At New York Military Academy in the 1960s Donald Trump went to high school with my older brother. According to my brother’s assessment, Trump was “really good at baseball, but not very smart…and also a jerk and a bully.”
Before he died, my brother would regale friends and family with stories of the hijinks carried out by the NYMA cadets. Such as claiming cadets built a radio transmitter device to make the metal plate surgically implanted in one teacher’s head buzz like a swarm of bees. Or stuffing the barrel of the ceremonial cannon with junk so that when it was fired at the weekly full-uniform parade the garbage rained down on the local town of Cornwall, New York.
Even if these stories are apocryphal it says something that resonates with us today. We expect some high-school students would think that sadistic tricks are funny. We also hope they eventually mature into adults.
Donald Trump is the product of a childhood immersed in White racist nationalism, hyper-masculinist misogyny, and the sneering elitism of the wealthiest 1%. His years as a teenager at New York Military Academy honed his authoritarianism and militarism. NYMA (which has changed dramatically under new owners) was in the 1960s a brutalist environment of psychological, physical, and sexual abuses overseen by a small hierarchy of sadistic senior student cadets who literally kept a written scorecard of their sexual conquests of women. This sounds like a core theme of the contemporary Alt-Right movements.
According to Yale professor Timothy Snyder, President Trump functions as a “a sado-populist…whose policies were designed to hurt the most vulnerable part of his own electorate.” Trump voters feel real pain with Trump as President of the United States, explains Snyder, but based on Trump’s demeaning rhetoric toward despised “others” Trump supporters can “fantasize” that their “leader of choice” will hurt their “enemies” even more than they themselves.
Who are the real enemies of the United States of America? That’s the main question being debated in the US political right. We know their enemies list from Internet posts, AM talk radio, and Fox News.
Analyzing Donald Trump requires enumerating the various ideological and political factions in the remarkable coalition Trump commanded as their free-floating signifier in the presidential election of 2016. Trump’s supporters do not ignore what Trump says in his speeches and tweets, they reframe the content on-the-fly to meet their preconceived expectations. In our 2016 study, Alex DiBranco and I discussed candidate Trump’s four core constituencies:
- White Nationalism,
- Christian Nationalism,
- Neoliberal “Free Market” enthusiasts.
Each of these ideological tendencies was convinced they would outmaneuver the Trump administration into blessing their specific wish list above all others. These four core constituencies continued their maneuvers at least until late 2019 when this book went to press. Outlier groups supportive of Trump included Alt-Right which interacted with White supremacists, antisemites, neofascists and neonazis.
Building Blocks of Fascist Movements
Fascist social and political movements are composed of a constellation of interlocking elements of which the following are the main building blocks:
- Authoritarian Political and/or Religious Leaders
- Exclusionary Racial, Religious, Ethnic, or Gender Nationalisms
- Use of Populist Rhetoric by Respected Leaders
- Framing Scapegoats as Despised “Others”
- Demonizing “Others” as “Outsiders” Unfit for Citizenship
- Conspiracy Theories of Subversion and Treason from Above and Below
- Apocalyptic or Millenarian Claims of Threats to the “Real” Nation
- Narratives of Threat Prompting “Scripted Violence” against the Scapegoats
Global “Christian Dominionism” is a religious-political movement that not only seeks to make America a “Christian Nation” but wants to convert millions around the world before Jesus returns in triumph to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (and then in the Dominionist script an angry God wipes out all non-Christians).
The Dominionist Christian Right in the United States is a closed information system that believes in a literal struggle against satanic powers. Dualistic apocalyptic narratives long ago slipped away from Christian religious theology and began to influence secular belief systems and ideologies in the United States. Trump’s handlers rely on language that is familiar to the religious and secular alike. This version of the Christian apocalypse seeps into our brains as schoolchildren studying American classic literature. Through this process, we as a nation absorb phrases and images from the Christian Bible.
In the Bible, as the “End Times” wrap up, there appear “the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” and some people “behold a pale horse” representing death. God punishes the sinful and unbelievers with his “terrible swift sword,” while some 144,000 Jews convert to Christianity at the last minute. Then the rest of the Jews (and everyone else who are not “real” Christians) have their bodies crushed as in “stamping out a vintage” like the “grapes of wrath” with their blood flowing as a river, past Mount Megiddo in Israel (aka Armageddon). Then their souls are cast into the sulphurous fires of Hell.
Many Christians do not buy into this precise scenario, but millions—perhaps tens of millions—take seriously the possibility that the End Times are near, and that the battles that rage in the Middle East might be part of the war between good and evil prophesied in the Book of Revelation. When Trump moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem it was payback to the approximately 80% of White Christian Evangelicals who voted for Trump and Christian Right icon Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president and running mate.
Right-Wing Populist Rhetoric Grooms Fascist Forces
Most right-wing populist movements never develop into full-blown fascist movements … and most fascist movements fail in their bid to seize state power. Yet right-wing populist movements can terrorize whole sectors of a nation’s population who have been scapegoated and labeled a threat to the “real people.”
Some of the key architects of this regressive restorationist project (Patrick Buchanan, Paul Weyrich, Connie Marshner, William Marshner) celebrated the authoritarian regime of Spain’s Francisco Franco—a Catholic integralist who built a right-wing coalition that included not just authoritarians but also fascists and supporters of Hitler. In the 1970s, Weyrich and the Marshners sent young Catholic conservatives from the United States to a training center in Spain where they sat in classrooms with portraits of Franco on the wall while learning about vast leftist-socialist-communist conspiracies.
These days, President Trump denounces the conspiracy of the “Deep State” against core American values. The alleged conspirators are named daily in certain churches across America, as well as on AM talk radio and Fox News. Millions of evangelicals know the enemies of America: abortionists, homosexuals, and other gender traitors. Some Trump supporters target Muslims, Mexicans, socialists, liberals, the Democratic Party.
Under Trump, millions of Americans who identify as “White” now feel the freedom to openly condemn and confront Black people and other people color, especially immigrants. Antisemitism is no longer a fringe reality. Islamophobia is rampant. These types of countersubversive conspiracy theories build a bridge from right-wing populist rhetoric to neofascist organizing and lead to violent attacks.
Our nation is sliding into neofascism.
Resistance is not futile … it is mandatory.
Adapted from the book, Trumping Democracy in the United States: From Reagan to Alt-Right, edited by Chip Berlet; out this month on Routledge.