One year ago this week Donald Trump lost the US presidential election. It seems like a lot more recent than that because his endless attempted recounts, and futile attempts at litigation, mean that we get to experience the joy of watching him lose over and over again. It never gets tired.
I am currently banned from some of the most prominent pro-Trump web forums, which means that I see less quality content like this:
The huge mess of Trumpism is still the same without me, the same jumble of ideas that are more conspiracy than reality.
Currently Trumpworld’s preoccupations are:
- The 2020 election was rigged by an amorphous group of liberals, the Chinese, George Soros
- Covid is a hoax invented by Bill Gates, vaccinations kills you and mask wearing is fascism
- Trump is secretly fighting a war against the deep state and a sinister international cabal of satanic paedophiles led by Hilary Clinton, Tom Hanks and George Soros (again) (QAnon)
- Lets Go Brandon!
- The global financial system is about to collapse and the only way to survive it is to buy gold, or invest in some complex financial investment models based on crypto currencies and donations to Trumps legal funds
Trumpism represents the latest stage in the American right wing’s long retreat from reality into a fantasy world. I’m a 50+ bloke and I’ve experienced enough knock backs in life to appreciate why people might want to retreat into a fantasy world. The desire to give their lives some meaning, to make themselves the heroes of their own stories.
If was to construct a fantasy world it would be full of glamour, excitement, psychedelic music and sex. Trump supporters stories are bound up with their obsessions with guns, revenge and retribution and the fantasy worlds they construct are weird and dark and awful, a miserable fantasy world of child snatchers and global conspiracies.
But none of this is actually new.
The QAnon conspiracies are the latest in the endless succession of American Witch-hunts from Salem to McCarthy. The MAGA movement is the descendent of the C19th Know Nothing Party, which fought against the abolition of slavery and eventually merged with the Republicans. Covid conspiracies and the belief in the magical properties of Ivermectin and bleach are the modern equivalents of snake oil cures peddled by quacks. And the financial “advice” promoted on pro-Trump forums looks exactly like the internet version of financial scams promoted through the mail to subscribers to right wing magazines for decades.
The difference with Trump is that he is all of those things at once, even when they are contracditory, Trump was at the same time one of the most pro-Israel Presidents ever, and a promoter of anti-semitic conspracy theories. At the 6th of January attack on the Capitol pro-Israel evangelicals stood shoulder to shoulder with neo-nazi anti-semites
Above all of these crazy ideas is the the belief that Trump is coming back into power imminently, an event that his followers call The Great Awakening or The Storm. Dates have already come and gone: December 5th, January 20th, March 4th, and August 13th.
Only this week Trump supporters gathered in Dallas Texas where John F Kennedy Jr (who died in 1999) was expected to reveal that he was alive, and had been working to bring down the deep state in secret. He would be Trump’s triumphant 2024 running mate replacing the perfidious Mike Pence
Still no news on where Tupac is and what role he will be playing the next Trump administration.
These failed second comings may seem silly to outsiders, but they aren’t a problem for true believers.
The followers of William Miller experienced the Great Disappointment in 1844 when Jesus didn’t return as predicted. They went on to become the Seventh Day Adventists. The followers of Charles Taze Russell believed Jesus would return in 1873, and despite Jesus remaining ineffable they live on as the Jehovahs witnesses.
Trumps followers see white conservatives as an oppressed religious minority with an inalienable right to their beliefs no matter how crazy, extreme or violent, and any attempt to limit them acting out these beliefs puts America on a slippery slope to tyranny.
Despite his massive output of tweets Trump had no real policies, just catchy soundbites – “lock her up” “build the wall”. He was a blank piece of paper with no real definition or plan. It could mean anything to anyone who wanted to believe in it.
Which meant that people could project their anxieties, neuroses, insecurities, jealousies and grievances onto him.
When people project these feeling onto a political movement it is very powerful. Their personal struggles and unhappinesses become a collective fight, and criticism of the collective feel like a personal attack. The more they share their grievances and anxieties the more their personal identity becomes tied up with the collective identity.
Their sense of loneliness and isolation is replaced by a sense of belonging and identity. Insecurity is replaced by reassurance. Neuroses are normalised and accepted
People will never give this up. They will forgive their leaders anything, and they will punish harshly anyone who tries to take that identity away from them. They will accommodate any disappointment into their world view.
Trump was a failed business man, who played a successful business man on a TV show – the Apprentice. He was a down to earth man of the people who grew up in pampered wealth and privilege, and whose career was built on squandering massive inherited wealth.
But this lack of authenticity didn’t matter to his fans. America is the land of Disney, where the fake is more realistic than the real. His fakery is not a challenge to reality, it is an improvement on it, just like the Disney Princess castle is more Princessy than any real European original. A hyper real politician where the completely real and the completely fake are the same thing.
Trump is not Hitler. Not even a fake Hitler. Hitler had a complex and detailed ideology that all Germans adhered to on pain of death. Trump has no such complexity, and changes his mind on a daily basis. His appeal however is similar to the appeal of C20th totalitarian leaders. As Hannah Arendt wrote in Origins of Totalitarianism:
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true… The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness“
A fake leaders but a real threat to American Democracy