Nothing New About Trump In The World Of Fascists and Dictators
I am hardly alone with my insatiable, obsessive, perverse fascination with trump and all the evil he has wrought, just as I am by no means unique in my hunger for anything Hitler and to a lesser degree, Stalin, Mao and the other dictators in history.
As of 2017, there had been 4,500 English-language books about trump, nowhere near the thousands of books about Hitler, but trump has been the focus of more books than any American leader in memory.
Just as with Hitler, writers are challenged to understand the enduring almost religious appeal that trump has to many millions of people without adding to the trump mystique. In reviewing yet another 2021 documentary, “The Meaning of Hitler,” the reviewer, Andrew Lapin asks, “Is it possible to make a film like this without contributing to the Nazi Cinematic Universe?” That challenge could be the deciding factor if trump runs in 2024, to deny him the millions of dollars in free publicity that was a key factor in his meteoric, shocking and unpredictable rise to the White House in 2016.
Many people have a cult-like addiction, idolatry and devotion to trump and are no doubt drawn like moths to a flame because of trump’s racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, miscogenistic views but many others are mainly attracted to his authoritarian personality which gives credence to a vague national anger and promises similarly vague and false answers to all of our troubles. Recall his fiery and dark and absurd 2016 warning that “I and I alone” can save America from total destruction.
Nancy Doughtery has written a new book “The Hangman and His Wife,” a biography of the prominent Nazi Reinhard Heydrich, in which she tries to explain the “enduring appeal of moral monsters.”
She writes that Heydrich had striking Aryan looks who was physically imposing, not unlike the 6-foot-3 trump’s well-crafted demeanor and orange, Hollywood comb over coiffeur, an appearance crafted and polished for his popular TV show, “The Apprentice.” Heydrich was also known for informing underlings that “truth is for children,” not different than trump’s disdain for facts and his total willingness to distort and reject truth to fit his needs.
A review in the N.Y. Times said that it is not possible to fully explain the moral monsters.
“Such creatures seem to exist in a space apart, infused by a cruelty that is inconvertible and feeds on itself without being entirely traceable to early experiences, painful or humiliating though they may be,” the review noted. “In the end, the reader is left gazing at something that is ultimately inscrutable. Just as actual train wrecks tend to stop us cold because of their apparent inevitability and imperviousness to intervention, moral train wrecks seem to create a similar element of stop-time — a mixture of fascination and paralysis — with no one able to prevent the damage even as the carnage and destruction roll on.”
The trump train wreck is the perfect metaphor.
Diane E. Dreher, a psychiatrist, examined why some people fall under the spell of strong armed authoritarians like trump in a Sept. 8, 2020, edition of Psychology Today. Her conclusions fit trump perfectly and while it is a safe bet that trump has not studied the art of being an authoritarian, he intuitively knows how it’s done, in many ways, like dictators always have had the instinctive ability to draw in followers.
Dreher wrote that people often follow orders from people in power because of limited information, a culture that reinforces obedience, a gradual increase in demands, and avoiding personal responsibility. Right out of the trump playbook.
Dreher referred to a 1974 study by psychologist Stanley Milgram where subjects followed Milgram’s commands to administer potentially fatal shocks to a person in the next room whenever the person gave a wrong answer to a test question.
“Despite the victim’s cries of pain, pleas to stop, and complaints about his heart condition, the vast majority (82.5 percent) of research participants obeyed the experimenter,” Dreher wrote. “While hearing the screams from the person next door, these participants kept pushing the button to deliver severe shocks increasing to the level of 450 volts.”
Another 2009 study by psychologist Jerry Burger was similar to Milgram’s but this time, Burger stopped the experiment when the “shocks” reached the 150-volt level, when the person in the next room began to cry out.
“He did this because 79 percent of Milgram’s participants who went past this point continued to the highest 450-volt level. Burger found that 70 percent of his participants were willing to continue the shocks after hearing the victim cry out,” Dreher wrote.
Limited information is a key ingredient in the authoritarian’s hold on power. Dreher writes that “without other reliable sources of information,” subjects were forced to rely only on the claims of the authority figure.
“Is it any wonder that authoritarian leaders seek to cut people off from valid information? They censor and discredit the press as well as the academic and scientific communities so that people are left with only their authoritarian propaganda,” Dreher wrote in an observation that could easily fit into the trump modus operandi.
The power of gradually increasing demands was shown as the obedience experiments were designed with an incremental increase in shock level. Participants began with a relatively mild 15-volt shock, gradually progressing to a higher voltage level every time they shocked the person for making an error.
“How often do people begin with a relatively small action and then find themselves over their heads as demands escalate over time?” Dreher wrote.
Another powerful ingredient in those who follow authoritarians is the avoidance of personal responsibility. In the studies, the experimenter told participants that he alone was responsible for any adverse effects on the person subjected to shocks. The participants were just “following orders,” able to avoid personal responsibility because they were obeying the authority figure.
“This frequently happens in real life, for example, when middle managers hide behind ‘company policy’ to deny any responsibility for unfair treatment of the people around them,” Dreher noted.
Authoritarian leaders also prey on fears, “discrediting factual information and drawing us into dark conspiracy theories, they produce a toxic mix of fear, polarization, scapegoating, and chronic anxiety that can undermine a free society,” Dreher wrote. It is a quality that trump has honed to deadly perfection and uses to viscerally stimulate his fans.
“When we react from fear and take the low road, we’re not using our thought processes to analyze the situation but rather responding automatically to a supposed threat,” Dreher wrote. “In addition, when authoritarian leaders keep us fearful and emotionally off-balance, repeated stress can become underlying anxiety, more readily triggering us into new fear reactions.”
Amanda Marcotte makes the case in a Nov. 25, 2020, story in Salon, that trump’s rhetoric is repetitive, hardly creative and often trite and that his rallies offer unending, stream of consciousness, self-serving speeches that would make Hitler proud. It isn’t trump the would-be dictator that is the danger, but trump, the vehicle, for his millions of fans to vent their frustrations. Those who attend his rallies “were there as a show of force, to let the hated liberals know that they had the numbers and the determination — so much so that they’d sacrifice a night of their preciously short lives listening to a braggart ramble on about windmills and and lie about his own vitality for an hour,” Marcotte wrote.
She said that the real threat is not trump but a rise in American fascism.
“That the most powerful country in the world is being held hostage by an authoritarian, racist minority drunk on conspiracy theories is the biggest story in politics,” Marcotte wrote. “It’s part of a larger story about the entire world in the grip of rising authoritarianism.”
The theory that history turns on the “great man” is largely refuted by historians. Instead, the dictators like Hitler and trump and a hero like President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were not brilliant but were products of their time and were “not acting out of some cosmic destiny.”
“Trump the symbol was always far more important than Trump the man. And no matter what happens to Trump the man, the movement he represents remains a live threat to American democracy, and to the world,” Marcotte wrote.