A specter is haunting American political discourse – the specter of Trumpism. As a result numerous interpretations of his bizarre success have proliferated, analysts seemingly at a loss for explanation. Much as Dylan’s Mr. Jones in “Ballad of a Thin Man” we find that “something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.” The light-hearted jokes of summer about Donald Trump’s ridiculous orange bouffant and his shrill Queen’s accent have given way to a more ominous autumn, one where the presidential candidate doesn’t disavow the suggestion that if elected he would require Muslims to be registered in national databases and for mosques to be closed down, and where his supporters beat Black Lives Matter protesters to Trump’s approval. Now the candidate is calling for the barring of all Muslims from immigrating to the United States. One fears that an increasing winter of discontent is what will necessarily follow.
Pundits have searched for a word to describe all of this. With his macho posturing, the xenophobia and extreme nationalism, the sense of aggrieved ethnic entitlement, the bellicose militarism and the growing cult of personality many have settled on the word “fascism.” It seems surreal that we’re now discussing the repeatedly bankrupt real estate mogul and reality show carnival barker this way, but that is where we find ourselves. Godwin’s Law has seemingly broken down, and that word has disturbingly returned to our understanding of mainstream American politics.
Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast called Trump a “neo-fascist,” Chauncey Devega at Salon describes Trump’s rallies as being a “white fascist brigade” and Jamelle Bouie at Slate has written that “[fascism] is the political label that best describes what the GOP front runner has become.” But surprisingly, this rhetoric isn’t limited to liberal sites; in what is an unprecedented phenomenon even Republicans are beginning to label Trump as a fascist. No less than Jeb Bush adviser John Noonan tweeted “Forced federal registration of U.S. citizens, based on religious identity, is fascism. Period. Nothing else to call it.”
It’s admirable that some on the right are willing to call out fascism when they see it, but it reminds one a bit of Casablanca when Captain Renault was shocked to find that gambling was going on in the casino. After a generation of ad hominem talk-radio delusion, FOX news agitprop, the Sarah Palin debacle and the Tea Party, is it any wonder that all it took was a candidate with a sort-of-charisma to unite all of those noxious elements into a proto-fascist movement? Let there be no doubt that there is something happening here, on November 21st Mercutio Southall, a Black Lives Matter protester, was beaten by racial slur screaming Trump supporters at an Alabama rally while the candidate could be heard yelling “Get ’em the hell out of here!” Less than a day latter while being interviewed on FOX news Trump doubled down, and said “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” One day after those comments and three terrorists who organized themselves online shot five Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis.
Trump represents a dark undercurrent in political psychology, America’s Id emerging from its chthonic lair and impervious to all argumentation and objective fact. You may have seen some of dozens of articles proliferating on the internet which scrutinize Trump using among other sources the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco’s seminal essay “Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt” to try and conceptualize what this phenomenon means. These readings are indeed helpful, and focus on how fascism derives from “individual or social frustration,” that it is based upon a “selective populism,” and a “cult of tradition.” With his chest beating, his strutting about the stage and the jaw-jutting underneath his iconically bizarre comb over Trump certainly looks like a Central Park West Mussolini. It’s understandable that pundits would want to mitigate the severity of calling Trump the F-word; indeed left-wing rhetoric has often had a “Boy who cried wolf” aspect surrounding the use of that word. And while it’s true that Democratic party fundraisers (and indeed in some cases Trump’s Republican opponents as well) have made ample use of the accusation, the tone of many columns is one that cautiously suggests that he may be “fascist-like” without actual using the designation. But if we define fascism as a bellicose, aggrieved, militaristic, xenophobic, racist, anti-intellectual, and undemocratic political ideology projected by a cult of personality, it’s hard to see how Trump isn’t a fascist. This is all the more true after this week, when Trump suggested a heinous policy proposal that would restrict all Muslims from entering the United States.
Perhaps what is most remarkable is that if Trump has a desire to become an American Il Duce that he is really the first of such aspirants to make it this far. If there is anything exceptional about America, it’s that despite it’s No Nothings and the Ku Klux Klan, we’ve never had a national fascist movement. Italy, Germany, and Spain of course all succumbed to fascism, and even countries like Great Britain that never did, still had popular fronts like Oswald Mosley’s Silvershirts. What’s all the more remarkable is that there are innate qualities in America’s cultural understanding that if mutated would be extremely amenable to fascism – that is the sense of national destiny, a focus on tradition, and a belief in the exceptional qualities of our nation.
A popular Internet quote often misattributed to Sinclair Lewis has it that “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” Trump’s religion may be a little suspect (claiming that his favorite book after the Bible is his own The Art of the Deal and describing the sacrament of communion as “[drinking] my little wine….and have my little cracker”) but there should be no doubt that he has at least subconsciously developed a political theology that is a distinctly American form of fascism. That native fascism is encapsulated in his poorly fit red baseball cap that declares “Make America Great Again.”
Certainly a hallmark of fascist movements has been extolling some mythic past Golden Age, a pre-lapserian Eden that has been corrupted by decadent forces. Trump’s “Make America Great” is so pernicious not because it bares similarities to past fascist calls to recover a lost national greatness, but rather because it taps into American civil religion and perverts it to make its totalitarianism more amenable to its audience.
The historian Sacvan Bercovitch identified the genre of prophetic sermon called the “jeremiad” as a mainstay of American rhetoric. In seventeenth-century Puritan New England, jeremiads from Samuel Danforth’s Errand into the Wilderness to Increase Mather’s Day of Trouble is Near excoriated their audiences for falling short from the values that had founded their polity. As a trope, the jeremiad takes it as a given that the nation was founded with certain ideals which both the populace and state have fallen far short of, and that lest they become a byword they must try again to reach for their most noble aspirations. It’s not hard to see how this form has been common in American discourse, from Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, to Harvey Milk’s address on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall.
It would be easy to assume that the jeremiad only conjures a myth of a “Golden Age” in the past, but the jeremiad isn’t bemoaning the loss of mere financial wealth, or security, or military prowess. It does not judge us against a mythic past, but rather against a platonic ideal. The jeremiad is within the prophetic tradition, which condemns us for violating our covenantal obligations. It challenges us not because we have a lack of power, but because we have a lack of justice. Trump’s jeremiad is unlike those of the actual form, he is not calling any of his followers to a greater, more expansive understanding of American citizenship; rather his is the run-of-the-mill national chauvinism you could see in any banana republic dictator. Trump’s jeremiads are empty sermons in a heretical adaptation of the American civil religion. In this way Trump has perverted the idea of the jeremiad in calling for “America to be Great Again,” for if America is now no longer “great” it is precisely because the values which he represents are so far beneath the highest and most noble goals which the American covenant is supposed to actually call us to – democracy, equality, liberty, justice.
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Quartz, The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.