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The banality of Trumpism

Is the “Muslim ban” the brainchild of a chaotic narcissist or a budding authoritarian?

By Helen Lewis

On 7 December 2015, the website for an insurgent Republican ­primary challenger issued a proclamation: “Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

The phraseology was a typically Trumpian mix of chilling and banal. What was going on? Islamic terrorism is a real threat but by no means the only, or even the most consistent, source of mass deaths. Sandy Hook, Umpqua, Charleston, Aurora – all of these massacres were carried out by white men.

If Trump really wanted to cut mass killings he could look at the extreme right-wing rhetoric advanced by his peers. Dylann Storm Roof, who shot nine people dead at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, left behind a manifesto that said he had been radicalised by “black-on-white crime”. (Steve Bannon, now Trump’s closest adviser, once oversaw the Breitbart website, which had a special tab for “Black Crime”.)

Robert Dear, who killed three people in a shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in November 2015, said he was “a warrior for the babies”. (One of Trump’s first actions was to reinstitute the global gag rule, defunding aid organisations that so much as mention abortion.) But of course – these men were “lone wolves”, the favoured euphemism for “white-supremacist terrorist”. We are forbidden to draw any links between their crimes and a wider ideology. Syrians, on the other hand, are too dangerous even to be allowed to apply to enter the US.

Perhaps it is useless to try to point out these facts, just as it was useless to point out, when Trump’s “Muslim ban” took effect on 28 January, that it excluded the biggest exporter of Islamist terror to the world, Saudi Arabia. The calculation in the White House seems to be that the Trump base cares less about the details than the mood music.

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That is why it would be deeply complacent to assume that something so contrary to established democratic norms, something so contemptuous of checks and balances, something so counterproductive to national security, something so morally outrageous, will necessarily be unpopular with the minority of the American electorate that drove his ascent to power.

Donald Trump has already focus-grouped this policy as surely as any New Labour politician earnestly asking people from Coventry about the benefits bill. At his rallies, the Muslim ban went down a treat. As the data scientist Cathy O’Neil observed during the campaign, Trump acts like a machine-learning algorithm: “He experiments with pushing the conversation this way or that, and he sees how the crowd responds. If they like it, he goes there. If they don’t respond, he never goes there again, because he doesn’t want to be boring.”

It is also deeply complacent to imagine that those in Middle America are experiencing the early days of this presidency in the same way as media and political obsessives. Many voters get their messages about the election from local radio or television, their favourite websites or their Facebook feeds, and modern political campaigns are very smart about targeting messages at particular demographics. In the Miami district of Little Haiti, the Trump campaign focused on the
failures of the Clinton Foundation after the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Niche – but effective. The Swiss journalists Hannes Gras­segger and Mikael Krogerus, who investigated the use of data in the 2016 election, concluded: “Trump’s striking inconsistencies, his much-criticised fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter.”

The same dynamic is at work now. Some will not see his blizzard of executive orders as part of a larger narrative of inconsistency, built up over many months. They will not share a reality that the media and the political class take for granted. After all, the United States is a country of 323 million people with only 132 million passports in circulation – it’s a huge landmass, and there is no statutory entitlement to paid vacation. The chaos in airports that followed the executive order may seem very remote and abstract to millions of Americans.

All this should ruin the liberal fantasy that white Wisconsinites will collectively clutch their heads in six months’ time and scream; “Now you mention it, he is a terrifying mixture of incoherence and malevolence!” Much of Trump’s platform is likely to be broadly popular among those who are not directly affected by it. There will be lollipops as well as two-minute hates.

There are already models for this approach elsewhere. The conservative former speechwriter for George W Bush David Frum notes in the latest issue of the Atlan­tic magazine that authoritarian leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán fuse social security giveaways for “us” with relentless demonisation of “them”. The Republicans in Congress – who were willing to bring the government to a halt over the debt ceiling during Barack Obama’s tenure – could allow Trump a much freer hand with the economy. A big deficit could fund big infrastructure projects (with contracts given to “friendly” businesses) and big tax cuts. The media might try to scrutinise these deals but their legitimacy will be undermined relentlessly as a matter of White House policy. In any case, who needs the biased MSM when you can hear directly from the Dear Leader via his tweets?

David Frum accurately says that many observers are squeamish about calling President Trump an authoritarian or comparing him with populist demagogues of the past. On 30 January, Boris Johnson opined that calling the British government “appeasers” was absurd. “I do find it distasteful to make comparisons between the elected leader of a great democracy and 1930s tyrants,” he said. “I think continuing to use the language of appeasement demeans the horror of the 1930s and trivialises our conversation.”

How horrified he must be with the politician who, only two weeks ago, accused the French president, François Hollande, of administering “punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie”! What opprobrium should fall on the man who compared the European Union’s attempt to unify the continent with those of Napoleon and Hitler! Who was that politician again? Oh yes. Boris Johnson.

Yet in one sense, those who warn against easy comparisons with Hitler or the 1930s are correct. We can spend too much time trying to find exact parallels and forget how authoritarianism mutates through time and across geography, like a germ trying to find the perfect form in which to ­infect a host. “In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilise young men in matching shirts to command the streets?” writes Frum. “If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is.” The supportive Twitter accounts with avatars of Pepe – the cartoon frog that white nationalists have adopted as a symbol – are a new phenomenon; but they are as telling in their way as black shirts.

So, what now? Dealing with Trump means adapting to his style of cronyism. When Theresa May met the new president, he was accompanied by Bannon, who once praised Lenin because he “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too”; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who tweeted in February that “fear of Muslims is RATIONAL”.

Our calculations are made harder because it is too early to say which of Trump’s actions are malevolent and which are merely chaotic. During the election, there was an ongoing discussion over his unhinged tweeting. Was it all a careful ruse to distract from the Real Story of the day? Or did the guy just get angry at stuff he saw on TV and fire off a broadside?

A larger version of that debate is now in play. The Google engineer Yonatan Zunger wrote a popular post on the website Medium claiming that the visa ban was a “trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States”. It was intended to overwhelm opponents, flush out refusenik officials and to create “resistance fatigue”, Zunger argued. Yet the Cornell University professor Thomas Pepinsky disagreed, saying the visa ban could also be “evidence not of a deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian, but of the exact opposite: the weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist”. We don’t yet know if the Trump White House is strong or weak, as its actions support both interpretations. Neither is good.

That places Britain in a difficult position. We jumped early on the Trump train. Back in November, government sources were already fretting that Nigel Farage seemed to be his new BFF, potentially freezing out May and her ministers. He was offered a state visit early, and our Prime Minister stood next to him hours before he signed an executive order that dashed the hopes of Syrian refugees and Iraqi interpreters and drew protests in places as diverse as Exeter, Leeds and the Orkney Islands. (One sign on 30 January read: “You know it must be serious if we’re protesting in St Andrews.”)

Some hold out hope that Trump will change. Nadhim Zahawi, the Iraqi-born Conservative MP, initially thought he would be banned from travelling to the US under the executive order. He now says that he would like to meet Trump on his visit here. “I want to eyeball him and say, ‘You’re a big man,’” he told the NS. “His last statement said that he was a compassionate man. He’s a committed Christian, he has made a mistake, and big people can U-turn, can reverse this order.” Others will not be so optimistic about where this road ends. 

This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage