On Donald Trump, kayfabe fascist: `The wink is what tells you he probably isn’t Hitler’

The Great Dictator

Good morning Austin.

On Sunday, the New York Times had a Page 1 story by Peter Baker: Rise of Donald Trump Tracks Growing Debate Over Global Fascism

WASHINGTON — The comparison was inflammatory, to say the least. Former Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts equated Donald J. Trump’s immigration plan with Kristallnacht, the night of horror in 1938 when rampaging Nazis smashed Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and killed scores of Jews.

But if it was a provocative analogy, it was not a lonely one. Mr. Trump’s campaign has engendered impassioned debate about the nature of his appeal and warnings from critics on the left and the right about the potential rise of fascism in the United States. More strident opponents have likened Mr. Trump to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

To supporters, such comparisons are deeply unfair smear tactics used to tar conservatives and scare voters. For a bipartisan establishment whose foundation has been shaken by Mr. Trump’s ascendance, these backers say, it is easier to delegitimize his support than to acknowledge widespread popular anger at the failure of both parties to confront the nation’s challenges.

But the discussion comes as questions are surfacing around the globe about a revival of fascism, generally defined as a governmental system that asserts complete power and emphasizes aggressive nationalism and often racism. In places like Russia and Turkey, leaders like Vladimir V. Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan employ strongman tactics. In Austria, a nationalist candidate came within three-tenths of a percentage point of becoming the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since World War II.

Mr. Trump dismisses the labels used by those like Mr. Weld, a longtime Republican now mounting a quixotic campaign for vice president as a Libertarian. “I don’t talk about his alcoholism,” Mr. Trump said through a spokeswoman, “so why would he talk about my foolishly perceived fascism? There is nobody less of a fascist than Donald Trump.” (Mr. Weld, who in the 1990s reportedly appeared in public a few times having had too much to drink, declined to respond: “I’ll let that ride.”)

Americans are used to the idea that other countries may be vulnerable to such movements, but while figures like Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic radio broadcaster, enjoyed wide followings in the 1930s, neither major party has ever nominated anyone quite like Mr. Trump.

“This could be one of those moments that’s quite dangerous and we’ll look back and wonder why we treated it as ho-hum at a time when we could have stopped it,” said Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Brookings Institution known for hawkish internationalism.

Mr. Kagan sounded the alarm this month with a Washington Post op-ed article, “This Is How Fascism Comes to America,” that gained wide attention. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from conservative Republicans,” he said. “There are a lot of people who agree with this.”

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That the question of whether Donald Trump is a fascist/proto-fascist/quasi-fascist is on the front page of the New York Times on Memorial Day Weekend seven weeks before he is to claim the Republican nomination for president of the United States, is sobering, startling, and raises difficult questions for reporters.

Per Kagan’s warning, I would hate to spend my last days in a labor camp – or perhaps a downscale Trump Last Resort Re-Education Hotel and Casino – ruing my “ho hum” response to the threat he posed to American democracy.

From the Kagan piece:

This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.

And yet, at the same time, it is difficult to cover a presidential race if one genuinely views the Republican nominee as an incipient fascist. Oh my. Oh my God. OH MY GOD!

And, certainly, the fact that Bill Weld may or may not be, or ever been, a drunk does not entirely dispose of the question.

However, I have been skeptical about previous efforts by news organizations to identify and isolate the Trump candidacy as a singular and unique threat.

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I thought the Huffington Post decision, early on, to cover Trump in its Entertainment section, and, then later, when that didn’t work out, to append a disclaimer at the bottom of every Trump story, as kind of silly.

From Politico:

The Huffington Post has started appending an editor’s note to the bottom of posts about Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, calling him a “racist,” a “liar” and a “xenophobe,” and reminding readers of his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

“Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.,” reads the note, which was added to an article about Trump’s feud with Fox News published last night. The note also includes links to prior coverage of Trump’s comments.

A Huffington Post spokesperson told POLITICO that the note will be added to all future stories about Trump.

“Yes, we’re planning to add this note to all future stories about Trump,” the spokesperson said. “No other candidate has called for banning 1.6 billion people from the country! If any other candidate makes such a proposal, we’ll append a note under pieces about them.”

The Huffington Post has struggled with how to cover Trump’s presidential campaign. Last summer, it announced that it would publish stories about Trump in its “Entertainment” section rather than its “Politics” section. This arrangement became increasingly untenable as Trump became the Republican front-runner. In December, The Huffington Post was forced to reverse course and begin covering Trump as a serious presidential candidate.

Likewise, I didn’t think the Boston Globe’s mock front page, back in April, of what America would be like under President Trump, was a great idea, journalistically.

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Donald J. Trump’s vision for the future of our nation is as deeply disturbing as it is profoundly un-American.

It is easy to find historical antecedents. The rise of demagogic strongmen is an all too common phenomenon on our small planet. And what marks each of those dark episodes is a failure to fathom where a leader’s vision leads, to carry rhetoric to its logical conclusion. The satirical front page of this section attempts to do just that, to envision what America looks like with Trump in the White House.

But if I am not as panicked by Trump as the Globe and the Huffington Post and Kagan, why not?

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Who do I look to for reassurance?

Well, how about Mitch McConnell and Dilbert?

From McConnell on CBS Sunday Morning this weekend on Trump.
“Does it cause you pause when you think about how divided this country is, and how he is causing such division? I mean, Republicans, in your party, are burning their voter registration cards. They’re saying, ‘Never Trump.'”

“Well, one thing I’m pretty calm about is that this is nowhere near the most divisive period in American history,” McConnell said. “But what protects us in this country against big mistakes being made is the structure, the Constitution, the institutions.

“No matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office, there are constraints in this country. You don’t get to do anything you want to. So I’m very optimistic about America. I’m not depressed about the nature of the debate.”

“Madison divided the power,” McConnell, who is backing Trump, said on Morning Joe. “Nobody can do everything they want.”
Trump is a “phenomenon,” McConnell said. But not the end of the Republic, or even the Republican Party.
Not enough to reassure you?
Then read this March 15 post from Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ blog, one of an extraordinary series of posts about Trump by Adams.
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Donald Trump is a con man. He’s also a fraud, a liar, a snake-oil salesman, and a carnival barker. Clearly he is running a scam on the country.

Trump calls himself a “deal-maker.”

I call Trump a Master Persuader.

It’s all the same thing. Trump says and does whatever he needs to do in order to get the results he wants. And apparently he does it well. Given the facts, you can either see Trump as highly skilled or morally flawed. Maybe both. I suppose it depends which side you are on.

Last autumn, when Trump was looking like a serious contender, I told you he would change more than politics. I said Trump would change how you see the human condition. I couldn’t say more about that until it played out. You needed some more evidence before I could make that case. Now you have it.

The evidence is that Trump completely ignores reality and rational thinking in favor of emotional appeal. Sure, much of what Trump says makes sense to his supporters, but I assure you that is coincidence. Trump says whatever gets him the result he wants. He understands humans as 90% irrational and acts accordingly.

Rand Paul, on the other hand, treated voters as if they were intelligent creatures who make decisions based on the facts. His campaign didn’t last long with that message. Rand Paul knows about a lot of stuff. He’s a smart guy. But apparently psychology is not on the list of things he knows. And psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president.

Trump knows psychology. He knows facts don’t matter. He knows people are irrational. So while his opponents are losing sleep trying to memorize the names of foreign leaders – in case someone asks – Trump knows that is a waste of time. No one ever voted for a president based on his or her ability to name heads of state. People vote based on emotion. Period.

You used to think Trump ignored facts because he doesn’t know them. That’s partly true. There are plenty of important facts Trump does not know. But the reason he doesn’t know those facts is – in part – because he knows facts don’t matter. They never have and they never will. So he ignores them.

Right in front of you.

And he doesn’t apologize or correct himself. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks stupid, evil, and maybe crazy. If you understand persuasion, Trump is pitch-perfect most of the time. He ignores unnecessary rational thought and objective data and incessantly hammers on what matters (emotions).

Did Trump’s involvement in the birther thing confuse you? Were you wondering how Trump could believe Obama was not a citizen? The answer is that Trump never believed anything about Obama’s place of birth. The facts were irrelevant, so he ignored them while finding a place in the hearts of conservatives. For later.

This is later. He plans ahead.

Do you remember a year ago when you thought humans were rational most of the time – let’s say 90% of the time – and irrational the rest of the time? That was how most people saw the world, and still do. But Trump is teaching you that you had it backwards. The truth is that humans are irrational 90% of the time.

Hypnosis students learn on the first day of classes that humans are irrational. If you believe people are rational it interferes with the technique. Likewise, if you see voters as rational you’ll be a terrible politician. People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keeps us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence.

You can validate my low opinion of human rationality by asking yourself why Trump supporters don’t care that nothing he says is true. Trump literally makes up facts on the fly. Do you think his supporters have not noticed this awkward situation?

They noticed. They don’t care. And at this point they understand he’s just saying what he needs to say to get elected. Democrats will call that evil. Republicans will call it effective.

We all understand that a president has to be the leader of dumb people as well as smart people – and there are far more dumb people. So how does one kind of message get through to two totally different types of voters? Trump’s solution, so far, is to influence the dumb people via emotion while winking to the smart people so we know he is smart and not crazy. The wink is what tells you he probably isn’t Hitler. The wink says he is doing what he needs to do to get elected.

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I saw the wink sooner than most of you because I study persuasion. So none of his crazy behavior looked crazy to me. It looked skillful to the extreme. So skillful, in fact, that he got to the point where he can literally say any damned thing and his supporters don’t care how true it is. They care that he is on their side and doing whatever it takes to tear down the money-puppets in Washington.

If you don’t see Trump’s wink, you can be forgiven for thinking he is Hitler. He probably knew the risks. Reagan had the same experience. Trump is following the Reagan game plan so he had to expect what is happening now.

But is Trump dangerous? The only thing we know for sure is that he’s a huge racist. I can say that with confidence because of all the dog-whistles and other clues.

For example, Trump asked his supporters to give the Nazi salute and pledge their support to him. You might think that raising your hand is the same sort of oath people take to serve on an American jury trial or to become citizens. But when you see it in context, it is totally Hitler.

Some of the context is that Trump did not disavow the KKK as quickly as we expected in that one interview. He did disavow the KKK and David Duke before that interview and lots of times after. He says he didn’t hear the question that one time. That sounds totally reasonable until you consider it in context. And some of that context includes asking his people to give the Nazi salute.

And obviously Trump is a racist for suggesting a temporary ban on Muslim immigration until we figure out what the problem is. You might be tempted to say Muslims are comprised of all sorts of ethnicities, and all he is doing is favoring legal citizens over non-citizens, which is the job description of the President of the United States. But again, you have to see it in context. This is the same man who doesn’t disavow the KKK when he can’t hear the question and who makes his supporters do Nazi-looking stuff with their arms. You have to see the whole picture.

Trump also wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and deport all of the illegal Mexicans in this country. That is clearly Hitler behavior because those people are brown and Trump has the same mouth shape as Mussolini. Trump’s supporters might point out that the job of the President is to secure borders and favor citizens over non-citizens, but again, you have to see it in context. This is the man who didn’t disavow the KKK when he didn’t hear the question, makes his supporters do Nazi arm things, and discriminates against the Muslim race that is actually a belief system and not a race. When you put it all together, that’s too much smoke to say there is no fire, right? I mean rationally-speaking.

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Adams thinks that Trump is going to win the general election, and win big.

I think it will be one of the biggest margins of victory in history.

I have written before about Trump’s wink.

From the First Reading I wrote the day he announced.

        First there was Andy Kaufman, wrestling women.

Then there was Joaquin Phoenix, pretending to abandon acting for hip hop.

As with Kaufman and Phoenix, it is impossible, as it is happening, to know for sure whether what he is doing is for real or performance art.

That’s the whole point. That’s central to the art form.

Indeed, we may not know until well into his second term as president whether Trump is putting us on.

But the performance is so broad, so over-the-top, that one has to assume Trump is winking at us all, that we all are, in essence, in on the joke.

In December, I wrote a First ReadingFrom WrestleMania to the White House, is Donald Trump the kayfabe candidate for president? – and returned to topic in a March First Reading:

I have thought for some time that the best way to view Trump and his candidacy is through the lens of his membership in the WWE Hall of Fame.

He is the kayfabe candidate. (From Wikipedia: In professional wrestling, kayfabe /ˈkeɪfeɪb/ is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as “real” or “true,” specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or pre-determined nature.)

Last year, political scientist William Stodden of North Dakota State College of Science and Concordia College, and John Henson of the Hennepin County Library, wrote a paper: Politics by Kayfabe: Professional Wrestling and the Creation of Public Opinion.
The authors did not refer to Trump in the paper.
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But in an interview earlier this month with Dan Patterson of TechRepublic, Stodden did.

Message control—spin—is a common political, and professional wrestling, tactic. Your paper is titled Professional Wrestling and the Creation of Public Opinion. Explain how wrestling Kayfabe is a metaphor for politics, business, and other forms of competition?

In professional wrestling, Kayfabe is kept religiously. If a member of the talent breaks the agreed fantasy, they are often sanctioned, formally, by the company, because denying that the spectacle is real costs the company money and costs the fans enjoyment. In politics, Kayfabe is kept because it is important to politicians to gin up support among a crowd of folks whose lives may not be directly affected by the policy proposals of the politicians. If, for example, Donald Trump is talking about building a wall between the US and Mexico, he appeals to a segment of the population for whom immigration is important, though their lives may never interact directly with an immigrant on any level. It is important for Trump to never let on that he himself doesn’t actually believe that a wall is financially or even physically possible. And it is in the interests of his supporters that he also never breaks this Kayfabe, because then they would have no reason to pay attention to the contest anymore. Further, it is important for the media who Trump’s supporters pay attention to, to inform the population that what Trump is saying is straight out of the aether fiction, or to refuse to cover Trump, or to push him too hard to explain HOW he would build the wall, because then the supporters would have no reason to tune in to the channel and would select other media. So in this particular case, Kayfabe is kept by everyone from Trump, through the media, and down to his fans.

What is important then, and what is different from pro wrestling, is that the candidate-media-supporter axis functions to create reality for at least the supporters. When a trusted news outlet is playing along, it becomes easy for supporters who are, themselves, barely informed on various topics, to buy in to the point where the Kayfabe is subsumed beneath subjective interpretation. For the public, it really doesn’t matter whether Trump will build a wall. Most of his supporters believe he will, and so for them, he REALLY will build the wall. And they begin to act as if the Kayfabe is real, and so it becomes real. This then turns into a mutually reinforcing feedback loop where supporters reward the spectacle, and the candidate continues to give them more spectacle, and all the while, for the news media, it no longer is a case of whether they will cover the spectacle. They will always cover the spectacle, because that is what the viewers want. And so on and so forth. Whether Trump is actually able to make good on his proposals really doesn’t matter after a while. The actors in this scene have all forgotten that it was never real, by acting as if it were real all along.

Candidates benefit by generating votes, media benefits by generating eyeball revenue, and the supporters benefit by getting to feel as if they have some input into the race. Especially during this year’s nominating contest, the spectacle and the Kayfabe are in the driver’s seat. For those who can see beyond the curtain and keep their head about the entire process, the Kayfabe is as clear as if it were written on a wall. But for most voters, they buy into the spectacle because they want to.

You see echoes of this in business as well. Everyone knows that advertisement always oversells some aspects of a product and undersells other aspects. For decades, tobacco sellers produced advertisements that suggested that tobacco was at least not harmful for you. Even after the truth about the product became known, advertisers continued to market their product. Products that are high in sugar continue to hire lobbyists who continue to work for low amounts of regulation and freedom to sell their products, even though the connection between sugar and obesity and diabetes is firmly established in science. The government, whose job it is to regulate these poisons, willingly ignores the negative health benefits in return for contributions, the industries benefit by continuing to sell their products, and consumers who enjoy indulging in these poisons benefit because they can satisfy their addictions. And we all buy into the fantasy that everything is okay, though we all know that it is not.

The 2016 political cycle has often been compared to a reality show. It seems as though Donald Trump is both using Kayfabe and running against Kayfabe. Is he the best professional wrestler of all time?

He may be. In fact, it is well known that he made a cameo at Wrestlemania, where he smacked down the owner of the WWE, Vince McMahon. Except for Kayfabe, it is likely that this stunt may never have occurred. One thing is for sure, though, he certainly does know about keeping Kayfabe. You could say his entire candidacy is one big Kayfabe.

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So, Trump, with a complicit media, is, at worst, a kayfabe fascist, but even that, of course, carries some peril.
From the March First Reading:
I wrote a story in Sunday’s paper about how Trump was akin to a familiar figure in Southern politics — a populist demagogue in the tradition of Louisiana’s Huey Long, Alabama’s George Wallace and Texas’ W. Lee “Pass the Biscuits Pappy” O’Daniel, ideologically flexible strongmen with the common touch and the flair of a showman.
 The truly sobering cautionary note here is that Huey Long was assassinated and Wallace was crippled by an attempted assassination.
 
The very real danger, is, as (Marco) Rubio suggested, that there are a lot of Arthur Bremers, and John Hinckleys and Travis Bickles out there who may not be getting the winking kayfabe of it all.

In other words, as Rod Stewart put it, a wink is as good as a nod to a blind horse.

When the New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman tweeted Kagan’s column, he was soon the victim of an onslaught of viciously anti-semitic tweets by Trump supporters. As Weisman wrote in Sunday’s Times.

The anti-Semitic hate, much of it from self-identified Donald J. Trump supporters, hasn’t stopped since. Trump God Emperor sent me the Nazi iconography of the shiftless, hooknosed Jew. I was served an image of the gates of Auschwitz, the famous words “Arbeit Macht Frei” replaced without irony with “Machen Amerika Great.” Holocaust taunts, like a path of dollar bills leading into an oven, were followed by Holocaust denial. The Jew as leftist puppet master from @DonaldTrumpLA was joined by the Jew as conservative fifth columnist, orchestrating war for Israel. That one came from someone who tagged himself a proud future member of the Trump Deportation Squad.

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I understand Mr. Trump has a son-in-law who is an Orthodox Jew, and a daughter who converted to her husband’s religion. Mr. Trump has bragged about his Jewish grandchildren. Yet I also see tweets from Mr. Trump like the 2013 missive that re-emerged Monday promising “that I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz — I mean Jon Stewart,” and I cannot help seeing another belled cat.

Weisman cited a May 20 piece by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker – The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump.

He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn’t so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.

The American Republic stands threatened by the first overtly anti-democratic leader of a large party in its modern history—an authoritarian with no grasp of history, no impulse control, and no apparent barriers on his will to power. The right thing to do, for everyone who believes in liberal democracy, is to gather around and work to defeat him on Election Day. Instead, we seem to be either engaged in parochial feuding or caught by habits of tribal hatred so ingrained that they have become impossible to escape even at moments of maximum danger. Bernie Sanders wouldn’t mind bringing down the Democratic Party to prevent it from surrendering to corporate forces—and yet he may be increasing the possibility of rule-by-billionaire.

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If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump. Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right—not by Peróns or Castros or Putins or Francos or Lenins or fill in the blanks. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak. If he can rout the Republican Party in a week by having effectively secured the nomination, ask yourself what Trump could do with the American government if he had a mandate.

 

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At the beginning of May, Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece – Democracies end when they are too democratic. And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny – suggesting that Plato had worried about, and warned against, the inevitable triumph of the likes of Trump.

He is usually of the elite but has a nature in tune with the time — given over to random pleasures and whims, feasting on plenty of food and sex, and reveling in the nonjudgment that is democracy’s civil religion. He makes his move by “taking over a particularly obedient mob” and attacking his wealthy peers as corrupt. If not stopped quickly, his appetite for attacking the rich on behalf of the people swells further. He is a traitor to his class — and soon, his elite enemies, shorn of popular legitimacy, find a way to appease him or are forced to flee. Eventually, he stands alone, promising to cut through the paralysis of democratic incoherence. It’s as if he were offering the addled, distracted, and self-indulgent citizens a kind of relief from democracy’s endless choices and insecurities. He rides a backlash to excess—“too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery” — and offers himself as the personified answer to the internal conflicts of the democratic mess. He pledges, above all, to take on the increasingly despised elites. And as the people thrill to him as a kind of solution, a democracy willingly, even impetuously, repeals itself.

And so, as I chitchatted over cocktails at a Washington office Christmas party in December, and saw, looming above our heads, the pulsating, angry televised face of Donald Trump on Fox News, I couldn’t help but feel a little nausea permeate my stomach. And as I watched frenzied Trump rallies on C-SPAN in the spring, and saw him lay waste to far more qualified political peers in the debates by simply calling them names, the nausea turned to dread. And when he seemed to condone physical violence as a response to political disagreement, alarm bells started to ring in my head. Plato had planted a gnawing worry in my mind a few decades ago about the intrinsic danger of late-democratic life. It was increasingly hard not to see in Plato’s vision a murky reflection of our own hyperdemocratic times and in Trump a demagogic, tyrannical character plucked directly out of one of the first books about politics ever written.

Could it be that the Donald has emerged from the populist circuses of pro wrestling and New York City tabloids, via reality television and Twitter, to prove not just Plato but also James Madison right, that democracies “have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention … and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths”? Is he testing democracy’s singular weakness — its susceptibility to the demagogue — by blasting through the firewalls we once had in place to prevent such a person from seizing power? Or am I overreacting?

Perhaps. The nausea comes and goes, and there have been days when the news algorithm has actually reassured me that “peak Trump” has arrived. But it hasn’t gone away, and neither has Trump. In the wake of his most recent primary triumphs, at a time when he is perilously close to winning enough delegates to grab the Republican nomination outright, I think we must confront this dread and be clear about what this election has already revealed about the fragility of our way of life and the threat late-stage democracy is beginning to pose to itself.

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Trump, we now know, had been considering running for president for decades. Those who didn’t see him coming — or kept treating him as a joke — had not yet absorbed the precedents of Obama and Palin or the power of the new wide-open system to change the rules of the political game. Trump was as underrated for all of 2015 as Obama was in 2007 — and for the same reasons. He intuitively grasped the vanishing authority of American political and media elites, and he had long fashioned a public persona perfectly attuned to blast past them.

Despite his immense wealth and inherited privilege, Trump had always cultivated a common touch. He did not hide his wealth in the late-20th century — he flaunted it in a way that connected with the masses. He lived the rich man’s life most working men dreamed of — endless glamour and women, for example — without sacrificing a way of talking about the world that would not be out of place on the construction sites he regularly toured. His was a cult of democratic aspiration. His 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, promised its readers a path to instant success; his appearances on “The Howard Stern Show” cemented his appeal. His friendship with Vince McMahon offered him an early entrée into the world of professional wrestling, with its fusion of sports and fantasy. He was a macho media superstar.

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But the most powerful engine for such a movement — the thing that gets it off the ground, shapes and solidifies and entrenches it — is always the evocation of hatred. It is, as Hoffer put it, “the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying elements.” And so Trump launched his campaign by calling undocumented Mexican immigrants a population largely of rapists and murderers. He moved on to Muslims, both at home and abroad. He has now added to these enemies — with sly brilliance — the Republican Establishment itself. And what makes Trump uniquely dangerous in the history of American politics — with far broader national appeal than, say, Huey Long or George Wallace — is his response to all three enemies. It’s the threat of blunt coercion and dominance.

And so after demonizing most undocumented Mexican immigrants, he then vowed to round up and deport all 11 million of them by force. “They have to go” was the typically blunt phrase he used — and somehow people didn’t immediately recognize the monstrous historical echoes. The sheer scale of the police and military operation that this policy would entail boggles the mind. Worse, he emphasized, after the mass murder in San Bernardino, that even the Muslim-Americans you know intimately may turn around and massacre you at any juncture. “There’s something going on,” he declaimed ominously, giving legitimacy to the most hysterical and ugly of human impulses.

To call this fascism doesn’t do justice to fascism. Fascism had, in some measure, an ideology and occasional coherence that Trump utterly lacks. But his movement is clearly fascistic in its demonization of foreigners, its hyping of a threat by a domestic minority (Muslims and Mexicans are the new Jews), its focus on a single supreme leader of what can only be called a cult, and its deep belief in violence and coercion in a democracy that has heretofore relied on debate and persuasion. This is the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

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Those who believe that Trump’s ugly, thuggish populism has no chance of ever making it to the White House seem to me to be missing this dynamic. Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate, create a new movement based on untrammeled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events. And so current poll numbers are only reassuring if you ignore the potential impact of sudden, external events — an economic downturn or a terror attack in a major city in the months before November. I have no doubt, for example, that Trump is sincere in his desire to “cut the head off” ISIS, whatever that can possibly mean. But it remains a fact that the interests of ISIS and the Trump campaign are now perfectly aligned. Fear is always the would-be tyrant’s greatest ally.

And though Trump’s unfavorables are extraordinarily high (around 65 percent), he is already showing signs of changing his tune, pivoting (fitfully) to the more presidential mode he envisages deploying in the general election. I suspect this will, to some fools on the fence, come as a kind of relief, and may open their minds to him once more. Tyrants, like mob bosses, know the value of a smile: Precisely because of the fear he’s already generated, you desperately want to believe in his new warmth. It’s part of the good-cop-bad-cop routine that will be familiar to anyone who has studied the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

With his appeal to his own base locked up, Trump may well also shift to more moderate stances on social issues like abortion (he already wants to amend the GOP platform to a less draconian position) or gay and even transgender rights. He is consistent in his inconsistency, because, for him, winning is what counts. He has had a real case against Ted Cruz — that the senator has no base outside ideological-conservative quarters and is even less likely to win a general election. More potently, Trump has a worryingly strong argument against Clinton herself — or “crooked Hillary,” as he now dubs her.

His proposition is a simple one. Remember James Carville’s core question in the 1992 election: Change versus more of the same? That sentiment once elected Clinton’s husband; it could also elect her opponent this fall. If you like America as it is, vote Clinton. After all, she has been a member of the American political elite for a quarter-century. Clinton, moreover, has shown no ability to inspire or rally anyone but her longtime loyalists. She is lost in the new media and has struggled to put away a 74-year-old socialist who is barely a member of her party. Her own unfavorables are only 11 points lower than Trump’s (far higher than Obama’s, John Kerry’s, or Al Gore’s were at this point in the race), and the more she campaigns, the higher her unfavorables go (including in her own party). She has a Gore problem. The idea of welcoming her into your living room for the next four years can seem, at times, positively masochistic.

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For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.j

 

The Sullivan piece is much more detailed and deserves a thorough reading. But I am still not persuaded that Trump is an extinction-level event.

I suppose, there could come a moment when Trump breaks kayfabe, when the wink is gone. But, I think America would recoil, and that the system would hold.

In the meantime, here from a Conor Friedersdorf  email interview at the Atlantic,  with A.J. Benza, who knows Trump as well as anyone -.How an Old-School Gossip Columnist Explains Donald Trump – which is also well worth a read.

Friedersdorf: Whatever happens next, Donald Trump has shown the world a new way to interact with the media while winning a presidential primary. Is this an approach only he could pull off, by virtue of his unusual celebrity, biography, or personality? Or are aspects of what he’s done that future politicians will exploit?

Benza: I don’t see many politicians adopting his skill acquiring media coverage.

You can say he possesses “unusual” celebrity, but the adjective isn’t necessary. It’s celebrity, period. But at its core, celebrity isn’t enough. Timing is also important, especially in politics.

Never before has the political world resembled a circus.

All Trump has done is put a face on The Strongman. And with everyone talking and gawking at The Strongman (or the anomaly), the circus gets a ton of attention, sells out every town, and rolls on without a hitch. I can’t see any other pol pulling this off or trying to adopt or whip up comparable anger. I don’t see anyone else with the same ego. And that’s saying a lot since everyone else who’s ever run for president have huge egos. But his is the size of Everest. There are experienced sherpas who wouldn’t dare climb Trump’s ego. But seriously, do you see anyone else channeling people’s id the way he has? He and Hillary can’t be more opposite in the noise they make. She’s Crosby, Stills & Nash and he’s Twisted Sister. The country is screaming “We’re not gonna take it,” not “Our House.”

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