For a supposed white supremacist, Donald Trump is obviously the wrong colour. The Grand Wizard of Trump Tower is also devoid of much in the way of magic. He is, rather, what he has always been: an orange supremacist, believing in the power of one, and out to do whatever he can to further his own profane and deeply materialistic ambitions.
That’s why Donald Trump’s words on Monday were many things: brash, combative, insincere, snarling, petulant, and, in many respects, utterly childish. Yet they were also calculated and disruptive. This was Trump attempting to redefine language of American politics; a continuation of the process he began when he ran for the nomination of the Republican party. This was Trump saying to Republicans and their base that he does not accept the political hegemony as it has largely been defined by the liberal Left. If they can label neo-conservatism as the “alt right” then he can label them as the “alt left”. “Yah boo! Sucks to be you!” he might well have added.
Certainly, the argument seems typically petty of this most petty of presidents. Trump had been forced by General Kelly and others to read Sunday’s condemnation of white supremacists in Charlottesville and Trump clearly resented the fact that the public had noted his moment of weakness. Yet this was more than petulance. Trump has always — and perhaps only — had a gift for branding. The man who turned the dull, lumpen, flat, and risible word “Trump” into a symbol of opulence is now trying the same in politics. He wants the “right” of his ring-wing popularism to mean “ordinary America”, and he resists anything that would put him at odds with that base.
That’s why he’s now engaged in a battle for language. Words matter in this. Words define everything.
The media have rightly concentrated their fire on the false equivalency that Trump drew between the neo-Nazis and the anti-fascist protesters – and that is certainly the correct thing to do. It cannot be stated enough that there is no moral equivalency. Standing at the side of a violent riot might make it hard to distinguish the motives of the combatants, but those that set out to spread a message of ethnic hate are very different to those opposed to that message of hate for whatever reason (even misguided reasons). Too many conservatives and even centrists have allowed their natural hostility to the Far Left cloud their judgement on this point. This is not a debate about whether the Far Left is scruffy, ignorant, unpleasant, violent, or even dangerous. This isn’t even about those anarchists that attended the march simply to engage in violence because they enjoy anarchy and violence. This is about politics, white supremacism, and the Far Right. We should not conflate the two, even as we’re encouraged to do just that.
Similarly, we shouldn’t be drawn into any argument that attempts reform neo-Nazi rhetoric so it returns to the political mainstream. In truth, reforming the hard Right does not appear to be Trump’s goal: he is aiming to push mainstream conservatism further to the right. This is a critical distinction, even if the results are sometimes far less obvious. This was about establishing President Trump as the “real” voice of American conservatism and, in the process, severing a whole swathe of the political base from the Republican Party. This was, in all but name, Donald Trump establishing his credentials as an independent now at war with the modern Republican Party. Republicans, in turn, are facing an existential crisis. Do they follow him to the right and accept this fundamental change to the character of their party? Or do they risk election defeat (assuming that Trump is speaking to a demographic bigger than poll numbers suggest) which is always likely when politics moves towards the extremes and voters are less likely to admit to their prejudices?
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No wonder Steve Bannon was reported to have said that this was the “defining” moment of Trump’s presidency. It was but also defining for America too.
Bannon is, of course, a chief architect in the alt-right movement and, it’s telling that, in the light of Trump’s words, a rare interview with his chief strategist appeared yesterday in American Prospect magazine. The interview had two key moments. The first was when Bannon spoke about the far right. “Ethno-nationalism […] it’s a fringe element,” he said. “These guys are a collection of clowns.”
Words matter. Words define everything. “Clowns” implies something more or different to mere disapproval. It implies incompetence. So, in the very moment that Bannon seems to be condemn the racists, he is really saying something else: that they are fools not because they are racists but, perhaps, because they are incompetent racists. This is the tenor of his subsequent critique of the Left. “The longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em”, he said. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
If Bannon can be said to have a “shtick”, then this is it: the ability to dress old politics in new language. Racism is one example of “old politics”. It is convenient to Bannon in two ways. Overt racism attracts the main force of the opposition but those that use accusations of racism as a weapon also politicise it, rendering it all but impotent.
Again, words matter. Words define everything. Both Trump and Bannon are adept at these linguistic tricks; changing the language to make opinions previously held as risible suddenly sound like they are part of the mainstream. Bannon would never admit openly that the nation state controlling immigration for economic reasons leads to the same results as white nationalists controlling immigration for ethnic reasons but, to put this crudely, this is a way to achieve the goals of white supremacism without the overt racism.
The effect of this rebranding exercise can already be seen on social media where arguments have already begun among those happy to draw the moral equivalency. Some even ask ‘what exactly is a Nazi’, as if the word was ever in doubt. This is where the real harm is done.
The danger of this current debate is that it is likely to hasten our already diminishing sense of Nazism, white nationalism, and, indeed, the Far Right. Nazism loomed large in the minds of those generations living in or with the aftermath of World War 2. For subsequent generations, Nazism was more of a taboo and, like all taboos, became transgressive. It became an edgy style adopted by punks in the 1970s and then by royal princes in 2005. It was also the stuff of Broadway shows and people learned to laugh at the Nazis, beginning to forget that this laughter was originally meant to cauterise real wounds. “Springtime for Hitler” as bad taste became camp taste, a pastiche on evil rather than evil itself. By the time Quentin Tarantino made Inglorious Bastards in 2009, the Nazis were reduced to caricature and simply another extreme aesthetic to tap for effect.
Irrespective of Trump, there is always a danger that Nazis will be perceived as less Nazi and the Far Right will somehow be normalised. If, however, America’s centrist-to-moderate Right allow “Republicanism” to adopt the meaning of “Trumpism”, then the gap between the mainstream and the Far Right might become dangerously close. This is the crass and selfish game that Trump is playing in order to sustain his impotent presidency through its first faltering term, hoping to win a more right wing and populist mandate for a second.
This is why words matter. Words define everything.