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CNN's Trump town hall was a fascist ritual
Trump calls his supporters to their worst selves.
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On Tuesday, former President Donald Trump was found liable for sexually assaulting writer E. Jean Carroll and defaming her. The $5 million dollar fine didn’t deter Trump for even a day, though.
At his CNN town hall in New Hampshire on Wednesday night, Trump again smeared Carroll, mocking her claims about how he assaulted her in the Bergdorf Goodman department store.
“What kind of a woman meets somebody … and within minutes you’re playing hanky panky in a dressing room,” he sneered.
Trump’s cruel monologue was repulsive. But what was even more disgusting was the audience reaction. CNN had shamelessly filled the room with Trump supporters. And as the former president mocked Carroll, those supporters laughed like he was a witty comedian delivering a punchline.
Trump is Trump; he was a horrible person long before he was president, and he will go to his grave a liar, a bully, and a bigot. When CNN put Trump on the air for ratings and clout, they knew he would spread election lies. They knew he would demean E. Jean Carroll. They knew he would direct abuse at moderator Kaitlin Collins (he called her “nasty,” his standard epithet for women who challenge him).
But commentators like to think that most Americans are better than Trump. The college students, the small businesspeople, and even the Republican activists who vote for Trump do so, pundits hope, despite his manifest cruelty, rather than because those good Americans enjoy laughing at sexual assault victims.
But CNN’s town hall was a reminder that Trump supporters are in fact bad people — in the sense that to support Trump, and defend Trump, requires them to become their absolute worst selves. Probably most of Trump’s supporters did not tell themselves before the town hall started that they were there to cheer on sexual assault. But by the end they were doing just that. That’s how fascism works.
How can 74 million Trump supporters be fascists?
Pundits and experts have long scoffed at the idea that Trump’s supporters are actually implicated in his evil — or at least, they’ve insisted that saying they are is verboten.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was widely excoriated when she said in 2016 that half of Trump’s voters were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamophobic” — a “basket of deplorables,” as she memorably put it. In 2022, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute worried that “to say that tens of millions of supporters of the other party … are fascists, fascistic, or semi-fascistic is to use the language of national emergency.” That transforms the other party from “adversaries to enemies,” he argues, which makes it too easy “to justify taking extraordinary action to suppress the threat.”
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Hamid is afraid of the effects of polarization. But the way he keeps incredulously insisting that tens of millions of Trump supporters can’t be fascists also suggests that he is just loath to believe that so many Americans — our fellow countrymen, our neighbors, our relatives — can be bad people. Fascism is evil. Americans aren’t evil. So how can Americans be fascists?
The CNN town hall was a 70 minute demonstration in the grim mechanics of how. Robert O. Paxton argues that a core characteristic of fascism is “an obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood” paired with “compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity.” Fascists claim that they, the pure bearers of the nation’s pride, are being assaulted, smeared, and debased (generally by marginalized people). They then use that as an excuse for extremes of violence in the name of revenge and purity.
Let us count the ways
You could see Trump enact this formula over and over again in the town hall as his fans cheered. In defending his violent coup attempt on January 6, for example, Trump quickly brought up Ashli Babbitt, who was killed while storming the Capitol. The former president’s voice got positively misty as he said her name, and then harsh as he called the Black police officer who shot her a “thug.”
“Cold, blank range they shot her,” he stormed — as if she was deliberately executed, rather than killed in a violent melee as she and her cohort attempted to get their hands on members of Congress who were trying to count the electoral votes that would finalize Trump’s loss to Joe Biden. Babbitt becomes a martyr for the cause, retroactively erasing or justifying everyone else who took part in the insurrection.
Again, when Trump was asked about his policy of separating families at the border, leaving children alone in cages, he explained it was necessary to deter immigration. “We have to save our country,” he insisted. America is in danger from immigrants that Trump claims are spreading disease and terror. Any excess of cruelty is justifiable to save it.
Trump’s ugly discussion of E. Jean Carroll was even more illustrative. He repeated over and over that he didn’t know her — at one point swearing on his children — using big hand gestures and squeaking his voice to suggest that Carroll was mentally ill, out of control, and determined to persecute him. Trump is again the innocent persecuted figure, and his innocence justifies his crude smears of Carroll, even after a jury of his peers found him liable for assaulting and defaming her.
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In each case here — and in many more throughout the town hall — Trump gives the audiences little winks or asides to remind them that he’s on their side. At one point he bizarrely suggested he would give one questioner a job in his administration. At another he gave the audience a sincere look and told them rich people “do pretty well in a lot of ways” as they laughed. He’s a comedian. He tells it like it is. He’s their guy.
Trump’s voters empathize with Trump, and he in turn empathizes with them, assuring them that they are persecuted and under assault. And then, empathizing together in an organic community of amity, he tells them that the solution to their ills is atrocity. And they enthusiastically agree.
Acquiescing to fascism
MAGA partisans don’t see themselves as evil, because they know they’re on the side of the noble victims. Trump gets people to feel like they’re backed into a corner with him, and that only through him can they break free and scourge their enemies. It’s a potent cocktail of fear and rage and righteousness. It’s addictive. It’s exciting. And, as all that laughter shows, it’s fun.
Fascism is a mass movement. That doesn’t mean that people are tricked or hypnotized by a charismatic leader. It means that people encourage each other to form a community based in cruelty, bigotry, lies, and violence. The community feels good and right, not despite the fact that it gives people license to be their worst selves, but because it does. And, yes, millions of neighbors, relatives, and good, pure people can participate in the rituals of victimization, bigotry, and blood. Who is fascism for, after all, if not the good, pure people?
That’s it for today
Aaron is taking a little breather in between putting together a lengthy thread about Trump’s town hall on Wednesday and covering his rally in Des Moines on Saturday. He’ll be back with more Monday. If you missed his new podcast with political scientist and authoritarianism expert Brian Klaas, check it out here.
Thanks as always for your support, and have a great weekend.