Trump Unmasked: A Guide To Becoming A Demagogue
The return of the former President is no joke and should deeply worry us all.
Over the last six years US media outlets have largely ignored the fact that the GOP has become a deeply authoritarian organization.
Members of this organization have attempted to overthrow the Government, routinely lied about election outcomes, attempted to radicalize the public, and despite major democratic wins in the recent Midterm elections, elevated some of the worst democracy deniers into the center of the body politic.
With the disgraced, twice-impeached former President Donald Trump now back in the ring, pro-democracy reporters are now facing whiplash, as corporate media outlets continue to platform him, while failing to confront the fact that their outdated ideas of journalistic impartiality are failing the very people they’re meant to serve.
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Trump’s November 15 announcement was largely reported as being politics as usual. However, nothing about this is normal.
We should remind ourselves that it is not long since Trump was at the center of a violent insurrection and that he is now the subject of a Special Counsel investigation led by Jack Smith, a former chief prosecutor for the special court in The Hague. Smith is tasked with investigating whether Trump interfered with the transfer of power and the ongoing investigation involving classified documents. In addition, Trump is the subject of multiple state investigations in Georgia and New York.
That he is even being considered for a return to high office is therefore deeply worrying.
So how did we get to this point and does Trump’s return suggest that we may be starting to see the echoes of a darker time in our history?
How Fascism Works
The tactics Trump employs have a well-documented history. Othering, victimization, conspiracy theories, unreality, anti-intellectualism, division, sexual anxiety, the mythic past are all themes which are familiar from our past, as explained in How Fascism Works - The Politics of Us and Them by Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley.
Like other demagogues, Trump uses his words to distort reality.
So in order to unmask Trump’s demagoguery, it is worth examining his 2024 presidential candidacy speech and putting it side-by-side with excerpts from How Fascism Works.
Included are segments from Stanley’s book to further illustrate how Trump’s rhetoric ties him back to fascism. As Stanley noted at a recent lecture at Howard University, “Stop acting like stuff is new when it is in fact a pattern.”
Stanley: “The politics of crime control could effectively conceal racist intent… masking corruption under the guise of anti-corruption is a hallmark strategy in fascist propaganda.”
Trump: “Our country is being invaded by millions and millions of unknown people, many of whom are entering for a very bad and sinister reason… the blood-soaked streets of our once-great cities are cesspools of violent crimes.”
“Cities are rotting. They are indeed cesspools of blood. We will give our police back their authorities… I will immediately launch a no-holds barred national campaign to dismantle the gangs and clean out the nests of organized street crime.”
Stanley: “Those who employ fascist political tactics deliberately take advantage of this emotion, manufacturing a sense of aggrieved victimization among the majority population.”
Trump: “I am your voice. I am your voice. The Washington establishment wants to silence us, but we will not let them do that. We are Americans. We do not have to endure what has taken place in Washington D.C. This is our country, our Government. They’re our corridors, they’re not their corridors… and we are coming to take those back.”
“And I am a victim, I will tell you, I am a victim.”
Stanley: “Fascist politics creates a state of unreality, in which conspiracy theories and fake news replace reasoned debate. As the common understanding of reality crumbles, fascist politics makes room for dangerous and false beliefs to take root… regular and repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space. A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence. By replacing the world with a person, fascist politics makes us unable to assess arguments by a common standard.”
Trump: “Together we built the greatest economy in the history of the world.”
“We built the wall. We completed the wall.”
Law and Order
Stanley: “Fascist law-and-order rhetoric is explicitly meant to divide citizens into two classes: those of the chosen nation, who are lawful by nature, and those who are not, who are inherently lawless.
Trump: “I will ask Congress for legislation ensuring that drug dealers and human traffickers, these are terrible, terrible, horrible people who are responsible for death, carnage, and crime all over our country…
We’re going to be asking everyone who sells drugs… to receive the death penalty… In China, when I was with President XI, I said, ‘Do you have a drug problem?’ ‘No no no we don’t.’… He said, ‘Quick trial… by the end of the day you’re executed.’”
Stanley: “If the demagogue is the father of the nation, then any threat to patriarchal manhood and the traditional family undermines the fascist vision of strength.”
Trump: “When I am in the White House, our schools will cease pushing… gender insanity, or if they do that they will lose all federal funding.”
“We will defend the family as the center of American life.”
Stanley: “By rejecting the value of expertise, fascist politicians also remove any requirement for sophisticated debate. Reality is always more complex than our means of representing it… Fascist politics seeks to degrade and debase the language of politics; fascist politics thereby seeks to mask reality.”
Trump: “We will be resisted by the combined forces of the establishment, the media, the special interests, globalists, the Marxist radicals, the woke corporations.”
The Mythic Past
Stanley: “Erasing the real past legitimates the vision of an ethnically pure, virtuous past nation… The strategic aim of these hierarchical constructions of history is to displace truth, and the invention of a glorious past includes the erasure of inconvenient realities. While fascist politics fetishizes the past, it is never the actual past that is fetishized.”
Trump: “We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. We will make America glorious again.
“And we will make America great again.”
These characteristics were woven throughout Trump’s speech, in which he also decried critical race theory and denied black Americans the reality of their own history. However, they have also been demonstrated throughout his long time in public life.
In his book, Stanley, who grew up in New York in a family of Holocaust survivors, reminds us of Trump’s original spreading of the Birther conspiracy - a lie about President Obama’s birth place. He also reminds us of Trump’s indictment of the Central Park Five, young black men who were falsely accused of raping a white women in New York’s Central Park. Trump took out full page ads condemning them. They were all exonerated.
As Trump returns to the stage, it is therefore important that we don’t allow this past to be forgotten.
The American scholar of Italian fascism and author of Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present Ruth Ben-Ghiat has cautioned about memory repression being a key symptom of early autocracy.
“We can’t just memory hole the coup,” she said. “The fact there was a violent coup, and they tried to assassinate Mike Pence as well as kill all kind of democratic lawmakers, and you’re just gonna forget this?
“When you have autocracy coming up, there is a huge work of memory repression or self censorship. You’re going to be encouraged to forget. That’s what’s going to happen. So the warning is not only what can happen in the future. It’s what has happened. And we shouldn't forget it.”
In his conclusion to How Fascism Works, Stanley ends with a cautionary word of advice to those seeking to fight demagoguery.
“By refusing to be bewitched by fascist myths, we remain free to engage one another, all of us flawed, all of us partial in our thinking, experience, and understanding, but none of us demons.”
You can listen to Byline’s interview with Jason Stanley here.
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