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“The Big Lie”: How Trump Uses Classic Authoritarian Propaganda Techniques

Media coverage of Trump rallies is sometimes chillingly reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda films of the 1930s.

While Donald Trump does not have a party apparatus or ideology like the Nazis, parallels between Trumpism and Nazism appeared clear to me last summer during Trump’s August 21, 2015, mega-rally in Mobile, Alabama. I watched all afternoon as the cable news networks broadcast nothing but Trump, hyping up his visit to a stadium where he was expecting 30-40,000 spectators, the biggest rally of the season. Although only some 20 thousand showed up, which was still a “huge” event in the heat of summer before the primaries had even begun in earnest, Trump’s flight into Alabama on his own TrumpJet and his rapturous reception by his admirers became the main story of the news cycle, as did many such daily events in what the media called “the summer of Trump.”

What I focused on in watching the TV footage of the event was how the networks began showing repeated images of Trump flying his airplane over and around the stadium before landing and then cut away to big images of the TrumpJet every few minutes. This media spectacle reminded me of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will — the chillingly effective German Nazi propaganda film of 1934. Triumph focuses on Hitler flying in his airplane through the clouds, looking out the window at the crowds below, landing and driving through the streets of Nuremburg for a mass rally. The crowds along the way and in the stadium greet Hitler with rapture as he enters the spectacle of a highly orchestrated Nazi rally that Riefenstahl captured on film.

I do not know if the Trump operatives planned this parallel, or if it was just a coincidence, but it is clear that Trump, like Hitler, has organized a fervent mass movement outside of the conventional political party apparatuses. Like followers of European fascism in the 1930s, Trump’s supporters over the years have suffered economic deprivation, political alienation, humiliation and a variety of hard times, and they appear to be looking for a political savior to help them out with their problems and to address their grievances.

Certainly, Trump is not Hitler and his followers are not technically fascists, but I believe that the terms authoritarian populism and neofascism accurately describe Trump and his supporters. I have found that the theories of Erich Fromm and his fellow German-Jewish refugees known as the “Frankfurt School” provide an analysis of authoritarian populism that helps explicate Trump’s character and his appeal to his followers. Authoritarian movements ranging from German and Italian fascism to the movement led by Franco in Spain to other dictatorships in Latin America and throughout the world have all featured authoritarian leaders and followers ready to submit to their demands. A closer look at Donald Trump reveals that he is similarly an authoritarian leader who has mobilized an authoritarian populist movement.

Trump proposes magical solutions like a wall along the Mexican border that will keep out the armies of immigrants whom he claims are taking away “American” jobs, as well as committing waves of crime. Trump claims he will create millions of “great” jobs without giving specific plans. Meanwhile, his own problematic business record includes many bankruptcies, the hiring of foreign workers to toil on his projects (many of whom he does not pay) and failures to pay many subcontractors who worked on his projects.

Trump thus presents himself as a superhero who will magically restore the US to greatness, provide jobs and create incredible wealth, and restore the US to its rightful place as the world’s superpower. In this fairy tale, the billionaire king will fight and destroy all the nation’s domestic and foreign enemies and the superman will triumph and provide a happy ending for people in the US.

While Trump plays the role of the Ubermensch (superman or higher man) celebrated by the Nazis and embodies their Fuhrerprinzip (leadership principle), Trump is a very American form of the superhero and lacks the party apparatus, advanced military forces and disciplined cadres that the Nazis used to seize and hold power. Like other right wing American populists, Trump bashes the Federal Reserve, the US monetary system, Wall Street hedge fund billionaires and neoliberal globalization, in the same fashion as Hitler who attacked German monopoly capitalism. But even as he ranted against monopoly capitalists, Hitler accepted big donations from German industrialists — a fact brilliantly illustrated in the famous graphic by John Heartfield ,” The meaning of the Hitler salute,” which showed Hitler with his hand up in the Nazi salute to receive money from German capitalists. Just as Hitler denounced allegedly corrupt and weak party politicians in the Weimar Republic, Trump decries all politicians as “idiots,” “stupid,” or “weak” — some of the would-be strongman’s favorite words. In fact, Trump even attacks lobbyists and claims he alone is above being corrupted by money, since he is self-financing his own campaign (which is not really true but seems to impress his followers).

Like the alienated and angry followers of European fascism, many of Trump’s admirers have suffered under the vicissitudes of capitalism, globalization and technological revolution. For decades they have watched their jobs being moved overseas, displaced by technological innovation, or lost through unequal economic development amid increasing divisions between rich and poor. With the global economic crisis of 2007-08, many people lost jobs, housing, savings, and suffered through a slow recovery under the Obama administration. The fact that Obama was the first Black president further outraged many white Americans who had their racism and prejudices inflamed by eight years of attacks on the Obama administration by right-wing media and the Republican Party.

Indeed, Donald Trump was one of the most assiduous promoters of the “birther” myth, erroneously claiming that Barack Obama was born in Africa and thus, not eligible to serve as president of the United States. In the 2008 presidential election, Trump made a big show of insisting that Obama show his birth certificate to prove he was born in the US, and although the Obama campaign provided photocopies of the original birth certificate in Hawaii and notices of his birth in Honolulu newspapers at the time, Trump kept insisting they were frauds and many of his followers continue to this day to believe the myth that Obama was not born in the US.

Yet, unlike classic dictators who are highly disciplined with a fixed ideology and party apparatus, Trump is chaotic and undisciplined, viciously attacking whoever dares criticize him in his daily Twitter feed or speeches, thus dominating the daily news cycles with his outrageous attacks on Mexicans, Muslims and immigrants, or politicians of both parties who dare to criticize him. Trump effectively used the broadcast media and social media to play the powerful demagogue who preys on his followers’ rage, alienation and fears. Indeed, by March 2015 media companies estimated that Trump received far more media coverage than his Republican Party contenders, and by June, MarketWatch estimated that he had received $3 billion worth of free media coverage. Yet, at his whim, Trump bans news media from his rallies, including The Washington Post, if they publish criticisms that he doesn’t like.

Like followers of European fascism, Trump’s authoritarian populist supporters are driven by rage: they are really angry at the political establishment and system, the media, economic elites and other elites. They are eager to support an anti-establishment candidate who claims to be an outsider (which is only partly true as Trump has been a member of the capitalist real estate industry for decades, following his father and has other businesses as well, many of which have failed). Trump provokes their rage with classic authoritarian propaganda techniques like the “big lie,” when he repeats over and over that immigrants are pouring across the border and committing crime, that all his primary opponents, the media and Hillary Clinton are “big liars,” and that he, Donald Trump is the only one telling the truth — clearly the biggest lie of all.

Trump’s anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric, his Islamophobia and his xenophobic nationalism play into a violent racist tradition in the US and activate atavistic fears of other races among his white followers. Like European fascists, Trump draws on restorative nostalgia and promises to make his country “great again.” Thus, to mobilize his followers, Trump arguably manipulates racism and nationalism and plays to the vile side of the American psyche and the long tradition of nationalism, America First-ism and xenophobia, wanting to keep minorities and people of color outside of the country and “in their place.”

Like fascists and authoritarian populists, Trump thus presents himself as the superhero leader who can step from outside and solve the problems that Washington and politicians have created, and his followers appear to believe that Trump alone can stop the decline of America and make it great again. Over and over, you’ll hear Trump supporters say that Trump’s the only one who talks about issues like immigration, problems with Washington and politics, and the role of money in politics. In late August 2016 Trump increasingly used the term “the silent majority” to describe his followers, a term Richard Nixon used to characterize his white conservative followers who felt marginalized in the fierce racial, political and cultural battles of the 1960s — a coded phrase to appeal to aggrieved white voters.

Trump promotes himself as the tough guy who can stand up to the Russians and Chinese and to “America’s enemies.” In the Republican primaries, he presented himself as “the most militarist” guy in the field and promised to build up the US military and to utterly destroy ISIS and America’s enemies, restoring the US to its superpower status (which he says was lost by the Obama administration). With his bragging, chest-pounding and hypermacho posturing, Trump promises a restoration of white male power and authority, which he claims will restore America to its greatness. Macho superman Trump will make “America First” once again and vanquish all its enemies. “America First” was the slogan of an anti-interventionist movement in the early 1940s to keep the US out of World War II that was associated with Charles Lindberg and American fascist and anti-Semitic forces. Trump doesn’t stress this connection, but it serves as a dog-whistle to some of his extreme rightwing followers.

“America First” was highlighted in the Republican National Convention and Trump has said it will be a major theme of his administration. To Trump, it means disconnecting from other countries: more barriers to trade, tougher negotiations with longstanding allies in NATO and a more restrictive immigration policy. Trump’s “America First” discourse is thus an important part of his “Make America Great Again” discourse and links Trump’s isolationism with his anti-NATO and pro-Putin discourse. Trump has continued to complain that the US is paying too much of NATO’s expenses and is prepared to dismantle the organization that has helped provide more than 60 years of European and American peace and prosperity after the two terrible World Wars of the 20th century. Also disturbing is how Trump continues to speak favorably of his favorite authoritarian strongman, Vladimir Putin. And Trump has even made favorable remarks about Saddam Hussein who was “so good at killing terrorists.” Trump is obviously attracted to authoritarian dictators and makes it clear that he is prepared to be the United States’ savior, redeemer and strongman.

In his closing speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump repeated at least four times that he was the law and order candidate, replaying a major theme in the 1968 Nixon campaign. When he deployed his America First motif, it was intensified by his stormtroopers chanting “USA! USA! USA!” After the gloom and doom vision of a declining America and a rigged system, in a highly pessimistic take on the US and its “broken” system, Trump declared in Fuhrer-fashion: “I alone can fix it.” Hence, his crowd was led to believe that he, Donald J. Trump, a self-proclaimed billionaire who has bankrupted many companies, defaulted on bank loans, failed to pay contractors for service and is the very epitome of capitalist greed, is The One who is going to fix the system and “Make America Great Again” — a slogan he puts on the baseball caps that he hands out or sells to his supporters.

The baseball hat makes it appear that Trump is an ordinary fellow and links him to his followers as one of them — a clever self-presentation for an American authoritarian populist. Sporting a hat on the campaign trail is especially ironic, given that Trump appears to have borrowed this fashion from award-winning, progressive documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who is perhaps the anti-Trump in the American political imaginary. Further, in his speech at the Republican convention, this shouting, red-faced, orange-haired demagogue presented himself as the “voice of the forgotten men and women” — a Depression-era phrase of the Roosevelt administration, which Trump inflects toward his white constituency. In his speeches and on the campaign trail, Trump uses the crisis discourse deployed by classic fascist and authoritarian regimes to describe the situation in the US and the need for a savior to solve all the problems. In contrast to the Nazis, however, Trump tells his followers that it’s his deal-making skills as a supercapitalist billionaire which credential him to be the president, and he induces his followers to believe he will make a “great deal” for them and “Make America Great Again.”

Trump is obviously an authoritarian populist and his campaign replicates in some ways the submission to the leader and the cause found in classic authoritarian movements. Yet Trump is the embodiment of trends toward celebrity politics and the implosion of politics and entertainment, which is becoming an increasingly important feature of US politics. Further, Trump is a master of PR and at promoting his image; he would even call up journalists pretending to be a PR agent to get gossip items planted about him in newspapers. More disturbing is the oft-played footage of Trump mimicking a New York Times reporter with a disability. Indeed, there is a sinister side to Trump, as well as the cartoonish and creepy side.

Finally, there is the question of Trump’s temperament. In The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), Erich Fromm engages in a detailed analysis of the authoritarian character as sadistic, excessively narcissistic, malignantly aggressive and vengeably destructive, among others. These are personality traits that are arguably applicable to Trump. Hence, the threats we face in a Trump presidency raise the issue of what it means to have an aggressive, destructive and authoritarian individual like Trump as president of the United States. What would a foreign and domestic policy governed by a malignantly aggressive leader look like? It is also worrisome to contemplate that Trump has developed a following through his demagoguery and that authoritarian populism now constitutes a clear and present danger to US democracy. How we deal with these threats will determine the future of the United States and trajectory of world history.

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