By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | News Analysis
Much has been written about whether Donald Trump is a despot authoritarian, fascist or merely a bumbling clown. As we approach this question of what Trump "is," it's important for us to realize that -- regardless of our assessments of his level of intelligence, or his adolescent mentality, or his bizarre mannerisms -- he is in the most powerful seat in the world. Trump is dangerous and he needs to be taken seriously.
Kathleen Jones is a political theorist whose publications and teaching about modern political theory and Hannah Arendt span nearly four decades. Her most recent book is a philosophical memoir, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, about her 30-year relationship with the work of the well-loved political thinker.
In understanding Trump, Jones says, we need to look at the gaps -- and potential gaps -- between his claims and the truth. She points to Trump's boasts of business acumen and accomplishments, alongside his refusal to release his tax returns, as well as his documented history of bankruptcies, which resulted in some of his business interests' restructuring.
Given that his claims to be a wildly wealthy and successful businessman are what generated much of his support among his base, it is important to address the fact that these claims are dubious.
"In the absence of full financial disclosures we lack solid data with which to assess whether Trump is a success or a failure," Jones, who is also a Professor Emerita of Women's Studies at San Diego State University, told Truthout. "Instead, we have Trump's bombastic proclamations, loudly and often, of his brand's excellence and dominance: 'Believe me,' he exhorts. And his core of supporters complies."
In fact, Jones sees Trump's supporters' compliance as similar to that of sympathizers of earlier European pre-totalitarian movements. Arendt called them the "masses."
"Socially atomized, isolated, 'lonely' individuals, drawn from the ranks of different classes, who felt adrift in an incomprehensibly changed world, formed the mass core of ideologically racist movements, like Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism of the mid-to-late 19th century," Jones added.
She quoted Arendt's comment that these masses "remained unequivocally hostile to all existing political bodies. [Their] general mood was far more rebellious and [their] leaders were far more adept at revolutionary rhetoric."
Jones explained that although the goals of the masses were vague and subject to frequent change, they consistently identified a conspiracy of enemies -- foreigners, especially Jews -- who they viewed as having fractured the social fabric of "the nation," and embraced an ideology of "enlarged tribal consciousness" and a movement to achieve its inchoate goals.
According to Arendt, a vaguely defined ideology and a loose movement was "quite enough in a time which preferred a key to history to political action, when men in the midst of communal disintegration and social atomization wanted to belong at any price [emphasis added]."
Jeffrey Isaac is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, and a long-time editor-in-chief of one of the top political science journals in the world, Perspectives on Politics: A Political Science Public Sphere.
Isaac told Truthout that he believes what Arendt wrote about "mob mentality" applies to Trump, who rose to power by flouting "respectable leadership."
"What is most important, though, is this: Trump has risen to power by fomenting resentment, xenophobia and mass hysteria among his supporters," Isaac, who has written six books and more than 70 articles on the topics of democracy, totalitarianism and political rebellion, explained.
Trump was able to win, Isaac said, because "the old parties" are both in crisis." It is exactly this "crisis" of "the old parties" that Trump has used to propel himself into power.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, who writes and speaks frequently on fascism, authoritarian rulers and Donald Trump, agrees that much of Trump's political strategy relates to distancing himself from the US's two main political parties.
Ben-Ghiat told Truthout that Trump engages in "negative politics" by constantly referencing the failures of the established political parties and using these references as "a powerful lever to [his supporters'] personas as outsiders."
"Trump is in this tradition," Ben-Ghiat, who is working on a book entitled Strongmen: From Mussolini to Trump, added. "'I alone can fix it,' means the establishment parties have ruined the country; strong and new medicine is needed."
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