The Trump Conundrum — A Problem the World Needs to Solve
How do you defeat a self-serving, anti-intellectual, nihilistic authoritarian?
Trump is gone, but through his “Office of the former president” and his goons in Congress, his shadow lingers over American politics. His rhetoric and neo-fascism will continue to threaten democracy for years to come. Many of the commenters on my Trump articles tell me to move on and stop talking about the man, but unless we understand what went wrong and why, Trumpism will continue to tighten its grip on American politics until, someday, a smarter, deadlier incarnation of it appears, takes power and the nukes that go with it.
Right now, humanity faces existential challenges, one of which is fascism. We have battled with this virus for over a century, and still, it keeps coming back. How is it that we never learn to identify it and nip it in the bud? We have so many examples from history, yet we keep falling in the same traps.
One possible explanation is that, as long as fascism survives somewhere on earth, democracy isn’t safe. Much like smallpox, unless it is totally and globally eradicated, fascism will endure and eventually come back. As racist and xenophobic as fascist movements are, they all adhere to an informal Fascist International, supporting each other and allowing the ideas to fester and endure.
Another reason is that fascism always gets discarded until it is too late. Those of us who see it coming and ring the bell are dubbed alarmists and fearmongers. Keep in mind that fascism is a bourgeois movement, deeply rooted in the middle-class racial majority. Fascists are everyday people who seek the status quo and don’t mind if it is enforced through segregation, violence, and injustice. It’s enough to look at the mob's demographic makeup that stormed the Capitol to see that this is true in America as it was true in Germany and Italy before. To quote Buenaventura Durruti, a famous Spanish Civil War anarchist fighter:
No government fights fascism to destroy it. When the bourgeoisie sees that power is slipping out of its hands, it brings up fascism to hold onto their privileges.
A third reason that makes Trump’s form of fascism hard to combat has to do with his personality. Trump is not your everyday wannabe dictator because he isn’t your everyday human. Trump has never displayed any human qualities or values, nor any resolve or end goal. He is characterised by three fundamental personality traits to which all his actions boil down: he is self-serving, anti-intellectual, and nihilistic.
Trump has no motivation other than his personal benefit. Nothing matters to him, but what can increase his wealth and power or flatter his vanity. Trump is renowned for changing opinions like one changes shirts. This absence of ethical and intellectual consistency reveals his true nature: he will say what makes him look best and furthers his interests in the short-term, and he lets future him deal with the consequences.
Trump is an ignorant, anti-intellectual bully. The pandemic was but the latest, deadliest demonstration of his utter contempt for science, fact-based reasoning, and critical thinking; he has been acting this way for decades, though. Trump doesn’t respect intellectuals because he is a vainglorious moron. In the company of smart people, he fades away into nothingness and reverts to the last resort of all fascists (and all bullies): violence and abuse. His encounter with Angela Merkel, a quantum chemistry PhD, illustrated perfectly this aspect of his personality, together with his misogyny.
Trump is the purest incarnation of nihilism that the world has ever seen. Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be communicated or known. Trump has displayed no empathy, no warmth, and no interest for anything but himself during his term. He hasn’t enacted any piece of legislation, hasn’t promoted any values nor furthered any cause. All he has done was line the pockets of his family and his sycophants, golf, and let people die, be they ill, foreign, or poor.
Trump is nothing more than an amoral greedy moron. These three character traits are precisely what makes him so unique as an authoritarian and what makes his blend of fascism so hard to combat and uproot.
His greed and egotism make him impervious to any argument based on ethics, justice, or humanism. You can’t call to his heart or guts, because his wallet is all that matters. You can’t make him feel and empathise with somebody else’s experience, because he cannot imagine what other people experience. The man and his mail-order bride did a photo op with a baby whose parents had been murdered in the El Paso shooting; Trump smiled and gave the thumbs-up, for crying out loud. It’s not that Trump has no heart; it’s that he cannot conceive of what a heart is. Asking Trump to feel empathy would be like asking a person who is blind to describe the colour red.
His anti-intellectualism does not allow for logic or reasoning. If cornered, he’ll make something up to get out. He offers no argument to deconstruct, no premise to debunk. His rhetoric, its absence of meaning and purpose have contributed to the rise of conspiracy theories and all kinds of craziness that are now spreading internationally. They say you can’t reason someone out of an idea they didn’t reason themselves into, and we know that Trump doesn’t reason himself into anything.
His nihilism makes it impossible to predict his actions and counter his plans, for he has none. He offers no values for the world to question and argue; he displays no coherence; his actions are not causally linked to each other. You cannot argue with someone who considers all arguments irrelevant. As a true nihilist, Trump doesn’t believe things can be known, he always questions people, facts, and events, but in the end, he doesn’t care anyway.
This breed of fascism, let’s call it Trumpism lest someone forgets where it came from, poses an immense threat to democracy, America, and the world. A fascist who suffers no argument and cannot be influenced through ideas, feelings, or long-term goals is an unbeatable force if they are competent and smart (thankfully, Trump was not). More importantly, you cannot predict such a leader: they make decisions based on what they believe is best for them at a specific moment. We cannot access or mimic the reasoning because there is none.
It is my unshakeable belief that Trump has not held a single ethical view more than a few minutes for his entire life, because he expands no mental energy on thinking about anything but himself.
I’m willing to bet both my hands that Trump would perpetrate the Holocaust without a second thought if he were promised $1B for it. And he wouldn’t care who’d be genocided to boot, as long as he’s paid.
His three fundamental character traits make Trump something uniquely dangerous: he is a hateful solipsist.
Trump’s style, rhetoric, and attitudes are the fascist equivalent of cutting-edge technologies: they have shown all extremists the world over how to distort the truth and play with bourgeois anger and racism. Trump has shown that owning your supremacist views and engaging in violence (verbal and physical) actually works. His egotistic, anti-intellectual, nihilistic tactics are sure to be emulated.
If we are to learn from Trumpism, we must think about stopping such a person from ever holding power again. We must learn to defeat these personality traits and disarm them. Doing this relies on three fundamental pillars: rework the vetting process of candidates; de-platform extremism speech much faster; empower citizens with new democratic tools.
Reworking the vetting process of candidates would tackle the self-serving, narcissistic aspects of neo-fascists. You make it impossible for them to act in secret by enforcing total and absolute transparency on all facets of their lives. If someone is seeking a public office, paid for by taxes, the disclosure standards should be the highest imaginable.
The disclosure of tax records and business dealings should be mandatory for all candidates to an elected office. Make this disclosure absolute: all the data should be published online for everyone to see as part of their decision-making process and for the press to analyse.
All candidates should also pass a health check, physical and psychological, in front of an independent panel of experts. This panel would then publish an assessment as to the fitness of the candidate.
Once elected, they should be forced by law to put all their assets in a blind trust managed by an elected office of government, the management of which should be fully transparent: records of trades, transactions, withdrawals, everything should be public. If their assets are not transferred to this trust, they cannot take their oath of office. If they fail to deliver their assets after having won an election in a reasonable timeframe, they should face criminal liability.
De-platforming should happen instantly in the case of lying. You make it impossible for them to share their lies and conspiracy theories. De-platforming should happen immediately. Once again, government officials must be held to the highest truth standards: a lie stated in public should lead to a discharge and legal consequences. We send people to prison for drug possession. Still, congresspeople can lie openly, cause the death of hundreds of thousands by denying the existence of a very real virus, and nothing happens?
This is the greatest mistakes the media has made since Trump joined the race in 2015: they treated Trump as a regular yet exuberant politician, and they distributed his lies because they made for good headlines. In Europe, this phenomenon was even more pronounced. The media saw Trump as a great source of infotainment and countless hours were lost trying to analyse what he had said, trying to impart meaning to his empty words. It gave him credibility. More importantly, the professional media being careful to ponder their opinions and give both sides of every argument, they rationalised his irrationality and created arguments Trump had never intended.
Empowering citizens with new democratic tools would make people more concerned and familiar with politics. It would also give them the power to control their elected officials. This idea comes from Switzerland and its centuries-old direct democracy. While it is not impervious to extreme thoughts and racism, Swiss democracy still allows its citizens to be heard and to bring to votes changes they want to see.
Citizens should be able to bring a motion of no-confidence against any elected official, assuming they can collect enough valid signatures within a given timeframe. This would allow constituents to have real, democratic power over their representatives. The American government would truly be of the people, by the people, for the people.
Trumpism poses a fundamental problem to Humanity. It is a new form of fascism characterised by three fundamental traits: egoism, anti-intellectualism, and nihilism. These traits make it hard to contradict and combat, as they offer no ground for dialectic reasoning. One can’t argue with a Trumpist, and when discussions end, democracy ends.
It must be our priority to bar these people from holding office. To achieve this, processes must be implemented to improve the vetting of all candidates seeking an elected office. Full transparency and accountability must become the norm. These people work for us, they should answer to us for their actions and their words.
The media has a crucial role in de-platforming these individuals as soon as they start openly lying. Government officials should face criminal charges for wilful lies, and no exceptions should be made. National security is often used as an excuse to justify lying, but it really isn’t one.
Finally, to protect democracy, we must empower it. We must provide citizens with new tools to enforce their power over their elected officials. Democracy cannot survive when the people who make it are not engaged and concerned.
The fight against fascism (and Trumpism) is a constant battle, one more we must wage if our civilisation is to endure and prosper.