When Donald Trump was first elected president in 2016, most of us assumed that we knew what was about to happen; a buffoon of a man sat on a throne, elevated above his competency, with ludicrous policy decisions leading his fanbase to become gradually eroded as his aura and power faded slowly into the background. For all the disappointment of his victory, most were sure that he would be nothing more than a lame president, serving a few years in which he would get to live in a nice house and play with some new toys, before being evicted at the next election cycle, and things would quickly revert to the normal order of things. A president would be installed whose lies were subtle but visible enough to be acceptable, whose corruption stops at taking a few cheeky back-handlers, and whose policy decisions amounted to a bit of superficial tinkering around the edges – much in the way that democracy has functioned for the past few centuries or so. We would go back to moaning that nothing really changed, all the while being thankful that, after what we thought the Trump presidency would look like, that status quo would continue for decades more.
Although his four years started with the anticipated insanity, what with the border wall failing to materialise, and policy after policy being rejected, things soon became somewhat less amusing. It began with a series of events that, whilst serious, were easily reversible; banning individuals from entering the country, and detaining children in cages. These things, whilst horrendous for those on the receiving end, and tragic for those who suffered, would have required only a few marks on a piece of paper to undo by whoever was to be the next occupant of the White House.
And then things began to take a serious turn for the worse.
Trump began to transform himself from sitting president, to a quasi cult leader, appealing to any and every populist cry across his nation in order to bolster his failing polls and draw a following. He appealed to those poor, downtrodden minorities; racists, misogynists, homophobes, xenophobes, religious zealots of the Judeo-Christian flavour, and promised to them that whatever they so desired. Forget that he was, as a twice-divorced adulterer with a preference for foreign wives who immigrated under shady conditions, the antithesis of many of their beliefs. Yet this strange practice began to work. Those with outdated views of the world, who desired some fantasy of what the past was like, gravitated towards him as though he would cure all their ills, speak to all their fears, and heal all of their divisions.
As with the weeks after his election, this was all seen as something rather amusing by the free-thinking, liberal population across the globe. What they had failed to notice, however, were the dangerous seeds that Trump had sewn throughout the population. All of those mentions of ‘fake news’, ‘liberal agenda’, ‘lock her up’, ‘build the wall’, that were so derided, had so successfully cast doubt upon the traditional mechanisms of state that for a significant portion of the population, the only place they believed they could find truth was in the words of the leader himself.
But then began something very strange, and very terrifying. The words coming from the president were not those of denial, or the propagandising of events in his favour. Instead, he began to create his own truth.
Ridiculous claims were made – ‘windmills cause cancer’, ‘my approval ratings are the highest of any president’, ‘unemployment is at its lowest ever point’, ‘the economy is at its strongest point ever’, etc. etc. ad infinitum. We knew that this would be a feature of this president; he had espoused the Obama birthed conspiracy for years. Whilst this behaviour was relatively harmless, if annoying, to begin with, the claims slowly transformed into the downright dangerous. He, began claiming that the Covid-19 epidemic was under control, that they had discovered a cure, that there was a vaccine. People died through these lies, yet Trump would always find somebody else to blame. Either the scientists had given bad advice, the media had misrepresented his words, or the public had failed to understand him. It was the ultimate in gaslighting. It was easy to see the damage he had done to the public psyche. People in their millions ignored the advice of expert scientists and doctors, and paraded through the streets, ignoring social distancing measures that were supposed to keep them safe, and demanding, in spite of the tens of thousands who were dying, that businesses stayed open regardless of risk. Trump said it was safe, and people believed him. Trump said the economy must keep on moving, and his army of followers were ready to carry out his orders.
Yet as scary as this is, it pales in comparison to what has come since.
The large part of Trump’s success is the result of an image of himself crafted on social media, and the direct connection that this new-fangled technology allows him. No other political figure has quite so cannily understood how to manipulate the power of a new technology since, if we are honest about it, the 1930s. His social media following is as devout as that of any religious movement of cult practice, and they defend his each and every move rabidly, with thousands of individuals ready and willing to jump to his defence of even the most outlandish comments and claims; his words are held by this group as the ultimate truth in the world. And it is in this that the most alarming echos of the 1930s are heard.
Trump has encouraged his following to see the Second Amendment as not just optional, but compulsory. He has managed to convince them that political rivals are doing everything in their power to remove this right. As such, he has essentially created a quasi-private militia, willing not only to defend his honour upon the wilds of the internet, but out in the real world too. He has bypassed the traditional mechanisms of national peacekeeping, in order to create a body that would do his bidding at a single word. This state-within-a-state arrangement has, as noted above, already been the feature of a past state in the 1930s.
But the most alarming moment in the presidency of Donald Trump was the moment that the veil of civilised behaviour was finally lifted; the moment when in an advertisement placed on Facebook, he chose to use the imagery of the Nazi Party in order to suggest that those on the political left were a terrorist organisation. The red triangle, used as a symbol denoting that an individual was a political dissident under the Nazi regime, is one of many that they used in order to categorise the enemies of state. For Trump to use it was unforgivable; either is was used knowingly and he has unveiled his true political goals, or it was used unknowingly in which case he is simply not responsible enough to be in such a position of power.
One might think that this glimpse beneath the mask might have turned people away from Trump, but instead, his online army has been out in force to validate his comments.
Facebook, taking action against the president for the first time, accepted that the use of Nazi symbolism was a form of hate-speech, and dutifully removed traces of it from their platform. However, the damage had already been done. Every person in the connected world knew what had happened, and everybody either sided with the president, or reacted with revulsion to his actions.
Yet, I suspect that this was simply a toe-in-the-water for the president, in order to gauge what public reaction to such overtly brazen displays of fascist symbolism would be. As his followers reacted positively towards it, I don’t think it will be the last time such an approach is taken.
We shall wait and see…