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Trump, Reagan and Fascism: Frank Rich and the Pitfalls of Historical Analogy

All historical analogies are flawed, but something resembling fascism could arise with the catalyst of an authoritarian leader like Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is greeted by President Ronald Reagan at a 1987 White House reception in Washington, DC. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

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Analogies are one of the most seductive and misleading of all expeditions into historical interpretation. Analogies can be an imaginative form of reasoning, as they enrich insight by connecting seemingly disconnected topics. But they can also be deceptive. For a certain type of American political commentator, every minor vicissitude in foreign relations is another Munich, and every blow up in the Balkans a replay of the Guns of August, with dire consequences for us all. Pathetic third-world caudillos always represent a new Adolf Hitler, and Western statesmen who warn against them are hailed as another Winston Churchill.

In a recent issue of New York magazine, Frank Rich embarked on an extended foray into historical analogy through his comparison of Donald Trump with Ronald Reagan. As these things go, it isn’t bad, and there are several interesting points of similarity between the two: both cut their teeth in the mass media world of fantasy and illusion; both acted flexibly in their tactics rather than as rigid ideologues; both had to overcome initial resistance by their party establishments; and both were woefully underestimated by the high-minded and the conventionally wise men of the editorial pages.

But the analogy soon becomes strained. It is true that there are points of resemblance since both were Republican presidential candidates, just as there are points of resemblance between a house cat and a Bengal tiger because they ultimately derive from the same ancestor. Rich correctly notes that Trump, like Reagan before him, has a less than documentary devotion to the truth. But there is a crucial difference in the nature of their fabulations.

The Lies of Reagan and Trump

Reagan’s whoppers were (mostly) just-so stories in the service of some anecdote or reminiscence rather than the gaining of political advantage, and they often occurred in the company of intimates or other small groups. One never quite knew about Reagan, but we often got the feeling — witness his remark to Israeli Prime Minister Shamir about having “seen” the Nazi death camps being liberated when he had actually seen an Army documentary film while in an Army film unit in Culver City — that there was a very permeable line between cinematic fantasy and physical reality for this retired actor. As with Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the untruths were psychological props to maintain the illusion of starring in the role of a lifetime. And when he uttered them, White House spokespeople were anxious to walk them back.

In Trump’s case, the lies are straightforward, calculated political tools, generally spoken on the hustings or in interviews, rather than among his cronies: to attack a political opponent, obscure a weakness in his own record or to appeal to his low-information constituency. Sometimes they serve all three political objectives at once, as with his attack on Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over the Trump University fraud case, for being “Mexican.” The charge impugns those who would damage Trump, diverts attention away from the material facts in the case and reinforces the prejudices in his voting base. And nobody on his campaign dares correct or minimize it.

Just how premeditated Trump’s lies are may be grasped from the fact that when Trump “University” was still operating years ago, students were coerced into giving video “endorsements” of how valuable the courses were as prospective legal protection against the likely avalanche of fraud suits. Trump’s deviations from the truth are anything but someone’s exaggerated reminiscences of the back lot at Warner Brothers, but consciously constructed lies designed expressly to advance his material interests as he sees them.

Reagan’s Passivity and Trump’s Desire to Control

There is another aspect of Reagan’s character that couldn’t be more different from Trump’s: his curious passivity at times. Political biographies may not be the best source for evidence, since the whitewashing of hagiography frequently creeps into the accounts. Marc Eliot’s Reagan: The Hollywood Years, on the other hand, gives up a more unvarnished picture of Reagan’s character formation, mostly free from the foreshadowing of later political eminence.

Here we see something other than a future leader of the free world in the making, but a more contradictory personality. There were periods of ambition, but they alternated with phases of passivity, where he was more the instrument of others than a leader. His activity as a confidential FBI informer, “Agent T-10,” suggests a willingness to please those in authority, as well as a certain furtiveness. Informers are rarely unambiguous heroes in Hollywood dramas.

More dispositive is Reagan’s role as president of the Screen Actors Guild and unofficial errand boy for his own agent, the ruthless Lew Wasserman, head of the film and television production company, MCA. Wasserman became a Hollywood powerhouse by simultaneously running a talent agency and a production company, a clear conflict of interest that later prompted the government to investigate MCA for antitrust violations. Reagan himself was the subject of a grand jury investigation. Throughout the period of Reagan’s activity in the Screen Actors Guild, he used his position to benefit Wasserman by striking deals that not only exempted MCA from conflict-of-interest clauses, but cheated other actors out of their residuals.

Whether these things occurred because of Reagan’s conscious connivance or passive malleability, the net result was that Reagan acted as someone else’s stooge, whether J. Edgar Hoover’s or Wasserman’s. We see the same sort of passivity during the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was precisely his lack of engagement that got him off the hook. Reagan’s defense hinged on the public’s willingness to believe that his under­lings could have concocted and executed an egregious crime right under his nose without his having an inkling of it. The public bought it without a blink: It fit a character assessment that was widely accepted. It was different from Watergate because everyone knew Richard Nixon was obsessively engaged in every aspect of his presidency.

If there is one thing we can be sure about with Trump, he is in charge. He does his own tweets; he wants to choreograph the Republican Convention as if he were in charge of a media production company; and he personally berates campaign surrogates, including high-ranking Republican officials, for not viciously attacking Judge Curiel. It is hard to square his volcanic personality with what Reagan’s chief of staff Don Regan said he saw in the White House. Regan boggled at the president’s pas­sive acceptance of his subordinates’ maneuvers. “I did not know what to make of his passivity,” he wrote in his memoir after one notable personnel shakeup. “He seemed to be absorbing a fait accompli rather than making a decision. One might have thought that the matter had already been set­tled by some absent party.”

“Shaking up” a political system, and presumably the complex society that undergirds it, is a risky proposition, and more things can go wrong than fortuitously come out right.

This difference in the two men’s basic characters is so profound as to make toting up minor similarities an interesting parlor exercise, but dispositive of very little. It is perhaps truer to say that the two men are similar in being widely representative of the Republican Party base during their respective candidacies. They also reflected something of the psyche of broad masses of people during particular stages of the United States’ long social unraveling since the Vietnam War. Where this analysis of Trump is weak is its diagnosis of what it all means. Rich indirectly praises Trump by saying, “he was performing an unintended civic service: His bull-in-a-china-shop candidacy was exposing, however unintentionally, the sterility, corruption, and hypocrisy of our politics, from the consultant-and-focus-group-driven caution of candidates like Clinton to the toxic legacy of Sarah Palin on a GOP that now pretends it never invited her cancerous brand of bigoted populism into its midst.”

This is a common trope among those who claim to see through the farcical charade that often is US politics. A disillusioned ex-Republican of my acquaintance openly admitted to voting for Trump in a primary in order to “destroy” the Republican Party structure, which he hates. There are many on the left who want Hillary Clinton, the hawkish establishmentarian (which she unquestionably is), to get her comeuppance. Others see US democracy as having deteriorated to such an extent that it does not matter which tool of the oligarchy occupies the White House.

The Fragility of Democracy

I personally have been in the camp of the severe critics of US politics. To me, it appears that the country has gradually slid into a money-soaked oligarchy that retains the form, but little of the spirit, of a constitutional republic, much as Rome, even under its empire, maintained the husk of a senate. But that is hardly the worst it could be, or could become, as a glance at Ukraine, Brazil or, yes, Weimar Germany, would demonstrate.

Democracy, even such a democracy as we have, is inherently fragile. Those who get a guilty pleasure at thinking Trump will destroy the GOP are in some ways the same as Trump voters who proclaim the reason they support him is that he will “shake things up,” even while they don’t believe he will do the things he promises. But “shaking up” a political system, and presumably the complex society that undergirds it, is a risky proposition, and more things can go wrong than fortuitously come out right. Try shaking a crying infant and see if that improves matters.

Again, like Trump’s followers, the sophisticates are gullible cynics. They profess to see through politics as a marionette theater, yet swallow the most unlikely propositions: either that Trump will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, or that Trump will cause the Republican Party to collapse.

Republicans now control 31 governorships and both houses of 31 state legislatures, a hold that is nearly unprecedented. People like Sam Brownback, Scott Walker and the unspeakable Rick Snyder continue to misgovern their states according to the American Legislative Exchange Council template. Even if Republicans take a shellacking in 2016 and lose the House and Senate, what is to prevent them from regaining their hold in 2018? Ah, demographics. But that didn’t stop the GOP, after serious electoral defeats, from roaring back in 2010 and 2014.

Whether it was McCarthyism, the nomination of Barry Goldwater, Watergate or the disasters perpetrated by Bush the younger, the wise men of the op-ed pages always informed us that the Republican Party must change — become more moderate — or die. And each time, the GOP picked itself up and became more, not less, right-wing, and promptly fabricated some bugaboo or scapegoat — commies, hippies, secular humanists or Muslim terrorists — to distract working people from looking too closely at property relations in this country.

It is true that a Trump defeat won’t fundamentally change the GOP, but how does his berserker-like demolition of his primary opponents have some sort of silver lining that exposed the “sterility, corruption, and hypocrisy of our politics?” Did not every sentient person know that before?

What Trump accomplished was this: Societies maintain themselves by a thick web of laws, but these will not function unless there is an underlying, unwritten code of civility, decorum, social trust and vice at least pretending to pay tribute to virtue. Honduras and Somalia are obvious counterexamples. What Trump has done goes far beyond even the elastic standards of Republicans these days. Think what you will of Mitt Romney, he didn’t try to implicate the father of his primary opponent in JFK’s assassination or accuse President Obama, his general election opponent, of conspiring to murder his own White House aide.

Trump’s Assault on Civility

Trump is mining new territory for a presidential candidate, and it cannot but coarsen US culture even further beneath its already subterranean depths. Children at high school basketball games have taunted the opposing players with Trump’s trademark invective; inspired by Trump, two people in Boston beat a homeless man. This is dangerous territory, whether Trump wins or not.

Eighty-five years ago, an aspiring leader was mocked, even in his own country, for his silly Charlie Chaplin moustache. It did not impede his rise.

And then there is the seething atmosphere of incipient violence at Trump rallies, something we have not seen from major party candidates in living memory. At this point, we can place Rich’s Trump-Reagan comparison into perspective: He doesn’t mention the violence, and suggests that a Trump presidency would merely be a comic-opera “train wreck,” likening it to a mash-up of the George W. Bush and Warren G. Harding administrations, with Trump being “manipulated” by underlings. Rich emphatically believes that Trump is not a would-be dictator like Hitler or Benito Mussolini, as he allegedly possesses neither the “discipline” nor “zeal” to be a successful fascist.

No doubt Rich, as a cosmopolite sophisticate, feels it is a bit down-market to use the word “fascist” for fear of having someone invoke Godwin’s Law. But, as he insists on making analogies between Trump and historical persons, he has opened the door to other, less flattering analogies.

That tense atmosphere of aggression and violence at Trump rallies — where have we seen that before? The almost masochistic exaltation of followers for the man of the hour? The nearly erotic manner in which some women seem to adore their hero and savior? And the open advocacy of torturing enemies of the state as he defines them? Or perhaps demanding that his followers swear an oath of loyalty, not to the state or the constitution, but to him personally? Yes, we’ve seen it all before, and it is a bit out of the range of the archetypal US glad-handing political hack.

To take the most trivial and superficial point of comparison, think of Trump’s ridiculous coiffeur: No 70-year-old man of any dignity would wear his hair like that, let alone a candidate for the presidency. In past times it would have marked him as a joke candidate like Pat Paulsen or Professor Irwin Corey.

Yet 85 years ago, an aspiring leader was mocked, even in his own country, for his silly Charlie Chaplin moustache. It did not impede his rise. This cultivated weirdness is a puzzling mystery, like the inexplicable, insatiable popular hunger for vampire romances. It is noteworthy that in posed photographic portraits, Trump, as Hitler did, takes pains to appear as the stern, square-jawed dominator and man of destiny: Again, hardly the aw-shucks nice-guy image most US politicians would seek to cultivate.

The Hitler Analogy

Many people fall into the elementary error of believing that apprentice proto-fascists require a sort of mechanical discipline to succeed, and that fascist movements rise or fall depending on their machine-like efficiency. But this is to misconstrue the inner logic of fascism: It is not a clockwork mechanism, but a Wagnerian drama of a nation redeemed by a charismatic savior against insidious enemies.

Trump lies, lies grotesquely and lies so often that fact checkers have given up.

Hitler never claimed to be an administrator; the whole tedious business bored him immensely. He always insisted he had an “artistic” temperament in keeping with his failed ambition to be a painter and as a justification for his frequent bouts of laziness and inattention to matters of state. Albert Speer’s memoirs attest to frequent, impromptu automobile trips by Hitler and his retinue into the countryside for picnics to escape making decisions. His governmental administration was organizationally chaotic, and he frequently pitted rival subordinates against each other on the divide-and-rule principle, e.g., Army versus SS, Abwehr versus SD. This has also been a management principle of Trump’s throughout his career.

Hitler’s normal routine at the Berghof was chiefly rambling, soporific monologues about his own greatness or discussions of Wagnerian opera that segued into long evenings watching Hollywood movies (fun fact: Gone with the Wind was a favorite of the media-savvy Hitler and Goebbels). His situation conferences with the military at critical stages of the war were mainly one-sided harangues on the incompetence of his generals and the importance of will power and holding out to the last man, while completely ignoring the elementary military problems of time, space, weather and deployable manpower. In one of the most egregious blunders in military history, the German Seventh Army in Normandy couldn’t fully deploy because it had to wait for Hitler to get out of bed late on D-Day. At the bitter end, he preferred to study architectural models rather than attend to the defense of Berlin.

In sum, Hitler was an egomaniacal narcissist who liked to talk chiefly about his own greatness, and a careless administrator whose attention to detail was none too scrupulous — much like Trump’s financial legerdemain and serial bankruptcies. But he possessed a demonic charisma, paid careful attention to media presentation and regarded his rallies not as party convocations or information bulletins, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a minutely choreographed dramatic spectacle designed to awe, intimidate and cement the devotion of his submissive followers. And this was a man whom mediocre German politicians like Franz von Papen or Alfred Hugenberg initially thought they could manipulate, just as Rich suggests Trump might be manipulated, or the way GOP hacks like Mitch McConnell now claim they will be able to control him.

There is one more point of correspondence: Trump lies, lies grotesquely and lies so often that fact checkers have given up. And, as we have seen, it is lying with a purpose, to defame and belittle enemies, to dominate, to confuse. Here we have an excerpt from Mein Kampf:

[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.

Elsewhere in the same volume:

The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.

One can almost hear Trump saying, “I love the uneducated!” Not to belabor the point, but according to a 1991 Vanity Fair interview, Ivana Trump once mentioned that her husband kept a book of Hitler’s speeches, My New Order, near his bed.

Does this mean that my analogy is more accurate than the comparison of Trump and Reagan? Not necessarily: Analogies may provide creative insights, but all analogies are flawed, because all historical events occur in the context of their time, and circumstances never repeat themselves in exactly the same way. But given the fact that the United States is already one of the most violence-prone countries in the developed world, the raw material at least exists for something resembling fascism to arise with the catalyst of an authoritarian leader.

Trump’s “New Order” would presumably be less Horst Wessel and more Lee Greenwood, with the entire production taking on the tacky, hustling quality of one of Trump’s casinos rather than that of the Wagner Ring Cycle at Bayreuth. But those who belittle fascist analogies on principle, and those cynics who, while not liking him, think a Trump victory could be a therapeutic catharsis for our corrupted democracy, might both be in for a rude awakening.

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