This is the fifth in a multi-part series, of indefinite length and schedule, examining the building of Trump’s Wall, a metaphorical wall between ideology and reality. Parts One, Two, Three, and Four can be read here, here, here and here.
In recent posts, I have discussed the rise of isolationism more broadly and isolation among individuals, as well as how lazy bigotry and nostalgia for a bygone era that never really existed have created a sense of a twisted form of “moralism.” In this post, I will discuss how these have come together to produce a culture of terror and how this terror has fostered an acceptance of authoritarianism in the United States.
The concept of authoritarianism has never been complete anathema to the United States. Indeed, even in the early days of the Union, laws such as the Alien and Sedition Act were passed and signed into law. In the middle of the last century, McCarthyism and the Red Scare was in full swing, causing untold numbers of Americans to lose their livelihoods for daring to think, speak, or act in defiance of the presidential administration. For the most part, these movements have been short-lived and a sense of decency prevailed. A healthy democracy, representative or otherwise, cannot exist if citizens are not free to express their thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and senses of self in freedom from interference from government.
Nonetheless, since the end of the Second World War, and likely before, America has been in a long, slow march toward acceptance of authoritarianism. This pace only quickened after the actions of the Bush administration following the events of 9/11. Over the last sixteen years, Americans have been subjected to a creeping culture of terror, enabled in large part by their own government and other political actors.
Conservative commentators such as Tomi Lahren, Sean Hannity, and the group of pretty people on Fox and Friends, have continued to push the idea that anything other than right-wing politics is the enemy. They have attempted to paint Democrats and liberals as being party to crimes against the United States by trying to tie Democrats and liberals’ support for freedom of religion and expression as being sympathetic to terrorism. In effect, they have encouraged their audience to accept empathy for one’s fellow man and an adherence to the Constitution and the values expressed therein as being anti-American.
While much of this rhetoric seems over the top and maybe just downright silly, it serves a purpose; to divide and instigate terror. Donald Trump has used this rhetoric nearly all the way through the campaign and recently at one of his rallies in Youngstown, Ohio where he claimed that immigrants want to “slice and dice” “beautiful” American girls. At a speech a few days later in front of several police officers, he called for police to “rough up” suspects, seemingly encouraging police brutality at a time when many police departments face questions of legitimacy and eroding public trust. He continues to rail against the free press as the “enemy of the people,” and during his acceptance speech at the RNC Convention last year, he made the bold claim that “[he] alone can fix [everything].”
Trump, and the media outlets and politicians that created him, have pushed the idea that everyone is lying to you but them. They have asserted the lie that only they can be believed, and that scary people who think, look, and believe differently are the roots of the problems that America faces. They then offer themselves as the relief for those problems. This is, of course, a classic political strongman act of propaganda. Distort the truth, claim that there are various catastrophic problems around the corner, blame a scapegoat or series of scapegoats working in conspiratorial tandem, and offer yourself as the only one can that fix it. Create terror, and then claim to be the one that can end the terror.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote of the Nazi use of terror and how that allowed them to create and perpetuate a state of total domination. By creating a state where citizens live in perpetual fear of imminent demise at the hands of some other, they are easily lead to give up their rights and freedoms for the promise of safety. Never mind that the so-called enemy in these situations is a gross perversion of the other; the lesson is that if you can get people to hate unconditionally, and you can get them to fear unconditionally, you can get them to grant unconditional power. The conditions between early twentieth century Germany and early twenty-first century America are vastly different, but the political propaganda tactics are strikingly similar.
With a nostalgia for a bygone era that never really existed and an irrational fear and hatred of the other fomented, coupled with a distortion of the truth as it relates to other legitimate concerns like the economy and unemployment, Trump, with the help of the Republican Party, has managed to bring America fully into the era of authoritarian politics. A large segment of the voting public, either through ignorance or terror, fully believes that destruction of the country is imminent and, not knowing what to do, they have turned to someone who has promised to restore dying industries, close the borders, kick out those who are to blame, and keep us all safe. If we have to lose some of our individual rights and securities in the process, so be it. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide.” This has been the mantra of right-wing statists since the passage of the Patriot Act, and it continues to be the mantra of the #MAGA crowd.
That most of this is a lie is not a problem. Several of them know deep down that most of the rhetoric is not true. But, they continue to go along with it. Many of these people support the border wall, for instance, knowing full well that it cannot realistically be built as promised and that it might never be built. But for them, it is the idea of the thing that matters. They were sold the thing on the promise that Mexico would pay for it, even though many of them knew that would never happen, and they are completely ok with the knowledge that they will pay for it. “Who cares if we have to pay for it, it’s worth it as long as it keeps them out.” But walls also keep people in.
Over the last sixteen years we have been told of America’s decline and decay. We have been told that the left, and various demographic groups are to blame for this. Rather than seek a mutual understanding and a compromise in our political differences, the right has been teaching that the only way forward is to eliminate “the enemy.” Even recently, the NRA has flirted with the precipice of domestic terrorism by releasing ads encouraging their members to take up arms against their fellow citizens and against democratic institutions like the free press and an impartial judiciary.
It should come as little surprise that a public sustained on a steady diet of anger, terror, and self-ascribed victimhood would look to one of their own to be their new leader. Trump himself is almost transparent in the fact that he spends his days and nights ingesting little else than right-wing scare propaganda. He is an avid watcher of Fox and Friends. He likes Brietbart. He apparently listens to Alex Jones, or at least enough of his show to be able to reference Jones in his rallies. And, like Jones, he is primarily using this paranoid terror to sell a product, himself.
What differs between Trump and his followers, however, is that Trump is not now, nor ever really was, in a position to truly be terrified about the future. However, he is, like many of his followers, the victim of a concentrated effort to make and keep people intellectually lazy. He is not curious about the world around him, and believes that he is the greatest at everything solely due to his birthplace and his heritage. Like many of the victims of this right-wing propaganda machine, he has been lead to believe, in almost sycophantic fashion, that he is part of a chosen people put on this earth to prosper – if only those other people would get out of the way.
For many of his followers, this puts them in almost sympathetic light. They have seen the world change around them. But, instead of being given the proper tools to adapt, they have been told that this is the result of some plan to weaken them. They have been made to feel simultaneously both powerless and entitled. In that regard, their choice to follow a person like Trump can be made sense of. What cannot so easily be reconciled is that Trump feels the same way, or that Trump is the best person to alleviate their symptoms. On the contrary, it would seem that Trump would be part and parcel part of the problem.
While Trump may talk the talk of a strongman who is going to accelerate nature or history, to bring forth a true American age of righteousness, his actions show otherwise. He seems singularly interested in himself, and possibly his children; most of them, anyway. In this regard he seems almost to be a darker reflection of the already dark totalitarian worldview. Rather than having a vision of a racial superiority or a classless society, and working to speed up the process through artificial means, he seems more interested in stopping whatever other legitimate progress may or may not be happening in any direction and reversing the turn of time. He seems interested in returning to a gilded age where there are only two classes, the rich and the poor; and there are several races, though they can be classified in lumps as the divine and the rest of them.
Nonetheless, Trump has played upon the terror that was created and fed to the American people, that their way of life is threatened by a cabal of international interests and race traitors. He has used that terror, that nostalgia for a bygone era that never really existed and a disgust for the decay of the “moral” to seize power. Further, he has shown no interest in following the rule of law once seizing that power. More disturbing, many of his followers are content to root for a man who behaves and believes this way due to the promise of revived industry and ethnic purity.
Trump’s ushering in of authoritarianism in America wasn’t difficult, and that’s the real story. The foundation had been laid several years prior and was perfected over the last few decades. The damage that he has already done and that he might still do has yet to be fully understood. But he didn’t do it himself. He’s had help. What is telling is that so few of his fellow Republicans seem to be willing to stand up to him. But it is also telling that of those that do, they are starting to claim responsibility for him.
This wall between ideology and reality that Trump has branded in the last year was, like the actual buildings that bear his name, not actually built or designed by him. The hard work was performed by others. They deal was made to put his name on it to attract more and more people. But brick by brick, it was fashioned on the backs of real people and it has real consequences for the people who have invested in it. And, just like the real property that has emblazoned his gilded brand, it is likely to cause poverty, destruction, and disillusionment before it’s all over.