The Big Picture: Rule by Misrule

This is the 10th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge. Read IPK Director Eric Klinenberg’s introduction here.
Posters declaring “No Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA!” and the like feature in most anti-Trump rallies. Viscerally, it’s clear what the posters mean: no more threats to children of illegal immigrants ...

Posters declaring “No Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA!” and the like feature in most anti-Trump rallies. Viscerally, it’s clear what the posters mean: no more threats to children of illegal immigrants, no more sympathy for white supremacists … but the placards do not convey that something more is at stake in the leader’s behavior than being vicious minded.

Trump is not a fascist in the sense Mussolini was; he is not a control freak micromanaging the levers of government. He is not an ideological fascist hewing to a single set of beliefs, no matter what. Yesterday, he was going to build thousands of miles of impermeable wall against the Mexican hordes; today, he says, the wall will come sometime “later.” Once a Republican, now he now plays footsie with Democrats. And Trump is not a fascist in the sense Geert Wilders of the Netherlands is, a politician who tries to convince the eminently practical Dutch that it’s just good common sense to hate and expel Muslims. Yes, in public Trump is always blindly angry at something and sneering at someone, but most of all he is a master at manipulating instability—his own and others.

So why is it that so many think Trump is not simply nasty but, in a meaningful way, in a way different from that of other unpleasant American politicians who have come before him, actually a fascistic personality type in charge of what is becoming an at least partially fascistic governing apparatus?

This public persona is not detached from a certain kind of government practice. In Fascist structures historically, the Leader demands absolute, slavish loyalty from those below, bureaucrats obeying orders precisely and unthinkingly. Mussolini famously sought to make the trains in Italy run on time, no matter whether train conductors and engine operators were good fascists or not: he decreed this would happen, and his minions would make it happen—or else. Hannah Arendt argued that this state-machine produced the “banality of evil,” as in the Nazi death camps, where the killers claimed they were just following orders, and where “ordinary” people could willingly perform unimaginably cruel acts at the urging of charismatic leaders and a corrupted bureaucratic state. The state shows the same rigid face in George Orwell’s 1984 or in Dave Eggers’ tech dystopia, The Circle. Mussolini called this kind of state “Fascism’s call to Order.”

A curious kind of Machiavellianism appears in rule by misrule. Betrayal and disloyalty become standard practice.

In the Trump sort of fascist regime, the Leader traumatizes those who serve him by keeping them off balance. He knows that changing his mind on a whim, being unpredictable or contradictory, will focus those serving him obsessively on trying to fathom what he wants—today. They try to appease him or please him but aren’t certain how. You can see this sort of keep-them-off-balance tyranny at work in many family firms, when ruled by a patriarch setting the junior family members against each other, each trying to curry personal favor. Trump ran his real estate empire along these lines, the firm constantly turning and twisting, executives never certain where they were with him. Trump has now transferred this way of “leading” to Washington. He is firming up despotic personal power by destabilizing the state. Far from being out of his mind, as many commentators believe, I think that in this he is really clever. He rules by misrule.

In Washington, Steve Bannon has been Trump’s guru for ruling this way. Bannon wants to deconstruct the administrative state, following the early Lenin’s belief in causing as much governmental chaos as possible when a new regime comes to power. Cabinet posts filled by saboteurs of regulation, or even, as with the current HUD housing regime, by self-confessed incompetents, serve the purpose. To be sure, the strategy—in Washington today as in Moscow a century ago—applies to the strategists as well. Bannon is gone. Flynn is gone. Priebus is gone.

In classic fascist systems, people in government who disobey the leader often wind up in jail or dead. In Trumpism, there are no such catastrophic penalties. People working for government may remain in place, but they are exiled into a sort of perpetual limbo. At the bottom levels of the American government, this has happened to workers in the environment and housing ministries.


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Unfilled government posts are another tactic of rule by misrule. The American Department of State, which has played such a vital role in the accumulation of American global influence over the past century, has become a weak agency, unable to mount much institutional policy of its own because its personnel have been drastically reduced. Those who remain in posts abroad struggle to keep the doors open, issuing passports or notarizing documents rather than doing analysis. As in Trump’s business, so in his government, good people with other options leave if they can. There are, to be sure, many dedicated people in the National Institutes of Health, the Forestry Service, the State Department, and HUD. But, with their skills devalued, there is less and less reason to stay; when they give up, rule-by-misrule is only strengthened.

A curious kind of Machiavellianism appears in rule by misrule. Betrayal and disloyalty become standard practice. The two glaring cases in Trump’s regime concern the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, and the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani: early supporters pushed aside when Trump came to power, now supplicants to be let back inside the gates. Humiliation is also a potent weapon, as for Trump’s former aide-de-camp Reince Priebus, whom Trump obliged to kill flies during meetings, or his hapless press spokesman Sean Spicer, deliberately prevented from meeting the Pope during Trump’s Vatican visit earlier this year.

Here there is a difference between Trump the businessman and Trump the president. Trump the businessman made so many enemies that no banks who had worked with him—save Deutsche Bank—would continue to put up with him. In office, in his immediate circle insult and humiliation carry no such practical consequences; no one seems to stand up to him publicly—witness the discomfort silently endured by several of his Jewish advisers as they stood on the podium with him while he said that some of the Nazis who marched in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” Instead, they “interpret,” they “explain” and so they excuse.

The greatest threat to rule by misrule is policy that stands apart from the ruler’s person.

In this regard, Trump, is a narcissist of a peculiar sort. Bored by anything not related to himself, he is curiously sloppy, unable to pay attention to arguments or documents of more than a page—unlike the obsessive narcissists who would scan every last sentence to make sure it is what he wants. Trump’s tweets serve this sort of narcissism-with-a-short-attention-span persona, conveying a momentary belief or feeling, rather than a considered judgment.

Grinding bureaucracy or rule-by-misrule are not inherently fascist in operation. Government structures earn that term when they legitimate themselves by drawing on the politics of purge: evil forces—Jewish bankers, Mexican grape-pickers, transgenders, political correctors, eco-ranters, etc.—all are weakening the economy, taking jobs away from “us,” or sapping the moral fiber of the country. Fascism is puritanical in the sense that its adherents portray the world around them in black-and-white, good and evil terms. Anti-democratic policies follow directly from the puritan purge: rather than working with complexity, avoid it. As Richard Hofstadter long ago observed, the puritan-purge impulse taps into something deeply American: it was the force behind McCarthyism and anti-communism in the 1950s, and the Christian Right from the 1980s into our own day.

A lazy kind of journalism says that fascism appeals particularly to people who feel left behind: the embittered white working class, imperiled small business, rural America. This view ignores, historically, the fact that ardent followers of Hitler could be found in the urban bourgeoisie and that his strongest opponents were workers who had a tough time before the regime came to power. Forty years ago, when Jonathan Cobb and I studied white working-class families in America, for our book The Hidden Injuries of Class, we did find racist attitudes among our subjects—and also non-racist ones. Some racists then were doing well, some non-racists felt left behind. And this is equally true today: lots of workers throughout the country voted against Trump.

What, if anything, can be done about the regime now ruling America? The greatest threat to rule by misrule is policy that stands apart from the ruler’s person. He wants policy to be an emanation of his desire, his will, his character. It’s for this reason that the soft fascist has no real respect for law, because it regulates and standardizes impersonally. Just as Senator McCarthy fell hard when he could no longer rely on personalizing and demonizing, so Trump may fall soon—as I fervently hope he does. It will not be a knight in shining armor who comes to the rescue, but simply—as in the Russian enquiry—that he is at last held accountable by the rules. icon

Featured image: Police at a protest outside the US Capitol against the nomination of Betsy DeVos, Washington, DC, 2017. Photograph by Ted Eytan / Flickr