Business Mogul, reality TV star, and presidential candidate, Donald Trump recently mocked Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times investigative reporter with a disability, at a rally in South Carolina. This contemptuous reference to Kovaleski’s physical disability was morally odious and painful to observe, but not to comprehend, at least not politically. Trump is a hate-monger, and spreads his message without apology in almost every public encounter in which he finds himself. Some reporters claim he stepped over the line with this act of reprehensible cruelty. That is only partly true. In this loathsome instance, he just expanded his hate-filled discourse, making clear his embrace of a politics founded on arrogance, cynicism, unchecked wealth, and a deeply ingrained racism. In actuality, he stepped over the line the moment he announced his candidacy for the presidency and called Mexican immigrants violent rapists, gang members, and drug dealers. Or for that matter when he called, along with other right-wing extremists, to put refugees in detention centers and create a data base for them. These comments sound eerily close to SS (SS chief) Heinrich Himmler’s call for camps that held prisoners under orders of what euphemistically called “protective custody. To quote the Holocaust Encyclopedia:
In the earliest years of the Third Reich, various central, regional, and local authorities in Germany established concentration camps to detain political opponents of the regime, including German Communists, Socialists, trade unionists, and others from left and liberal political circles. In the spring of 1933, the SS established Dachau concentration camp, which came to serve as a model for an expanding and centralized concentration camp system under SS management.
What is truly sad, dangerous, and even cowardly is how few people along with the corporate media and his intellectual defenders recognize that Trump is symptomatic of the brutal seeds of totalitarianism now being cultivated in American society. Donald Trump represents more than the anti-democratic practices and antics of Joe McCarthy. On the contrary, he signifies how totalitarianism can mutate and take different forms in specific historical moments. Rather than being dismissed as a wild-card in American politics, it is crucial to recognize that Trump’s popularity represents what one writer calls a dangerous “political space … in both the wider culture and in recent history.” This is evident not only in his race baiting, but in his increasing support for violence against protesters at his rallies, and his call to “make American great again” by any means necessary, none of which is new to American society. What is new is the degree to which this endorsement of violence, racism, and the call to violate civil liberties are expressed so visibly and without apology. How else to explain the muted criticisms, if not almost non-existent public and media response, to his comments that: “we’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule… And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago…” This call to do “the unthinkable” is a fundamental principle of any notion of totalitarianism, regardless of the form it takes.
Trump merges a hyper-nationalism, racism, and bigotry with a flagrant sense of lawlessness. His hate-filled speech is matched by his endorsement of violence against immigrants and other oppositional voices issued by his supporters at many of his rallies. This type of lawlessness does more than encourage hate and the muting of dissent; it also legitimates the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that gives credibility to acts of violence against others. There has been an eerie silence by Trump and other Republican Party presidential candidates in the face of the killing of three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, white supremacists shooting at Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis, the increasing attacks on Mosques throughout the United States, and the alarming number of shootings of Black men and youth by white police officers. There are historical precedents for this type of violence and the hate-filled speech by politicians who create the climate that legitimates it. We heard it in the words of Hitler, Mussolini, Pinochet, and other demagogic orators, ranting in a tone of neurotic hysteria against Jews, communists, and others alleged “infidels.”
Trump’s recent call to bring back waterboarding and to support a torture regime far exceeds what might be called an act of stupidity or ignorance. Torture in this instance becomes a means of exacting revenge on those considered “Other,” un-American, and inferior—principally Muslims, immigrants, and members of the Black Lives Matter Movement. We have heard this discourse before in the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s and later in the dictatorships in Latin America in the 1970s. Heather Digby Parton is right when she writes that Donald Trump “may be the first openly fascistic frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination but the ground was prepared and the seeds of his success sowed over the course of many years. We’ve had fascism flowing through the American political bloodstream for quite some time.”
This is a discourse that betrays dark and dangerous secrets not simply about Trump, but more importantly about the state of American culture and politics. Trump’s brutal racism, cruelty, and Nazi-style policy recommendations are more than shocking, they are emblematic of totalitarianism’s hatred of liberalism, its call for racial purity, its mythic celebration of nationalism, its embrace of violence, its disdain for weakness, and its anti-intellectualism. This is the discourse of total terror. These elements of totalitarianism have become the new American normal. The conditions that produced the torture chambers, intolerable violence, extermination camps, squelching of dissent are still with us. Totalitarianism is not simply a relic of the past. It lives on in new forms and it is just as terrifying and dangerous today as it was in the past.
Mark Summer is right in arguing that the ghost of fascism runs through American society indicating that it never went away and that the threat of fascism has to be taken seriously. He writes that fascism didn’t win on the battlefield, but it won ideologically.
It won because the same fears, the same greed, the same hatred that fueled its growth in the first part of the twentieth century never went away. The symbols of fascism became anathema, but the causes … went deep. And gradually, slowly, one step at a time, all those vices became first tolerated, then treated as virtues, and then as the only acceptable view… [For instance] our long, stumbling lurch to the right; the building force of corporate power; the relentless need for war; a police whose power of enforcement is divorced from law; a preening nationalism that rewards the full rights of citizenship only to those who fit an ever-narrower mold… I’m not saying we’re moving toward fascism. I’m saying we started that drift a long time ago, and now we’re well across the line.
Trump is not just a fool or an idiot, or ethically dead, he is symptomatic of a long line of fascists who shut down public debate, attempt to humiliate their opponents, endorse violence as a response to dissent, and criticize any public display of democratic principles. America has reached its endpoint with Trump, and his presence should be viewed as a stern warning of the nightmare to come. This is not the discourse of Kafka, but of those extremists who have become cheerleaders for totalitarianism. Trump is not a straight talker as some writers have claimed or merely entertaining. As David L. Clark points out, the frankness of his call for violence coupled with the unapologetic thirst for injustice position him as the “latest expression of a fascism that has poisoned political life throughout modernity. He is unabashedly vicious because he is both and agent and a symptom of a barren political landscape in which viciousness goes insolently unhidden.” Trump is a monster without a conscience, a politician with a toxic set of policies. He is the product of a form of finance capitalism and a long legacy of racism and violence in which conscience is put to sleep, democracy withers, and public values are extinguished. This is truly a time of monsters and Trump is simply the most visible and certainly one of the most despicable.
Totalitarianism destroys everything that makes politics possible. It is both an ideological poison and a brutal mode of governance and control. It puts reason to sleep and destroys and viable elements of democracy. Trump reminds us in the most exacerbated and dramatic forms of totalitarianism’s addiction to tyranny, its attachments to the machineries of death, and its moral emptiness. What is crucial to acknowledge is that the stories, legacies, and violence that are part of totalitarianism’s history must be told over and over again so that it becomes possible to recognize how it appears in new forms, replicated under the banner of terror and insecurity by design, and endlessly legitimated by in the image making of the corporate disimagination machines. The call to safety in authoritarian societies is code for illicit spying, treating people as criminals, militarizing the police, constructing a surveillance state, allowing Blacks to be killed as acts of domestic terrorism, and ultimately making those individuals and groups that we dehumanize or consider dangerous disappear. Dark times are here but history is open and Trump’s presence—along with his fellow extremists and supporters—should be a rallying cry for a struggle not simply against a crude and reactionary populism, but against the tyranny of totalitarianism in its new and dangerous forms.