The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made On
(VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA) In my last column I proposed an answer to the question of what exactly is motivating Donald Trump to run for the presidency of the United States. I deliberately left out one of the possible answers to that question because it is not at all impossible that it is the correct one, and if it is, the repercussions would be almost unthinkable.
As Trump himself might put it, “Lots of people are saying…” that Trump is, quite simply, an old school fascist with ambitions to place himself at the head of the most powerful country in human history and rule it and, by extension, the world with an iron hand. The notion isn’t as far fetched as one might hope. His campaign so far appears to have been modeled (at least insofar as it has had any conscious planning) on the paths of the 20th Centuries two best known populist fascist demagogues. Both Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini appealed to the fears and hatreds of their electorates. The were rabid populists who identified other, inferior races as both the cause of their countries’ problems and as the biggest threat to the nation. They painted dismal pictures of the conditions of their countries and offered themselves as the only solution to those problems.
They were both strongmen who were quite prepared to whip their followers into a frenzy and then turn them loose to do violence to their opponents and to the minorities they had designated as scapegoats. They both demanded loyalty and basked in the adulation of the massed crowds. They both were clinical narcissists and were convinced that they were superior to ordinary people and were destined for historical greatness. They both managed to parlay their fanatical minority support into political power and then took control of their governments and systematically eliminated any opposition until they were the unquestioned seat of all political power; they made themselves dictators.
Significantly, from the perspective of decades later and a better understanding of the mechanics of the usurpation of political power, when we watch old newsreel films of the two fascist dictators, they are comical in a morbid kind of way. Hitler, foaming at the mouth and contorting his face and body in passionate paroxysms while in full rhetorical flight would be laugh-out-loud hilarious if we didn’t know what followed from those hate rallies. Mussolini, in his comic opera persona Il Duce, lapped up the cheers and chanting of the crowds below while he puffed out his chest and preened and postured. If we weren’t familiar with mid 20th Century history, he too would be a source of mirth. Charlie Chaplin satirised both demagogues in his brilliant and hilarious The Great Dictator. So transparently buffoonish were those two populist fascist leaders that a good many reasonable people couldn’t really take them seriously at first; when they realised that they had succeeded in their power grabs, it was too late.
Trump is clearly cut from the same cloth. He talks the same law and order game; he paints a false but horrifying picture of the nation’s condition; he tells his loser followers that they are not to blame for their failure to thrive; he points to “others” as the real cause of the problems he exaggerates; he offers himself as the only solution to the problems he inflates; he encourages his followers to commit violent acts against anyone who doesn’t chant his name with sufficient fervour. He doesn’t offer policy specifics. He simply persuades his followers that what is needed is his strong hand on the tiller of the ship of state, and someone like him with the courage to face up to reality and eschew the lily-livered weak kneed, politically correct failures who have reduced the nation to its current deplorable state. He is every bit as narcissistic as the Fuhrer and Il Duce and, like them, his favoured interaction with the people is at extravagantly organised and choreographed rallies where he can bask in the worship of the faithful.
But Donald Trump is not a carbon copy of the two European fascists. He differs in a way that might be very significant. He is lazy and he is not very smart.
He is virtually a savant when it comes to media manipulation. In fact, that may well be his only real talent. He has been demonstrated to be a particularly lousy business man; his multiple bankruptcies and the level of debt that he has been shown to be carrying all testify to that. His ignorance of anything outside of his short-fingered immediate reach, from history and geography to economics and constitutional law is breathtaking. His refusal to bone up on subjects that are indispensable to a head of state is a clear testament to his laziness. In fact, it has been widely reported that, while he was desperately searching for a politician willing to tank his own career by accepting the vice-presidential nod, he tried to sell some prospects on the job by promising them complete control over domestic and foreign affairs, leaving him to be a figurehead doing little more than taking credit for successes and addressing the rallies that he thrives on.
Whether that was the deal he cut with his VP ticket partner, Mike Spence, isn’t clear, but it does seem likely. And that’s why Trump as a strong man leader with anything approaching a mandate in November would be such a nightmare. Trump, for all his bluster, is a weak man. He is a bully and his wealth has always insulated him from any consequences; but his inability to absorb criticism, his instinct to lash out at any perceived slight, and his tissue paper thin skin demonstrate his fundamental fragility. As long as his ego is fed, he would be easily manipulated by someone stronger, smarter, and willing to work behind the scenes. Dick Cheney’s control of American domestic and foreign policy while George Dubya vacationed at his ranch for over 850 days of his presidency demonstrates that such an arrangement wouldn’t even be unique in presidential history.
But where it gets really frightening is not the concern that Mike Spence would really be running the show during a Trump presidency. Spence is a far right conservative who ticks all the boxes: anti LGBTQ; pro-life; trickle down believer; climate change denier; etc. etc. If given any genuine power, his impact could set the United States back decades and his Supreme Court nominations would be hair-raising. Nevertheless, the real fear of some eminence grise employing Machiavellian tactics behind the scenes of a Trump regime has more to do with Vladimir Putin and the crush that Trump has on him.
Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his admiration for Putin and has regularly expressed a desire to get closer to the Russian dictator. Given Trump’s aversion to doing the actual work of governing, given his intellectual vacuity, and given his vulnerability to ego-stroking, he would be an absolutely perfect candidate for manipulation by the right person. And that person, were Trump to be elected, could very well be Vladimir Putin.
We are very fortunate that, as things stand, Trump is unlikely as hell to be elected. The foregoing doomsday scenario has very little chance of playing out. But think about it. If anybody thinks that not voting for Hillary Clinton is a good idea, consider the possibility. Then try to sleep at night.