On Friday, I told you about Barry, the man I worked under when I was 17. He was the manager of a local Italian restaurant. He was big and ugly and mean. Dumb, too, so dumb he once set himself on fire stripping the paint off a pizza oven with turpentine.
He also wanted to torture a stray dog coming round looking for food. I feared Barry, but I somehow screwed up the courage to stand up for the dog even if I got hurt. In the end, Barry backed down. Assaulting a minor would have been a state crime after all. (For inquiring readers, alas, I do not remember what happened to the dog. Sorry!)
My larger point, however, was that Barry is a quintessential Donald Trump supporter. What motivated him wasn’t ideology or self-interest. What motivated him wasn’t religion or fear. What motivated him was acting violently toward those he believed deserve it. He behaved cruelly because he liked it. Looking for other logical reasons would have been giving more credit to Barry than was needed to understand him.
He told me who he was, and I believed him.
In truth, I don’t know if Barry voted for Trump. He might be dead for all I know. But there are millions of Barrys. They are the fascists among us, veiled sadists whom the majority must continue taking seriously long after the Trump presidency is over. For proof, consider Astead Herndon’s reporting Sunday. The Times reporter went to rural Arizona in October to write about Trumpstock, a cultural celebration of the president. If Trump loses next year, a source said while reaching for his sidearm, “nothing less than a civil war would happen. I don’t believe in violence, but I’ll do what I got to do.”
Using Barry as my guide, here are five thoughts on Herndon’s reporting.
IT’S NOT ABOUT FEAR. Herndon is one of the few reporters, perhaps the only one, to have said what needs saying. Lots of white Americans who support the president don’t do it despite his racism, sexism, bigotry and the rest. They support him because of them. “These voters don’t passively tolerate Mr. Trump’s ‘build a wall’ message or his ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries—they’re what motivates them.”
Sadly, Herndon attributes bigotry to fear, as if to suggest the president’s supporters are afraid of what they don’t understand—as if that fear is why they support Donald Trump. Herndon: “They see themselves in his fear-based identity politics, bolstered by conspiratorial rhetoric about caravans of immigrants and Democratic ‘coups.’”
It’s not about fear, though. Attributing fear to fascism overlooks what fascists are doing: punishing people who are “defying” the “natural order of things,” which is to say, defying whatever it is some white Americans believe is rightfully theirs. For the people at Trumpstock, the election of the first black president upended the natural order.
IT ALL GOES BACK TO OBAMA. Herndon’s reporting should finish off the idea that Trump took over the Republican Party. He didn’t. It was already primed for a fascist leader. Whatever “conservatism” used to mean ended after 2008. Herndon’s sources “described a white America under threat as racial minorities typified by Mr. Obama … gain political power. They described Mr. Trump as an inspirational figure who is undoing Mr. Obama’s legacy and beating back the perceived threat of Muslim and Latino immigrants, whom they denounced in prejudiced terms” (my italics).
In 2016, when Trump held rallies in rural Arizona, he emphasized Obama’s middle name—Hussein—to suggest he was a secret Muslim and not an American citizen. The people at Trumpstock were still making a fetish of Obama’s middle name by the time Herndon arrived. One of them was explicit in connecting Obama and Trump. Herndon: “Stacey Goodman, a former police officer from New York who retired to Arizona …, said her distrust of Mr. Obama’s birth certificate had led her to Mr. Trump.”
SOCIALISM? THEY DON’T CARE. Thanks to Herndon, it should now be clear these people would not know socialism if they stepped in it. That word is merely one of a number used to express the same emotion, which is rage against undeserving people upending the natural order of things. When the Democrats wanted nothing to do with socialism (2008-2016), they accused them of socialism. Now that they want something to do with “socialism,” they accuse them of socialism. It’s meaning doesn’t matter. What matters is it’s a byword for the enemy. “There is no difference between the democratic socialists and the National Socialists,” said Evan Sayet, a conservative writer who spoke at [Trumpstock]. Democrats, he said, “are the heirs to Adolf Hitler.”
DEMOCRATS AS DEVILS. One of the reasons liberals believe Trump supporters are afraid of what they don’t understand is because they totally “misunderstand” the Democratic Party. They see it as something it’s not—e.g., a bastion of socialism.
But this itself is a misunderstanding. Fascists understand perfectly well what the Democratic Party is: a meaningful mechanism by which Americans who have been without power gain power. That’s the problem. The solution, for the fascists, is characterizing the Democrats as being so evil any action justified in defeating them.
This is why the president’s supporters swim in conspiracy theory. It isn’t just irrational belief in made-believe. To the contrary, it’s quite rational. They are using make-believe to justify whatever they want. Herndon: “Democrats were portrayed as not just political opponents, but avatars of doom for Mr. Trump’s predominantly white voter base and for the country.” Many have embraced the “QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that top Democrats are worshiping the Devil and engaging in child sex trafficking.”
THE NEW BROWNSHIRTS. When you have given up on the idea of sharing power—which is to say, when you have given up on democracy—then it makes sense, to the fascist, to start organizing in ways outside the norm. Herndon’s reporting should demonstrate that Trump supporters, now and after his presidency is over, constitute a new kind of Sturmabteilung. In plain English, this was the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing, the people willing to use violence to advance political objectives. Their enemies, like Trump’s enemies, were so bad, anything was justified. They went around the German countryside assaulting and killing people who stood in the party’s way.
We aren’t there yet, of course, but the Brownshirts took decades to grow into what they became, the SS. We may never witness organized murder quite like that, but Trump supporters don’t need to be that organized. There are plenty of lone wolves out there with plenty of access to plenty of firepower who are highly attuned to the president’s grievances. It may not be a civil war in 2020, but this much is certain.
There will be blood.