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The Trump Phenomenon: This is Getting Serious

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Think Sinclair Lewis’s novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” or Elia Kazan’s film, “Face in the Crowd,” which together take us to where we are presently: a twilight zone of fascism-in-preparation, threatening to become more. I am referring to the rise of Donald Trump (Brecht’s “Arturo Ui” comes more to mind), home grown, trumpeting today Harrisburg, tomorrow the world! Yet Trump is less important than the American people, who, thirsting for strong leadership, pathetic in their wallowing in contrived fear, brought on by decades of gut redbaiting and subliminally-wrought and manipulative anticommunism, place him on a political-ideological pedestal tokening authoritarian submissiveness. America, not Trump himself, is the primary explanation for his standing.

The political culture is one of uncritical acceptance of war, business, militarism (in truth neo-fascism corrected for eroding Constitutional principles still in place), a long-term historical process in the shaping of a hierarchical capitalist structure, value system, and class relationships. Old Glory is self-immolating, its fabric torn asunder by unreasoning fear (an inflexible societal framework, in essence, counterrevolutionary in scope and substance, because opposed to social change in recognition that property, class, privilege might be questioned if critical judgment were encouraged and allowed to operate freely), and by frustration over obstacles to US unilateral global hegemony. This is not something new, fear being a weapon in the elites’ arsenal, permanent, yet trotted out, intensified, when they sense a mass awakening and/or restiveness usually associated with war and its aftermath.

At the time of World War I America witnessed the Palmer Raids and the suppression of the Wobblies, followed by (as if that were not enough) Wilsonian liberalism’s finest hour as the progenitor of anticommunism in America: the Siberian Intervention to destroy Bolshevism. But step back earlier in time; anticommunism was invariably a catch-all, a coded expression for the social control of the, labor movement and much else besides, including the justification for aggressive market penetration, the silencing of opposition and dissent on the concentration of wealth and power, and narrowing the bounds of economic-ideological-political legitimacy so that only monopoly capitalism qualifies as a democratic social order.

Pre-World War I, coinciding with the advent of a more mature phase of industrialism and working-class militancy than in the pre-Civil War era, from say 1877 through 1910, witnessed in America a structural and social process of proletarianization not unlike that of Western Europe in the same time-frame. American exceptionalism, a self-serving myth to suggest the transcendence of class and exploitation—an escape from Europe and its ways, is pure malarkey when the correlates of repressing wage labor are factored in, e.g., Pinkertons, state and national militias, union-busting, a political culture which engenders false consciousness among workers, etc. (The only exceptionalism is an exceptionalism of brutality.)

That the following occurred testifies to the historical persistence of repression in America: the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877, covering a wide swath of the country, barricades, loss of life, destruction of railroad property; Haymarket, the response to which, including severe punishment (State-sponsored political murder); the Homestead lockout in which Big Steel flexed its muscles as a preview of what to expect in the industry; and to name one more, the Pullman strike which showed the abuses of a company town and, like the others, the uneven power relations, exacerbated by the cooperation of government in savagely putting down labor. In passing, Theodore Roosevelt at the time of Haymarket publicly announced that his Rough Riders would welcome the chance to shoot the rioters—“and my men shoot straight.”

Since then, the interwar period, there was a major steel strike and General MacArthur’s putting to flight, under orders from Herbert Hoover, the Bonus Marchers (former veterans) burned out of their hovels on the Anacostia flats—these two speaking volumes about the breadth and depth of class repression in America. My point, Trump is no aberration, nor, still more fundamental, is he forcing his way into a political milieu pulling the wool over the electorate’s eyes. This is a marriage consummated in heaven, or perhaps I should say hell, the same world-view driving both in what amounts to a tango of death.

Trump is as American as apple pie. In addition to anti-radicalism he has tapped into two prime indicators of the American temperament and mind-set: ethnocentrism and xenophobia, the first, in-group dominance as against all others (frequently taking on racial meaning), the second, fear and hatred of the stranger/the foreigner. It is no coincidence that Trump laid down his marker, establishing his proto-fascist credentials so dear to his mass-base by taking up the issue of immigration, a “two-fer” from the standpoint of ethnocentrism and xenophobia, and by its very nature an opening outward to an authoritarian disposition as seen in Theodor Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality, where both traits are given importance signifying ego-loss of the followers, their submission to the authority of the Leader, and the surrender of critical judgment in favor of a stress placed on personality. (Trump’s descent from the skies in his private plane at the political rallies resonates with the technique used by Hitler—although I do not intend further comparison.)

He appears to be pressing all the right buttons, as is evident from the New York Times article, “Why Donald Trump Won’t Fold: Polls and People Speak,” Aug. 23, by Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn, and Jeremy Peters. The reporters take him seriously, as indeed should we. There is nothing to be gained by looking away, again, not only because of his views but also because he reveals the underlying value system, policy premises and principles, and call to action of Americans in increasing numbers. Whether or not he receives the Republican nomination is less significant than that the genii cannot be put back into the bottle. For we are witnessing a more-than-disturbing rightward shift in the political-economic-ideological spectra (they tend to work together in synch, bringing much of the political culture with them).

Barbaro-Cohn-Peters discount Republican efforts to minimize Trump’s showing in the polls and attendance at his rallies. Instead, “A review of public polling, extensive interviews with a host of his supporters in two states and a new private survey that tracks voting records all point to the conclusion that Mr. Trump has built a broad, demographically and ideologically diverse coalition, constructed around personality, not substance, that bridges demographic and political divides. In doing so, he has effectively insulated himself from the consequences of startling statements that might instantly doom rival candidates.” This is a shrewd assessment, a diverse coalition made possible by concentration on personality and a superb strategy negating his bizarre, outrageous statements. Bizarre? He called some women “fat pigs” and “disgusting animals,” yet leads among women, leads among evangelical Christians, “despite saying he had never had a reason to ask God for forgiveness,” and so on down the line.

Whence this support? “Tellingly,” they write, “when asked to explain support for Mr. Trump in their own words, voters of varying backgrounds used much the same language, calling him ‘ballsy’ and saying they admired that he ‘tells it like it is’ and relished how he ‘isn’t politically correct.’” The reporters observe, “Trumpism…is an attitude, not an ideology,” the implied vagueness, I submit, making him the more dangerous for it. Summarizing the interviews, “He’s a person who gets things done,” or in the words of a Bay City hairstylist, “We don’t need a politician for president; we need a businessman,” Barbaro & Company have their hands on the collective pulse of the nation, and the more offensive his remarks—even his attacks on party rivals—the more that is taken as evidence “confirm[ing] his status as a unique outsider willing to challenge conventions, and satisfy[ing] a craving for plain-spoken directness.”

Move over Reagan; America has a new Teflon archetype. Even his wealth is seen as a blessing: “In interviews with voters in Michigan and New Hampshire…none cited his policies as chief motivation for backing him. Many pointed, instead, to his wealth, saying they believed it set him apart from career politicians and freed him of the demands of donors.”

My New York Times Comment on the Barbaro-Cohn-Peters article, same date, follows:

Personality is a dangerous variable on which to build a campaign, for by definition it downplays substantive arguments in favor of manipulation and diversion. When Trump’s policies are finally fleshed out, he may in fact become still more popular. Sad to say, Americans have become bereft of nuance, reason, and peaceful intent. Trump’s popularity thus suggests the perfect match of the man, his times, and an electorate desirous of black-and-white solutions to what rather are complex problems and the need for re-directing energies to the basic overhaul of education, infrastructure, health care, and, most important, foreign policy, moving clearly away from war, intervention, and covert action, to a search for true internationalism based on helping and serving, not on domination.

I regret having to say this, but Trump is merely a more candid and refreshing version of the other Republican candidates (and Democrats as well, including Bernie Sanders, whose foreign policy–which is never discussed– is barely distinguishable from the field in both parties). The next presidential election will see the emphasis on more extremism, particularly if those who see through the moral bankruptcy of current politics stay home and refuse to vote. That leaves a large residue of crypto-fascists, the next generation of leaders and followers alike.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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