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RST Hampton Interview Part One: Justin Mueller On Trump and Fascism

As anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis should know, I am associated with the Hampton Institute. Hampton is a left wing think tank that has published me for about three years now. I consider my work for them amongst my best and I look forward to publishing a book with them.

My interview with Justin Mueller is the first of many I am going to have over the next few months with Hampton writers. Justin is a great writer and his essay "Triumph of the Will" illustrated the fascism in Donald Trump's ideology very well. Here is my interview with him.

The article title you have was "Triumph of the Will," the same title as the German propaganda film Triumph des Willens from 1935. Do you think Trump is really analogous to Hitler?

Just to correct, it was titled "Trumph of the Will", for silly wordplay reasons. It isn't even especially Hitler that Trump is akin to, among the early 20th century fascists. They are different in many ways, certainly. They have very different backgrounds. Trump is a child of true wealth, while Hitler was not. Hitler's understanding of the world was forged through the direct experience of war, while Trump's was not. Their personalities diverge as well. Trump has a loose, seat-of-the-pants persona, and says whatever the hell he feels like... that is part of his appeal... with minimal preparation. Hitler's speeches were immaculately planned, down to the location of his hands while speaking, his facial expressions... he would practice in front of the mirror for long stretches of time, and you can find photos that his photographer took of these practice sessions.

I think what is important in the comparison to Hitler or other fascist leaders is Trump's mode of doing politics. In evaluating fascism (or other forms of politics) I think it is most useful to pay attention to things like: how "the people" in a political order are to be defined and sorted and the kind of lines of conflict this division produces (by nation, religion, race, class, language, etc.); how friends and enemies will be sorted (pluralistic accommodation? Binary absolutism? etc.); what collective vision is pursued (however fuzzy); how existing institutions are to be interpreted and treated (reinforced, smashed, slightly modified, etc.); which temporal structure is being prioritized (transcending to a teleological future, going back to a lost golden age of the past, maintaining continuity between past-present-future through traditions/institutions, etc.). I think that the politics and rhetoric Trump is giving us (regardless of his "authenticity") squares well enough with fascism in these and other elements, which makes such a comparison worthwhile.

There's a big possibility that Trump could flame out. Even so, Barry Goldwater lost hard in 1964 and his worldview eventually got picked up, albeit polished and presented as much more inclusive, by Ronald Reagan. The Trump model reflects a right wing approach that was tried many, many times in Europe and it's possible many people in this country will like it more than the traditional "free market" approach of America conservatives. Do you think future leaders on the right will carry the Trump approach?

I don't think they can carry his persona exactly, and it is (somewhat paradoxically) his independent wealth that lets him pass as a less-bought outsider who can reshuffle the status quo. He has already compelled contenders to shift and radicalize their anti-immigrant policies and focus. Trump by no means invented right-populist rhetoric, xenophobia, or racialized nationalism in the U.S., but he is increasing its salience in shifting the "Overton window", which is the kind of gradated boundary of publicly acceptable ideas in a given time and place.

What do you think of the claim, which has been made by many, that Trump is a Clinton plant? He has cartoonishly insulted almost everyone in the Republican world - it does seem like he is a troll.

I think that he is running for his own purposes, genuinely (as much as that means anything with him), as a means of winning the presidency. It may be a narcissistic vanity project, or the next logical step in his life path... who can say? Whether authentic or not, the rhetorical persona he has cobbled together is a creature that does an amazing job reflecting the kind of bitter, xenophobic, white-angst filled reacitonary core that has been pulsating at the heart of the GOP energetic constituent base for decades.

What do you make of the rise of Ben Carson?

He provides the same outsider appeal as Trump, but a very different persona. He is calm and has no bravado. Instead he has a much more believably religious dimension that is attractive to the conservatives who are more motivated by this than xenophobia. If the reactionary xenophobic racists are attracted to Trump, and the libertarian wing of the GOP is mostly being left flapping in the wind, Carson is picking up the more reserved, middle class, religious, cultural conservatives who are concerned about order and tradition (but are not necessarily militant reactionaries), and who want to get past uncomfortable discussions of existing racism and move into a "post-racial" discourse of self-reliance, glorified Founding Fathers myths, bootstraps, and familial responsibility. Carson provides this Cosby-esque politics.


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Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

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Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

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