In 1971, historian Gilbert Allardyce wrote that “nothing appears more foreign to our times than the fascist years--years of marching columns, flags, and torchlight, a season when grown men indulged themselves in pagan pageantry and Roman salutes. Hitler once remarked that his movement would appear to the future as though it were a fairy tale; it appears instead like a nightmare.”
In 2016, the nightmare of fascism, once extinguished by American, Soviet, and British armies, is burning again.
I have managed to avoid watching a Donald Trump rally all the way through this election season. But when I read that the fascist presidential candidate was speaking in Redding, the small northern Californian city where I was born, I thought I would watch on the Redding Record Searchlight’s live feed of the event.
The audience at the Redding Airport was a sea of bobbing umbrellas, with Mt Lassen visible in the background between the heat waves, the magnificent view soon to be defaced by a gaudy airplane and a gaudier man.
Trump was very late, suggesting that his round-ups and deportations might be less efficient than those managed by the fascists of the last century. With most politicians, the perpetual tardiness comes across as being supposed to convey their importance. We know that Trump has no self-doubt as to his world-historical significance, so I suspect that in his case it stems from basic discourtesy and the habits one develops from a lifetime of running sloppy, fraudulent organizations.
True to his tendency to shoot himself in the foot with various constituencies in our country, Trump’s strategy here seemed to be to kill off most of his Redding supporters by way of heat stroke by forcing them to stand on a tarmac in 104-degree weather.
Eventually, Trump’s airplane touched down at the airport that normally launches a couple of tiny planes each day in the general direction of San Francisco, and Trump wandered off his plane in a camouflage “Make America Great Again” cap.
The next 50 minutes was akin to watching the guy we’ve all seen at some point who stumbles out of the bar onto a street late at night, arms flailing, mouth running, swearing and threatening people left and right, angry at everyone and no one in particular at the same time. It’s a futile kind of anger, a form of displacement, where onlookers cover their mouths and watch with a suspicion that it won’t end well. The man lurches around, squinting angrily, looking like he’d take a swing at the first person to enter is bobbing field of vision. His sentences are incoherent, his thought-process transparently unhinged, his bellows a set of grievances to the world at large until he plows head-first into the dirt, where his rantings are reduced to drooling, muted mumblings.
The problem is that most people who come stumbling out of a bar in an inebriated state don't have audiences of thousands to hang on their every garbled phrase and hateful word, sustaining a worldview that threatens people's lives and the foundation of our democracy.
But just as watching the man outside the bar can feel embarrassing and voyeuristic, so can watching a Trump rally. But as duty bound as one might feel to look away, there is something horrific and therefore compelling about the spectacle. In this case, the spectacle of three thousand people frying their brains in 100-degree weather and being conned like nobody’s business.
One of his minders must have told Trump that Redding was a backwater sea town, because he seemed to adopt a distinctly piratical parlance. “Redding, Redding, arrrrr, we love Redding!” he arrrrred, as though he had heard of the place before.
Pointing to a man in the audience, “Oh, I like that, he’s got the same hat! You like that? The NRA! Arrrrrrr!”
Waving to the people stuck on the safe side of the fence, “Look at all those people! Hello everybody! But you don’t want them to come in, you have enough people, right? See, that’s the way life works. Life is vicious!”
An imaginary dialogue with the Russian president, “How dare you call me a genius, Vladimir!”
At one point, perhaps realizing he had nothing substantial to say, Trump decided his audience might find it more interesting to hear about his rally in San Jose, and so he proceeded to narrate it, protester by protester, cheer by cheer, ovation by ovation.
For someone who wrongly claims to have opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, Trump demonstrated stunning naivete. “We’re gonna knock the hell out of ISIS...it’ll be faster and easier than anyone understands!”
Half of the 50 minute speech consisted of Trump--who claims he has rhinoceros-grade skin--defending his temperament. He uttered the following in the space of about 90 seconds: “There’s nobody with a better temperament than me, I love winning!...temperament is very important...I’ve got the greatest temperament there is, the temperament that this country needs...I could just say, Oh, I have a wonderful temperament...I have a tough temperament, we need a tough temperament...now my temperament is so controlled, totally beautiful, I built an unbelievable company...temperament is a very important word...we need toughness and temperament...you talk about composure, you talk about temperament!”
At one stage, Trump conducted an extended rendition of an imaginary conversation between himself and his “good friends” in the audience about winning wherein he used the word “win” 18 times in about 30 seconds.
The speech was regularly interspersed with self-pitying whines about the press, coverage from which has propelled Trump to prominence. But I had lost track of who Trump was castigating when he gibbered, “They know less than the beautiful young woman standing there!”
The woman in question wasn’t the only unfortunate to be singled out. “Oh!” Trump yelped, “Look at my African American over here! Are you the greatest? You know what I’m talking about!”
In the vein of the man outside the bar whose ravings have quieted and are reduced to nonsensical stories, Trump then began to talk about “my African American supporter” who punched someone at his rally, and then said, “Let me tell you while we’re on the subject, we’re going to bring jobs back to this country!”
This reminded Trump of a wall he once knew, a “serious wall, a real deal wall, way up there, a big, beautiful wall...someday maybe they’d name it after Trump, but I’d much rather have a statue in Washington, D.C.”
Then after another spurt of “wins”, Trump decided it was time to pack it in and head home. Judging by the utter incoherence of his speech, I’m saying the score was Redding’s June heat 1--Donald Trump 0.
But the almost comical, substance-free, policy-averse nature of Trump’s rally shouldn’t obscure the threat that his toxic combination of policy and personal pose to the livelihoods of Americans, the security of our democracy, and the safety and well-being of people in other parts of the world. Trump’s fascism has the potential to undo the fragile consensus that keeps people in our grossly unequal country--and Trump’s policies will exacerbate that inequality--tied together.
Earlier in the day Trump claimed that the judge presiding over the suits against Trump University should recuse himself because "he is Mexican." The suit has to do with attendees at Trump's faux university suing for breach of contract, fraud, misrepresentation, and more. How does anything in this case compromise the standing of a judge because of his ethnicity (incidentally, the judge is a U.S. citizen, not a Mexican citizen)? How is this anything other than racism on Trump's part? What is the next step? That no citizen of Latino ancestry can take part in any judicial or other public forum because they are compromised somehow by their ethnicity?
Trump’s racism, xenophobia, sexism, and nastiness--which won him cheers from members of the crowd--should disturb democrats in the United States. And when I say democrats, I mean small-d democrats: people who believe that strong institutions rather than a strongman are our path to prosperity, justice, and equality.