment space to welfare recipients or those who would not be “neat and clean,” he was tapping into fears of African Americans. In the 1980s, after the murder of a Central Park jogger, he called for the death penalty for the five juvenile suspects –  four African Americans and one Hispanic –labelling them as “roving bands of wild criminals,” feeding the stereotype of young black males as potentially dangerous criminals despite the fact that they were later exonerated. When Trump was later asked to comment, he called the court decision a “disgrace.”

Perhaps Trump’s dalliance with the birthers – who maintained against all the evidence that Barack Obama was not a legitimate President because he was not born in Hawaii but in Kenya – was, until the recent Presidential campaign, his most notorious example of exploiting baser American instincts. Apart from the fact that little was made about Chester Arthur and other Presidential candidates, including Ted Cruz, who were not born in the US, the birther campaign was clearly a cover for a virulent racism targeted at the first African-American President. Trump intuitively knew how to stoke the prejudices of the nativist grass roots right of the Republican Party by demeaning “ the current president [who] came out of nowhere … [T]he people who went to school with him they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It's crazy. ” Obama was not even a person but a spectre.

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz during the December Republican presidential debate. (Photo: John Locher, Associated Press)

From the moment Trump announced his candidacy to become President, he has given voice to the ugliness of dog-whistle politics that he has spent most of his life mastering. He still will not renounce his allegiance to the birthers; that would be acknowledging a mistake, something seemingly beyond his capacity. His increasing support has presented the Republican grandees with a crisis, one that they have sown over the years. They have whipped up a whirlwind of fear and divisiveness that was largely directed at Obama. Republicans, with more than a little help from Fox News and right-wing radio, gradually capitulated to a politics of unreason and made it plausible for an outlier like Trump, who has never held any political office, to become the standard bearer for the Republican Party in the 2016 Presidential election. Time will tell whether his candidacy has been given a boost or a hit among more moderate Republicans by the blustery, if often incoherent, endorsement of his political doppelganger, the wacky Sarah Palin, still a favourite among evangelicals and Tea Party insurgents. Her endorsement is apt: Trump and Palin share a cavalier disregard for evidence and both thrive on celebrity and populist appeal. The difference is that she was egregiously out of her depth as the 2008 Vice Presidential nominee behind John McCain; Trump may not be in spite of (or because of) his self-aggrandizing narcissism.

With his bombastic rhetoric and fear mongering, Trump has set a noxious tone for the Republican primaries by lifting the barriers to the virus of ethnic and religious exclusion. He has teased out the worst instincts in his rivals and those unable to resist the siren song of Trumpism. Ted Cruz, Trump’s closest rival, brandishes the endorsement of a minister who says Hitler was a “hunter” sent after the Jews by God. Other Republicans have sounded the tribalist alarum by saying that Islam is inherently violent and inconsistent with constitutional values. Retired neurosurgeon, Ben Carson, whose campaign is thankfully imploding, has compared Syrian refugees to rabid dogs. Jeb Bush and Cruz have both stated that the United States should accept only “proven” Christians from among the refugees fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq. Marco Rubio, the latest hope of the Republican establishment, has vowed he would permit the intelligence services to do “whatever it takes,” to make terrorist suspects talk. In Tennessee, the chairman of the state legislature’s GOP caucus has called for the mobilization of the National Guard to round up Syrian refugees and put them in camps. The invective against Muslims has not been limited to Republicans. The Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Va., cited the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, under suspicion because of their race, as a positive lesson for dealing with Syrian refugees.

The current guttersnipe and sour analogies are in sharp contrast with what George Bush said 20 September, 2001 to a joint session of Congress. During the speech, Bush took the high road: “The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics – a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.” In other words, Bush to his credit made a fundamental distinction between radical Islamists and Islam, a distinction that is rarely made by Republicans today. With a Democrat now in the White House, especially one that for a variety of reasons hardline conservatives loathe, there is no inhibition to restrain their hatred, some of it visceral, toward Obama who has faced scorched-earth opposition since he assumed office. It’s no longer enough to belittle President Obama’s activist view of government, his policy on Syria and the Islamic State, or to denigrate his exercise of diplomacy as appeasement, implying that he is another ignoble stand in for Neville Chamberlain. His most vicious critics stoop to ad hominem assaults: he is a “feckless weakling;” he doesn’t want America to lead or be strong; he was raised differently than the rest of us so he does not love our country. Such vituperative pronouncements are less than six steps away from invective that Joe McCarthy used to hurl, which might explain why some pundits have compared Trumpism with McCarthyism.

The official rhetoric demonizing Muslims as the “other” has had a devastating impact on American Muslims. Islamophobia appears to be flourishing. There is plenty of evidence that Muslims are being assaulted, and that many Americans regard them as un-American and want all mosques closed. More than half of the nation's governors, the vast majority of them Republican, have called on the U.S. to stop admitting Syrian refugees, most of them promising to prevent them from entering their states. Granted my evidence may be selective given that I have been focusing mostly on the Republican base, but there does appear to be mean-spiritedness among Americans who historically, with certain exceptions, welcomed foreigners and celebrated the country’s diversity and pluralism. As a Canadian, it is hard to miss the stark difference between the fear and distrust of Americans and the generous Canadian welcome, both official and public, of Syrian refugees since Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister last October.

And how does It Can’t Happen Here conclude? After escaping from a concentration camp, Jessup decamps to Canada, but instead of remaining, he regroups and returns to America to join an underground movement. I know it may be fanciful, but the 2016 Republican political circus could result in more than a fantasy unless someone with character is able to reverse the depth to which the GOP has descended and persuasively appeal to the better angels of the American nature.

(photo by Keith Penner)
– Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

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