When I was a boy of 14, the ability to “put down” others seemed like an essential social skill which I never had. In fact, I couldn’t do it. It seemed cruel and I was a sensitive boy. Others were brilliant at it.
“Put downs” were simply efforts to humiliate others by pointing out their inadequacies or imagined inadequacies. They targeted kids who were slow footed and didn’t make the sports teams, who were not quick witted or who seemed “too smart for their own good,” kids whose pubic hair was late coming in—oh the terror of the locker room. There was no end to the wounds and fears that made us vulnerable to these verbal bullies. My hairline was low, for example, and boys used to say that it met my eyebrows. Why that seemed so devastating, only a pimply adolescent can tell you.
Some “put down artists,” as they were called, were bullies and big enough to push others around more directly if they chose. Some were little kids, who managed their size by being the best “put down artists.” You knew how bad it could get if you challenged them, and that made many of us timid.
I can hardly remember anyone defending the kids who were put down, except sometimes a really nice girl. The girl who became my love when we were seniors in high school was chief among them. And she seemed to do it without humiliating the bully too much. But the complicity of everyone else was evident to all of us. We even talked about our complicity, about our lack of courage, and found comfort in others who shared our cowardice. But we never, individually or collectively, planned a counter attack. Rather we took the bullying for a fact of life.
The guys—girls didn’t do it to boys in their presence—who were good at “put downs” were either loners or leaders. I don’t understand how these two pathways converged in this way but they did. The loners seem to guarantee their privacy and safety with their skills. The leaders could get other kids to pile on. They could squeeze other kids out of a social circle. They could get activities going. You loved it when they hurt others who you didn’t like. You really wanted to be on their side.
These boys, all pimples and insecurity, were ripe for mobilizing. Targeting others as scapegoats, proved a great relief. In a small but very important way, this adolescent interaction teaches about the ripeness that foretells the rise of fascism. According to Robert Paxton, the eminent scholar, fascism is not an ideology, not a clear set of ideas or an agenda for the future. It is the “mobilization of passions,” mass passions, almost as chaotically at first, as the 14 year on put down artists.
The mobilization depends chiefly on the following conditions:
A sense of crisis. Demagogues succeed, according to Paxton, when there is “a sense of overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of any traditional solution.” Donald Trump, the Republican nominee to be President of the United States, speaks to a white, largely male electorate who feel left behind, lost, and diminished. They no longer believe that government can or even wants to help. Over and again, Trump plays to America’s downward spiral, and particularly the loss of power to which the white working class is entitled. The psychology of crisis draws them in.
Feeling victimized. “The belief that one’s group is a victim, a sentiment that justifies any action, without legal or moral limits, against its enemies, both internal and external.” In other words, the crisis didn’t arise from vague forces. Someone made it happen: “Dread of the group’s decline under the corrosive effects of individualistic liberalism, class conflict, and alien influences.” The sense of American society bowing before the forces of “foreign hordes” has fueled populist movements throughout our history and before. As in Europe, American culture is in the midst of a renaissance of such nativism.
“The right of the chosen people to dominate others without restraint from any kind of human or divine law, right being decided by the sole criterion of the group’s prowess within a Darwinian struggle.” From the start of the campaign, Trump has put himself forward as the strongest, the one who is destined to survive. He mocks Jeb Bush’s lack of energy and Marco Rubio’s sweaty underarms. They are inferior creatures destined for extinction. Watching the Republic primaries, we saw how easily he turned those debates into eighth grade free for alls in which he, simply by putting others down, fulfilled his promise to survive and thrive.
“The need for closer integration of a purer community, by consent if possible, or by exclusionary violence if necessary.” We see this in Trump’s wall, in the segregation of Muslims, Latinos, and others—all in the name of “making America great again.” This is the kind of ‘isolationism’ that is the kissing cousin of American exceptionalism. For us to be great, we must believe that others are lesser beings.
Faith in the superiority of the leader’s instincts over evidence and reason. Trump tells us, over and over, to “trust me” because he’ll “make a better deal.” He talks about his business experience but what he really means is that he was born to a certain kind of wisdom. Like the pimply adolescents of my youth, Trump’s fans want toughness, decisiveness, confidence far more than thought and reason. They love that he speaks spontaneously. It feels authentic to them. They don’t care about lots of thought. They don’t even like or trust it. Thought and ‘excessive planning’ are effete. Trump will know the right thing to do when the moment comes. As Robert Tsai puts it in What Aryans See in Donald Trump: “He is the Aryan warrior, come to save whiteness itself.”
I have been following politics for over sixty years. I was brought up during the McCarthy scare, which was horrifying in its indiscriminate scapegoating of “Reds” and the way that it made so many millions too timid to raise their voices against anything that wasn’t “red blooded American.” Donald Trump may have the ability and the audience to replicate the Red Scare but, more importantly, he has the potential to go much further. His bullying of all who oppose him, his racism, his convenient nationalism, his lack of any consistent set of values, his capacity to marshal the worst in American culture is more reminiscent, still, of Benito Mussolini.