Citizen Trump: How an American Caudillo Came to Dominate the 2016 Presidential Race


“I love this country. We’re going to make this country great again. It’s payback time.” — Donald Trump

The mainstream press in the United States, especially the cable news networks, have spent most of the last year giving free publicity to Donald Trump’s substance-free campaign for president. While they are quick to report on the candidate’s every utterance no matter how outrageous, they rarely press him on his dangerous rhetoric or the lies he tells. After all, Trump has been a ratings bonanza and network bosses like CEO Leslie Moonves of CBS have no doubt warned reporters about the professional consequences of losing access to the mogul.

Let’s admit, the real estate magnate occasionally makes some sense when he talks about an economy that has left many Americans, and most of his followers, behind. As someone who has spent years taking advantage of the political system for personal gain, Trump is uniquely placed to comment on its evils. Though lacking in specifics, his denunciations of deals like NAFTA and the TPP would be refreshing coming from the mouth of almost any candidate – if they weren’t submerged in the kind of xenophobic bile that’s become his campaign signature.

Indeed, Trump has played the media well, saying one thing to supporters, then later walking it back on “serious” shows like “Meet the Press,” which he knows his fans won’t be watching. Even liberal websites posted story after story about Trump in an endless search for clicks and shares that often gave less attention to the populist swell on the other side of the aisle – that is, until the string of primary victories when Sen. Bernie Sanders’s appeal, often speaking to similar issues, could no longer be ignored.

Some media are finally comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler, but this is just a show of journalistic laziness. The only thing unique about Trump is how much of his reputation he owes to reality TV. Otherwise he is a run of the mill strongman. Besides, if one must go back that far in time in search of similar nativism, one needn’t look to Nazi Germany to find it.

A Recurring Nightmare

As author Edward McClelland wrote recently on Salon, from the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, the U.S. experience a similar movement against immigration, aimed mostly at those coming from Europe. Here is what the National Civic Federation said in 1918 of German immigrants fleeing the chaotic end of the First World War: “Shall we permit the bestial hordes who ravished Belgium women and bayoneted little children to make their homes where American womanhood is held sacred and innocent childhood is loved?”

The same time period also saw a revival of the KKK, which found new targets for their hate, attacking not only African-Americans but newly arrived Roman Catholics and Jews. The religions and ethnicities may have changed, but the core nativism that the former Celebrity Apprentice host promotes is much the same: a full throated call for a simpler, more ignorant time that only ever really existed in the imagination.

This isn’t to say that Trump doesn’t have fascist tendencies; all strongmen do. His economic platform, at least in the vague terms it has been expressed, has similarities to that of Argentina’s Juan Peron, whose ”third position… consisted of standing against international capitalism and international communism.” Peron had spent time in Mussolini’s Italy, the birthplace of modern state corporatism, and had been much impressed by Il Duce’s economic model.

The idea of having corporations directly in charge of government would no doubt have some appeal to Trump, who assures voters that he is going to put his “dealmaker” friends in charge of trade when he is president. These days, though, Trump and his supporters seem more to want to usher in a new era of McCarthyism – one squarely aimed at leftists, especially those with the audacity to say that Black Lives Matter.

More relevant to a discussion of the tycoon’s rise are other comparisons drawn from our own time. Even now, the mainstream U.S. press mainly looks to Europe for explanations when tendencies jump out about a fascistic rise to power; think of the current, polarizing political environment in Hungary, France, the U.K. and Greece. These are slickly tailored representatives of a more contemporary manifestation of nationalism, and Trump seems to have pilfered much of his platform from them.

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