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In 2004, after years of personal and business failures, Donald Trump sat down with Playboy for his big comeback interview. His reputation was on the upswing, yet the alleged billionaire couldn’t stop being a target of criticism and mockery.
“You must be so sick of hearing the F-word,” the interviewer said.
“Nah,” Trump replied. “It’s actually very cool and fun. Every time I walk outside, somebody says it, and the funny thing is, everybody thinks I’m hearing it for the first time. ‘You’re fired!’”
“It’s a beautiful phrase. It’s harsh, it’s ugly, it’s mean, but it’s concise and gets the job done fast, which is why I love it.”
At almost exactly the same time, Robert O. Paxton, one of the leading historians of France in World War II, was trying to define the other F-word for his book, The Anatomy of Fascism. “Fascism, he wrote, “may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity.”
These impulses, Paxton went on, are given shape when a “mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
Sixteen years later, Trump is president, having overseen a surge in racist redemptive violence, the expansion of concentration camps, the abrogation of democratic institutions and civil rights, and the ratcheting up of a worldwide drone war. He is also the most responsible for a murderous pandemic response that has left somewhere around 100,000 Americans dead—with the worst losses among black Americans and others whose right to live the Trump faction considers negotiable.
Scholars are divided on whether to use the F-word to describe all that. Yale law professor Samuel Moyn wrote in a blog post in the New York Review of Books this week that calling Trump a fascist is reckless—because, he asserts, it blunts the long history of American killing, subjugation, and terror from which Trumpism emerged.
But, as Trump said, ugly words can be beautifully concise. And nothing explains his infinite ability to make himself the victim of his own crimes and negligence than the distinctly American fascist nature of Trump and Trumpism.
Stabbed in the Rear
The most famous example of self-serving victimhood is the German Dolchstoßlegende, or “stab-in-the-back myth,” which shifted the blame for the defeat in World War I from the Kaiser and his generals to a fictitious Jewish conspiracy. The Nazis did not invent it; they used it to justify their taking power and genocidal plans.
Benito Mussolini blamed the Bolsheviks and a nebulous “internal enemy” for Italy’s defeats. The right-wing postwar authoritarians of South America were endlessly paranoid; they, and their sponsors in the U.S. government, justified their campaigns of “disappearing” dissidents as necessary self-defense.
From Trump’s 2015 campaign launch (“the U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems”) through his “American carnage” inaugural address, his obsession with national decline, humiliation, and his personal victimhood been the center of his politics.
This thin-skinned victimhood is Trump’s appeal. It is what unites disappointed young white strivers, suburban car dealers pissed off that a black man got away with being president, former immigrants resentful of those who did not come “the right way,” and Kanye West. They all endlessly reinforce their sense of grievance and need for collective revenge.
Susan Glasser wrote yesterday in the New Yorker that Trump’s frantic attempts to change the subject from the thousands of people dying to an ever-changing litany of imagined plots against him is evidence that his is a “superspreader of distraction.” But distraction alone doesn’t explain what’s happening, or why he seems to keep getting away with it. To coin Adam Serwer, the victimhood is the point.
It is not enough for Trump to reject that he failed to take the virus seriously for months and is now trying to profit from it while millions suffer; he has to have been the victim of an internal conspiracy to defraud him, or a foreign plot, or an exaggerated hoax, or all three. Astroturfed protesters demanding an end to public health measures have to be praised by White House aides as “the modern-day Rosa Parks.” Michael Flynn can’t just avoid prison because his buddies run the justice system and can use him as a distraction; he has to be “Nelson Mandela.”
Fascist logic is the only reason the calamity around us can even plausibly be thought of as an argument for Trump being allowed to keep power. In a rational egalitarian democracy, having overseen a total economic collapse and a wave of mass death would doom any candidate’s chances beyond repair. If you’re already the messiah of national decline, you just launch Make America Great Again, Again.
An All-American Boy
“Abnormalizing Trump disguises that he is quintessentially American,” Moyn wrote in his blog, which gets it entirely backward. Thinking of fascism as something exotic or foreign—a UFO that landed in Berlin in 1933 and was blown up in 1945—is a mistake. Fascism has always been a worldwide phenomenon, from the Arab Ba’ath Parties to the Argentinian and Brazilian fascists of the 1970s and 1980s. And it is as American as Jim Crow and Theodore Roosevelt.
This was the country of the Know-Nothings of the 1850s, the Ku Klux Klan, Father Charles Coughlin, and, notably, the anti-Semitic, Nazi-sympathizing America First movement of the 1930s.
Hitler drew huge inspiration from American racial segregation and the eugenics movement. His Nazis borrowed “Untermensch” from Lothrop Stoddard, a Harvard-trained historian and right-wing journalist from Brookline, Mass., and the idea of Lebensraum (living space, or “free land”) from Frederick Jackson Turner. Hitler also once wrote a fan letter to Teddy Roosevelt’s friend Madison Grant, calling his book The Passing of the Great Race—a treatise on the uber-victim narrative Trumpers and allied white supremacists now call “white genocide”—“my bible.”
Trump often leans more toward right-wing authoritarian populism—which Federico Finchelstein has identified as a postwar cousin of fascism that is nonetheless different in important respects. But the American context—specifically our traditions of anti-blackness and Jim Crow Herrenvolk democracy—makes true non-racist populism difficult if not impossible on the right.
And while, as Robert Paxton himself has noted, Trump has posed little danger so far of state-corporatism, and has put little effort into external expansion (other his brief flirtation with Greenland), that has more to do with the specifics of his “uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites” and the fact that the United States long ago seized more territory than we could handle.
Fascism in America is older than Trump and will live on after he is gone. In his 2004 book, Paxton identified “a ‘politics of resentment’ rooted in authentic American piety and nativism.” If it took root, “its targets would be the First Amendment, separation of Church and State … efforts to place controls on gun ownership,” and so on.
“Of course,” he reassured readers at the time, “the United States would have to suffer catastrophic setbacks and polarization for these fringe groups to find powerful allies and enter the mainstream.”
Good thing nothing like that has happened lately.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, explores the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the rise and fall of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Photo: Evan Vucci/AP