Trump’s fear-mongering and the authoritarian impulse

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

By now you’ve probably glanced at multiple takes from pundits who are recoiling in horror at Donald Trump’s angry, red-faced, seemingly endless acceptance speech. I don’t disagree with any of them. Yes, he embraced the cult of personality, which is the hallmark of authoritarianism. Yes, his demonization of the Other was reminiscent of fascism.

Underlying all of that, though, is something that went largely unspoken: under the right circumstances, fascism can be popular. And if the circumstances aren’t right, you can sometimes create your own. I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a look at whether the public liked what it saw and heard.

An instant poll taken right after a speech may not tell us much, but I thought the one conducted by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation was fairly well designed. It was random, and its composition—41 percent Republican, 23 percent Democratic, and 36 percent independent—was, as the pollsters put it, reflective of the fact that more Republicans than Democrats are going to watch a Republican speech.

So what did the CNN/ORC poll find? Fifty-seven percent thought Trump’s speech was “very effective,” and another 18 percent thought it was “somewhat effective.” Just 24 percent had either a “very negative” or “somewhat negative” reaction. In response to what they thought of the policies that Trump outlined, 73 percent said they would move the country in a “positive” direction and 24 percent said “negative.”

In other words, Trump is going to get his convention bounce despite a week marred by chaos, plagiarism, Ted Cruz’s defiance, and Trump’s truly disturbing interview with the New York Times in which he threatened to walk away from our NATO commitments.

The United States in 2016 is prosperous, with the economy slowly returning to normal following the worst collapse since the Great Depression. Illegal immigration is down. Year-to-year blips notwithstanding, crime and violence have declined considerably from years past. With our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down, far fewer American troops are being sacrificed. We are in the midst of an awful period of mass shootings, the killings of black men by police officers under circumstances that are often questionable, and, now, the targeting of police officers. But as terrible as these things are, our 24-hour media culture has made them appear far worse.

But as I said, when the circumstances aren’t right for authoritarianism, the strongman creates his own circumstances. That’s what Trump has been doing for his entire campaign. And it’s what he did Thursday night.

“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism, and weakness,” Trump said in what I thought was the defining moment of his speech. And as Philip Rucker and David Fahrenthold observe in the Washington Post, that brought the delegates to their feet for another round of their favorite chant: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

At that point, the Great Leader smiled benignly and said, no, their focus should be on defeating Clinton in November. It was Peak Trump—the ultimate piece of political theater from someone who has turned “I didn’t say it, but others are” into an art form. Meanwhile, the hatred Trump has encouraged with his “Crooked Hillary” epithet and his insistence against all evidence that she has committed crimes led to an outburst from one of his own advisers that Clinton should be “shot for treason.”

There was so much mendacity on display that the fact-checkers could barely keep up. Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee’s analysis in the Washington Post was especially comprehensive, finding that Trump lied about crime, immigration, taxes, food stamps, the Iran nuclear deal, Benghazi, Clinton’s private email server, trade, and more. They rightly called his speech “a compendium of doomsday stats that fall apart upon close scrutiny. Numbers are taken out of context, data is manipulated, and sometimes the facts are wrong.”

As has often been observed, we are now living in a post-fact era. But Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s pushback against CNN’s Jake Tapper may have represented a new low. When Tapper pointed out that FBI statistics don’t support the Trumpian view of the United States as a post-apocalyptic moonscape (my characterization, not Tapper’s) of crime and violence, Manafort responded, “People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods. I’m not sure what statistics you’re talking about. The FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they just did with Hillary Clinton.” In other words, if the facts don’t support you, smear the fact-finder.

Finally, a few words about Trump’s outreach to the LGBT community. Letting Peter Thiel speak and spelling out the letters L-G-B-T-Q as if you were squinting at an eye chart at the optometrist’s is no substitute for signing off on a viciously anti-LGBT party platform—or for choosing a running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, whose anti-gay record is among the worst of any major elected official.

Clinton continues to hold a small but solid lead in the polls. Nevertheless, that margin has been shrinking. As of this morning, FiveThirtyEight gives her a 60 percent chance of winning the presidency (down from 80 percent a few weeks ago) while the New York Times has her at 74 percent.

One thing we learned four years ago (if anything from four years ago still matters) is that even a small lead can prove durable given that most voters in this divisive era make up their minds long before Election Day. But fear and hatred are powerful forces, and Trump has proved himself to be a master at manipulating the emotions of his supporters.

It seems unlikely that he’ll expand that support enough to actually win. But who among us thought a year ago that he’d be standing at the podium on the last night of the Republican National Convention, accepting the party’s nomination for president of these United States?

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