Home > Current Affairs, History, Politics > Make American Violent Again: Donald Trump and the Fabulist Utility of Force

Make American Violent Again: Donald Trump and the Fabulist Utility of Force

Donald Trump is well advanced in his quest to bully his way to the Republican Presidential nomination. His rivals watch as their tepid assaults bounce harmlessly off his overtanned ramparts, and find themselves either forging on against his wave of resentment and demagoguery with dogged and perhaps hopeless determination (Ted Cruz and John Kasich), shaking their heads in disbelieving regret at his continued extremity and popularity (Marco Rubio), or endorsing him, kowtowing to His Orangeness in abject diminishment (Ben Carson, Chris Christie). The force and aggression of Trump’s dismantling of the legion of (admittedly hapless) Republican hopefuls arrayed against him, indeed his levelling of the GOP as it had come to be defined after eight years of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in the White House and nearly eight more of Barack Obama in their place, has a ground-level expression in his fierce rallies. These have taken on an increasingly heated and dangerous tone, with protestors, media, and even curious attendees of visible minorities facing not only the standard verbal abuse to be expected in public expressions of American political rhetoric but growing levels of physical violence as well.

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Or, Make America Violent Again

I’m not here to debate if Trump rallies are becoming violent. They quite clearly are. Nor will I argue if Trump’s rhetoric in his speeches, full of demonization of groups and individuals and lionization of violence and threats of violence as solutions to problems of all stripes, has encouraged or incited this violence. Trump has not only roused his followers to violence, he has offered to indemnify their acts of violence by covering any legal fees they may face for their brazen assaults. There is a disturbingly high likelihood of serious injury or even death resulting from this escalation, especially if Trump becomes the nominee and campaigns into November. Should anything that extreme happen, of course, Trump and those clustered around his bright neon glow will surely shift blame to the victims themselves, or to the “politically correct” culture that does not allow them to inflict pain and death without consequence, or to whatever dubious opposing force they might choose to point a finger at. So much for the party of personal responsibility.

As Ezra Klein explores at Vox, Donald Trump believes violence and threats thereof to be lost arts of American civil society. Trumpism’s core ideology is that America has become weak and sensitive in the face of its enemies, internal and external, and must save its future by stiffening its spine and crushing disagreement and dissent, with brutal physical force if necessary, wherever it opposes American interests (at least as he defines them). This is the dark message that lurks behind (but not at all far behind) the nostalgic hypernationalism that Trump expresses with his campaign motto/catchphrase “Make America Great Again”. The way to Make America Great Again – besides handing the reins of its power over to Donald Trump, of course – is to Make America Violent Again.

Like many of Trump’s public utterances, there’s a penetrating inadvertent truth to his barely-a-subtext views in terms of violence that unsettle his paean to a faded history of American glory, if not openly contradict it. A cynical view of American history (ie. a realistic one based on historical evidence rather than comforting myths) would reveal a nation that was indeed made great through the application of violence to achieve its ends. The United States was politically founded in a Revolutionary War, won its land largely from battles, massacres, and forcible dispossession of Indian peoples, built its society on the brutalized bodies of African-American both enslaved and free, and has generally acted as an arrogant Us that has warred, shot, bombed, and otherwise eliminated millions of Them figures, on foreign soil and on their own. To whatever extent America ever was great, it could be argued that violence made it so. And for many people, that greatness was not so great.

Maybe Donald Trump grasps this to some extent, though his reification of a fabulist American past (which is always already an inherent white past, devoid of the despised diversity that is one of his rhetorical targets) would preclude him from admitted that American greatness was anything other than fundamentally righteous. What is clear is that Trump sees utility in force, sees it as an aid in achieving what needs to be achieved in restoring American prestige and primacy in the world. Conservatives in America and beyond have more than flirted with this idea for decades. Their persistent approval of the use of torture as a helpful tool in waging the War on Terror demonstrates this, despite ample evidence that it is not effective at obtaining useful information. But Trump has magnified the general approval of torture in and around the Republican Party to near-erotic levels of enthusiasm, unwittingly exposing the nasty cravenness of this belief with his sheer bombast. So it is with sabre-rattling foreign policy and iron-fisted responses to crime and public protest.

The admiration of strength, force, and violence is, of course, an authoritarian characteristic, and this description has been applied to Trump and his supporters for quite some time. In the fascism of 1930s-40s Europe, to which Trump and his following is often inelegantly but not inaccurately compared, violence was assigned an aesthetic value of the highest order. From the Italian Futurists whose artistic theories underscored Mussolini’s brownshirts to the inhuman scope of both the art and the atrocities of Nazi Germany, strength and its inevitable expression in violence was considered to be a beautiful ideal. War itself, with its mechanized mass murder and indiscriminate destruction, was conceived of as art. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist, sought to achieve an idealized order in politics and society that he could not achieve in his painting. The Nazis rendered horrors not only as necessary to a larger project of achieving symmetrical perfection, but as symmetrical perfection in their own right, and thus girded their heinous acts in aesthetic justification.

Trump’s aesthetic eye is not quite so refined, as anyone who has stepped into the lobby of one of his hotels can attest to. The ludicrous, kitschy idealization of the infamous painting of his younger self to the right will lend support to the AdonisTrumpmind-boggling statement that Donald Trump’s taste in art is worse than Adolf Hitler’s. But the aestheticization of force, the beauty of violence, is not what attracts Trump to it, and might even reduce violence in his eyes by associating it with pantywaist artistic creativity. Indeed, Trump himself, a product of wealth and privilege with small, soft hands, doubtless abhors the thought of personally applying physical violence. But the fantasy of violent strength invigorates him and dovetails with his alpha-male self-conception, and it melds with the explosive anger of his base of support at forces and institutions that are beyond their control and even their comprehension. The idea of violence, the fantasy of its utility, is an irresistible lure within Trump’s frightening quasi-political movement, for its avatar and for its faithful. The chief hope of those who oppose him is that the utility of violence is fabulist, or at least is a vestige of a fading America that, “great” or not, will not be returned or remade. If a Trump victory in the Republican primaries or, even more unthinkable, in the general election results at least partly from this employment of force and violence, this hope may well prove fruitless.

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