Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Trump Nation
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An ongoing reader discussion led by James Fallows regarding Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. (For a related series, see “Trump Time Capsule,” as well as “Will Trump Voters and Clinton Voters Ever Relate?”) To sound off in a substantive way, especially if you disagree with us, please send a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 41 Newer Notes

Is Trump an Ur-Fascist?

Donald Trump mugs for the crowd in front an enormous video of himself at the Republican National Convention. Below, Trump retweets a Mussolini quote from a parody account set up to bait him.

George Orwell said that “as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless.” He’s not wrong. Since Mussolini’s original Partito Nazionale Fascista rule began in Italy in 1922, “fascist” has become an epithet that’s as easy to dismiss as it is to use.

Yet the term remains important as well as loaded, especially in an American election season when an argument has broken out over whether the Republican nominee for president meets its definition. Writing in The Atlantic in January, Gianni Riotta addressed this question, answering that Donald Trump is not a fascist. And he would know; he grew up in the rubble of the original Italian fascism, lived its recent history, and labored under personal threats from groups of lingering fascists during their moments of revival.

Here is how Riotta defines “fascist” and why he thinks it’s overwrought to use it to describe Trump:

Trump will never master the techniques laid out in 1931 by the then-fascist journalist Curzio Malaparte in his Coup D’etat: The Technique of Revolution, which detailed the clear requirements of the fascist manifesto: Seize and hold state power with a sudden attack, coordinated with cunning and force. There is no fascism without this rational, violent plan to obliterate democracy. From Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Mussolini’s speeches on the Palazzo Venezia balcony, fascists told the crowd openly what their goals were and kept a nefarious, disciplined pace to realize them. Mussolini boasted about reducing Italy’s Parliament “to a fascist barrack,” “stopping any antifascist brain from thinking,” and “creating a new Roman Empire.”

Notwithstanding some obvious shades of “make America great again” and “the experts are terrible” in Mussolini’s sloganeering, by Riotta’s definition Trump is indeed not a fascist—that is, assuming that on November 9, Trump is having one of the days when he says he’s inclined to respect the results of the democratic election, and not one of the days when he’s not.

But the debate over the definition of fascism is much richer than Riotta covered. Some readers of his piece quibbled that there are shades of fascism and that Trump sits somewhere worryingly far along:

Perhaps it’s more accurate that Trump is “fascistic” or “with fascist tendencies” (or, more ominously, “proto-fascist”).

Another reader suggested:

Neo-fascist.

Though all the comparisons to Hitler and Mussolini are off base. Trump is more like Goering in attitude and temperament: pompous, full of himself, and attracted to power.

Fascist-y? Fascist-esque? Generalissimodious?

Clearly the strict binary Riotta lays out doesn’t leave room for people to invoke some of the expressive power of the F-word that Trump seems to compel some to.

How about “Ur-Fascist”?

“Ur-Fascism” is a 1995 essay by the great Italian author Umberto Eco, who was born under Mussolini’s regime in 1932. The essay takes up the challenge that Orwell laid down in 1944 when he called “fascist” nearly meaningless. Even Orwell didn’t propose to abandon the term entirely, merely to “use [it] with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword.” Eco takes this seriously, and in doing so he provides the loudest response to Riotta’s definition of fascism as explicitly evoking Mussolini’s worldview:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.

Just because the term is mutable does not mean its meaningless. The starting point of Eco’s understanding is, quite unlike Riotta’s, that the modern word has a history in Italian fascism but it need not share precise features with Mussolini’s system. It’s a synecdoche—a part that stands as a symbol for the whole phenomenon of 20th century strongman authoritarianism—in which Italy’s system figures deeply but not definitively.

See if you think Eco was onto something with predictive power in the following passages from his essay. The first:

Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

And here are Trump’s tweets from Election Day 2012, when President Obama won reelection with 332 Electoral College votes over Mitt Romney’s 206 and with a four-point margin of victory in the popular vote:

Or how about this passage from Eco?

Imaginative recreation of Aaron Burr preparing for his duel with Alexander Hamilton. After his service as vice president, Burr got into legal trouble, though not for the crime-in-history’s-eyes of killing Hamilton. What might happen to a post-election non-President Trump?  (J. Mund-Lord painting, via Wikimedia.)

A reader in the tech business offers an uncomfortably plausible scenario on what might happen beginning November 9:

What comes after the campaign of 2016?  It now appears likely that Hillary will win, that Trumpism will be soundly discredited, and that people will soon forget that the contest ever seemed close. Losing campaigns are always harmless in the rear view mirror: no one has family stories about working for Joe McCarthy or Charles Lindbergh. That’s why we need the Time Capsule.

But, after the campaign is over and the election lost, Trump faces trouble unprecedented in American history*. It’s conceivable that Trump could face civil or criminal prosecution on several fronts: federal income tax evasion, mail fraud connected with Trump University, fraud connected to his charitable foundation, espionage associated with Wikileaks, illegal lobbying associated with Russia.

(* Well, there’s Aaron Burr. Warren Harding died in office. Eugene Debs wound up in prison, but he wasn’t quite a major party candidate, his offense—if offense it was—occurred years after the campaign, and his red-scare prosecution is not something of which the country has been proud.  I can’t recall another example.)

We can easily imagine that some of these matters might arrive in federal or state court in the coming years. Whatever the outcome of those cases, Trump supporters will believe that the charges are Hillary Clinton’s personal retribution. And, next time the Democrats lose the White House, they will call for matching prosecutions of the losing candidate. “Lock Her Up” may have awful echoes.

As you know, this mirrors one of the defects that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Romans didn’t want every private complaint to stop public business, so you couldn’t bring suit against officials until their terms expired.  Toward the end of the Republic, this meant that anyone could expect to be sued as soon as they left office, which meant that people had to find ways to stay in office indefinitely. Losing a big election meant endless litigation, possibly ending in death or exile.

As things stand, I fear creating the expectation that every losing presidential candidate will face prosecution.  

One escape hatch could be a pre-emptive pardon. I was not a fan of Ford’s pardoning Nixon, but the national interest might be stronger here than it was after Watergate. History has been kinder about another precedent, the decision not to prosecute officials of the purported Confederacy. The question then becomes, is it preferable for Clinton to pardon Trump, or for Obama?  

YouTube screencap

A reader highlights him:

As David Sims wrote in his piece “Alec Baldwin’s Scarier, Nastier Donald Trump,” Alec Baldwin gave us a very funny Trump, and a somewhat darker characterization than we normally see from Saturday Night Live. However, it is not the darkest or best Trump impression to emerge in this election season, and it clearly borrowed from the one that is.

Earlier this year, comic Anthony Atamanuik appeared as Trump in a number of appearances on comedy shows, often debating Bernie Sanders (as portrayed very humorously by James Adomian). While Baldwin’s had elements of Darrell Hammond’s goofy Trump, it is indeed closer to Drunk Uncle or Archie Bunker. Atamanuik, by contrast, is nonchalantly ghoulish—an uncensored peek into the dark heart of the Trump id as we fear it to be, if that were then blown up to full size and presented without any other element of Trump’s personality. Baldwin’s use of “Gina” was pioneered by Atamanuik’s Trump, who repeatedly asserted that Gina was the enemy. With Atamanuik, this is just getting started, as he will casually promise to kill everyone, repeatedly tell young women that he can buy them and even tell one she has soft skin which he could remove if he wanted.

I was blindsided by this routine when I happened to see a version of this mock debate on Comedy Central’s show At Midnight. It feels like genuinely dangerous comedy and was clearly the inspiration for SNL to go a bit beyond their glitz and goofiness in the characterization of a man who may truly be a hollowed out shell animated only by primitive drives.

Watch for yourself below. I caught the first seven minutes and it’s truly packed with talent and blunt dark humor that doesn’t feel petty. (For example, Baldwin’s Trump referring to Lester Holt as “jazz man” and “Coltrane” felt cheap and lazy, compared to Atamanuik’s inspired riff on “white power”—watch here as a standalone clip.)

Donald Trump has soaked up an astronomical amount of free media over the past year—$2 billion worth as long ago as March and more than $31 million worth from Sean Hannity alone—but an Atlantic reader, Eric, turns our attention local. He wonders if there’s a significant contrast between national and local news when it comes to crime coverage and whether that difference is driving support for Trump:

Something came to mind a few nights ago while I was watching the presidential debates: Is Trump a product of local TV news? I was struck and saw, for the first time, how disconnected the world that Donald Trump was describing seemed from reality in America—not just on the coasts, but everywhere. It got me thinking about his comments in the past regarding minority communities, crime, and social breakdown as a whole. Those don’t reflect the America you’d read in the mainstream media, hear on public radio, or see on network news broadcasts, but they do sound vaguely like one non-partisan news source that I’m familiar with: the local TV news.

I don’t watch much local news, and neither do most people in know, so I decided to look into it a little further. What I discovered was that 57 percent of American adults often get their news through television, with 46 percent saying that’s through local TV news. Considering that local news has become, for the most part, weather, traffic, and sports (40 percent of broadcasts, according to Pew) with crime reports (17 percent) and accidents/disasters (13 percent) in between, it strikes me as understandable that Trump’s “law and order” message has some resonance. After all, if the main source of news is local TV, then nearly a third of the time not dedicated to traffic, weather, and sports is about crime in the local community. Even if crime weren’t rising, the ubiquity of its coverage would give the impression that it’s getting worse.

Six days ago: the debate. Carlos Barria / Reuters

I think this is simple, rather than simplistic:

  1. The people who are for Donald Trump, are for him. And almost nothing he can say or do, or that can be said or revealed about him, will undercut that support. The things that ordinarily would be considered “shocking” or “disqualifying” haven’t eroded belief among his base, and probably won’t.
                                                                                             
  2. But there are not enough of these people to get 270 electoral votes for Trump. There were enough to give him an initial plurality in a huge GOP field, and to keep him coming out ahead as his GOP rivals foolishly attacked one another rather than concentrating on him. But in the general election his core support has remained below winning levels in virtually all honest polls. He has so far seemed to hit a ceiling at around 40% support—sobering in itself, but not enough.
                                                                                             
  3. Therefore he needs new supporters—more women, more blacks and Latinos and Asians, more Muslims, more educated people, more of the young.
                                                                                             
  4. Therefore2, the test of everything Trump does now—the debates, the “Miss Piggy” controversy, the taxes, everything—is whether it brings him anyone new. The question is not the one we mainly hear after debates or Trump flaps: how this affects his supporters. They already support him. The question is whether what he does and says brings in anyone undecided, or new.

    My guess is that is has not.

The main point is: since Trump starts with not enough votes to win, the logical test to apply, in the 36 days that remain, is whether what he does with each speech, each answer in a debate, each tweet, each flux of the news cycle, expands his base. If it doesn’t, he has lost.

The late New York real estate heiress and hotelier Leona Helmsley in 2003. She was famous for saying, before she went to prison, "only the little people pay taxes." Reuters

Following installment #119 in the Trump Time Capsule series, which contrasted Donald Trump’s “they’re freeloaders!” complaint about NATO allies with his own “that makes me smart!” comment about not paying taxes himself, readers weigh in.

1) If this makes Trump “smart,” most people are forced to be dumb. Friend-of-the-site and Congressional veteran Mike Lofgren highlights an aspect I neglected to mention:

An important point that wasn’t emphasized is that among the vast majority of Trump’s supporters, not paying taxes isn’t even an option, regardless of how much they might want to chisel the IRS.

FICA taxes are automatically deducted, and the employer automatically files a W2. The option of setting up tax-exempt foundations, shell companies, and engaging in transfer pricing simply does not exist for these folks.

An ordinary person would resent someone who can get away with various tax dodges; maybe Trump’s supporters have such a masochistic identification with him that it doesn’t matter.  

***

2. Only the little people pay. From a reader in California:

With his recent “That Makes Me Smart” comment at the debate, I am reminded of Leona Helmsley, famous for saying, as I’m sure you remember, “Only the little people pay taxes.” I haven’t seen anyone make the connection recently, perhaps I have missed it, but they have much in common.

via @sonnyandthesunsets (thnx @cantina_ )

A video posted by Chill Wildlife™ 🖖🏼 (@chillwildlife) on

I’m helping my colleague Jim Fallows with some housecleaning regarding the massive amount of reader email piling up over Donald Trump. One notes for the record:

I appreciate your Trump Time Capsule serial, but I think you all have missed one. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I am unaware of a presidential candidate ever releasing his (or her) testosterone level before? Since Trump has released so little other health information, the message it sends is … I can’t find the words for it.

Speaking of the Time Capsule, this reader has an apt literary reference:

It seems this passage from Lewis Carroll “fits” your Time Capsule: Alice laughed/said, “One can’t believe impossible things.” The Queen replied, “I daresay you haven’t much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Through the Looking-Glass, chapter 5)

This scene from Tim Burton’s version of the Carroll classic has a certain resonance with last night’s debate:

This next email is a fascinating followup to the reader who saw a Trump-Pence bumper sticker on a car equipped with The Club and parked at a Hollywood studio—the kind of secure place where a security measure like The Club seems unnecessary at best:

In 1992, my most favorite car ever was stolen from the streets of New York City while protected by The Club. When I reported the theft to police and insurance, I learned that The Club is not a deterrent; it is actually an aid to car thieves. I didn’t grasp the details at the time, but as I was reading your post about the Trump-Pence car, I remembered how my confidence in The Club was disappointed and found this paragraph on Freakonomics:

A pro thief would carry a short piece of a hacksaw blade to cut through the plastic steering wheel in a couple seconds. They were then able to release The Club and use it to apply a huge amount of torque to the steering wheel and break the lock on the steering column (which most cars were already equipped with). The pro thieves actually sought out cars with The Club on them because they didn’t want to carry a long pry bar that was too hard to conceal.

So there’s a pretty rich irony in this whole metaphor: a voter who is frightened by threats that aren’t real, or aren’t statistically significant, trusts a protector who will not provide any meaningful protection, who will, in addition, make the voter more vulnerable. Trump has cheated employees, lenders, stockholders, charities, customers, and now he’s setting himself up to cheat his voters and supporters too.

Another reader replies to the note from Fallows featuring the massive searchable database containing every tweet from Trump:

Thanks for sharing the link! This is awesome! In just two minutes, I was able to answer a question that long bedeviled me: on Planet Trump, what are all the failing media operations? The answer:

The New York Times (the champion by far), CNN, New York Daily News, Glenn Beck/The Blaze, National Review, Manchester Union Leader, Politico, Daily Beast, Des Moines Register, Weekly Standard, The View, Vanity Fair, Bill Maher, Huffington Post, DC Examiner, New York Magazine

Meanwhile the Washington Post only gets a one-time appellation of “phony.” Clearly, the Fahrenthold stories aren’t stinging too much.

Fallows covered the latest from Fahrenthold yesterday. Another reader takes a big step back to try to understand this moment in political history:

Maybe some part of the electorate has always been paranoid. But like your reader [who saw the Trump-Pence bumper sticker] points out, this year seems a watershed. I can see some reasons:

1. LGBT marriage equality: Came SO fast, I don’t think people have processed it yet. As they are struggling to cope with this decidedly liberal agenda, the wedding cake mafia is not helping either. No one likes being held hostage to ideas in their own home/city/country.

The Club™ in action, via Winner International.

A reader in Southern California whom I’ve corresponded with over the years sent several photos with accompanying description. I’m not using the pictures, for the contradictory reasons that they are blurry looking but also clear enough that they might be identifiable. But I’ve seen them and can say that they support the case the reader makes.

Why is Trump popular? The reader says that he is the living human version of that familiar car safety device, The Club™ from Winner International.

Or, that if Richard Hofstadter were rewriting The Paranoid Style in American Politics, he would need a multi-volume special edition to cover 2016. Over to the reader:

I work on a studio lot in Los Angeles. Hollywood is lousy with liberals, so you can imagine my surprise when I pulled in next to a car with a Trump 2016 sticker. [The reader sent a photo.]

I immediately liked the owner of the Trump car, in the same way that I would like the owner of a Clinton car in the Bible belt. Going against the grain like that takes independent thinking, guts.

But what really got my attention was The Club. [A photo of this, too, across the steering wheel.]

I don't know if you remember The Club, but it was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s a long steel bar that you stick in the steering wheel. Truly the only way to prevent car theft.

I haven’t seen a car with The Club in a long time, but I saw one today. It was protecting the Trump car. And this, for me, perfectly sums up the Donald Trump supporter.  

To begin with, consider the driver’s morning. To get onto the lot, they had to pass through a security checkpoint. Once on the lot, they were in an officer-patrolled environment. In fact, every inch of this place is monitored with security cameras.

In other words, this is a safe place.

A new archive makes the thoughts of the nominee available and searchable. For instance here, the 63 times he has called someone "lightweight." Trump Twitter Archive

Talk about a time capsule! This is quite an amazing piece of work. Courtesy of a Georgetown grad and former Peace Corps volunteer who now works as a programmer, we now have a searchable archive of 16,000+ tweets from @realDonaldTrump since 2009.

The main page, with selected highlights, is here. The search utility is here. For instance, if you’d like to see all 63 tweets in which Trump calls someone (usually Little Marco) “lightweight,” you can just click here.

You can donate to support the site here. (I have no involvement with it or its creator in any way, except as a citizen grateful for further documentation of our times.)

48 days and a few hours to go. The Republican leadership, minus one former president, is still saying: He’s fine!

Back in 2009, when I was living in China, I was digging into the birther issue. This was before Donald Trump made it his own. But it reflects part of the genius of Trump’s multi-year birther crusade. Let’s think about the fundamental idiocy of the line that the Republican nominee was pushing for many years. Here’s the 2009 post:

I don’t know whether the birthers are petering out on their own. If they’re still around, here’s an additional challenge for them that springs from the glory days of Mad magazine.

A friend has recalled a classic Mad riff from its “Strangely Believe It!” series, produced by comedian Ernie Kovacs in the late Fifties as a knock-off of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It concerned—well, see for yourself, in this detail of a scan of the original page, courtesy of Scott Gosar at TheMadStore.

MadMag.jpg

Because I’ve been on the road talking about my new story on the upcoming presidential debates—read it here! and then subscribe!—I am again falling behind the accelerating reality of the Trump Time Capsule era. Will add several updates at the next opportunity.

Meanwhile: Yesterday afternoon I spent a long time talking with Brian Beutler, of The New Republic, for his Primary Concerns podcast series. We talked about what the “false equivalence” brouhaha reveals and conceals, what the Trump movement shows and doesn’t about the country, what the political press can and cannot do, and other topics with a yin-and-yang aspect to be explored. We ended on the high note of what we’d each learned about the world from growing up, a generation apart, in the same small inland-California town. I enjoyed it and think you’ll find it interesting. It’s here.

Also, the Atlantic’s video team has made a great short video that accompanies my debate article, and for which I do the voice-over. You can see it here and below.

This guy, "D. J. Quacker," shown outside Trump Tower in New York yesterday, wants Donald Trump to release his taxes. So does a former commissioner of the IRS. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

With 61-plus days until the election, Donald Trump remains the only major-party nominee for the presidency or vice presidency of the post-Watergate era who has refused to release his tax returns. Not coincidentally, of all nominees through that period, Trump also has the most complicated and least-publicly-understood personal and corporate finances.

Why is he drawing the line here? Readers offer their hypotheses:

I started my career with a year as an IRS agent before jumping across the desk to work for a “Big Eight” firm (which I think is now the Big Four?).

It’s been a long time since I’ve been doing taxes, but my gut tells me Trump hasn’t filed in the first place.

I remember being involved with clients who had endured bankruptcies, the implosion of complex energy partnerships, and/or the collapse of the real-estate market.

Their partnership K1s would be delayed for so long that we’d sometimes have to file with numbers we ... well... sorta made up. Once the K1s arrived we could always go back and amend, but by providing some form of a reasonable estimate we could show good faith.

However, there were some clients that hated the tax code, and the entire Byzantine process (not to mention our fees). So some of them opted out until something came along and forced their hand to file (e.g., an audit).