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What’s Trump?

— January 31, 2016

He waves his hand out at the cameras, “Show the crowd. Go ahead and show em.” Waves his hand again, “Whatever.” We hear them cheer, the crowd we can’t see. They cheer the bravado, and they cheer for the “whatever,” that adolescent dismissal of the outside world.

They don’t matter after all, those cable news cameras and the cable personalities on the other end. They don’t matter, the failed small criminals in Congress. Or the untouchable CEO’s. Whatever. We’re going to wave our hands and away they’ll all blow. The Chinese workers doing our jobs. The Mexicans spreading north, darkening the country like gangrene. And the Muslims who kill so easily, with such freedom.

“We’re gonna make America great again.” He doesn’t shout it, it’s not an exultation. It’s not even a campaign promise. It’s a threat. They’ll see. We’ll wave our hands and back we’ll go. Back where they had no power. Back where we were middle class and without fear. We can do it with his help.

So his audience listens. They listen, and they rise and fall with every contortion of his vaudevillian mug. It’s his face after all that matters, And the voice that scoffs and mocks and accuses. They are the face and voice of an Olympian thug, but one who’s come down for them. He is “the Donald,” famous and charismatic. A billionaire, but miraculously their billionaire. He knows the corridors of power. He knows people, he tells his listeners, who know how to deal with the Iranians and Chinese. “Some of them are not nice people, but do we care? Do we care?” No! They do not care. Whatever.

Trump portrays himself as a kind of Prometheus. He has brought the 1 percent’s fire to the people, and the other gods—the media and a ubiquitous “they” who hound him—have reacted by persecuting him. His audience plays the role of the Naiads who stand by and feel for him, moved by every utterance of invective and self-pity.

Finally, it is paranoia that Trump and his audience share. Without an effective class analysis that recognizes both the international—or supranational—nature of the working class and the co-opted character of the American electoral system with its two big-business parties, the American working class is left to fall back upon nationalist and racialist explanations for the fix it’s in and for the solution to that fix. And where have we seen this before?

We can look back to Ronald Reagan’s “Southern strategy,” whereby the Great Communicator relied on the racism in segments of the white American working class to win over white Democratic voters. We can also look back farther, to the floundering Weimar Republic in Germany. Invoking Naziism and Hitler when making historical comparisons is often simply lazy historicism, but in at least one important way the comparison is apt when considering the phenomenon of Trump’s popularity: the people’s perception.

The United States still has economic influence and hundreds of military bases around the world, whereas Germany of the 1920’s and 30’s was a defeated nation. But the economic influence of the United States is primarily monetary and financial, resting largely on the increasingly fragile petrodollar. We are no longer an industrial dynamo exporting our goods to the world. The result is a domestically depressed economy with a working class facing real unemployment and underemployment numbers pushing 20 percent, with those living in poverty and near-poverty approaching 30 percent. Even as American corporations enjoy record profits. With no prospects for significant economic improvement on the horizon, and with a working class growing increasingly alienated and angry, the current political arrangement is unsustainable.

In order to maintain control, the corporate and financial forces of the country will have to channel popular outrage to its own ends and establish a more direct expression of its power over the population. We have seen the latter in the gradual construction of legal, military and technological frameworks for a full-blown police state. The latter, the management of the righteous anger of the working class, will take the form of fascism.

Naomi Wolff, in her 2007 book The End of America, has laid out a persuasive argument for the “closing” of American society since 2001. With Trump, buffoonish and crass as he seems, is precisely the sort of demagogue who works with and not against popular anger. He rarely delivers carefully prepared speeches, and he speaks with an insouciance that seems the very opposite of a dictator’s passion. But his tone succeeds with millions of Americans.

He shows contempt for both external and internal enemies. He hearkens back to a lost national glory. And more than any presidential candidate in modern memory, he shares his audience’s rejection of the political establishment. What he actually stands for other than a simple venality and xenophobia is unclear, but what matters is less Trump than the power he is manipulating in his followers. It is commonly said that when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross. We have seen the formula in countless campaigns. What the quotation leaves out, though, is the necessary ingredient of millions of emotional followers. We may now be witnessing the coalescence of those emotional millions. And Trump has now openly embraced both the Tea Party and evangelical Christians.

These are dangerous times. The most immediate danger is to Muslims and Mexican immigrants. And from the top echelons of the Pentagon to the back seats at Trump rallies, the call is for war. We must take seriously those rallies. And if CNN will not, at least we must turn our attention to the crowds cheering for Trump. Because there is not always resignation, but often something coldly murderous in that easy American insult, “Whatever.”

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