On Loving Trump: A CounterPunch Dialogue on the Grand Flirtation with Fascism

Il Duce Trump. Image: JSC and AI Art Generator.

This is an edited transcript of the latest CounterPunch podcast featuring Matthew Steveson, Daniel Warner and Richard Falk. You can listen to it here.

Matthew Stevenson: The three amigos are back together, but only in the same world. Richard, you’re in Turkey. Daniel, you’re in Geneva, and I’m in Slovakia, of all places.

For this episode, we wanted to discuss the rubric: “On Loving Trump”. Richard, you’re the coiner of the phrase “On Loving Trump.” What did you have in mind when you came up with such a title?

Richard Falk: Well, I think principally what to me is mystifying about the continuing popularity that Trump enjoys, despite all the heinous things that he has done while president and since being president, and the degree to which he challenges the constitutional consensus that had always, at least since the Civil War, kept the U.S. together as a country and as a citizenry.

He’s a radical figure who comes out of an opportunistic extreme right that has a frightening fascist lineage. Let me add one point: which is that Trump is an exaggeration, in my view, of a global phenomenon observed recently in a variety of cultural settings, the emergence of autocratic leaders that enjoy widespread support from their population. So we could have chosen to focus on alternate themes to highlight something analogous to the passion gripping the U.S. : “On Loving Modi” or “On Loving Orbán or “On Loving Putin”. All of these leaders engendered a level of popular support that defied the political imagination that supposedly emerged out of the Enlightenment’s insistence on rationality in all spheres of public life.

Daniel Warner: I think Richard has made an excellent point. I would develop it along the following line. President Biden talks about a historical moment, an inflection point where democracies versus autocracies compete around the world. One of the things to look at is not only the growth of autocracies or the extreme right-wing in the United States, but why democracies are failing. I include in this, obviously, the United States, which is supposed to be the leader of the free world. Why is it that the Democratic Party, for example, or in other countries, left-wing socialist parties, are not doing better?

Part of the success of Trump and the autocratic governments around the world is the failure of other forms of government at this time in history, especially those that are self-proclaimed democracies. On the one hand, we can say we’re mystified by Trump’s success. On the other hand, we can lament why democracies are failing and losing popular support.

“…demagogues are dominating the political space…”

Richard Falk: I think that what Danny has said about the loss of support on the part of the left and for the governing process is correct. But I think there’s also something missing, if we don’t acknowledge that this is not just a matter of normal political support—there is some kind of emotional underpinning that makes Trump invulnerable to the normal pitfalls of a political leader. And that’s a problem with the citizenry, and it’s a recurrent problem for democracies. It’s illuminated by inquiring why ancient Athens abandoned democracy, and why the leading thinkers of the time, like Plato, Aristotle, and Thucydides, felt that the ordinary public or the citizenry had become too vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues. And what we’re doing, in a way, is living in an era where demagogues are dominating the political space.

Matthew Stevenson: Richard, can I ask you and Danny: Are we living with them because the voice of the people has selected them? Meaning that the democracy is functioning, it’s just functioning in a way that none of us admire? Or is it that they have managed to subvert the normal workings of a democracy and have rigged the ballots?

Richard Falk: Well, I can say a word about that: It’s not the voice. It’s the heart. It’s the appeal that this kind of leader, at this time, has to the deep emotional wellsprings of human identity that somehow connects them not with the kind of figures that a modern society descended from the kinds of Enlightenment rationality and affirmation of science and devotion to truth-telling would have anticipated. There’s something else going on that’s very fundamental, that’s more connected with religion, in a way, than politics. And that’s what I think makes it very hard to know how to counter effectively.

Daniel Warner: I think Richard has touched on the emotions of politics and how, in his first comment he talked about manipulation. In terms of Trump and his followers, there is an enormous animosity toward a certain form of elitism, whether you call it bi-coastal or you call it the “degree gap” between those who are college-educated and those who are not. Richard goes back to Athens, Aristotle, and Plato. In a sense, democracy is based on an openness to citizens voting. And the citizens don’t necessarily have to be graduates of Princeton University.

There is a disconnect between those in urban areas today and those in rural areas; those who are college-educated or have advanced degrees and those who may be high school graduates. I think when Richard talks about religion, he’s talking about emotions and animosity toward a certain elite, whether it be Georgetown or Harvard, et cetera. Biden, who has tried to present himself as kind of the average Joe, middle-class Joe, University of Delaware Joe, has not succeeded in touching that part of the population. Trump, somewhat to his credit, has touched an emotional nerve with a large part of the population.

There is that animosity against an elite which is fundamental, certainly in the United States. You think of Franklin Roosevelt, for example, who was able to touch a large part of the population. I come back to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan or Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State. With all their degrees, they remind me of “the best and the brightest” under presidents John F. Kennedy and certainly under Lyndon Johnson who didn’t understand much about Vietnam. It seems to me that Blinken and Sullivan are part of a certain elite that doesn’t present itself well to the general population and is not able to communicate with Trump’s followers.

“…between the Enlightenment and oligopoly…”

Matthew Stevenson: There are two sides to the Trump followers. There’s the side of extreme wealth, which he does represent, and then there’s the underclass, if you want to call it that, the disenfranchised—as a second side. But I would ask both of you to consider this: that Trump, rather than being an aberration, is a consistent pattern of American history. In the Constitutional Convention [1787], the divide was between Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson—what Richard would call on the side of the Enlightenment. And on the other side, there were John Adams, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton, who really did want there to be an oligopoly to run the country—there was no secret there.

And if you look at the Constitution, you don’t need to be Charles A. Beard to see that the Constitution was drafted for those with extreme wealth—slaveholders were defended, capital more than rights were enshrined in the Constitution. And if you look at those two twin elements of American Constitutional history—between the Enlightenment and oligopoly…. Yes, Trump is extreme. Trump is extreme, in his criminal conduct. But Trump’s not the first politician to try to steal an election; that was done successfully in 1876. And Trump is not the only one to rally the extremes. We had Huey Long in the 1930s. So my question is, are we romanticizing the American past to draw a line under Trump when in fact this is what we’ve always had for 247 years?

Richard Falk: Well, I do think you’re right that there is a kind of structural continuity that you can trace back to the making of the Constitution and the early experience of being a post-colonial country and incorporating very fundamental injustices into this structure. But what I think is, and that’s why I keep stressing that this is not a matter of the mind as much as of the heart, that there is a passion that transcends this urban-rural divide and the educated-and-uneducated class divisions and eludes rational analysis and argumentation. There is present a quality that seems to me possessed by this kind of leader at this moment in history where the species itself is in jeopardy, that through climate change, through the risk of nuclear war, there has developed a kind of disorientation that flourishes because it is maintained in part by the passion that leaders like Trump can generate. And it’s a kind of macro-denialism that is leading in a very destructive direction for American society and for a number of other societies, as a paucity of leaders seem adequately responsive to this demanding new world historical situation. And that’s what I’m trying to identify. And that’s why I talked about not just supporting Trump, but something more that remains elusive that gives his worldview a toxic potency. And this something else, however, it is understood, has the potential of being a pathway to a fascist dictatorship.

Daniel Warner: I think that the fact that the three of us—one is in Geneva, one is in Slovakia, and one is in Turkey—indicates that we could be identified as “globalists”. And the question of identification, Richard, I think is crucial to this particular moment. We are living in a moment of complex interdependence. That’s a reality, it’s a technological reality, it’s a financial reality. And the question is, how do people react to that globalist reality?

To a large extent, those who are nationalist and passionately nationalist are saying that they are against globalism and globalists. So to take the story of the bi-coastal, rural and urban on another level, there also is a need for identity because certain people are worried and feel lost in the situation of globalism and complex interdependence. So to say I am an American, I am Polish, I am Hungarian, in a sense, is a reaffirmation of an identity that gives a sense of security in the face of growing realization of the global actuality that’s taking place. I think that, to some extent, answers part of Richard’s question about why there’s such a strong belief in Trump I think people are worried. Identity politics comes to the fore when people feel insecure.

Matthew Stevenson: I agree, Danny, but I also think that there are globalist sides of Trump’s philosophy, in that, for example, denying climate change means “I can use the atmosphere any way I want, and nobody should be able to tell me what I should be able to do with my patch of air.” And the side of Trump that I find disquieting, leaving aside the obvious criminality, is the nativist side of Trump, which I would say comes out of the 19th century—the Immigration Restriction League, the Know Nothing party. It comes out of all these strange cultish groups in American history. Trump is one of them. And Trump’s followers, in effect, are not dissimilar to some of the utopians who found some sort of redemption in slavery. They might have found it in economic isolation, you tell me. But the anger in Trump, I would say, is a nativist anger: anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-Black, pro-slavery. And that, to me, is the origin of Trump’s political philosophy.

Richard Falk: Can I briefly react to that by saying that your remarks suggest to me that what Trump has managed to do is to create a Jonestown for America; in other words, a cult that encompasses the society. And it has, as you point out, these elements that have always been in the broader picture, but they’ve been marginalized. By and large, he’s brought them to the center partly for the reasons that Danny and I have been mentioning.

At this point I would like to call our attention to a famous remark of Antonio Gramsci that I don’t have the exact words for… but the gist of what Gramsci said is this: “In times of transition, morbid things happen.” And what we are experiencing, I think, is a stunted transition from a state-centric world to a globally coherent world. But the transition is encountering extraordinary resistance from regressive ultra-nationalism that expresses itself by extreme cruelty and hostility to migrants and to those that would breach these national divisions. We’re living amid uncertainty and contradiction of a depth that has never before been the experience of humanity conceived as a species rather than as a series of distinct communities.

“…how is it that we can calm the ardor…”

Daniel Warner: Let me ask Matthew and Richard a question. If we can reach a consensus that throughout American history there have been tendencies that have been in the background and then come to the fore. If we accept my comment about insecurity and Richard’s about globalization, how is it that we can calm the ardor of those people who are so nationalistic and so insecure about globalization and the change from the international to the global? Because if insecurity leads to this identity and potentially to fascism, how do you deal with that? If we ignore the 75 million who voted for Trump the last time and maybe more will vote this time, we’re being undemocratic.

If it’s an emotional problem, Richard, what are we going to do about it? We can’t ignore it. Perhaps we could ignore it in Hungary or Poland, but within the United States, it’s such a threat to the system. How do you deal with this emotional situation today?

Richard Falk: Well, if you accept the premise that you’re dealing with a form of love, we have no instruments to counter that. The Enlightenment mindset is irrelevant. That’s why I feel rather gloomy about the future. And I think Biden is one sign of the bankruptcy of opposition to a situation that is characterized by the uber emotion of love. It’s a distorted love and has deforming impacts, but it is not going to be countered by Enlightenment rationality or by material social protection measures. A new Roosevelt wouldn’t be able to handle this kind of passion unless maybe if there was some deep crash of the economy, one might have a new set of parameters to deal with that. But short of that, I don’t see any signs that there is a neutralizing force in America or many other places to deal with this emergent autocratic fascistic passion.

Matthew Stevenson: What I find extraordinary in looking at Trump from a distance is he really doesn’t have a very consistent ideology himself. I don’t think he’s read six books since he finished the 11th grade, and he probably didn’t even finish The Old Man and the Sea.

The problem I have with Trump is, on one hand, his form of fascism is an economic fascism, in that he looks at the presidency, at government, as a way to enrich himself and his corporate cronies. I don’t think he has national aspirations of an imperial colonial side. He might. But I think rather he looks at the world and says: How am I, Donald Trump and my few followers, Jared and a few others, going to make money out of this situation? Which to me sounds like some of the businessmen in Rome, around Mussolini in the 1920s, who didn’t really care what Mussolini did or said or stood for, as long as they made money out of it.

And so, Danny, I’d like to come back to your dichotomy between elites and non-elites as the division point, but since to me, Trump is what Richard is describing as a coup d’état of a cult. Yes, 75 million people did vote Republican in the last presidential election.

I don’t think all 75 million people believe everything Trump believes, any more than everybody who voted for Biden agrees with everything Biden will do or has done.

Let me ask you: is Trump’s fascism of an international character where he wants to make alliances with North Korea and Putin against Ukraine and Europe and the Global South? Or is it just a get-rich-quick scheme?

Daniel Warner: I think, Matthew, there’s a little bit of both. But the argument is Richard’s point, and I’ll come to that about the difference between the international and the global and Richard’s gloom. I mean, I’m amazed at what’s going on in New York at the United Nations. After all, the Secretary-General is more a secretary than a general. There is a certain moral leaning behind the UN charter. There’s a certain moral role for the UN. It doesn’t have an army. And yet here we have a meeting where the leaders come, and talk about various issues. Climate change is coming up, and yet four of the five members of the Security Council, permanent members did not have their leaders in New York. I think this is part of a movement where there is little leadership in the global community.

If we’re moving technologically, and financially, away from nationalism to something larger. The problems of pandemics and climate change are global. There is no pretense for the moment at any form of global leadership or moral leadership. Richard for years has talked about some kind of a global assembly. We’re getting further and further away from that at the same moment the problems are becoming more and more global.

“…there’s a feeling of a ship without a rudder…”

Richard Falk: Yes, I completely agree with this series of comments that Danny just made. I think part of the disaffection from the UN, I’m pretty sure Biden also wouldn’t have gone to speak at the General Assembly if the UN wasn’t headquartered in New York City and if he wasn’t the ‘host’ of this gathering. There is a helplessness on the part of these supposed leading governments and there’s a feeling of a ship without a rudder. And I felt that ever since 2003 when the U.S. acted unilaterally in Iraq and later to some extent in Afghanistan and Syria; the UN has demonstrated its irrelevance when it comes to war prevention. And what the U.S. has tried to do in this post-Ukraine period is to revive the UN, or more accurately to revitalize the UN as an instrument of its foreign policy, to rally countries against Russia, to compromise the veto, and to do various things that will make it more of a policy instrument than a community generating framework where countries that disagree can at least communicate with each other.

I regard these developments as a low point for the UN and a high point for groups like the G7 and the BRICS coalitions that are emerging outside the framework of the UN and purporting to address a similar world-order agenda. That should be central to what the UN is preoccupied and committed to doing and receive the funding that would enable it to carry out its mission as set forth in the Charter. This was part of the Secretary General’s complaint to the effect that the UN has a voice but it has insufficient funding and it is impossible to change the world without material capabilities.

Matthew Stevenson: I think you’re right, Richard, in that the United States, maybe when John Quincy Adams was president, had the ability to be the counterweight to some of these negative trends in the UN and other bodies. But if you start about 1848 with the Mexican-American War and go through to the Spanish-American War up to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and stops in between, the United States, for whatever reasons, probably economic, ceded that moral high ground to bring others behind the idealism that was present when the Constitution was drafted in 1789.

Now, Trump is in lockstep with so many of these other strong men in North Korea, Russia, India—that’s his peer group. And they don’t want to hear about the issues that everybody else feels are weighing on their soul—inflation, climate change, whatever they are. And you asked Richard, what can we do?

To me, the hope is somehow to allow the empowerment of what I consider a natural majority in the United States. A natural majority is not for the 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court; nor is it for Donald Trump’s MAGA Republican Party; and it’s not for the Senate of Mitch McConnell.

The problem is that Americans cannot vote for the government that it both wants and deserves.

Richard Falk: I wonder about that. That’s an overly optimistic reading, I think. And we should remember that Biden is creating an atmosphere of moral hypocrisy on the fundamental issues that we’re talking about. He stresses his friendship with Modi and is very ambivalent about the horrible things that Netanyahu is associated with. How can one talk credibly about an alliance of democracies when you are so fundamentally hypocritical? It’s an alliance against China, and to say any country that is willing to join that alliance, including Saudi Arabia, a very repressive, non-democratic country, is welcome to be in that alliance.

And so the ideological roots of democracy are themselves not credible as a posture that opposes Trump. So Trump is the real thing when you look at it this way. And he did earlier have a vision of bypassing Europe and forming a new geopolitical alignment with China and Russia, which might have avoided the Ukraine crisis, I’m not sure, or at least handled it very, very differently. And so we’re in a period where the either-or of American politics leaves one with very little foundation for genuine hope.

“…it can happen here…”

Daniel Warner: I mentioned the United Nations because I’m trying to see if we don’t want to love Trump, we should want to love something. We can love our families, we can love our friends. But in a larger sense, in a moment of uncertainty and insecurity, we’re looking for certain places we can believe in and even love, if you want to use that word.

The United Nations, the international community, the charter of the United Nations, human rights, we could go on. They’re not out there. And that’s why I asked the question about where we could look for something positive. I do think that lots of people are not going to vote in the United States this time, perhaps not even thinking that, well, if Trump gets elected, does it make that much difference?

So I think there is not only gloom out there. I would say that people are turning more to their own needs, family needs, and financial needs. The whole concept of being part of a larger audience, a democratic audience, a larger part of a global marketplace, is losing whatever appeal it might have. It’s interesting to watch the paradox that at the same time the world becomes complex and interdependent, we are going back to a certain form of tribalism. Trump and the cult of Trump are an example of that return to a kind of simplistic, primitive tribalism that we thought we had overcome or that technologically demands a larger response.

Matthew Stevenson: Well, at the risk of becoming the closet optimist in this conversation, which is not my normal role in most conversations, let me posit the slightly positive side, which is, I think that Trump’s election in 2016 was an anomaly. They happen in American politics. His was an anomaly. Hillary Clinton, for whatever reason, had a lot of negatives that people didn’t want to vote for. Leave that aside. He didn’t win in 2018, he didn’t win in 2020, he didn’t win in 2022. Or his proxies. I don’t think he will win in 2024, at least.

If he does win, however negative you’ve been, you can be more negative.

But I would also say, Danny and Richard, that I do see hope in younger generations, our children, your children, everybody’s children, when you see some of the things that they’re willing to tackle—climate change, inequality, economic distribution into the Global South—and they’re devoting their lives to these causes, not simply just attending a rally here and there. At some level, that generation has to be heard.

It’s not being heard by the Bidens and by the Supreme Court and by the Senate and by Trump. And that’s to the detriment of all of us. And they’re not being heard in many countries beyond the United States, not being heard in India, Israel, Korea, you name it. But I do think in that in the younger generation, there is eloquence and there’s optimism. Optimism may be the wrong word. There’s at least a path that they’re willing to commit themselves to.

Daniel Warner: Matthew, I completely agree, and I’m impressed by the people, the young people, who are doing what you said. The question is the relationship between what they’re doing and politics. We started with the notion of Biden and democracy. Democracy has a cultural background to it and it also has a very simple administrative one. The question is how these young people cannot only do what they’re doing, but also get involved in a democratic process, political party, et cetera. And that seems to me to be complicated today.

Richard Falk: Just to add a word to that, the political party that is in opposition to Trump is not something that is attractive to these idealistic younger people. So they have to create their own new organizing framework and mobilize support, which is possible to make happen. Lots of unpredictable things have happened in our lifetimes, so we shouldn’t discount that. And I would share the view that the younger generation is more attuned to how the world needs to work if it is to overcome these challenges that are confronting society and are being met by mediocre or worse, leadership in the principal countries of the world.

“…is there a book that you might recommend?”

Matthew Stevenson: Let’s end on a literary note, since you’re both big readers. Let’s each of us recommend to our listeners and readers who’ve been with us on this dialogue a book that you’ve read that you think might be worth adding to the commentary on the subjects we’ve been discussing today.

Danny, you mentioned The Best and the Brightest, which is a show in and of itself about the making of foreign policy in Vietnam. But is there another book that you might recommend to our listeners?

Daniel Warner: Well, I was rereading Stanley Hoffmann’s Duties Beyond Borders. I was working on how little is going to humanitarian assistance today and how much money is being spent militarily. I think it’s important when we see the people fleeing the Global South, the desperation, and how here in Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross has a considerable budget deficit. It seems to me that Duties Beyond Borders is a good book to reread.

Richard Falk: Stanley Hoffmann, I agree with that, and there are a lot of books of that sort I would like to recommend. But I think for Americans, maybe this book that was written ten years or so ago with the title What’s the Matter with Kansas? [the author is Thomas Frank] is a good place to begin because it focuses on this phenomenon of people voting against their own material interests, and it raises questions about how the society is organized and how the capitalist mystique has led people to be distracted through these cultural issues like abortion and gay rights and other things that grant primacy to values over interests. We haven’t talked about that, but I think that’s all part of the alienation that is in some sense, one of the sources for “Loving Trump”—that he provides some kind of overview of the good society which is really a caricature and what it really embraces is a coherent, regressive vision of a bad society. But it’s something that engenders this kind of widespread love and devotion.

Matthew Stevenson: I am going to suggest the Sinclair Lewis novel It Can’t Happen Here, which was about the 1936 election—it’s fiction—but it results in not Roosevelt’s landslide win over Alf Landon, but the election of a fascist American senator who is very Trump-like in his depiction by Sinclair Lewis. And it is a quite a long novel, I would say, more than 400 pages about how the United States—at least in a fictional sense, and I would say in a current sense—pushed along by MAGA-like Republicans did embrace a native form of fascism. It might not have been Mussolini on his Rome balcony, but it had all the elements. Sinclair Lewis’s novel ends not on a pessimistic note, in the sense that the fascism burns itself out like some wildfire in the West. But the Lewis thesis is, don’t think that you’re above the descent into the anarchy which so many other countries have descended into, because, as he implies in his title, it can happen here.

Matthew Stevenson: I think we’ve reached the end of our allotted time. Gentlemen, one last wrap-up. Let’s end with Richard, who brought us the topic: “On Loving Trump”. Danny, you go first. I’ll go second. And Richard will go third. Any last word that you like to add?

Daniel Warner: Well, I think that the three of us continuing to talk in spite of the fact that we’re spread out around the world is an indication that we shouldn’t be all too gloomy.

Matthew Stevenson: Since I’m here in Prešov, which is in eastern Slovakia, I will quote David Lloyd George, who was one of the architects of world peace at Versailles and, in theory, on the side of angels, at least in some tellings of history. Not so much my telling of history…. At Versailles, when they were talking about Slovakia with Woodrow Wilson and whomever, David Lloyd George asked out loud: “Who are the Slovaks? I can’t quite seem to place them.” So it tells you that our leaders have limitations if we expect too much direction from the top.

Richard Falk: I certainly agree with that parting sentiment and I’d say that we can’t know the future but we can struggle to create the future we believe in. And if that message is widely enough disseminated it might generate a new kind of political energy that could reframe politics in the United States and elsewhere.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, Chair of Global law, Queen Mary University London, and Research Associate, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB. He is the author of numerous books, including Public Intellectual: Memoir of a Citizen Pilgrim and This Endangered Planet. He divides his time between the United States and Turkey.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva, where he served for many years as Deputy to the Director of the Graduate Institute. He lives in Geneva. 

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. A recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck. His new book is: Our Man in Iran. He lives outside Geneva.