Shortly before Trump took office, Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote: Although we cannot yet know what kind of president he will be, from his June 2015 declaration of candidacy to his January 2017 inauguration, Trump has undertaken two parallel projects aimed at unsettling the mental habits and moral foundations of American democracy. First, he has cultivated a political persona that inspires adulation and unquestioning loyalty that can be mobilized for action on his behalf. Second, he has initiated Americans into a culture of threat that not only desensitizes them to the effects of bigotry but also raises the possibility of violence without consequence.
The founding moment of this era came one year ago, when Trump declared at a rally, “I could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters.” Trump signaled that rhetorical and actual violence might have a different place in America of the future, perhaps becoming something ordinary or unmemorable. During 2016, public hatred became part of everyday reality for many Americans: those who identify with the white supremacist alt-right like Richard Spencer openly hold rallies; elected officials feel emboldened to call for political opponents to be shot (as did New Hampshire and Oklahoma State Representatives Al Baldasaro and John Bennett, among others); journalists reporting on Trump and hijab-wearing women seek protection protocols and escorts. The bureaucratic-sounding term many use for this, “normalization,” does not fully render the operations of memory that make it possible. Driven by opportunism, pragmatism, or fear, many begin to forget that they used to think certain things were unacceptable.
The risk is that the parameters of thought and action will be nudged to align with those of the leader, easing the retrofitting of history to suit his personalization of the land’s highest office. Trump’s success at this in a country known for individualism, and with no history of living under an authoritarian ruler, shows how susceptible people are to such approaches.
Trump’s bullying charm anchors this culture of threat. From the start he cultivated a relationship with followers founded on an allegiance to his person, and not to a party or principle. He devised campaign rituals (loyalty oaths, “lock her up” chants directed at imprisoning his opponent) that created a bond of charismatic authority and accustomed his constituents to his heavy hand. At his rallies he harangued his crowds, directing them emotionally, urging them to punish protesters as he expressed his own desires to punch offenders in the face. “You were nasty and mean and vicious, you wanted to win, right?” he told his fans after the election.
Twitter has been an excellent training ground for the acceptance of Trump’s cult of personality and the memory politics that undergird it. His skill at orchestrating the news cycle through tweets keeps Americans caught in the web of an “eternal present,” their attention focused on his aggressive outbursts that are dissected by the media and the public with the fervor of Communist-era Kremlinologists. His domination of the media landscape, on Twitter and elsewhere, realizes the authoritarians’ dream: to be everywhere present while remaining in your palace, and able to influence both big policy decisions and small daily habits with a few strokes of your pen. The writer Italo Calvino, who recalled that Mussolini’s face was “always in view” during the first 20 years of his life, would have appreciated how a few critical tweets from the leader-to-be led the storied Ford Motor Company to quickly scrap long-held plans for a $1.6 billion assembly plant in Mexico, and express its “confidence” in his business acumen.
The deference to the leader allows another crucial element of authoritarian rule to fall into place: the discrediting of all alternate sources of information. The confusion sowed by Trump from the start of his campaign (“we’ve got to figure out what’s going on”), which crucially extends to the facts of his personal history (Putin? “I don’t know him”), built to a blanket denunciation of all non-Trump information. “Media is fake!” the president-elect tweeted on January 8, preparing Americans for the onset of a new era in which truth is what Trump wants it to be. [Continue reading…]