Donald Trump, when he really gets going, hardly speaks in sentences anymore. He doesn’t need to. His audience is with him in fragments. He shuffles pages covered with poll numbers written in thick black ink; he ovals his mouth, the lower appendage of a solid orange-gold block, and lunges forward like the giant sandworm in “Dune,” which devours all before it. At times ecstatic, relying on emotional connections alone, he leaps from subject to subject. Fear, danger, stupidity. Stupidity! Weakness! The fate of the nation is at stake. The personal safety of the people before him is at stake. Something “terrible” is going on. “We can’t live like this. It’s gonna get worse and worse. You’re going to have more World Trade Centers. It’s gonna get worse and worse. We can be politically correct, and we can be stupid, and it’s gonna get worse and worse.”
The energy comes in surges—in bunched mini-waves, so rhythmically charged that they never bore the listener, even the listener who loathes every word that comes out of his mouth, every frown and eye-rolling grimace, every gesture of his right hand, which disposes of the world’s idiocy in jerking sweeps to the side. In one patch in a recent speech (the speech in which he read his proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States), Trump ran from Hillary Clinton (“She’s got no strength. She’s got no stamina”) to the United States being “ripped off on trade,” and then to veterans “not being taken care of,” and then to generals wasting time talking on television, and then to “Bush” (mimics a man sleeping), then to Hillary’s complaint that Trump’s tone was not “nice” (“We have people whose heads are being chopped off …”), then to the need for smart people (“I know a lot of tough people … but they’re not smart”), then to the money we “owe” (“We owe nineteen trillion … trillion, trillion, trillion dollars. Who the hell ever heard of the word ten years ago? There was no such word”), then back to the trade imbalance with China, Japan, and Mexico (“We’re going to build a wall. It will be a real wall. . . . It’s gonna happen”).
His speeches have no beginning or end, no shape, no culmination and release, and none is necessary. For the audience, his fervent incoherence makes him that much more present, for it is Trump alone who matters, the vividness of him standing there, in that moment, embodying what the audience fears and desires. At the Republican Convention in 1964, Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” At the time, the left heard a reveille issued deep into the woods of the American right. The word “Fascism” was spoken (by Norman Mailer and others) to describe Goldwater’s speech. But now Goldwater’s statement, with its balanced clauses, its formality, seems merely rhetorical, a flourish more than a threat.
Trump is devoted to anti-rhetoric. Boasts and fears and menacing attacks are followed by instant “solutions” (about fighting ISIS: “You don’t want to know what I’m going to do”)—punctuated by war whoops and cries of adoration from the crowd. But put aside Trump’s ideas just for a second. When you do that, you might hear, especially in his recent speeches, uncanny echoes of Alan King and Don Rickles, the New York-born Jewish comics of the sixties and seventies who Trump must have listened to, as a young man, on late-night TV and in Vegas/Atlantic City entertainment rooms. The slow beginning, the sudden up-tempo shift, the shouted indignation, the repetition of a few simple phrases (“It’s not going to happen. Not going to happen”), the wounded expostulation, the exasperated bewilderment: it’s classic Alan King.
Like a good standup comic, Trump invites the audience to join him in the adventure of delivering his act—in this case, the barbarously entertaining adventure of running a Presidential campaign that insults everybody. Karl Rove is “stupid.” The President is “weak.” Jeb Bush is “low-energy.” But, with his members of audience, he is flattering, teasing, accommodating. (“I love you, too. Stand up. I love you.”) He must know that they are hurting, that their wages are frozen, that their children’s prospects are uninspiring. He knows that they feel angry and abandoned, resentful of minorities. If he became President, he would not, in fact, do a thing for them, but he does something now—he brings emotional release, even satisfaction.
Chummily, Trump takes his audience into his confidence, includes it in every aspect of his campaign—especially the poll results, some genuine, some ersatz, which appear from one source or another virtually every day. The polls are like shots of Viagra, keeping him constantly ready for action. So are the constant expressions of approval that he needs. He describes, in mixed tones of indebtedness and indignation, what every candidate and TV talk-show host has said about him. He assumes that his crowd is interested in everything about Donald Trump. For instance, he refers mysteriously to such arcana as the date he filed his campaign papers, as if the campaign itself, begun with a ride down the escalator in the Trump Tower, was the event that propelled the country into greatness and must be celebrated even in its merely formal aspects. Paul of Tarsus was on the road to Damascus when he got the call; Churchill heard Neville Chamberlain resign; Donald Trump rode down a gilded stairway.
Is he a Fascist? Trump’s movement flourishes without white hoods and burning crosses, without jackboots, gangs of thugs, insignias, patriotic anthems, without secret police or any state power at all. After all, he hasn’t won anything yet. His movement doesn’t fit any standard definition of Fascism. A plumply loutish golden billionaire, he is a superb entertainer. Yet there are sickening echoes in his speeches of the Fascist movements of the twentieth century—extreme nationalism, the appeals to bigotry and fear, the emphasis on humiliation, the shrewdly gangsterish, undermining contempt for anyone who stands in the leader’s way.
There are echoes of such movements in the constant attacks on anyone who differs or criticizes or simply fails to praise, especially people in the press. “Some of the media is terrific,” Trump said last Monday. “But most of it, seventy per cent, seventy-five per cent, is absolutely dishonest, absolute scum. Remember that. Scum.” This statement causes his audience to roar with approval. Anyone attacking him in the press, including conservative ideologues such as George Will (“a total disaster”) and Charles Krauthammer (“a totally overrated clown who speaks without knowing facts”), has been discredited in advance. He is impervious to criticism, and he will deliver his movement into deafness, too. When hecklers interrupt his speeches, the crowd, pumping its fists, shouts, “Trump! Trump! Trump! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
He has substituted anti-immigrant fervor and specifically anti-Muslimism for the anti-Semitism of the thirties—the anti-Semitism of, say, Charles A. Lindbergh, whose mythical ascension to the Presidency on the Republican ticket, in 1940, Philip Roth dramatized in his 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America.” Roth’s novel could use another reading in light of the very real possibility that Trump might be the Republican nominee. The counter-factual may be merging into fact just as virulently as Roth imagined.
Whether we call him a Fascist or a right-wing demagogue, Trump’s acts and words remain the same. It makes sense that, in America, an insurgent movement would grow out of the media and entertainment, that it would issue from enormous prior celebrity, and not from an obscure rural corner, the world of militias and white nationalists. (Their approval of Trump, nevertheless, has now become evident. A white-supremacist and neo-Nazi group called Stormfront, hanging on to Trump’s coattails, has, according to Politico, upgraded “its servers in part to cope with a Trump traffic spike.” Politico goes on, “And former Louisiana Rep. David Duke reports that the businessman has given more Americans cover to speak out loud about white nationalism than at any time since his own political campaigns in the 1990s.”)
Earlier American demagogues couldn’t build a movement strong enough actually to take power. In the thirties, Father Charles E. Coughlin, prolonging his vowels, fashioned his often baffling rage into hammily melodramatic tirades in which anti-Semitism and anti-Communism were the only clear elements; Coughlin had an enormous radio audience but could not stop F.D.R. from triumphing politically. Joseph McCarthy, of course, was a twice-elected senator from Wisconsin. But, as Jeet Heer pointed out in The New Republic, the institutions that these two demagogues were part of were strong enough finally to rein them in. Father Coughlin was removed from the air by order of Bishop Edward Mooney of Detroit, in 1942. McCarthy, after warring against “Communists” in the State Department (and also homosexuals), was censured by the Republican Party, in 1954, and his power was broken. The Republican Party of today, as Heer points out, doesn’t have the clout to do that. I would add that it doesn’t have the will, either. At the moment, the party is awkwardly split between disgust for Trump and propitiation of him.
He lies all the time. But pointing out his lies, his contradictions, his illogical ideas, his nonsensical solutions—pointing out all of that, while noble and necessary work, is partly beside the point. Trump’s entire world picture, as he presents it to his voters, is an elaborate fiction—coherent in itself, like all such extreme fantasies, and therefore emotionally satisfying, but never required, either by Trump or by his audience, to meet the test of factuality and actuality. When he says that the country is in “terrible shape,” his listeners need only feel that their own situation is terrible to agree with him. In a similar way, the harrumphing attacks on him by such establishment Republicans as Jeb Bush, Tom Ridge, and Dick Cheney also miss the point. Those men are appealing to some common standard of allowable political discourse that Trump and his followers consider mere evasion. The movement’s standard of allowable behavior has been formed by popular culture—by standup comedy and, recently, by reality TV and by the snarking, trolling habits of the Internet. You can’t effectively say that Donald Trump is vulgar, sensational, and buffoonish when it’s exactly vulgar sensationalism and buffoonery that his audience is buying. Donald Trump has been produced by America, but I refuse to say, as some have, that he’s the demagogue that we deserve. He’s the demagogue the Republican Party deserves. The rest of us, including some Republicans, will resist him by holding on to whatever humanity and common sense we can command.
-source new yorker-