Donald Trump's Authoritarian Politics of Memory

Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.

Saul Loeb / Pool / AP

In The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz tells a story about a man who ventures out in the immediate aftermath of the fall of a regime. Papers full of state secrets lie in the streets, their knowledge less important for the moment than that of where to find something to eat. A little boy plays in a bombed-out street, whistling a song about the leader. “The song remains, but the leader of yesterday is already part of an extinct past.”

When authoritarians fall from power, even if they are secretly mourned, they must be publicly forgotten. Yet they remain as traces within the bodies of their people. The muscle memory to salute, to sing their songs, to fear their wrath, can be hard to shake. My years of studying Mussolini and his two-decade long regime have taught me not to underestimate the individual and collective work of disentanglement that comes with the ruler’s fall from power.

Yet what about the memory games that accompany authoritarians’ rise? Less is written about how populations come to embrace the leader’s worldview as their own. While authoritarian rule begins with the leader in office, the boundaries for what can be seen, said, done, and recalled are often set earlier. Even before he takes power, a savvy strongman has used a combination of intimidation and flattery to begin to colonize the nation at the emotional and bodily level, preparing it to accept his coming crackdowns and extralegal actions––and remember them as necessary and justified.

President Donald Trump’s journey to the pinnacle of American power has offered the opportunity to study these processes in real time. Although we cannot yet know what kind of president he will be, from his June 2015 declaration of candidacy to his January 2017 inauguration, Trump has undertaken two parallel projects aimed at unsettling the mental habits and moral foundations of American democracy. First, he has cultivated a political persona that inspires adulation and unquestioning loyalty that can be mobilized for action on his behalf. Second, he has initiated Americans into a culture of threat that not only desensitizes them to the effects of bigotry but also raises the possibility of violence without consequence.

The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.

The risk is that the parameters of thought and action will be nudged to align with those of the leader, easing the retrofitting of history to suit his personalization of the land’s highest office. Trump’s success at this in a country known for individualism, and with no history of living under an authoritarian ruler, shows how susceptible people are to such approaches.

Trump’s bullying charm anchors this culture of threat. From the start he cultivated a relationship with followers founded on an allegiance to his person, and not to a party or principle. He devised campaign rituals (loyalty oaths, “lock her up” chants directed at imprisoning his opponent) that created a bond of charismatic authority and accustomed his constituents to his heavy hand. At his rallies he harangued his crowds, directing them emotionally, urging them to punish protesters as he expressed his own desires to punch offenders in the face. “You were nasty and mean and vicious, you wanted to win, right?” he told his fans after the election.

Twitter has been an excellent training ground for the acceptance of Trump’s cult of personality and the memory politics that undergird it. His skill at orchestrating the news cycle through tweets keeps Americans caught in the web of an “eternal present,” their attention focused on his aggressive outbursts that are dissected by the media and the public with the fervor of Communist-era Kremlinologists. His domination of the media landscape, on Twitter and elsewhere, realizes the authoritarians’ dream: to be everywhere present while remaining in your palace, and able to influence both big policy decisions and small daily habits with a few strokes of your pen. The writer Italo Calvino, who recalled that Mussolini’s face was “always in view” during the first 20 years of his life, would have appreciated how a few critical tweets from the leader-to-be led the storied Ford Motor Company to quickly scrap long-held plans for a $1.6 billion assembly plant in Mexico, and express its “confidence” in his business acumen.

The deference to the leader allows another crucial element of authoritarian rule to fall into place: the discrediting of all alternate sources of information. The confusion sowed by Trump from the start of his campaign (“we’ve got to figure out what’s going on”), which crucially extends to the facts of his personal history (Putin? “I don’t know him”), built to a blanket denunciation of all non-Trump information. “Media is fake!” the president-elect tweeted on January 8, preparing Americans for the onset of a new era in which truth is what Trump wants it to be.

The glue holding this together is Trump’s aesthetic of menace, refined to high art during the campaign. It found its most obvious deployment in the yearlong verbal assaults against his opponent Hillary Clinton, which included allusions to having her killed, but its power comes from the knowledge that off-stage, too, Trump is an aggressor. Why did that second presidential campaign debate, in which he was seen to hover over his opponent Hillary Clinton, provoke so much comment? Because everyone knew, by then, all about his history of sexual assault; and, most importantly, he knew that everyone knew. The country watched his body maneuver around hers, his voice hard with an anger that went far beyond her person.

Authoritarianism needs that predator edge;  that shared understanding that the leader’s body carries within it the potential for violence– and the power to make it difficult to prosecute him. Trump’s attacks on women; his targeting of Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, and others as dangers to the nation; and the threats from his supporters against the lives of ordinary citizens that follow his criticisms of them on Twitter (such as the union leader Chuck Jones and the college student Lauren Batchelder) all go into the category of things it’s safer not to talk about. Normalization is actually decriminalization, a willingness to forget that such things were once thought of as lawless behavior.

Trump has signaled his attitudes about violence and memory clearly from the inception of his campaign to the present. At the Republican Party’s convention he emerged on stage to accept the nomination like a rockstar: backlit, with fog swirling around him. This Trump emerging from the mist is a man with no past. His inauguration speech pressed the point further. He warned repeatedly that  “right here and right now” things would be changing in America, concluding that “we look only toward the future.”

If Americans are not careful, that fog will come to cloud their own minds, letting them follow the easy path of quietness and passivity. The task is to keep it at bay—and pay attention to what and how Americans are being encouraged to remember.