More readers are building on the projection argument that Fallows outlined in Time Capsule #142: “that ‘projection,’ in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does”—that he accuses people of sins that are far more his own. Reader Tom contrasts Trump’s approach with recent history:
I may be saying the same thing in a different way, but Mr Trump has been engaging in what I’ve thought of as a new style of political attack.
“Rovian politics,” named after Karl Rove, was taking on your opponent’s strengths and attacking them head on to negate their advantage (e.g. “Swiftboating” John Kerry to attack his war record and turn a strength into a weakness).
In “Trumpian politics” you take your weaknesses, exaggerate them, and accuse your opponent of possessing that weakness. Is womanizing a potential weakness of yours? Accuse your opponent of being much worse than you were, making yourself look good (at least in your own mind) by comparison. Temperament? Accuse your opponent of being completely unstable to divert attention. Old enough to be the oldest person ever elected to a first term? Accuse your opponent of being weak and sickly.
By exaggerating your weaknesses and targeting your opponent with the same, you not only attack them with something they consider important but you potentially make yourself look good by comparison.
Sandra notes another example of projection:
A minor thing, but Trump may well have lied about his weight. After the Dr Oz show, the number 267 pounds was floating around. Apparently a few studio audience members said that was the weight that was mentioned from the medical report. It could easily have been doctored before the screening. Plus he added an inch to his height to get himself into the merely overweight category.
So the fat-shamer in chief lies about his weight and probably falls well into the obese category. Weigh-in before the next debate perhaps?
This next reader, Joe, poses a compelling and disturbing question:
Reading the latest entries about Trump’s habit of projection and his latest assertions that the election is “rigged,” I can’t help but draw a horrifying extrapolation: What if Trump’s allegations about Democrats and the media rigging the election are themselves projection?
Is it so hard to imagine that Trump himself might want to rig the election? Or, more likely, that he could believe that Roger Stone or WikiLeaks or Putin’s Kremlin have a plan to do it for him? I’m not sure I believe this, or even that Trump believes it, but it does present a cautionary illustration.
If Trump’s “rigged” allegations are projection, then the recent response to them would play into his hands. Gore et al stepped aside despite reasonable arguments he should have won, and I (a Gore supporter) agree with that. But what if there were an actual, serious effort to steal this election—more than just, as in 2000, a close election with a few irregularities? Then Trump would certainly point to pre-election comments like Fallows’s as affirmation that the loser should step aside, that even Clinton supporters were on record saying so.
In fact, this kind of pre-emptive defense is part of the Trump playbook. Recall the Trump University scam, where instructors routinely harassed students into giving glowing evaluations, which were later used in court to try to undermine those who accused him of fraud.
I’m not sure what the answer is, though perhaps it’s something like Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted’s nuanced statement (reported in the NYT) that it’s irresponsible to question the integrity of elections without evidence. In any case, this example illustrates the challenge of dealing with demagogic candidate like Trump (or a dirty trickster like Roger Stone) who seems to have no respect for our political system. Demanding that they play by “the rules” only works if those rules can be rigorously enforced. But rigorous enforcement also gives them a stick to exploit against their opponents, if decency doesn’t hold them back.
Speaking of a possible Russia connection, another reader, Peter, notes a historical irony:
A large bloc of Trump’s supporters believe that the election will be fraudulent if Clinton wins, and a large bloc of Trump’s supporters see Russia in a favourable light. That means that it is the Republican base who doesn’t believe in democracy and is impressed with the strength of Moscow. Who would have thought that the most credible attempt of a Communist takeover of the U.S. would come from Republicans.
Of course this is a complete 180 from four years ago:
Back to Peter:
Perhaps more seriously (hopefully), there are two larger questions. One is if the Republican party can / will / should split in two, and if so, into what parts? The argument against them splitting in two is that the American political system is so geared to a “two party” system that any and all permanent non-majority parties are banned to the political wasteland. The argument in favor of them splitting in two is that the the current party has absolutely no working definition of what a “conservative” is.
Post 2016, “conservative” will have lost all meaning. Currently it means “family values” and supporting sexual abuse and a complete lack of religious faith. Currently it means “American ideals” and a disrespect for democracy and a praise of authoritarians and former Communists. Currently it means “small government” and massive spending. It had already taken to mean both isolationism and empire building.
The word itself means a resistance to change, but in practice it means complete radical change. There seems to be little point to having a “conservative” party when the word no longer means anything. Right now it’s just the “I hate Hillary” party. Except for when the Republicans unite in their daily “two minutes of hate,” they have nothing to do with each other.
The other question is: Why can’t the Democrat left ever figure out how to talk to the white working class? They are some of the very people who they are claiming to help, but since before Reagan, they were written off. This whole Trump thing could have been prevented in the first place if the Democrats knew how to talk to a third of his base. But with the white working class largely anti-union, it may be a bigger trick than it should be.
If you disagree with any of these readers or just want to add to the discussion in general, drop us a note anytime. Update from a reader who poses a question: “Doesn’t asking his supporters to patrol polling centers and challenge ‘suspicious looking people’ or whatever already count as attempting to rig the election?” Another reader:
Consider the stated Trump desire to jail Clinton as an effort to put his opponents on record as opposing jailing the loser (now almost certainly him). Is it possible he has done any jail-worthy deeds with taxes, charities, or Russian money-laundering for which he would like preemptive immunity? I swear I am not projecting ...
Earlier this year I read Edward B. Foley’s excellent history of disputed elections in America, Ballot Battles. The book is fascinating on many levels and alarming in its descriptions of the weaknesses in America’s electoral institutions. But I want to focus on one particular election featured in the book: the 1960 presidential contest between Nixon and Kennedy.
It’s now generally accepted that Chicago Democrats manipulated the vote totals in the 1960 election in an attempt to help Kennedy carry Illinois. There is also substantial evidence that Lyndon B. Johnson’s political machine in Texas manipulated the vote total in Kennedy’s favor. If Nixon was, in fact, cheated out of those two states and their electoral votes, then he was cheated out of the presidency in 1960.
Political partisans had their suspicions even at the time. After Nixon’s initial concession to Kennedy, his supporters urged him to seek recounts in both Illinois and Texas. But Nixon was convinced that there was no way for him to get a truly fair recount from Texas state officials. And at the time, the Supreme Court's policy was to avoid federal intervention in this type of dispute.
So let’s take a step back and consider this situation. Here we have a politician who is just out of reach of the White House. He has a reasonable belief that the vote totals in two key states were rigged against him, and that the recount process in one of those states would also be rigged against him. On top of everything else, this politician is Richard Nixon, a man whose name has become a shorthand for political dirty tricks. So what does he do?
He did not seek a recount in Texas. He did not denounce the vote counting process and recount process in Texas as “rigged.” He didn’t even seek a recount in Illinois, since Illinois by itself could not provide him the additional electoral votes needed to win.
Nixon later explained his reasoning for this inaction in his 1962 book, Six Crises. He worried that, “The bitterness that would be engendered by such a [recount] maneuver . . . would, in my opinion, have done incalculable and lasting damage throughout the country.” He also wrote that, “It is difficult enough to get defeated candidates in some of the newly independent countries to abide by the verdict of the electorate. If we could not continue to set a good example in this respect in the United States, I could see that there would be open-season for shooting at the validity of free elections throughout the world.”
The problems with the 1960 election and recount process are so manifest that Edward Foley concludes that “the 1960 presidential election must be viewed as a failure of American government to operate a well-functioning democracy.” The fact that this view is not widely shared should be attributed to the selfless act of a man who is otherwise (and not without cause!) pilloried for his subversion of American democratic ideals.
And that brings us back to Trump. Whereas Nixon had actual grounds to suspect vote-rigging, Trump has none. Whereas Nixon declined to challenge the election results after his supporters raised legitimate concerns, Trump is now spreading disinformation before the votes have even been counted. And whereas Nixon would not press his legitimate grievances for fear of dividing the country, Trump is using his lies to lay the groundwork for possible violence.
Nixon did more damage to the presidency and the popular image of American government than any other politician in the 20th Century. Trump hasn’t even been elected president, and yet he may have already done more damage than Nixon.
It’s worth noting one of the strongest ties between Nixon and Trump: Roger Stone. Stone is a Nixon acolyte—complete with a large tattoo of the president on his back—known for his “dirty tricks” on behalf of Nixon’s reelection campaign in 1972. In his 2014 book Nixon’s Secrets, Stone forcefully argues that Kennedy stole the 1960 election:
During this primary season, Stone was one of Trump’s close advisors and henchmen (you probably remember him as the guy who threatened to send Trump supporters to the hotel rooms of RNC delegates) and he reportedly remains in close contact with Trump’s team. It would be no surprise if Stone’s deep resentment over the 1960 election is fueling the “rigged” rhetoric coming out of the Trump campaign right now.
In Time Capsule installment #142, and in a followup item in this thread, I mentioned Donald Trump’s penchant for “projection”—blaming his opponents for flaws he very obviously has himself.
Seth Knoepler, a PhD psychologist in California, writes in to give me the Official Perspective:
Since you’re evidently receiving some “completely amateur” opinions, you might as well have a more professional one.
To clinical professionals, “projection” is one of the “mechanisms of defense” which Anna Freud and others have described. These are mental maneuvers which are intended to protect the person from uncomfortable feelings that are associated with particular impulses or ideas. Each defense mechanism results in a perception of reality which has been distorted in some way.
As can be seen, for example, in “The Choice: 2016,” the recent Frontline documentary, Trump grew up in a family that was dominated by his almost unbelievably driven, perfectionistic father, a man who with both his words and his actions created a world in which you either dominated others or were hopelessly, humiliatingly dominated. In such a world, any flaw or imperfection represents a weakness which, sooner or later, will be catastrophically exploited by people who see the world as the same Darwinian struggle that you do. Someone like Trump must “defend” himself against the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that would accompany any acknowledgement of his human fallibility by denying that he is in any meaningful way flawed—by insisting that “he alone” out of hundreds of millions of Americans is smart, strong, and ruthless enough, and without any exploitable flaws or weaknesses.
Each defense mechanism has its own idiosyncratic characteristics. Projection has the advantage of implicitly acknowledging the reality that someone is flawed in a certain way, while at the same time protecting the person from the uncomfortable feelings that would be precipitated by acknowledging that he is, in fact, that person.
And another person with a professional perspective:
Your correspondent writes, “Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs or desires in others they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.”
A different description might be:
Trump is aware that there are other views of reality than his own. The narcissistic project is to argue, charm, bully the world into accepting his view of reality, including but also going beyond his grandiose view of self. Insisting on this view leads others to mistake his aberrance for lying.
Now you know.
I agree about the excellence of PBS’s The Choice, available for streaming online. One of its messages is that each of these nominees has had a surprisingly consistent life story and affect over the decades. In the case of the GOP’s nominee, it means the man we now behold.
Although The Choice doesn’t explicitly address this point, it implicitly undercuts the idea the outbursts and excesses of Nominee Trump reflect any age-related distortions of his personality. He appears to have been this way for a long time.
In installment #142 of the Time Capsule series, I argue that “projection,” in the psychological sense, is the default explanation for anything Donald Trump says or does.
Projection means deflecting any criticism (or half-conscious awareness) of flaws in yourself by accusing someone else of exactly those flaws. Is Trump’s most immediately obvious trait his narcissistic and completely ungoverned temperament? (Answer: yes.) By the logic of projection, it thus makes perfect sense that he would brag that he has “the greatest temperament” and judgment, and criticize the always-under-control Hillary Clinton for hers.
How can this be? A reader offers an analysis worth considering (emphasis added):
I am writing to comment on “Drug Test,” item #142, and the idea of self-projection as the first rule of Trump analysis. Here’s my completely amateur opinion:
Trump is a man with almost zero ability to empathize or imagine other people’s motives or drives. His ego and narcissism are so oversized they warp all his opinions into reflections of himself. Since he has no understanding of anyone but himself, when he tries to attribute motive, needs, or desires in others, they are therefore at best something from himself that he recognizes in them, or simply a reflection of feelings he himself has.
In simple terms, one might say his mind is empty of any thoughts that are not self-referential. And so self-projection is simply a consequence of this vacuity.
One of the strangest things about the Trump phenomenon is that, for something so unprecedented, he’s best understood through the lens of history.
He’s also best misunderstood through that lens. One of the most common historical looks at Trump this year is comparing him to Hitler. (Here’s the most thoughtful and understated effort.) The commonness of this overreach may be the best case for bothering to be precise about what sort of character the Republican nominee is. The problem with the “Trump = Hitler” thesis, after all, is not that it is too difficult to sustain, but too easy; it fails by a long way to take a full measure of the German tyrant. But the reason the argument seems so low-hanging is that Trump has, probably half-unwittingly, turned the demagogy textbook into an instruction manual. Hitler may as well have been offering advice, for example, when he said that “the effectiveness of the truly national leader consists in preventing his people from dividing their attention, and keeping it fixed on a common enemy.” (Update on 10/25: My colleague Uri ably analyzes such Hitler comparisons.)
Some readers thought my note on Trump being an “Ur-Fascist” made a similar error, trying to shoehorn a word where it doesn’t belong. The word “fascism,” after all, recalls a specifically European past, and Trump, certainly as he conceives of himself, is American first. So one reader, Kevin, proposes a term that might be a fit better than “Ur-Fascist”:
I may be getting overly formal here, but fascism was a political movement with very definite philosophical underpinnings, most of them failing to resemble any philosophy that Trump and his followers may hold dear. One may say that Mussolini and the other fascist leaders of the 20th century often ignored them, but what actual political leaders of any movement have always kept faith with their philosopher predecessors?
Real fascisms had definite clerical and royalist associations. They attempted, with various degrees of commitment and success, to implement something like Catholic corporatism as a basis for social organization and the economy. It is no accident that actual fascisms were confined almost entirely to Catholic majority countries, most of them Iberian, Mediterranean, or Latin American. (Needless to say, this is one of the many reasons that National Socialism was not a fascist movement.)
All of these tenets, in addition to the obvious absence of any Trump squadristi, argue powerfully that Trump is no fascist—merely an American authoritarian.
It is in fact entirely misleading to turn to any foreign political model to explain Trump when there is a model in U.S. politics, of nearly two centuries' duration, that applies dead on. It is called Jacksonianism, and Trump is the Andrew Jackson of his day.
Jackson’s movement, like Trump’s, arose in reaction to perceived wrenching social and and economic changes in 1820s and 1830s America. Its adherents were the white yeomen who felt left out of the power structure, as opposed to the propertied elites who in many states had a monopoly on the franchise. The other burning issues that concerned the Jacksonians bore a distinct resemblance to those that concern Trump’s followers today—industrialization and international trade; concentration of wealth in the hands of the old Bourbon planters and the budding Northern industrialists; the control of Congress by such elite professional politicians as Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C Calhoun. Add to this President John Quincy Adams, whose 1824 election in the House of Representatives over Andrew Jackson, the leader in popular vote, led to cries of a “corrupt bargain”—that is, a rigged election. Sound familiar?
And, of course, there was race. Not only did the Jacksonian multitudes fear competition from black slave labor (even though they were dead set against manumission). They were also both fearful and envious of the native population, whose land they coveted. It’s easy to imagine a Trumpian Trail of Tears, this time victimizing Latino immigrants and noncitizen Muslims rather than the Cherokee. Enforcing their expulsions would require a large militarized police force uprooting, dividing, and exiling families, all for the perceived benefit of nativist whites.
Like very many Trumpians, the Jacksonians did not fit neatly along the right-left axis as we understand it today. They were all for expanded government, as long as it benefited them and not the moneyed elites, new capitalists, and nonwhites. While claiming to eschew foreign policy interventionism, they were militaristic and better described as unilateralist than isolationist. For instance, they were gung-ho about invading and annexing adjacent territory that belonged to other nations. President James Knox Polk, who pursued the Mexican War, was a Jacksonian nonpareil.
So perhaps Orwell was more correct than you allow. “Fascist” has for nearly a century been a term of opprobrium hurled indiscriminately by certain leftists to attack any person or idea they find uncongenial. More recently, the word has been adopted by the right, with at least as much imprecision—a sure sign it has jumped the shark.
There is a bit of a contradiction here about whether Trump would or would not have thugs at his disposal, but nonetheless this is a strong case that Jacksonianism is the ism that fits better than fascism.
The age of Jackson, like today, produced a vulgar, furiously clannish outsider railing against a dynastic presidential opponent, upending the political categories that had calcified among elites in the ’90s (in this case, the 1790s). Jackson went much further than Trump’s mere quipping that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and still not lose voters; Jackson, known for dueling, killed at least one opponent, who had already shot him in the chest.
Jacksonianism did not die with its namesake, not by any means. It has been an important part of American political culture since, acting as a sort of raw animal nature that rises up when it senses attack and lashes out without regard for the sort of moral or moralizing (depending on how you see it) principles that Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and the like worked so hard to codify (if not always live by). The immediate aftermath of 9/11, for example, was a moment of Jacksonian ascendancy.
But if the major factor preventing Trump from being rightfully described as a fascist is that he is American, it begs a question: Without going all HUAC, or all Birther, how American is Trump? More than he resembles Hitler or Mussolini or Franco or even Berlusconi, Trump is of a piece with Eastern European rulers like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán—an opportunistic autocrat with an animating anti-immigrant agenda.
Another reader points out that for practical purposes, we may be being too stingy, rather than too loose, with the word “fascism”:
The only elements missing from the fascist classification is efficacy. If a fascist can only be recognized after they’ve successfully attained power, it truly is a meaningless term.
Part of why Trump is shunned by his fellow members of the Western billionaire class is that he is not, like them, a plutocrat. He’s an aspiring oligarch. Moreover:
Trump demonstrates no interest in what the written Constitution says, let alone much knowledge of it.
Talking about how he would pursue trade negotiations, Trump has made clear that he sees the full faith and credit of the United States as a chip to be bargained away at the earliest opportunity.
And he interprets acts of violence against Americans as personal vindication to be used for political gain.
The word for all this is cynical, which happens to be the catchword that Eastern Europeans in Russia’s orbit use for the flavor of politics that has taken over since the pollyannaish early ’90s.
Another reader, Brian, writes in about why it makes sense to define the word “fascism” expansively in the modern day:
I think that it is easy to put too fine a point on the definition of fascism. For one thing, while it was a recognizable and fairly uniform political movement in early part of the 20th century, it was also driven by authoritarian and charismatic leaders and those leaders’ preoccupations, insecurities and bêtes noires affected its political content in the various countries.
There is also the fact that we are looking at fascism today after 80
years of study, discussion, and historical analysis, and the U.S. in
2016 is very different politically and economically from Italy or
Germany in the ’20s and ’30s.
But I would argue that if, say, Konrad Adenauer could have read
today’s U.S. press from prison after the Night of the Long Knives, or in
his house in Roendorf, he would find much of what he read about Trump chilling and all too recognizable—perhaps more in the Mussolini vein, but frightening all the same.
Just because a term has been overused—and “fascist” is no doubt pretty threadbare—does not mean the patterns in the carpet can no longer be made out.
One point that should not be so absent from this whole discussion: America matters more to the world today than even Germany did in the middle of the 20th century, specifically because it is so powerful. Just American inaction today can wreak more havoc than many countries’ worst intentional mischief.
Academics, history buffs, literary types, and other nerds could probably discuss ad infinitum what words and trends best fit Trump (and let’s! Write to us). But in truth, Trump is likely some combination: a Jacksonian with Ur-Fascist qualities, or vice versa, or something. He’s a little of this scary and a little of that scary.
James Joyce, being a tad simplistic but touching on an important idea, wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Trump, meanwhile, is behind the lectern every night, singing his virulent lullabies.
In last night’s debate, the Republican nominee said, apropos military policy: “General George Patton, General Douglas MacArthur are spinning in their grave at the stupidity of what we’re doing in the Middle East.”
In most of his speeches Trump mentions those same two generals. Reader Marcus Hall assesses what the reliance on Patton and MacArthur might tell us about Trump:
It is easy to see why these two military legends are attractive to Trump:
1) Both were known as showmen and motivators. This is clearly Trump’s modus operandi as well; he is most comfortable being the showman and motivator. When he isn’t in the granted position of head of the dais, he looks, seems, and acts out of place. (For example, think back to the instance in Flint where the pastor takes the initiative to challenge him as a person.)
2) Both were known to take personal animus against rivals on their own side to extremes. Think of Patton’s constant infighting with Montgomery, and his less than amicable relationship to Bradley after Sicily.
3) Both were known for strident aggressive stances against an enemy without consideration for larger picture effects. MacArthur’s blunders with antagonizing the Chinese after Inchon, and Patton’s immediate post-war desire to go to war with the Soviets before the armed forces and the country (or its non-Russian allies) could even recover from WWII.
4) Both faced disgrace at the hands of the media and at the hands of those who were better able to handle the larger context of events (Eisenhower for Patton, and Truman for MacArthur).
5) Both had authoritarian tendencies supposedly in defense of freedom.
6) Both are seen as the epitome of the “masculine” general—the ones who take action and get the job done, rather than the kind of general who sees complexity and takes a more complicated approach (Patton v. Eisenhower and Bradley, or MacArthur v. Ridgeway).
7) Both had great strengths but fatal flaws that ended (or almost ended) their careers. Patton’s consideration of PTSD as cowardly is particularly insightful, as some of Trump’s comments seem to indicate a similar attitude.
Trump’s use of these particular generals fits in line with both his own, and his base supporters’, attitudes towards conflict, war, and masculinity. These men chose to see events in binary paradigms and reacted accordingly—hero/coward, friend/enemy, good/bad—with deliberate elimination of room for something in-between or more complex. With Trump, if something’s good, it is The Greatest. If something is bad, it is totally The Worst. His choice of dichotomy helps make issues simpler and condenses them for people who don’t want to spend a lot of time (or can’t spend a lot of time) determining complexity, or who don’t want to be bothered with complexity. It makes for great bumper stickers, but usually terrible policies, especially when it comes to larger picture actions.
I keep wishing a moderator would ask Trump “What then?” when he states his preferential policies on numerous fronts. Ally with Russia against ISIS! (What then? What if Russia does what is has so far, and really refuses to take on ISIS because they are a useful bogeyman?) Not get involved in ousting dictators about to commit atrocities! (What then? Sit back and allow the atrocities to continue?) etc. There are debates to be had and points to be made in favor of Trump’s preferred choices, but no one seems capable of following up a question to get to his next steps and plan B, C, and D in case his preferred plan doesn’t work.
MacArthur’s plan if the Chinese entered the Korean War was to go nuclear, period. It wasn’t much of a plan, although it fit MacArthur’s small picture needs of tactically dealing with an in-theater enemy. When the issue became clear that MacArthur’s plan B was so poor of an alternative, Truman removed him.
However, no one has bothered to figure out Trump’s plan B to even judge how good or bad it is (and Trump himself probably doesn’t even have a Plan B because he believes all his Plan A’s are The Greatest). This is one of the tells that shows more than just about anything else that he isn’t qualified to be President. Plan A’s fail all the time. Having a workable plan B, C, D, and E is the difference between an Eisenhower and a Patton, a Ridgway and a MacArthur.
In installment #137, I mentioned Jane Goodall’s prescience in foreseeing primal-dominance moves from Donald Trump if he had a chance to move around in the same debate space with Hillary Clinton. Now a sample of reader reaction. From a woman named Sarah:
You are wondering how Trump’s behavior last night played with women. I can tell you that I and every other woman I know are having a collective freakout right now. Granted, not one of us was going to vote for Trump, anyway—but that’s not the point.
Last night’s debate was a triggering event for pretty much every woman I know. That also seems to be the general reaction online amongst women I don’t know. Whether we were raped, assaulted, harassed, or in an abusive relationship, Trump last night embodied everything we have had to deal with throughout our lives. Some women wanted to jump on stage and throw themselves between the candidates to protect Hillary. Others were afraid he was going to attack her. Many wondered how she could even maintain a train of thought.
Women with young daughters are struggling with how to discuss what they saw last night with their girls. For those of us with sons, it’s a bit easier: 1) Don't be That Guy; 2) If you see That Guy in action, call out his bad behavior.
But—we, collectively, are having a difficult time shaking off what we saw last night. It was terrifying, frustrating, enraging, and depressing. Other women, perhaps, will shake it off as “all men are like that.” The fact that some women think that this is normal behavior is, in itself, deeply depressing.
I read your Trump Time Capsule #137 with interest. For what it’s worth, way back in the day I was an Anthropology major, albeit not in primates. So I know a tiny fraction more than the stereotypical man in the street.
We have a rather long history, in the United States, of electing the taller of our two candidates for President, at least when the difference is immediately visible. My thought that this is, at least somewhat, a matter of security. People who want to feel secure tend to feel so around a father figure—not all fathers, obviously, but the sort of father that Jesus had in mind when he used that analogy to describe a loving God.
But while Trump is taller than Clinton, is that dynamic in play here? Obviously it slips partly because someone looking for security is going to think Mother Figure vs Father Figure. How that part plays out depends a lot on what specific kinds of fears they are working from.
But the other factor is, would you want Trump, or anyone like him, as your father? How many women voters would feel more secure with a father who spoke of them in the terms Trump used about his daughter on that tape? I’m guessing not many.
Those dominance rituals only work if you have correctly tapped into the reasons why they work. Trump hasn't.
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:
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 it’s 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:
We can't let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
The Trump campaign’s messaging seems to have internalized this warning as advice:
The next entry from Eco is … well:
Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
There are many instances of Trump living up to this prediction, the most unsettling being when he spoke about his health on air with fellow TV charlatan Dr. Oz, who mentioned Trump’s slightly higher than average testosterone levels to studio applause. But the moment that most seared itself into public consciousness came in a primary debate with Marco Rubio:
Next up from Eco:
Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
Trump recently said that there’s a reason for keeping Middle Eastern refugees out of the country beyond national security; it’s a “quality of life” issue, you see! This on top of proposing to create a national force big enough to deport more than 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States (meaning he would like to have an armed federal force at his command). That on top of suggesting that the solution for black and Hispanic Americans “living in hell” in inner-city neighborhoods is to institute a national Stop and Frisk policy, which was struck down in New York because the way it was carried out constituted a breach of black and Hispanic New Yorkers’ constitutional rights. After it ended, crime did not go up. Nobody was raped in Central Park because of it—though if someone had been, you can bet Trump would have been behind newspaper ads seeking the death penalty for five juveniles—four black and one Hispanic—who were innocent.
Here’s the last of Eco’s truly Trump-resonant elements of Ur-Fascism:
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia. But the plot must also come from the inside: Jews are usually the best target because they have the advantage of being at the same time inside and outside.
In July, Trump tweeted this since-deleted image:
Oh, and Trump had spent years accusing the first black president of engaging in a massive coverup of the fact that he had been born in Kenya and could not legitimately hold his office—in between accusing him of being a secret Muslim.
The genius of Eco’s answer to Orwell’s question—a question sadly also at hand in 2016 America—is that he grasps that it was the very contradiction and slapdashery in Italy’s authoritarianism that made its name stick to the larger idea. What the eyes of history have recognized at the core of Mussolini’s system is “… a rigid discombobulation, a structured confusion. Fascism was philosophically out of joint, but emotionally it was firmly fastened to some archetypal foundations.”
Nobody would argue the tenor of the campaign has improved since January, when Riotta’s essay came out. Since then, Trump has even gone as far as to question the democratic system—“the election is rigged!”—most ominously by signaling supporters to stake out polling stations in districts where he’s not likely to find much support. Trump has taken on so many of the characteristics of an Ur-Fascist, the strong case is that rather than being a hurled epithet, the label simply fits. (Disagree? Or want to make further connections between Trump and Ur-Fascism? Drop us a note.)
Umberto Eco died in February of this year. But like all the greatest authors, his writing will always feel immediate. Early on in “Ur-Fascism,” he writes:
I spent two of my early years among the SS, Fascists, Republicans, and partisans shooting at one another, and I learned how to dodge bullets. It was good exercise.
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?
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.
Then there is the long running issue with racial bias in local news coverage. The go-to study on the topic is by J.H. Lipschultz and it’s called “Race and Local Television News Crime Coverage.” In it, Lipschultz mentions how much local news can shape and reinforce our attitudes about race, but one passage really stuck out to me:
[T]he reinforcement of stereotypical assumptions about race may be driven by local TV news coverage: “... crime coverage may be reinforcing hegemony by reinforcing inscribed ideas about who commits crime (people of color), where most crimes occur (communities of color), and where crimes should not occur (White, affluent neighborhoods)”
If coverage like this is still the norm (the study is from 2003), then is it any wonder that Trump’s claims about African-Americans “shot walking down the street” sounds right to some voters?
For many, local TV crime stories are their only insight into communities of color. It’s rare that the news covers the positive things going on there—with the exception of the occasional school or park opening—because they’re crunched for airtime and it’s not what viewers want. And since minority communities are generally viewed as unsafe by whites (another product of local TV crime coverage, according to Lipschultz), most haven’t spent any time there. For the near-majority of Americans whose primary news source is local TV news, crime, murder, and black go together so often that anything negative that’s said about the state of African-American communities seems plausible.
Now perhaps I’m way off base here (and I hope I am!) and I’m making a connection that doesn’t really exist, but I was hoping to posit a theory and get your readers’ thoughts.
I am finding myself nodding along with your reader who talks through Trumpism as a product of local news coverage. In The Culture of Fear, Dr. Barry Glassner talks about how, as violent crime dropped, local news coverage of violent crime increased, creating a perception among views that crime was getting worse, not better. As local news competed for ratings in dimensions beyond the joviality of their sportsman, the accuracy of their weather, and the attractiveness or tenure of their anchorpersons, they could not advertise about their propensity to lead with what bleeds, but they could certainly make the stories with blood and fire lead ahead of the coverage of the local government or consumer complaints.
Because of the nature of televised news, being a visual medium, it excels at spot news, things that happen at a time, at a place, on the spot. It is considerably less good, especially on a nightly turnaround schedule, at covering stories that have less compelling visuals and that require deeper analysis. As such, those who get their news from their local 5 or 6 o’clock news are pumped full of fear, whether it be fear of crime or fear of weather. Those who read newspapers—a declining group—get a more detailed story, and those who read news magazines might get more perspective on more complicated stories than nightly local news can provide.
As such, I don’t really watch televised news at all. I have enough anxiety in my life without a daily half hour or hour of straight fear being pumped into my house.
I’m reminded of the 2014 film Nightcrawler, a disturbingly dark portrait of a bootstrapped cameraman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal in his best performance yet) who burrows his way into the center of the local news world of L.A. by increasingly sensationalizing and ultimately orchestrating the violent episodes he records. His sociopathic stunts are bad enough, but the desperation of the deeply cynical news director (played by Rene Russo) turns into one of the most vivid critiques of the news business I’ve seen yet. It comes down to the ratings, of course, even after she fully discovers how twisted he is. My colleague Chris Orr wrote a reliably sharp review of the film, and here’s the trailer, and here’s a representative scene:
Another reader, Steve, finds that local news—at least the station he watches—engages in false equivalence and he said/she said coverage when it comes to the presidential election:
When I saw the headline of Trump being a product of local TV news, what I thought was going to follow was be something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It wasn’t. Instead it ended up hitting on a different topic ... that I've also been thinking a lot about lately. I’ll try to be brief, but I wanted to comment on both:
The first is the topic of local TV news, which is something I think gets overlooked in all the political media commentary. People watching the Sunday morning shows, or reading The Atlantic, usually have some formed opinion about the people/issues. No one watches the Sunday morning talking heads because they don’t know how they’re going to vote. They do so to reaffirm what they already believe by panel experts. (Or to get really mad at ridiculous “political opinions” getting airtime.) There was something that someone said—I don’t remember who/where—about the Matt Lauer debacle and why it mattered: most people get their political news from watered-down sources. In the big picture, the things said on Sunday mornings are much less important than than the things said on weekday mornings, tucked in-between the sports and weather.
I love my WGN Morning News in Chicago. But it’s everything from eye-rolling to stomach-churning in how much false equivalence there is every morning: there’s always a Trump controversy, and then there’s equal airtime for a Clinton controversy. Every day. And the Trump controversies are just about always something he actually said or something he actually did—lots of things that would normally disqualify someone from being president (see Trump Time Capsule).
But the Clinton controversies are usually along the lines of: someone from the Trump camp said she was corrupt; someone from the Trump camp said there’s questions about the emails; someone from the Trump camp says she’s unfit to president. Every morning, equal airtime, unequal controversies.
While much has been said about “the media” trying too hard appear fair—being too soft on Trump and too hard on Clinton in the process—I feel like that critique has been aimed at the big media/news institutions. I know it has not trickled down to the local players, where most people get their news, and I fear that it won’t in this election.
The second thing that reader Eric hits on here is trying to claim why Trump describes African-American communities as he does, and why this perception of these communities has become such a talking point in his campaign. It’s because he’s racist and he’s speaking to racists. Black communities are dangerous and not like ours. Black people are dangerous and not like us. If only some law and order went in there to clean them up, it would make them more like us. He’s not projecting what society tells us; he’s giving his audience “the problem” they want to hear is a problem. This goes hand-in-hand with his “minority outreach” really being aimed at suburban white voters, which much has already been said about.
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.
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.
Therefore he needs new supporters—more women, more blacks and Latinos and Asians, more Muslims, more educated people, more of the young.
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.
Why don’t the president’s supporters hold him to their own standard of masculinity?
So many mysteries surround Donald Trump: the contents of his tax returns, the apparent miracle of his graduation from college. Some of them are merely curiosities; others are of national importance, such as whether he understood the nuclear-weapons briefing given to every president. I prefer not to dwell on this question.
But since his first day as a presidential candidate, I have been baffled by one mystery in particular: Why do working-class white men—the most reliable component of Donald Trump’s base—support someone who is, by their own standards, the least masculine man ever to hold the modern presidency? The question is not whether Trump fails to meet some archaic or idealized version of masculinity. The president’s inability to measure up to Marcus Aurelius or Omar Bradley is not the issue. Rather, the question is why so many of Trump’s working-class white male voters refuse to hold Trump to their own standards of masculinity—why they support a man who behaves more like a little boy.
Business owners like me face a summer of uncertainty, and I’m terrified.
When I glanced out the window of my restaurant one day not long ago, I saw a woman struggling to climb over the large table that was blocking access to our front doors. The table gave my staff a spot to drop off to-go food outside while keeping a wide berth from our customers. But it also served as a visual and psychological barricade: You, our guest, stay on one side while we, the restaurant workers, stay on the other, safely preparing your order.
So I stepped outside to ask our would-be patron, who was old enough to be my grandmother, if she might refrain from crawling over the table, which is surrounded by ropes and planters and signs and directional arrows and brightly colored buoys to reinforce our message. She looked at me, dumbfounded. “But then how …,” she stammered, “how am I supposed to get in?”
American conspiracy theories are entering a dangerous new phase.
If you were an adherent, no one would be able to tell. You would look like any other American. You could be a mother, picking leftovers off your toddler’s plate. You could be the young man in headphones across the street. You could be a bookkeeper, a dentist, a grandmother icing cupcakes in her kitchen. You may well have an affiliation with an evangelical church. But you are hard to identify just from the way you look—which is good, because someday soon dark forces may try to track you down. You understand this sounds crazy, but you don’t care. You know that a small group of manipulators, operating in the shadows, pull the planet’s strings. You know that they are powerful enough to abuse children without fear of retribution. You know that the mainstream media are their handmaidens, in partnership with Hillary Clinton and the secretive denizens of the deep state. You know that only Donald Trump stands between you and a damned and ravaged world.
The government’s disease-fighting agency is conflating viral and antibody tests, compromising a few crucial metrics that governors depend on to reopen their economies. Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, and other states are doing the same.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is conflating the results of two different types of coronavirus tests, distorting several important metrics and providing the country with an inaccurate picture of the state of the pandemic. We’ve learned that the CDC is making, at best, a debilitating mistake: combining test results that diagnose current coronavirus infections with test results that measure whether someone has ever had the virus. The upshot is that the government’s disease-fighting agency is overstating the country’s ability to test people who are sick with COVID-19. The agency confirmed to The Atlantic on Wednesday that it is mixing the results of viral and antibody tests, even though the two tests reveal different information and are used for different reasons.
Senator Cory Gardner’s political relationship with the president reads like a tawdry romance novel.
In the future museum of Never Trumpers turned Ever Trumpers, Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado will have pride of place. In 2016, Gardner called Donald Trump a “buffoon,” left the Republican National Convention after one day rather than watching him formally receive the party’s nomination, called for him to drop out of the race after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, and said he would write in Mike Pence’s name on his presidential ballot.
Now Gardner, perhaps the Senate’s most endangered Republican incumbent, is locked in an uphill battle for reelection in a state trending bluer by the day. He trails his probable Democratic opponent, the former governor and erstwhile presidential candidate John Hickenloooper, by double digits in the polls. In a sharp about-face, Gardner has backed Trump at every turn since endorsing the president for reelection last year.
These films, each unforgettable in its own way, are essential viewing.
The word unique has to be one of the most overused descriptors in show business; if every movie that got touted as one-of-a-kind by its marketing team actually was, there’d be no further complaints about Hollywood creativity. But every once in a while, I’ll have a cinematic experience that feels genuinely unprecedented, when a work plays with the medium and its modes of storytelling in ways I didn’t think possible. The 30 movies I’ve gathered below—all of which are available to watch online—are singular, whether they’re experimental documentaries, visionary works of animation, or labyrinthine epics. Each is unforgettable, and a reminder of cinema’s potential to flout narrative convention, subvert visual traditions, and find new ways to express timeless themes.
The coronavirus is coursing through different parts of the U.S. in different ways, making the crisis harder to predict, control, or understand.
There was supposed to be a peak. But the stark turning point, when the number of daily COVID-19 cases in the U.S. finally crested and began descending sharply, never happened. Instead, America spent much of April on a disquieting plateau, with every day bringing about 30,000 new cases and about 2,000 new deaths. The graphs were more mesa than Matterhorn—flat-topped, not sharp-peaked. Only this month has the slope started gently heading downward.
This pattern exists because different states have experienced the coronavirus pandemic in very different ways. In the most severely pummeled places, like New York and New Jersey, COVID-19 is waning. In Texas and North Carolina, it is still taking off. In Oregon and South Carolina, it is holding steady. These trends average into a national plateau, but each state’s pattern is distinct. Currently, Hawaii’s looks like a child’s drawing of a mountain. Minnesota’s looks like the tip of a hockey stick. Maine’s looks like a (two-humped) camel. The U.S. is dealing with a patchwork pandemic.
We will need a comprehensive strategy to reduce the sort of interactions that can lead to more infections.
COVID-19 has mounted a sustained attack on public life, especially indoor life. Many of the largest super-spreader events took place inside—at a church in South Korea, an auditorium in France, a conference in Massachusetts. The danger of the indoors is more than anecdotal. A Hong Kong paper awaiting peer review found that of 7,324 documented cases in China, only one outbreak occurred outside—during a conversation among several men in a small village. The risk of infection indoors is almost 19 times higher than in open-air environments, according to another study from researchers in Japan.
Appropriately, just about every public indoor space in America has been shut down or, in the case of essential businesses such as grocers, adapted for social-distancing restrictions. These closures have been economically ruinous, transforming large swaths of urban and suburban life into a morbid line of darkened windows.
The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.
When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills—a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public—had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.
The crisis demanded a response that was swift, rational, and collective. The United States reacted instead like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering. The administration squandered two irretrievable months to prepare. From the president came willful blindness, scapegoating, boasts, and lies. From his mouthpieces, conspiracy theories and miracle cures. A few senators and corporate executives acted quickly—not to prevent the coming disaster, but to profit from it. When a government doctor tried to warn the public of the danger, the White House took the mic and politicized the message.
China has moved to take away the city’s autonomy, one of several aggressive actions by Beijing across the region.
Over the course of April and throughout May, while much of the world’s attention was trained on the coronavirus’s spiraling death toll, hardly a day passed in Hong Kong without news of arrested activists, scuffles among lawmakers, or bombastic proclamations from mainland officials. Long-standing norms were done away with at dizzying speed.
In that time, Beijing was undertaking aggressive actions across Asia. A Chinese ship rammed a Vietnamese vessel in the contested waters of the South China Sea, sinking it. Off the coast of Malaysia, in the country’s exclusive economic zone, a Chinese research vessel, accompanied by coast-guard and fishing ships—likely part of China’s maritime militia, civilian vessels marshaled by Beijing in times of need—began survey work near a Malaysian oil rig. The standoff that followed drew warships from the United States and Australia, as well as China. Beijing then declared that it had created two administrative units on islands in the South China Sea that are also claimed by Vietnam. Chinese officials have reacted, too, with predictable rage to Taiwan, whose handling of the pandemic has won plaudits and begun a push for more international recognition.