Trump's a fool first. / Insomnia Cured Here
Rick Perlstein,  May 19

Fascism for Dummies

Will stupidity mitigate despotism?

Trump's a fool first. / Insomnia Cured Here
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Back when he played Bill O’Reilly every night on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert used to importune his interviewees with a stock question: “George W. Bush: great president, or greatest president?” Ever since Presidential Candidate Trump came on the scene, we’ve all been debating a similarly piquant formulation, only this time as tragedy, not farce: “Donald J. Trump: ordinarily evil Republican, or evilest Republican?” Just about since Day One, up until the day before yesterday, I knew where I stood on the question. I believe, in fact, I may have been one of the first commentators of prominence to worry the question of Trump as an imminent fascist in print. 

Now, I’m not as familiar with the literature of fascism as I’d like to be. I hope someday to take a good solid month off and work my way through it, just as soon as normal constitutional government is restored. Until this week, I had some time penciled in for 2021 or ’25. Now, though, that even ordinarily evil Republicans have begun talking about subpoenas and impeachment, I might find the time sooner than that.

When I do, here’s a question I’ll be asking: When the great towering intellects of our century carved out their interpretations of who, what, where, why, and when constitutional republics go fascist, and intellectuals going back to the eighteenth century asked the same question about the older category of plain tyranny, did anyone understand how the most powerful exigency to save civilization from barbarism might be the aspiring dictator’s abject stupidity?

Nixon played chess, Trump can only play checkers. Maybe tic tac toe?

Do you remember—it wasn’t so long ago—when even Trump’s most thoroughgoing critics acknowledged that Donald Trump was, if nothing else, shrewd? That Trump, unlike Richard Nixon, at least had proven himself a past master at money laundering, an extremely intricate skill? That he possessed remarkable acuity at reading people, matching their moods, telling them what they wanted to hear in the furtherance of his own interests? 

I find it undeniably evident that Donald Trump’s intentions have always been dictatorial: I’ve organized my political and intellectual life around the conclusion. But who knew he’d be such a clod at consolidating his power? It’s only a fortnight ago that he finished up filling his cabinet. And as of now, of the reported 556 key federal appointments that require Senate confirmation, he’s only so far filled ninety-two. 

Do you remember the fuss about “landing teams”? This was the theory that all those “empty” seats were intentional, and not really empty at all. The idea was that the Trump administration had seized on the past practice in past transitions of filling key roles with stop-gap appointments in order to keep agencies running smoothly—until the real bosses were named and confirmed. But in this case, the diabolical Trumpkins intended their temps to be permanent: an infestation of corporate lobbyists, Heritage Foundation hacks, and professional privatizers who could never get past any responsible confirmation process. The beauty of this alleged plan was that confirmations didn’t matter, since perma-temps didn’t require confirmation in the first place.

Diabolical if true. However that bubble of paranoia was burst a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of a devastating report in Politico, which revealed that the Terrible Temps in question were “mostly young Trump campaign aides with little experience in government.” And these tenderfoots were quietly being eased out “even though many of them had expected to be central players at their agencies for the long haul.” What’s more, the weekly White House meetings where they were supposed to be to narc-ing out public servants who stubbornly insisted on serving the public were nothing but a farce, “brainstorming sessions for suck-ups”—“like a roomful of Jonahs from Veep,” one administration official said, which is really, really funny if you’ve ever seen Veep. (And if you haven’t: well, conjure up a D.C.-themed episode of The Three Stooges and you get the basic idea.)

The fascist fish rots from the top. Nixon’s White House tapes were so damaging because they flushed forth private presidential utterances that should have never been made public: most notably, the times when he conspired to commit high crimes and misdemeanors. Trump’s tweets and interviews are so damaging because they are public admissions of high crimes and misdemeanors.

And:

I was going to fire regardless of recommendation. . . And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said “you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is just a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election they should have won.”

Again and again, I’m asked to compare Nixon to Trump, and I’ve found myself recurring to a growing array of metaphors, none of which fully bring us to the core preposterousness of the comparison. First time as tragedy, second time as farce. Trump as Nixon turned up to eleven, a la Spinal Tap. Nixon played chess, Trump can only play checkers.

But even checkers gives him way, way too much credit. Maybe tic tac toe? But from the looks of things, Trump would even lose at that. Here’s his latest, greatest tweet:

No, I suppose, not during a Clinton “campaign.” But if he thinks this is actually clever, Ken Starr has a clean blue dress to sell him.

Would the Holocaust have happened if Moe Howard was Chancellor of Germany? The Gulag, if Stalin was swapped out for Stan Laurel? So I’m breathing easier. We have our special prosecutor. He’ll be taking on a president as dumb as a post.

Rick Perlstein is a contributing editor of The Baffler and author of Nixonland and other books.

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