Hannah’s Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism has been on my mind recently, for obvious reasons, but Donald Trump’s shout-fest in Greenville, North Carolina, Wednesday night brought one passage back into sharp focus. Considering the intent of the Nazi regime as it consolidated power, Arendt wrote, “To know the ultimate aims of Hitler’s rule in Germany, it was much wiser to rely on his propaganda speeches and Mein Kampf than on the oratory of the Chancellor of the Third Reich.”
Spotting the real Trump isn’t tricky. It’s a matter of listening to the words he cares about, and not the scaffolding of speechwriting and consequent spin in which they’re contained. Soviet defector Victor Kravchenko wrote in his 1946 memoir, I Choose Freedom, “Behind the ostensible government was a real government,” and the real government of Donald Trump isn’t in the “he’s not a politician” excuses from allies or the bleatings of his cable surrogates—an idiot cadre of trout-pout blonde nonentities and pomaded men in shiny suits with tie knots the size of cantaloupes.
No, the topology and intent of the Trump autocracy is usually best viewed in the asides, not the text… until now.
When Trump reads a speech written to meet the rote demands of the presidency, somewhere in the bowels of the White House speechwriting office, some guy grinds out workmanlike, even uplifting, text. It gets a coating of lube from Kellyanne and the tiny cadre of other adults left in the Presidential Bedlam and then slapped in a Teleprompter.
Trump’s delivery of those obligatory words—the odd cadences of the marginal reader sounding out the big ones, and his flat intonation—is that of a person who wants to check the rhetorical boxes so he can get on with denouncing the enemies of the people. Reading the uplift is his ticket to shoveling the shit.
In North Carolina on Wednesday, he pulled back the curtain further, daring his audience and his supporters to follow him into a very dark place. Of course, they did. “Send her back” was a feature, not a bug. He was delighted. He was thrilled.
When a beet-red Trump, looking like a jowly, sweaty brick strutted onstage in a friendly town in a friendly state, huffed his way to feeding time for the red-meat, red-state crowd, he knew what he wanted. He wanted the glassy-eyed shouts of the mob. He wanted more coverage of his racial firebombing of “the Squad.”
And eager to feel the transgressive thrill of validating and amplifying Trump’s latest racist excesses, the MAGAs waddled in to fill the auditorium. The ladies brought the sequined Trump tank tops and bedazzled hats, and the men tightly fitting MAGA T-shirts over their swag bellies. The flags were American, the vibe 1932 Berlin.
He knew what would happen when he launched into his prepared remarks about the four members of the Squad. He wanted his five days of stacking the kindling to ignite a racial bonfire, and it did. He knew what the crowd wanted, his feral instincts about their darkest impulses as keen as always.
Trump understands his Deplorables with an almost anthropological eye; he knows they’re not just looking for validation or jobs or a drained Swamp; they’re looking for permission to be as cruel, grotesque, and vicious as he is. He knows they’re addicted now to the way he enables and empowers them to say and do the things they want, regardless of consequence. His brilliant, shitty showmanship is tuned to their Bubba Belt sensibilities; crude, loud, a vulgarian warrior giving them go-ahead to blow up a society leaving them behind.
And he’ll always have eager men and women willing to first normalize, then amplify, and then monetize even his most extreme statements and acts. His pet network jumped from the speech to a gouty-looking Tucker Carlson who took to the airwaves of Trump Fernseh-Rundfunk and ran with it. Tucker, already spank-bank fodder for the alt-right incels and white nationalists who love how he vectors Trump supporters into their willing arms, kept up the skeer of demonizing four women of color as traitors in need of purging. Fox loves a good brown enemy, and their coverage of Trump in this particular run has proven it, again.
Democrats who live under the delusion that issues will deliver them in 2020 are laboring under a campaign-killing false premise. Democrats who think there is a point at which even Trump can be shamed and his behavior corrected need to cut back on the day-drinking. This is a referendum on Trump, and policy arguments will be lost in the static and fury of an apocalyptic campaign ahead.
He’s telling you exactly what he’s going to do. He’s showing you with every speech, tweet, and policy that this election is about his ethnic animus and stoking the resentful edges of society into President Cartman’s race war.
It is “the secret society in plain sight,” the political noumenon in broad daylight. This speech was a dangerous instrument in the hands of a reckless president, and a reading of the text itself is hardly sufficient to highlight its risks to our nation, our politics, and the soul of the country. Trump has once again escaped political accountability because he has an entirely secure political cadre in Washington, a Trumphadi caucus seeking only to be greeted in the afterlife by 72 Tomi Lahrens.
Like all totalitarians, Trump tests the limits of his followers and breaks them.
In so many stories of abusive relationships that end in tragedy, the escalating arc toward a violent, terrible end starts with the small insults and put-downs, followed by the ugly head games. The victims think they can change the victimizer, that they can bribe him with love, compliance, or obedience. They’re puzzled when that is greeted with screaming and fits of rage. This is the point where the victim still rationalizes the behavior of their abuser. Victim counselors have heard it a million, tragic times; “I deserved it. I made him mad” or “I slipped” or “He’s under a lot of stress.” Thus it is with today’s GOP.
Trump’s allies in Congress may operate based on fear and opportunism in mixed measures, but by Wednesday, they had transformed their early, silent horror of the overtly racist attacks on the progressive members of the Squad into a rationalization so baroque and elaborate that even for this rectally flexible Republican caucus it was a stretch. His random tweetshark attack was being spun as a genius move of 47-dimensional quantum chess. He was pulling off another one of his President Chaos plays, owning the libtard media, and framing the Squad as the face of the Democratic party. Then came last night.
Imagine being a Republican in Congress during last night’s chant. Those are their voters now. Those are the people watching them for the slightest deviation from Trump. They’ll do anything to keep the mob off their backs and their timelines. I’d beg them to stand up, punch him in his blubbery, racist mouth, but they won’t. Even the ones who will still be in office after the end of the second Trump term (which, Democrats, you’re working hard to ensure) won’t hit him. The elected members who spin that they’re going to clean up Trumpism and make it the New Respectable Face of the Populist GOP are fooling themselves. You’re all dead men walking because you’re cowards, dead inside, and dead politically.
Trump’s speech last night wasn’t mere campaign-style rah-rah and hyperbole; it was a moral challenge to America. It was a preview of how the manic energy and boundless amorality of Trump’s growing evil will be the defining characteristic of the 2020 race. Trump’s campaign is based in po-white trash identity politics in a form so pure that Richard Spencer and David Duke are nodding in approval.
He will always double down, even in failure and most certainly in the face of rebuke. His campaign will tear this country to shreds to save his ass and his ego. He will always drag America deeper into the slimy contents of his grotesque id, smearing the rest of us with its ichor.
“Send her back” is the new “lock her up.” But as all mobs do, this one will want more, and the leader will need to up the ante. So, Donald, why not skip right to “Fetch the rope”?
It’s what you’re thinking, anyway.