Last Thursday, Donald Trump took his political rodeo to New Hampshire. As usual, he told lies about the Democratic Party being dominated by “socialists” and “hating” America, bragged about the size of the crowd, and threatened that if he is not re-elected in 2020 the United States will face economic ruin. The Trumpian faithful were greatly entertained.
The “highlight” of the event was when Trump taunted a “protester”:
But while the Democrats rage and rages — that guy has got a serious weight problem. Go home, start exercising. Get him out of here, please. Got a bigger problem than I do. Got a bigger problem than all of us. Now he goes home and his mom says, what the hell have you just done?
This is political discourse at the level of a six-year-old child. Trump’s supporters loved it. (And the man in question, who was evicted by event security, was not even a protester but a Trump supporter.)
What Trump said afterward was far more important than his childish taunts. “There’s never been a movement like this,” he told his worshipful following in the Granite State. “Never. Our movement is built on love.”
Really? What kind of love is that?
It is the love of a political cult for its leader. It is also Donald Trump’s unhealthy love for himself. It is also the love born of collective narcissism, which is typical of right-wing fake populism.
At its core, Donald Trump’s love is filtered through fascism and authoritarianism. His form of tainted love rests upon moral inversion, a state of being in which truth is replaced by lies, empirical reality itself is usurped, and the evil and immoral are transformed into the good and the noble. As Hannah Arendt warned in her landmark book “The Origins of Totalitarianism”:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
In this malignant reality, people who are in thrall to Donald Trump (or the other ignominious fascist and authoritarian leaders whom he adores and imitates) do not know what right and wrong are anymore. When these distinctions are pointed out, Trump’s supporters double down on their investment in the Great Leader and “the Movement,” focusing their rage and violence against the political truth-teller.
Donald Trump’s love is exclusive rather than inclusive, narrow rather than broad. It is focused inward on the in-group as a way of legitimating violence and meanness towards the out-group. Trump’s love is not a celebration of the best of humanity but is itself inhumane.
Donald Trump’s love is first and foremost based upon cruelty, As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer observed in his widely cited essay “The Cruelty Is the Point”:
Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.
Donald Trump’s love is easily channeled into cruelty and contempt directed at nonwhite people — especially the migrants, immigrants and refugees who are being detained in his concentration camps. Trump’s love attracts others who feel the same way, such as White House adviser Stephen Miller, a man who has shown himself to be an obsessive racist and white supremacist.
The Washington Post’s recent profile of Miller includes this reporting:
Among Miller’s co-workers are a few who believe he harbors racist views. “I don’t know what other principle could animate such a laserlike focus,” said one former career official at DHS. …
Miller is obsessed, current and former administration officials said, with boosting deportations. Early in the tenure, he tried to persuade [John] Kelly, as DHS chief, to deport anyone here illegally. Kelly wanted to focus on criminal felons, frustrating Miller, people familiar with the disagreement said. “He is singularly focused on how to get people out of the country,” a former senior administration official said. …
While some in the administration fret over images of squalid and inhumane detention conditions at the border, Miller has argued that they, too, are a deterrent — and that publicizing them is not a bad strategy.
Trump’s love inspires perverse acts of devotion, including right-wing terrorism and other forms political violence, which he has tacitly encouraged ever since the beginning of his presidential campaign. In Charlottesville, El Paso, Portland and other places around the United States and the world Donald Trump’s white supremacist paramilitaries proudly wear his MAGA regalia while they chant racist slogans and commit acts of violence against nonwhite people, Jews, Muslims and other “enemies” of the Trump regime.
Trump’s love also takes the form of hatred and contempt for American democracy and the rule of law.
Predictably, Trump feels deep affection and admiration for foreign dictators and despots like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The full context of Donald Trump’s claims that his “movement” is built upon “love” is even more problematic for what it reveals about his larger political worldview:
We are continuing our incredible movement, the greatest political movement in the history of our country. There’s never been a movement like this. Never. Our movement is built on love and it is and we love our families. We love our faith, we love our flag and we love our freedom and that’s what it’s about. And add to that the fact that we love our neighbors and we love our country. Together, we are all united by one fundamental principle. A nation’s first duty must always be to its own citizens. Its own. We got to take care of our own. You haven’t heard that from a politician or a political leader in a long time.
Public opinion polls and other research have repeatedly shown that racial authoritarianism and white rage are the glue that binds together and motivates Donald Trump’s movement. Trump knows this to be true, which is why he and his strategists have decided upon using overt white supremacy — replacing the conservative movement’s traditional “dog whistle” racism of the post-civil rights era — to win the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s electoral coalition, like that of the Republican Party more generally, is 90 percent white. Under Trump, the Republican Party has become America and the world’s largest white identity organization; racism and conservatism are now fully one and the same.
Ultimately, Donald Trump’s use of the first-person plural, as in “our movement,” “our flag” and “our freedom,” is an explicit appeal to ethnic and racial bigotry. To be a “real American,” for Trump and his supporters, is to first and foremost be a white person. Because of that assumption, the “Americanness” of nonwhites is viewed as being contingent, tertiary, and at its root fraudulent. In effect, Trump and the Republican Party, along with their media and supporters, view America’s multiracial democracy as illegitimate.
“Our families.” “Our neighbors.” “Our flag.” “Our country.” All these things are meant to signify whiteness — and loyalty to Donald Trump.
Nationalism and racism have been responsible for some of the greatest tragedies in modern history. The United States once led the world in preventing such horrors. Now, working in league with the racist and authoritarian global New Right, the Trump regime has instead chosen to betray America’s moral leadership on those issues.
Sydney J. Harris warned, in his 1953 collection of essays “Strictly Personal,” that the difference between patriotism and nationalism could be dangerous: “[T]he patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”
Such political combustion is made even more likely when racism and ethnocentrism are added to the mix.
As demonstrated by his regime’s repeated assault on their rights and dignity, Trump’s “our families” does not include LGBT people. Nor does Trump’s love of “family” include nonwhite immigrants, migrants and refugees from Latin and South America, whom he and his followers take special delight in terrorizing.
Trump’s love of “our faith” does not include Muslims, a group he previously proposed banning from entry to the United States. Trump’s love of “our faith” is primarily limited to white right-wing evangelicals who want to overturn the U.S. Constitution and install a Christian nationalist regime. Research shows that white Christian evangelicals share Trump’s racist attitudes, with particular hostility toward nonwhite immigrants.
There are hopeful indications that Donald Trump may be voted out of office in 2020. Early polls and predictive models show him losing to the Democratic Party’s leading presidential contenders. Trump’s defeat is especially likely if the American economy collapses into a recession.
But these predictions are based on traditional understandings of American politics. These first of all assume that Donald Trump would accept defeat at the polls, rather than, for example, declaring a national emergency to stay in power indefinitely; and secondly do not account for emotions and their role outside of “normal” politics.
Donald Trump may be defeated in the 2020 election, but he has given permission for a type of American fascist politics that will long outlast his time in the White House. Trumpism is in many ways a dream come true for white supremacists and those sympathetic to their ideas: A sympathizer who shares their goals now leads the most powerful nation on the planet. Whenever Trump leaves office, his American fascist movement will feel great satisfaction that they were at least four years in power — or perhaps eight, or even more.
Trump’s fanatical followers will not be satisfied until they experience that power again.
How do you defeat a dream? Moreover, how do you defeat a dream once it has come true?
These are questions that Democrats, liberals, progressives and other people of conscience will have to answer as they try to repair the damage that Trump and his regime have done to American society. Trump the man may well be removed from the White House. But Trumpism — the idea, and the movement — will linger on as poisons in the American body politic and collective imagination for a long time.