Trump’s farce of fascism
Equal parts comedy and tragedy, the Jan. 6 riot was the perfect capstone of a presidency as ludicrous as it was horrific.
Karl Marx once wrote that all great people and events recur in history twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” He was talking about Louis-Napoleon, the mediocre nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, but he could have just as easily been referring to our (soon-to-be-former) president. Throughout his four-year term, Trump was saddled with epithets like “Orange Hitler” and “Cheeto Mussolini.” Popular among Twitter liberals, these monikers capture the contradiction in how Trump’s opponents see him.
He is at once a monster and a clown. Trump is the “national nightmare” and “an existential threat to the Republic.” At the same time, he’s a punchline —easy fodder for hackneyed late-night monologues.
Somehow, he is both a fascist dictator bent on increasing his personal power yet too feckless to be bothered to perform even the most basic duties of the office much less design and oversee a totalitarian state.
These wildly conflicting images of Trump exist side by side, making it difficult for his critics to accurately evaluate him or respond appropriately. The actual way liberals treat Trump doesn’t match the seriousness of the threat he ostensibly is.
Trump’s parody of fascism begat a parody of resistance.
If Trump really is the Second Coming of Adolf Hitler, then the liberals should have taken up arms long ago like their counterparts in the Weimar Republic. Instead, they wrote children’s books and bombarded his mentions with “Mr. Drumpf, you’re fired!”
This duality could be seen again in the reactions to Trump’s supporters storming of the Capitol last week. Liberals took to social media to express their outrage and horror, tossing out terms like “domestic terrorism,” “coup” and “insurrection.” Meanwhile, on many leftist podcasts, the whole bizarre ordeal was played for laughs.
Neither of these ways of viewing the riot was exactly right — or wrong, either.
Was what happened horrifying or comical? Like much of Trump’s presidency, it was both.
Scenes of chaos and violence could be seen alongside blooper reels of half-assed insurrectionists bumbling through their poorly thought out rebellion.
The incident provoked a number of ahistorical comparisons, with many likening it to Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch. But for anyone with even a Wikipedia-level understanding of that event, the analogy falls flat.
Hitler led a small army of Nazi paramilitaries in an attempt to overthrow the government of Bavaria. The idea was to establish a base of power in the state, which had become a center of reactionary politics and from there, march on Berlin as Mussolini had done in Rome.
The putschists were mostly former soldiers who were better organized and armed than the random yahoos who answered Trump’s call. Before the revolt was suppressed by the army and the police, the fascists succeeded in capturing a number of government buildings and seized political leaders as hostages.
Hitler attended his putsch in person. He kicked it off by firing a shot into the ceiling of the Bürgerbräukeller and proclaiming “The national revolution has broken out!”
Trump didn’t even show up. He merely goaded his followers with a rambling rant that included a bit where he lamented the fact that Oprah won’t return his calls anymore.
The Nazis who tried to seize power in Bavaria had a solemnity to what they were doing — they were prepared to die. They were toting a machine gun and exchanged fire in the streets of Munich with police and soldiers.
By contrast, the January 6th riots featured the odd juxtaposition of feral militants alongside folks livestreaming on Instagram and posing for selfies with mail they pilfered off Nancy Pelosi’s desk. In one widely mocked video, a rioter talks revolution then in the same breath, belly-aches about catching some stray pepper spray.
Some might argue that even though it may not be a one-to-one, parallels exist and it’s nevertheless apt to compare the two events. It might seem pedantic to go to the trouble of exploding this lazy historical comparison, but there’s value in contrasting the fascism of the 20th century with its farcical echo in the 21st.
Facile analogies with the past lead to oversimplified analysis of the present. For example, some have invoked the Beer Hall Putsch as reason why it’s necessary to impeach Trump in order to foreclose on the possibility of him returning to office in four years. The logic goes: The putsch was only a prelude to Hitler’s eventual rise to power a decade later, so we have to nip it in the bud now.
Hitler followed the Munich putsch by writing his manifesto Mein Kampf in which he resolved to pursue a different course: To take power via the ballot box. He and the other Nazi leaders spent the next decade meticulously executing that strategy, building a massive parallel government contained entirely within the party.
Compare that to Trump, who followed the Jan. 6 riots with a video statement disingenuously condemning the violence he helped foment and meekly professing his support for a peaceful transition.
It’s laughable to picture Trump, an aging gameshow host with no work ethic or real political convictions, spending 10 of the few remaining years of his life assembling this motley assortment of militia goons, Proud Boys and QAnon weirdoes into a revolutionary fascist organization.
Trump is Mussolini and Hitler if you stripped away most of the things that made them world historical figures, such as drive, ideology, political acumen — a plan. Take that away, and you’re left with crude facsimile of fascism that’s predominantly spectacle.
By some accounts, Trump didn’t even want to be president to begin with. Viewed from this perspective, the Jan. 6 riots were more about a narcissist saving face than a tyrant trying to hold onto power to execute a fascist political program.
The liberal takeaway from the Beer Hall Putsch is that Hitler didn’t get punished enough and that Germans didn’t take the putsch seriously enough, therefore it’s simply a matter of bringing the hammer down on Trump.
But this is a continuation of the liberal tendency to monomaniacally focus on Trump as a figure and a singular threat rather than the historical forces he represents. Trump didn’t manifest the American far-right from thin air — he merely gave it voice, focus and license.
The irony is that, even as liberals admonish us to “learn from history,” they miss the most important lesson. It’s a fallacy to assume that if Hitler were only given a stiffer sentence, then Nazism would have been halted in its tracks.
Fascism must be understood as an answer to a critical failure of liberal democracy. The Nazis came to power because the Weimar government was weak and ineffectual. It was fundamentally incapable of addressing the economic shock of the Great Depression and the fascists capitalized on that.
With climate disaster looming and the potential for an endless series of new pandemics, we’ll see crises that eclipse those of the 1930s. Like Weimar Germany, the Biden Administration will find itself helpless to respond, weak majorities in Congress notwithstanding.
The Capitol riot should be treated with deadly seriousness as a portent of things to come but not because it might somehow lead to “Cheeto Mussolini” getting swept back into power. It represents a movement waiting for its moment —one that seems to be on its way.
Though many of us are laughing now, farce could easily give way to tragedy again.