There is no precedent for Donald Trump.
Much that has been written since Trump accepted the Republican nomination for President at the Republican National Convention Thursday night in Cleveland has focused on the dangerous nature of his words, drawn comparisons to earlier dictators and fascists, and remarked on the dark tone of the speech as a whole. None of these takes are wrong, per se. But for every comparison made between Trump and an earlier leader that is now universally understood as bad, significant areas of difference remain.
This is to be expected, of course. For our work as social agents, and particularly as social commentators who would hope to shape certain narratives, is indelibly tied to the political work that we do when we decide which differences and similarities matter and which do not.
I’ve long resisted comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler, because such a comparison is almost always cliche and unimaginative. But at the same time, the claim from Donald Trump’s first wife that he kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches beside his bed does strike me as noteworthy. As does his inability to stop retweeting white nationalists, the resemblance of the original Trump-Pence logo to an earlier white nationalist group’s logo, and what looked oddly like a Nazi salute by Laura Ingraham at the Republican National Convention last week. Coincidence? You tell me.
For my money, though, Trump is more Muammar Gaddafi than Adolf Hitler. For starters, there’s both men’s penchant for ostentatiousness: Trump in his homes, Gaddafi in his clothes. Then there’s the insatiable desire to be respected and the predictable bully’s response when that respect never comes. And we can’t forget their erratic speaking styles and referring to themselves in the third person.
But again, the comparison can only take us so far. Gaddafi was widely lampooned for his long, rambling speeches, as is Trump. But while Trump gave a record-breaking 75 minute acceptance speech at the RNC, Gaddafi’s now-infamous speech to the United Nations in 2009 clocked in at almost an hour and 40 minutes, and Gaddafi at least had numbered points to give his speech some semblance of structure.
Others have seen similarities between Trump and the Latin American dictators Hugo Chavez and Juan Perón. Still others have likened Trump to Benito Mussolini, what with both men having perfected the look of smug indignation.
But Donald Trump is not a reincarnation of any of these bad boys. Donald Trump is a new form of wannabe autocrat, and that is what makes him so scary. He combines the racialized nationalism of Hitler with the erratic strongman facade of Gaddafi and the opportunism of Mussolini.
Donald Trump combines the racialized nationalism of Hitler with the erratic strongman facade of Gaddafi and the opportunism of Mussolini.
He is a decidedly poor orator who has somehow convinced millions of Republicans to simply believe his outlandish claims — like his claim Thursday night that crime and violence would come to an end with his inauguration. Unlike his dictatorial predecessors, actual policies appear to be anathema to his thought. The focus of his hatred shifts seamlessly from immigrants to African Americans to white east coast liberals. His ardent and disturbing nationalism consists almost entirely of platitudes. He is utterly devoid of substance.
And yet he continues to make a populist play for Bernie Sanders’ supporters. He thanked the RNC crowd for cheering LGBTQ rights. His nationalism comes with a healthy dose of American unexceptconalism. No political ideology can encompass Donald Trump. Because of this, some have taken to calling it “Trumpism.” And that is probably the best term for it, because there is no precedent for Donald Trump.
But lacking specific policy proposals and a coherent political ideology does not make Donald Trump benign. In fact, it does just the opposite. The ambiguity of his slogan “Make America Great Again” allows anyone to project their vision of a great America onto it. Refusing to offer specific policies means that the ends remain in focus while the means can be ignored. Whatever you’re mad about, Donald Trump is mad about that too. It does not matter to Donald Trump what America’s problems are. He needs only to keep convincing you that America has problems, existential problems, that should strike fear into your heart and that he alone can fix. Yes, he did literally say, “I alone can fix it.” Donald Trump has come to be America’s law and order savior.
And he has already given us a preview of what a Donald Trump law and order messiahship would look like. He encourages violence against protestors. He has said he would sue Amazon and its head Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, because he doesn’t like the Post‘s coverage of him. He has a habit of banning news organizations he thinks don’t treat him fairly. If elected he would move to purge the government of Obama appointees. He has perfected gaslighting on a national scale, that tactic often employed by abusers of manipulating others into questioning their own sanity.
This is not politics as usual. Donald Trump is not a normal politician. His message and tactics are strikingly well-suited for such a time as this. Try as we might, we will not find the right historical comparison for Donald Trump that will allow us to adequately identify his particular form of political authoritarianism — and thereby defeat him. There is no historical precedent for Donald Trump. And that is why he just might win.
Image via Gage Skidmore