• How Donald Trump Spun a Political Career Out of Conspiratorial Hatred

    Arthur Goldwag on the Clear and Present Danger of Far-Right Extremism in America

    I never wanted to be a “hateologist,” as a reviewer of one of my books once called me; the work was dispiriting, the pay nearly nonexistent, and, beyond seeing my name under headlines like “Conspiracy Theories Explain the Right” from time to time, and being asked to opine about one or another of those theories in the nether reaches of radio, TV, and the internet (no, I don’t think the military’s HAARP is altering the weather; fossil fuels are a much likelier culprit), the satisfactions were few and far between.

    Sometimes, when careless bookers hadn’t bothered to read past the word “conspiracy” in my mentions, those media appearances could be downright awkward. I’ll never forget the look a Russia Today correspondent flashed me after she invited me to expound on the US government’s plot to poison the country with toxic flu vaccines and I didn’t take the bait. Watching myself on YouTube and reading the comments the next day, I learned that my eye movements betrayed the fact that I had been drugged or hypnotized.

    I knew I wasn’t changing any hearts or minds. My progressive friends told me my obsession with the revanchist right was not just paranoid in its own right but politically counterproductive, as it diverted attention and energy from the very real policy work that needed to be done. The people I was writing about were dead-enders, they said; demographically and politically, they were on their way out.

    Whether he was a programmatic racist or just a casual one, an autocrat by conviction or merely by temperament, Trump set about remaking the presidency in his own image.

    Irony of ironies, the people who took me the most seriously were those same dead-enders, and I certainly wasn’t changing any of their minds. They hate-read my articles and blog posts because doing so fed their sense of self-importance. Some of them returned the favor by “outing” me as a Jew, a communist, or even a tool of the Rockefellers (the Metapedia, which billed itself as the white nationalist alternative to Wikipedia, branded me a “Jewish propagandist and Europhobic scribbler… a Jewish supremacist who masks his Talmudic fear of his nearest competitor; European man”), or more creepily still, sending me long manifestos like the ones I just wrote about, cut and pasted together from a hodgepodge of sources, some of them centuries old.

    I’ve always tried, as both a writer and a human being, to put myself in other people’s shoes, to make a good-faith effort to understand why they think as they do. But opening myself up to programmatic racists, anti-Semites, xenophobes, misogynists, and delusional paranoids of other stripes exacted a steep psychic toll—not just because their ideas were so repugnant, but because so many of the people expressing them seemed like such sad, damaged souls.

    When I just listened to the sounds of their voices—the music, not the words—what I heard was discordant, to be sure, but it was almost always pitched in a minor key. Nobody constructs a whole worldview out of resentment, anger, and sanguinary revenge fantasies because they feel well loved and secure. If their ideas were grotesque and fantastical, their pain was clearly real. It affected me in ways that often caught me off guard. My wife used to tell me that I was showing signs of Stockholm syndrome.

    Then Donald Trump descended that golden escalator. Trump said a lot of the same things those haters did, but he had far more celebrity than they or indeed any other politician did, and an almost unprecedented genius for homing in on his followers’ lowest common denominator. Looking at the crowds he attracted to his rallies and his poll numbers, it was clear the angry right had found a champion who could bring them fully into the mainstream.

    That said, Trump wasn’t a guttural white nationalist in the mold of American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell or former KKK grand wizard David Duke, or an eggheaded “race realist” like Jared Taylor and his bookish colleagues at the New Century Foundation think tank; his politics were purely transactional and self-serving. But if a white supremacist, a Gamergate misogynist, or even a rabid 9/11 truther like Alex Jones wanted to say “nice” things about him that could help him win votes, he wasn’t about to stand in their way

    Like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, Trump devoted most of his mindshare to blissful contemplation of himself. But when a news story about race, immigration, the sexes, or law and order did manage to break through and capture his attention, he would share his thoughts about it with the public via talk show appearances, ghostwritten books, and tweets. Though he sometimes contributed money to Democrats, a thread of casual, Archie Bunkeresque bigotry (Jews are good at money; Blacks excel at sports, entertainment, and, sadly, criminality; Asians are smart but they talk funny) ran through most of his pronouncements.

    All the way back in 1989, not long after he’d sent up his first presidential trial balloon, Trump had taken out full-page ads in four New York newspapers to demand the death penalty for the Central Park Five, the Black and Hispanic youths who were falsely accused and wrongly convicted of raping and beating a white jogger nearly to death. Ten years later, in 1999, he formed a committee, headed by the political dirty trickster Roger Stone, to explore another presidential run, this time as the standard-bearer of Ross Perot’s Reform Party.

    The campaign book he released, The America We Deserve, included some policy proposals that ran against the grain of the Republicanism of the day, like a one-time supertax on the wealthy to reduce the national debt and—ironically, given his later crusade against Obamacare—a call for universal healthcare. Though he said he was against “partial-birth” abortions, he styled himself as pro-choice. Oprah Winfrey, he told CNN’s Larry King, would be his ideal running mate.

    But by 2015, Trump had forged a more coherent political identity around his instinctual America-first nativism, his disdain for the political establishment in general, and for Barack Obama in particular, who he claimed was more inclined to play golf and especially basketball than run the country. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible,” he told the Associated Press in 2011. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard?” In case anyone missed the implication that Obama was an affirmative action president, Trump spelled it out more clearly: “I have friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything and they can’t get into Harvard.”

    While it seemed unlikely that Trump truly believed Obama was a citizen of Kenya and hence ineligible to be president, or that hordes of other undeserving immigrants were stealing everything that wasn’t nailed down and raping and murdering white women wherever they found them, saying that he did won him the support of a lot of people who resented having to sit through Spanish-language instructions when they called customer service, or who couldn’t bear to see a Black family living it up in the White House when their own children could no longer afford to live in the neighborhoods they’d grown up in. While Trump’s personal brand was all about tacky excess and self-aggrandizement, his ardent fans among the white working class felt that they knew him, and, stranger still, that he knew them too, and loved them.

    Vulgarian and serial adulterer that he was, a significant swath of evangelical Christians also embraced Trump as the messianic redeemer they’d been waiting for. That’s not hyperbole, but a plain fact that helps explain why so many artists of the far right, the kind who paint muscular Jesuses cradling AK- 47s, also turn out paintings of Donald Trump receiving his blessing, and why you see so many people at Trump rallies wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a flag and a cross and the words “Jesus is My Savior / Trump is My President.”

    The Trump Prophecies was a best-selling book, published in 2017, in which Mark Taylor, a retired firefighter, shared the visions he began having in 2006 about God’s plans for Donald Trump. “For I will use this man to bring honor, respect and restoration to America,” God told him. “America will be respected once again as the most powerful and prosperous nation on earth (other than Israel).” A prophecy Taylor received in 2015 was about the Supreme Court:

    The Spirit of God says, The Supreme Court shall lose three, and My President shall pick new ones directly from my tree. Are you still not convinced that he’s my anointed, and that he’s the only I have appointed?…Those who attack him, their numbers go low, even to the point of a big, fat zero.

    With his focus on polling numbers, God sounds a lot like Trump.

    Of course, most of Trump’s religious followers understood that he wasn’t exactly an advertisement for Christian humility and virtue. As the evangelical leader Mike Evans put it after Trump moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Persia’s Cyrus the Great “was used as an instrument of God for deliverance in the Bible, and God has used [Trump], this flawed human being like you or I, this imperfect vessel…in an incredible, amazing way to fulfill his plans and purposes.” Benjamin Netanyahu also compared Trump to Cyrus; to commemorate the new U.S. embassy, Israel’s Mikdash Educational Center minted a thousand collectable coins stamped with images of Cyrus and Trump.

    If Trump hadn’t existed, he would have had to have been invented, because he is a symptom of problems that are hardwired into America’s geography, economy, and culture.

    Trump’s and his supporters’ Christianity is not about turning the other cheek and loving thy neighbor as thyself; its primary focus is retribution. When Jake Tapper asked Trump if he had ever asked the Lord for forgiveness, Trump couldn’t understand why he would be expected to do such a thing. “I like to be good,” he replied defensively. “I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” When another interviewer asked him to quote his favorite Bible verse, Trump said it was “an eye for an eye.”

    To be clear, he wasn’t referring to the verses in the Gospels that reject Hammurabi’s principle, but the ones in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that endorse it. An eye for an eye is “not a particularly nice thing,” he explained. “But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country… how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and…laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money…we have to be very firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”

    Many of Trump’s eye-for-an-eye Christians went on to embrace the QAnon movement, which looks forward to a final judgment and a new dispensation, when Trump will exterminate the traitors who have robbed real Americans of their birthrights and reign over a purified nation. In QAnon’s telling, Democratic politicians are not just irresponsible with the nation’s tax dollars, or soft on crime and national defense—they are the leading edge of a vast movement of pedophiles who literally cannibalize innocent children.

    As bizarre as that may sound, QAnon has attracted allies who wield real power. Though only a handful of elected politicians openly display their allegiance, more than a few drop allusions to it that true believers will understand. By August 2022, Trump himself was reposting Q content on his Truth Social website and playing a Q-inspired song at his rallies.

    You didn’t have to have a PhD in psychology to register the vast hurt and insatiable neediness that fueled Trump’s grandiosity. On the very first day of his presidency, Trump sent his new press secretary out to claim against all evidence that his inauguration had attracted larger crowds than Obama’s. In their book Peril, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported that House Speaker Paul Ryan spent the weeks between Trump’s election and his inauguration researching techniques for dealing with people with narcissistic personality disorders, because he was convinced Trump suffered from one.

    Psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee ascribed to Trump and his supporters a syndrome she called “narcissistic symbiosis,” a leader-follower relationship in which the leader, “hungry for adulation to compensate for an inner lack of self-worth, projects grandiose omnipotence—while the followers, rendered needy by societal stress or developmental injury, yearn for a parental figure.”

    Whether he was a programmatic racist or just a casual one, an autocrat by conviction or merely by temperament, Trump set about remaking the presidency in his own image, shattering the surprisingly fragile norms that had held the country more or less together since the end of the Civil War and turning Republicanism into a cult of personality. The only thing preventing a complete collapse into strongman authoritarianism, it seemed, was his incuriosity, ignorance, impulsiveness, and lack of strategic discipline.

    Half a year into his presidency, when those Nazis marched through the streets of Charlottesville, I figuratively threw up my hands. Trump had already welcomed white nationalists into the West Wing. Now that the fox is in the henhouse, I thought, what’s the point of writing about all those lesser threats still lurking in the woods?

    Though Trump had failed to secure a popular majority, his victory had been seen as a mandate to vastly curtail immigration from non-European nations (“shithole countries,” as he called them), rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, restore its manufacturing base, cut working people’s taxes, and provide even more generous health coverage than Obamacare. With the exception of immigration restrictions, none of those things came to pass, though Speaker Ryan—guided, no doubt, by the insights he’d gleaned about the care and feeding of malignant narcissists—successfully orchestrated the passage of massive tax cuts that were largely tilted to corporations and the well-to-do.

    That Trump had so little in the way of concrete policy accomplishments to point to by the time he was running for reelection in 2020 was a feature, not a bug, of his populist appeal. Populist politicians win when enough voters feel like they’re losing, and Trump knew how to ride the waves of discontent. Both the social and economic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread demonstrations following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis seemingly buttressed his case that the country was falling apart. It wasn’t his fault that China had manufactured and inflicted a plague on the world while government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stood by complacently—or worse still, he implied, were actively complicit in the crime.

    As for those police killings, if he had a problem with them, it’s that the corrupt Democrats that run America’s urban hellholes won’t let the police shoot more of the illegal immigrants and minorities that commit all the crimes. Robert Mueller’s years-long Russia investigation and the impeachment sealed Trump’s case—the elites were all lined up against him, he said, because they hate Trump voters. The fact that he was president, that his party still controlled the Senate, and that he had secured a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that would likely stand for a generation or more did nothing to change his underdog status. MAGA Republicans know that the real power in this country is wielded by urban Blacks, poor immigrants, leftist college students, Antifa thugs, and progressive female politicians like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.

    Trump badly wanted to win reelection, of course, but he could make hay out of losing too. His powerful connection with his voters turned on their shared sense of victimization, and as he said repeatedly, the system was rigged against them. But concession was not an option. To concede would be to acknowledge the system’s legitimacy, and, worse still, to taint his brand identity with weakness.

    Four days after the polls closed, on November 7, 2020, the TV networks finally called the election for Biden. People in my Brooklyn neighborhood were literally dancing in the streets. But a month later, it had become clear to all but the starriest-eyed pundits that Trump did not intend to leave office voluntarily. There would be no formal transition process, no sit-down with the Bidens for tea. Even more distressing was the near certainty that most Republicans would support him if he found a way—legal or extralegal—to remain in power.

    Though I lost some sleep worrying that Trump and his team would pull off a soft coup by convincing enough states to disqualify enough electors to throw the election into the House, I never imagined he would dispatch a mob to the Capitol. What motivated me to write this book—and I had begun planning it well before January 6—was the selective nature of memory. Assuming the courts rejected Trump’s fantasies about voting machines that had been hacked by a dead Venezuelan dictator, paper Biden ballots that had been preprinted in China, and truckloads of valid Trump ballots that were diverted to landfills, and that he would finally be pried out of the White House, I was afraid we’d forget how perilously close to the brink our democracy had come, and that all too soon, QAnon, MAGA, and Stop the Steal would seem as remote to us as WIN buttons and Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater do today. We could not afford such complacency.

    Trump is living proof of Alexander Hamilton’s warning in Federalist No. 1: “That of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.” And like Sartre said of Jews and anti-Semites, if Trump hadn’t existed, he would have had to have been invented, because he is a symptom of problems that are hardwired into America’s geography, economy, and culture, and that have bubbled up to the surface of our politics every few decades since the Constitution was ratified. He wasn’t the first and he won’t be the last politician to harness our discontents to his ambition. And the next demagogue that comes along will have likely learned from his mistakes.


    Excerpted from The Politics of Fear: The Peculiar Persistence of American Paranoia by Arthur Goldwag. Copyright © 2024 by Arthur Goldwag. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. 

    Arthur Goldwag
    Arthur Goldwag
    Arthur Goldwag is the author of The Beliefnet Guide to Kabbalah, Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies; -Isms and -Ologies; and The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and family.

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