It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the reality show of Donald Trump in the Oval Office and the Saturday Night Live parody of the president.
Was it Donald Trump – or Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump – who shouldered aside the prime minister of Montenegro to gain a better position at the NATO photo shoot last week? Or maybe Donald Trump was imitating Alec Baldwin, the boorish TV exec on 30 Rock. Or, and this isn’t an Onion article, Trump didn’t shove the Montenegrin prime minister but simply patted him on the back as one might a rugby buddy in a scrum.
The video shows quite clearly that “shove” is the more apt word than “pat.” Nevertheless, the prime minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic, didn’t seem to mind much. “It is quite simply a harmless situation,” he told reporters. Markovic has good reasons to be deferential. His country is tiny, it’s not a member of the EU, and it’s not even quite a member of NATO (Montenegro doesn’t officially join until June 5).
The shove has become emblematic of Trump’s new foreign policy. At the most basic level, it reveals the new president’s personality. He is so desperate for the limelight that he will trample all those in his way, fully aware that the whole escapade will be caught on video.
That is the sign of the truly powerful: They feel that they don’t have to conceal the exercise of their power. Indeed, to display power is to exercise power. Trump is confident that his core supporters will thrill to see their man put America First into practice in the most physical way.
The shove also typified Trump’s approach to Europe. During his remarks at the NATO summit, Trump “shoved” NATO members to spend more on their military. He refused to endorse NATO’s raison d’etre, the commitment to come to the defense of a member in trouble (effectively saying that when push comes to shove, the United States won’t be there for you). Meeting with EU leadership, he singled out Germany for its trade policies, calling the country either “very, very bad” or “very, very evil.”
In so many words, the president was telling Europe to shove off. Perhaps most egregiously, Trump shoved Europe aside in favor of… Saudi Arabia.
Not even Saturday Night Live could have imagined such a farcical reversal of foreign policy priorities. An American president bowed down before a fanatical, human-rights-abusing dictatorship – and promised to supply it with an additional $110 billion in weaponry – and then lectured his European allies on their budget priorities. Perhaps if John Belushi or Chris Farley were still alive, they could have played such a grotesque president on SNL. But Donald Trump has set the bar so low that the current troupe can’t crawl beneath it.
In the end, however, the media coverage of Trump’s embarrassing trip to Europe missed an essential and equally unbelievable point: Not all of Europe was unhappy with Trump’s performance.
Europe is by no means unified in its rejection of Donald Trump. Sure, Angela Merkel took exception to Trump’s clumsy criticisms and declared that Europe will increasingly have to go it alone. Emmanuel Macron, in an effort to display resolve, tried to squeeze Trump’s hand as hard as he could in their white-knuckled handshake. Five Nordic prime ministers posed for a photo putting their hands on a soccer ball, clearly mocking the rather sinister picture of Trump placing his hands on a glowing orb alongside the authoritarian leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
But Trump wasn’t the only one to jostle for position at the NATO summit. Croatia’s center-right Prime Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic executed a deft maneuver to get as close to Trump for both photo ops and cozy chitchat. British Prime Minister Theresa May has been buttering up the Donald in an attempt to get the best post-Brexit trade deal from the United States. Hungary’s Viktor Orban was one of the first foreign leaders to endorse Trump for president. The leaders of Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic all stand with Trump against refugees.
In dividing Europe, Trump might simply be rewarding his loyalists and punishing his critics. But something else is at work, a more sophisticated strategy that is mostly likely beyond the ken of someone like Trump – and represents instead the divide-and-conquer tactics of someone like Steve Bannon.
The president’s broadsides against immigrants, his cozying up to Russia, his skepticism toward “globalists” and globalization: All of this is designed to drive a further wedge between the Europe of the populist right and the Europe of the bureaucrats in Brussels. It’s reminiscent of the “old Europe” and “new Europe” distinction that Donald Rumsfeld used to line up the coalition of the willing in the war against Iraq.
Trump wants European countries to pony up more for the war against the Islamic State. Perhaps as well, in the back of his mind or the minds of his advisors, he has begun to corral a coalition of the willing to fight against Iran. The EU, however, seems more interested in preserving the nuclear agreement with Iran and sanctioning Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Drawing European countries into the larger intra-Islamic fight on the side of Trump and the Saudis will then require the disaggregation of the EU.
The dividing of Europe is also a cultural project. Trump wants to resurrect a different “old Europe” that is Christian, conservative, and Caucasian to replace the modern overlay of the “new Europe” that is liberal and multicultural. The same “deconstruction of the administrative state” that Steve Bannon is pushing in the United States – and which is so well represented in the administration’s proposed budget – has its parallel in the deconstruction of the European social democratic state. These welfare states depend, in part, on relatively low outlays for defense.
Ultimately that’s the Trump plan. The increase in European armaments would prove negligible in any serious global conflict. But they would destroy the European consensus on political economy and usher in a new era for Europe – an era that, in its ugly nationalism, would harken back to an earlier period.
Return of fascism?
Fascism has graduated to the status of epithet and has thus lost its definitional specificity. But if you combine all the elements of Trump’s policies, fascism is the inescapable conclusion.
The president favors a permanent war economy. He uses xenophobic nationalism to bind together disparate groups of supporters and makes dog-whistle asides to anti-Semites and white-power extremists. He makes appeals to the “working man” and decries the “globalists” even as he lines the pockets of his plutocratic friends. He has an authoritarian political style and has cultivated a personality-cult devotion among his followers. He doesn’t just lie, he bullshits – an important distinction that Matthew Yglesias makes in Vox to underscore the importance of loyalty in Trump’s worldview.
Even the efforts to defend Trump from the label of “fascism” only seem to underscore the ideological similarities. “As a political movement, fascism in Europe had distinct characteristics – expansionist nationalism, extreme militarism, a conception of the National Socialist as a ‘new man’ for whom politics is above all a spiritual struggle,” writes John Daniel Davidson in The Federalist in an effort to disprove that Trump is a fascist. “They took the trappings of militarism seriously, to the point that fascist leaders would typically dress in military uniforms, as would their rank and file.”
True, Trump himself is too shallow a narcissist to have a clearly thought-out ideology. But his team supports just such forms of nationalism and militarism. Many of them dress in military uniforms because, after all, they are military. Even the quest for a “new man” finds its parallel in the efforts of Trump’s evangelical supporters to destroy the distinctions between church and state, banish secularism from public life, and create a “new man” for whom politics is indeed a spiritual struggle to reassert the power of the church.
Still, aside from a hard core of extremists, Trump supporters are not fascists. They are not part of a mass movement. They might don a “Make America Great Again” hat, but they’re not about to join a paramilitary to help destroy the administrative state. Not yet, at least.
Perhaps it’s true that Trump is “post-fascist,” that his combination of populist economics, authoritarian politics, nationalist culture, and militarized foreign policy is a wholly new hybrid for our world of social media and parody uber alles. But I prefer to think of Trump as pre-fascist, like Benito Mussolini as he was transitioning from socialism to nationalism at the end of World War I.
And that’s ultimately what the shove is all about. Trump’s act at the NATO summit might seem like a trivial matter. But it’s of a piece with Corey Lewandowski grabbing a reporter at a Trump rally in March 2016, all the violence committed by Trump supporters during the presidential race (including Trump’s own comment about a protester: “I’d like to punch him in the face”), and Montana Republican candidate Greg Gianforte’s more recent body-slamming of a Guardian journalist. It encourages acts like those by Jeremy Joseph Christian, who shouted Islamophobic slurs at two women in Portland over the weekend and then killed two of the men who came to their aid.
The shove is like a cue to the alt-right that political violence is acceptable in much the same way that Trump’s reassurances to Middle East autocrats encouraged them – in Egypt, in Bahrain – to crack down on their own oppositions. The shove is a way of rousing the base and accustoming the public at large to a president throwing his weight around and a country muscling its way back to the top.
“If you want a vision of the future,” George Orwell wrote in his novel 1984, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” If you want a vision of Trump’s future, imagine a small hand shoving against a human shoulder – forever.
The boot comes next.