Many seem at a loss for rational explanations as to why President Trump and his allies are so against wearing masks to protect themselves and others during the COVID-19 pandemic. Stupid, ridiculous, and anti-science are among common responses for those who wonder what’s going on with anti-maskers. Studies of fascist politics, however, provide insights as to this seemingly irrational behavior.
Important to acknowledge is that Trump and his followers fall along the lines of far right and fascist politics in their mythic construction of the world. One of the first steps towards actual fascism is the promotion of an ultranationalism that promises a rebirth of the nation, a mythic past that the leader can reference. For example, the slogans “Make America Great Again” and Trump’s inaugural speech use of “America First” in particular, according to Sarah Churchwell, harkens back to U.S. Nazi sympathizers of the 1930s and 40s and serves today as “a code for neo-Nazism” and anti-Semitism. The “America First” signaling remains a part of Trump’s and Pence’s electoral statement in my state’s 2020 Voters’ Pamphlet.
Trump and his allies created a narrative of the U.S. in crisis with the understanding that what’s needed is a strong leader. One of the more blatant examples was Trump’s “build the wall” rants to stop an imagined “invasion” of crime-ridden immigrants. During his presidential campaign in 2015 the bully-in-chief claimed with no evidence that “the Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.” In this nativist story-telling, only Trump can stop this so-called “invasion. Inconvenient facts reveal, however, that first-generation immigrants have a much lower crime rate than those born in the U.S.
Trump needed – and still needs – a real or manufactured crisis of some sort to get voters to rally around his hollow “law and order” advocacy. Roger Griffin explains how fascist politics historically constructed a nation as “in crisis” and, therefore
“needs to be saved from its present state of disintegration and decadence through the agency of a vanguard made of those who are keenly aware of the current forces that threaten it and are prepared to fight to combat them.”
The mobilization of this “vanguard” – in this case, Trump’s so-called “base” – is necessary for the rebirthing of the nation and for creating a new revolutionary civilization, not based on a democracy, but rather on a strong leader who is divinely inspired such that “God put Trump in office.” The reasoning is that liberalism, multiculturalism, and secularism made America “ungodly” and must be rescued and reborn.
A mythic historical past needs a male authoritarian leader to save the nation from itself. The autocrat advances his cause by regularly expressing political intolerance against any group or individual deemed an enemy of a fictitious purified ultranationalism. Women in the construction of patriarchal virility are valued only if they are the right kind of women, those who know their place in a male-centric order and defer to men in both the family and in the public square. The tough guy imagine provides a salve for right-wing women and a model for chauvinists.
Not surprisingly, Trump rejects feminists: “No, I wouldn’t say I’m a feminist. I mean, I think that would be, maybe, going too far.” (It’s because, he claims, “I’m for everyone” – a laughable lie as demonstrated by his divisive rhetoric and actions.) Right-wing men fear strong, independent women who don’t adhere to patriarchal norms of deferring to male authority. Spewer of hate and recipient of the Medal of Freedom by Trump, far-right radio commentator Rush Limbaugh in 1992 began using “feminazi” to demonize feminists who challenge patriarchal rule, a slur that’s become a favorite among 21st century males who feel threatened by feminists and want to silence them.
Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s current nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, represents the kind of ideological woman that patriarchs support. Barrett’s involvement in People of Praise, an extremely conservative Catholic community (where practitioners “speak in tongues” as an indication of prophesy and being free of sin), is based on deeply-seated norms that are “authoritarian, hierarchical, and patriarchal.” Married women such Barrett are expected to submit to their “heads,” meaning their husbands. The handbook for People of Praise states, “Obedience to authority and submission to headship are active responses to the gifts of God.” It’s little wonder that the vast majority of evangelicals and conservative politicians created a united front for Barrett’s nomination.
Besides preferring the company of submissive women who venerate men perceived as politically virile, fascist politicians embrace an “exaltation of youth above other phases of life.” In April 2019, for example, then 72-year old obese Trump declared, “I’m so young. I can’t believe it. I’m the youngest person. I am a young, vibrant man.” Here the politics of patriarchal virility is evoked to signal that their authoritarian leader has the youthful strength to carry out the divine mission to rebirth the nation into an imagined era of greatness, a mythic time period that is never clearly articulated by fascist politicians.
And then on October 8th many, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were dumbfounded when COVID-19 positive Trump proclaimed, “I’m back because I am a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young. And so I’m lucky in that way.” Hence, the fascist politics of the leader needs to claim infallibility. Fascist politicians fear appearing vulnerable and impotent, even if it’s a deadly pandemic virus. All of which helps to explain how Trump would want to claim, as he did in a tweet: “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
As if that wasn’t enough of a typical fascist lie, Trump further tried to commandingly reassure the populace by telling us, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” He and his lapdog Pence ought to take that message to their next rallies in all the cemeteries where thus far 220,000 people have died in U.S. under Trump & Pence’s failed leadership to protect the health of its citizenry. All of this is in the context of Trump’s responsibility internationally for nearly 38% of the reported falsehoods about the pandemic.
Trump is not the only president to have tried to create an image of patriarchal virility. One only has to recall the 2003 surrealistic moment when President George W. Bush appeared on an aircraft carrier wearing a military flight suit – ironic for someone who successfully dodged military service. In that publicity stunt, Bush falsely claimed “Mission Accomplished” in the Iraq invasion and occupation where the vast majority of U.S. combat deaths in the Orwellian-labeled “Operation Iraqi Freedom” occurred after Bush’s arrogant declaration. 15 years later Trump used the same phrase after an airstrike on Syria and defended the use of the term that fit with the militarized fascist politics of patriarchal virility, tweeting that “mission accomplished” is “such a great Military term, it should be brought back. Use often!”
Fascist and far-right politicians such as Trump & Bush believe their lies and their proclamations of a mythic truth. In A History of Fascism, 1914-1945, Stanley Payne explains that for Italian Fascists and German Nazis,
“Myth was held to be true not as existing empirical fact but as the meta-reality of the past and the absolute goal which would be realized in the future.”
The fascist myth making is vaguely, if at all, connected with reality. The populace is told to believe their leader as the holder of truth. Emblematic of this in our current historical moment is Trump’s infamous incantation that “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” In other words, believe only what Trump and his allies say is true.
Mainstream liberals and moderate Republicans appear to assume that fascist politics will disappear if Trump is defeated in the 2020 election. However, the continuing drum beat of anti-democracy, violence, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, nativism, and the politics of patriarchal virility will remain with the millions who will vote for Trump long after the election and will, therefore, inform their political actions in 2021 and beyond.