Donald Trump: “Preserve the shock.”

Friday, May 6, 2016

Although I have always enjoyed politics and follow it closely, the last thing in the world I ever intended this blog to be was politically partisan (i.e. supporting particular candidates on a consistent basis). In fact, in this election season, for the first time in my life I have had thoughts of wanting to flee to the Bruderhof or some other Christian group that eschews the political process altogether. Like many other Americans, I see no one on the horizon that I can vote for without asking forgiveness first.

But we have something before us now that no one foresaw. I believe that the numbingly repeated mantra about “anger” is not the real explanation for the Trump phenomenon. I agree with the perceptive few who have pointed out that Trump has unleashed a human trait that is usually kept under control in successful democracies: the desire for a “strongman,” a caudillo, a Franco, a Mussolini. It’s a type of Fascism, though not precisely, since Trump is not right-wing–indeed, he seems to have no real philosophical center at all–but Fascist in the sense that the leader acts out and calls forth belligerent and fanatical impulses that cloak deep insecurity and, with profound cynicism, manipulates and deceives his supporters.

I have been searching for a voice that speaks for me in the present dilemma. I found two today: E. J. Dionne (Washington Post, Rhodes Scholar, Commonweal) and Leon Wieseltier (The New Republic, The Atlantic), both of whom I have long admired. Dionne has columns in the Post and in Commonweal this week that I am grateful for and recommend. Dionne reports that Wieseltier has proposed the guiding principle: “preserve the shock.” The idea is that, as Donald Trump starts acting “presidential” and “mainstreaming,” we will all start to forget what he is capable of saying and doing when his buttons are pushed.

Here is part of what Dionne writes:

I was dead wrong as a pundit, allowing myself to get carried away by my confidence that, at the end of it all, Americans would see through Trump. I still devoutly believe they will do so, once the campaign moves out of the Republican primaries, but now know how urgent it is to resist capitulation to every attempt to move Trump into the political mainstream.

My friend, the writer Leon Wieseltier, suggested a slogan that embodies the appropriate response to Trump’s ascent: “Preserve the Shock.”
“The only proper response to his success is shame, anger and resistance,” Wieseltier said. “We must not accustom ourselves to this. … Trump is not a ‘new normal.’ No amount of economic injustice, no grievance, justifies the resort to his ugliness.”
Staying shocked for six months is hard. It is also absolutely necessary.  

I found some definitions of fascism online that seem pertinent:

Roger Griffin describes fascism as “a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a…form of populist ultranationalism”. Griffin describes the ideology as having three core components: “(i) the rebirth myth, (ii) populist ultra-nationalism and (iii) the myth of decadence”.[30]
Robert Paxton says that fascism is “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

And here is a striking paragraph written to me today by the Rev. Dr. David Widdecombe:

Somewhere, I am told, Walter Benjamin talks about the way fascism replaces political language with the language of aesthetics. So this may in part explain why Trump’s opponents cannot (easily) defeat him. He is playing a different game than they are with different rules, and Hillary Clinton, of all people, unlike her husband, is particularly inept at this game. For him, spectacle trumps (?) policy. Don’t know if that helps at all but unfortunately, if it is true, it means that if he is smart enough, he will figure out how to turn ‘presidential’ into its own sort of spectacle. All the commentators who want him to turn ‘presidential’ would probably settle for that. Do you ever wonder if he can manage to pull off some kind of military parade for the Republican convention? He is planning something. Riots I guess may have to do for now; the poor man’s substitute for the parade. It has worked before.

This sent me to the Internet to look up “Nuremberg rallies.” They had always seemed like remote (and creepily fascinating) history to me. Now I wonder. We should not think “this could never happen here.” If the media and the general population begins to treat Trump as if he were a normal candidate, that creepy fascination could gain a foothold. Maybe it already has.

A link to the Commonweal article is below, but it might be necessary to subscribe. If so, you can find Dionne’s similar piece on the Washington Post website.

And finally, here is a spot-on analysis from the Washington Post. Ignore illustrations and read all the way to the end. If this is anywhere near accurate, and I think it may be, we are in even worse trouble than I thought.

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