“Mussolini did not have any philosophy; he had only rhetoric.” These are the words of Umberto Eco, uttered in 1995 during a speech at Columbia University on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe.
The same goes for Donald Trump. He started the week by asserting that if he were to lose on Nov. 3, it would be because the election was rigged and stolen from the “people.” He ended it Thursday night in a full-on assault on his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, a “Trojan horse for socialism,” maintaining that this was “the most important election in the history of the country,” which his opponents will no doubt agree with. It was a nomination acceptance speech filled with lies delivered in front of the White House, where he mixed, with impunity, presidential functions with electoral ambition. It was where Trump raised the specter of “the massive arrival of immigrants” if Biden, who leads in the polls, takes office, and where he claimed to have done more for African Americans than Abraham Lincoln. It was also where he congratulated himself for his rather absurd management of the COVID-19 pandemic, without showing the least bit of sympathy for its victims.
In between, the Republican National Convention created a parallel world that painted the president as a just and a good man, open to the diversity of the world. It was where the “famiglia,” starting with his wife, Melania, and his daughter, Ivanka, sought to give a human face to a man who, in fact, resembles a mafia godfather in a disconcerting disconnect with reality, just like the individual in question.
How did the Republicans get here? Trump has not taken the party hostage, as bewildered Republican consultant Stuart Stevens breaks down in The New York Times. He is simply the “logical conclusion” to the evolution of the party over the last 50 years. He is also, as the ecologist Romeo Bouchard wrote on the Idées page of Le Devoir in 2017 at the beginning of Trump’s term, the “mirror” of a society which refuses to take climate change seriously and has “completely lost the very idea of democracy.”
But, fortunately, he is a mirror of just a segment of society. One need only look at the extent to which anti-racist resistance has taken on the denial of rights since the police killing of George Floyd, an African American man, in a scorched-earth politics that for Trump, consists of reducing protesters to thugs. The protest movement of professional athletes, born in the National Basketball Association in the aftermath of what happened to Jacob Blake on Sunday, shot seven times in the back by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is extraordinary in this regard. These demands for social justice will, however, bear fruit only if they are heard beyond the streets and from the media.
This scorched-earth politics is the contempt that Trump has shown for democracy since 2016. It is the federal law enforcement deployed to Portland, Oregon. It is the president’s support for conspiracy theories like those of the QAnon movement, “because they like me very much, which I appreciate,” a group whose drivers mingled about the virtual halls of the convention.
And it is the invitation to speak at the convention offered to the St. Louis couple applauded for having aimed firearms, from their front porch, at Black Lives Matter protesters — an invitation that, by association, encouraged the appearance of armed militants on the streets of the United States, and justified the gunning down of two protesters by a young militant of 17, Kyle Rittenhouse, an avowed admirer of the president, Tuesday night in Kenosha.
The result is that Trump, armed with his rhetoric, runs for office as a crusader of law and order while he incites extreme right sympathizers to commit violence, and would like nothing better than to watch the largely peaceful protests against racism and police brutality degenerate and manufacture the “chaos” he predicts for Americans if Biden is elected.
It is not impossible that his “emotional populism,” to use sociologist Eva Illouz’s theory, will succeed as it did in 2016. But the fact remains that discontent has increased among voters. The last four years have highlighted the extent to which a president can abuse his power. Only by burying their heads in the sand can Americans who care about their democratic system fail to appreciate the danger.