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20 March 2024

Trump is not the problem

For American democracy to survive, we need to address the cultural breakdown that’s allowing authoritarians to flourish.

By Jill Filipovic

By now it’s a cliché to observe Donald Trump’s authoritarian fantasising and repeat Maya Angelou’s advice that when someone shows you who they are, you should believe them. But there are clichés for a reason. And Trump’s totalitarian impulses – reinforced by his team’s preparations for government – are blatant, unapologetic and intentional.

The former president and those who wish to reinstate him are telling us who they are, who they admire and to what they aspire. They are not being subtle about it. Historically, when authoritarians have taken power they have had lackeys and supporters willing to stand behind them. Trump is not a single bad actor who has somehow hypnotised the masses. He is simply at the top of a toxic heap.

According to the journalist Jim Sciutto in his new book The Return of Great Powers, Trump admires many things about Adolf Hitler. His former chief of staff John Kelly told Sciutto that Trump praised aspects of Hitler’s time in power, including how he rebuilt the economy and engendered loyalty. Trump “truly believed, when he brought us generals in, that we would be loyal – that we would do anything he wanted us to do”, Kelly said. (Hitler’s generals repeatedly tried to assassinate him.)

Trump has heaped praise on other dictators and strongmen, from Kim Jong Un to Vladimir Putin. In March, Trump told an audience at Mar-a-Lago that “there’s nobody that’s better, smarter or a better leader than Viktor Orbán”. Why is Orbán, who has in effect ended the free Hungarian press, filled the civil service with far-right extremists and presided over an extraordinary democratic retreat, so great? “He’s the boss… and he’s a great leader, fantastic leader. In Europe and around the world, they respect him,” Trump said.

For Trump, the appeal of men like Orbán isn’t a mystery. “He views himself as a big guy,” the former Trump national security adviser John Bolton told Sciutto. “He likes dealing with other big guys, and big guys like [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan in Turkey get to put people in jail and you don’t have to ask anybody’s permission. He kind of likes that.” Trump’s mentality was: “I’m a big guy. They’re big guys. I wish I could act like they do.” As Trump runs for a second term, he’s being more forthright in his infatuation with dictators.

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Meanwhile, his campaign ads are being attached to pro-Nazi content on the video platform Rumble. A Rolling Stone investigation found that one came before a clip calling Hitler a “hero” for burning books (the Trump campaign blamed Rumble). Many other advertisers and campaigns have decided not to advertise on Rumble because of the proliferation of far-right and neo-Nazi content.

Like many wannabe strongmen, Trump appears to truly believe that he has popular support well beyond what the polling shows – and seems willing to leverage violence if he doesn’t get his way. “Now, if I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath for the whole – that’s going to be the least of it,” he said at a recent event in Ohio. “It’s going to be a bloodbath for the country.” Working from the dictator playbook again, he has argued that many immigrants coming to America are criminals who have been freed from prison and are “animals”. And he was even more explicit in his dehumanisation: “I don’t know if you call them ‘people’, in some cases,” he said. “They’re not people, in my opinion.”

Since Trump first ran for president, those of us horrified by his rise have played the “what can he say?” game: what can he say that will break the spell he seems to have on so many American conservatives? Calling immigrants less than human? No. Boasting about sexual assault? No. Admiring Hitler? Apparently also no. At some point, you have to conclude that his shocking statements aren’t potential problems, but part of the appeal. He’s not keeping these sentiments from his supporters; he’s broadcasting them widely. And his followers continue to show up to the rallies and cast their ballots.

Many authoritarian leaders, including Orbán and Erdoğan, were democratically elected, and used that popular support to justify curtailing civil liberties, the free press and basic democratic functions. Trump has been clear that if he is put into office, he will try to change the rules so that he can impose his agenda without the inconvenient barriers of representative democracy, or checks and balances. Trump, who before winning in 2016 had no experience in politics, barely grasps what these rules even are. This time around, he has a team of conservative zealots who understand American democratic governance well enough to break it.

What does it say about the US that Trump has minions behind him ready to put the infrastructure of authoritarianism in place, and legions of average citizens eager to see him break the traditions and handrails that once made America a model of democracy? I think it tells us that Trump’s rise is symbolic of a cultural breakdown that won’t be ameliorated by a single election. After all, far-right movements are on the rise in several former fascist states, including Spain, Germany and Italy.

Dictators fall. Perhaps, if the US is lucky, we’ll avoid putting one in office this time. But the desire to scapegoat, to oppress, to control and to grab power – these don’t seem ever to fade away. America’s challenge, even if Trump loses, is to figure out how Trumpism took root, and how we might make the ground less fertile for undemocratic ideologies like his.

[See also: Alabama’s IVF ruling criminalises women’s bodies]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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