It's an old truism that the "real bad men" (and bad women) "move in silence and violence." That's certainly true for the most dangerous and most effective of Donald Trump's allies, henchmen, henchwomen, and other followers. But for Donald Trump himself, and most of his political cult, that rule does not apply.
This article first appeared in Salon.
Trump and his followers were loud, exuberant and enthusiastic on Jan. 6. The lethal attack on the Capitol had been publicly announced weeks in advance, and should have come as no surprise. Trump's rallies and gatherings continue to celebrate violence and the prospect of revenge — and specifically of "getting even" with Trump's "enemies."
Steve Bannon, Trump's former campaign chairman and White House strategist, has now threatened to recruit Republican-fascist "shock troops" with the apparent goal of undermining the U.S. government, and by implication multiracial democracy, if and when Trump and the Republicans regain control of both Congress and the White House.
On a daily basis Fox News and other elements of the right-wing disinformation propaganda machine use stochastic terrorism and other techniques to radicalize their audience into committing acts of political violence. To this point, the Democratic Party and the political and news media class in general have remained in denial, and largely passive in response.
In one troubling new development, Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, "socialist liberals," Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be "enemies" of "real America." As media critic Eric Boehlert recently noted, the liberal opinion site Living Blue in Texas is sounding the alarm about the specific meaning of the black flag and the Republican-fascists support for terrorism and other political violence. That post, "Are Your Republican Neighbors Planning on Killing You?", merits lengthy quotation:
It didn't take long to find hundreds of videos where these Trumpers and so-called patriots were hanging black American flags. ...
Black American flags are the flags that mean "no quarter shall be given." They are the opposite of the white flag of surrender.
According to the people on TikTok and the Sun (British tabloid), the black American flag originated in the civil war and was flown by the Confederates.
It means that they will not surrender, will not take prisoners, and are willing to die for their cause. It means they will execute their enemies.
Who are their enemies? Pretty much any non-Conservative. You know, Democrats, Liberals, LGBTQ, BIPOC, and the vaccinated. ...
So, we're the enemy, and they're openly professing to want to execute us. … So, why are they doing this
Covid vaccinations, mostly. They believe that Joe Biden has declared a civil war on them by mandating that employers with over 100 employees and the military have vaccinations.
Yes, they say civil war, and they say it's already started. But, unfortunately, many of them also live in states where masks and vaccines are required by state governments, healthcare, and law enforcement.
An alarming number of military members have been making Tik Toks talking about how they are being discharged because they refuse the vaccine. It's alarming because there is probably an equal number of guys on there talking about the civil war plans and actively using Tik Tok to recruit these military and ex-military members.
The biggest message they have been sending out is, "it's time" or "the time is now." ...
Although showing guns on Tik Tok is supposed to be against community guidelines, they show lots of videos of their guns, shooting them, wearing them, or sitting on their bed.
They primarily use Tik Tok as a recruiting tool and let others know their willingness to commit violence. Then they tell people to message them or where to find them on Telegram.
However you interpret these videos posted by Trump followers and other neofascists — which could be mainly performative — it is clearly true that the American right is increasingly willing to accept or condone violence as a means of expanding and protecting their social and political power. (Salon did not find licensed news photographs of these flags, and has made the editorial decision not to reproduce the images mentioned above, which are easy to find on social media.)
Public opinion polls and other research have repeatedly shown that millions of Republican voters and Trump followers would support the use of violence to remove Joe Biden from office because of the "Big Lie" and their belief that that he is not a legitimate president. Similarly, a large proportion of Republicans believe that the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 were "patriots" whose use of violence was justified.
And a new poll from the University of Virginia's Center for Politics even suggests that more than 50 percent of Trump supporters want "red states" to secede from the Union. Republican elected officials and other right-wing opinion leaders have continued to escalate their threats of political violence against Democrats and other targeted groups.
In a recent speech to the North Carolina Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Salt & Light" conference, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., issued what sounded like a declaration of war:
It is time for the American Christian church to come out of the shadows to say, "No longer are we going to allow our culture to be determined by people who hate the things that we believe in…. We are going to stand valiantly for God's incredible inherent truths that predate any version of government. Because, my friends, if we lose this country today, if we bend the knee to the Democrats today, our country will be lost forever, our children will never know what freedom is. It's our duty to stand up, Let us stand united as men and women of faith to fight for our country.
During an interview with MSNBC's Joy Reid, terrorism and national security expert Malcolm Nance said that Cawthorn's video "picks up on the themes that are not just coming from the Steve Bannon level and Donald Trump level, they are coming from the Republican street — and that Republican street is armed. They're angry. They have been fed an entire line which makes them believe that America is no longer America and that they no longer want the America that the rest of us, the 60 percent of the country, live in. And they`re willing to take up arms for it."
Nance also noted that Cawthorn's propaganda video is thematically similar to the type of propaganda used by Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida to radicalize and recruit members.
During an interview with Scientific American magazine, Dr. Bandy Lee, the principal editor of the 2017 bestseller "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," explained how a mentally pathological leader can "infect" his followers and perhaps even an entire nation:
I have outlined two major emotional drives: narcissistic symbiosis and shared psychosis. Narcissistic symbiosis refers to the developmental wounds that make the leader-follower relationship magnetically attractive. The leader, hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence — while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure. When such wounded individuals are given positions of power, they arouse similar pathology in the population that creates a "lock and key" relationship….
"Shared psychosis" — which is also called "folie à millions" ["madness for millions"] when occurring at the national level or "induced delusions" — refers to the infectiousness of severe symptoms that goes beyond ordinary group psychology. When a highly symptomatic individual is placed in an influential position, the person's symptoms can spread through the population through emotional bonds, heightening existing pathologies and inducing delusions, paranoia and propensity for violence — even in previously healthy individuals. The treatment is removal of exposure.
Trump and his regime gave permission and encouragement to his followers and other supporters to engage in antisocial and other anti-human behavior on a national scale. Once such a process has begun, and those forces are unleashed, it is not easy to stop. Fascism is not a simple machine with an on-and-off switch. In practice, fascism is given life and takes corporeal form through its followers, with each one being a potential carrier of the pathology.
As Hussein Ibish warned in a recent article in the Atlantic, "The cancer of political violence is not an endemic American disease. At the moment, it is a Republican disease. No one but Republicans themselves can cure it. Until they do, the violence of the right is only going to keep swelling and crashing. From a Middle Eastern perspective, this is all appallingly familiar."
Fascism is a highly virulent social disease that usually destroys the host body – but not before spreading the disease to many other people. In fact, if the original host dies, he or she can be elevated to the status of martyr for "the cause," serving to inspire existing followers and lure in new ones.
Ultimately, Donald Trump, like other fascist and authoritarian leaders, is the symptom of a sick society. Trumpism is not actually the core disease. For America to counteract the deep underlying illness that has made Trumpism possible will require a long-term cultural and moral reckoning. Anything less, and the disease of American fascism will only go dormant until it is resurrected again — perhaps in a more dangerous and virulent form.