An Eerie Early Warning of Trump's Authoritarianism
Americans struggling to understand Donald Trump’s domination of the Republican primaries should consider that totalitarianism has already happened on U.S. soil—not as a political movement that swept the nation, but in the petri dish of one high school. The frightening but enlightening story is recounted in The Wave (Die Welle), a gripping 2008 German film that shows how a study in group psychology unexpectedly revealed the seductive lure of fascism. The plot is based on true events that took place in 1967 in a Palo Alto, Calif. high school.
According to a website managed by the original participants, it all started when “history teacher Ron Jones conducted an experiment with his class of 15-year-olds to sample the experience of the attraction and rise of the Nazis in Germany before World War II. In a matter of days the ‘Third Wave’ experiment began to get out of control, as those attracted to the movement became aggressive zealots.” Five decades later, the original student members of the Third Wave are still traumatized by what happened in that class. Though they started off aware that they were part of an experiment to recreate a particular mindset, even knowledge of history prevented the students’ psychological transformation into monsters.
The crux of what transpired had nothing to do with parsing the political distinctions between fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, or unpacking the ways Mussolini was unlike Hitler. For the American teenagers caught up in the Third Wave, the startling discovery was how easily this particular strain of group-based identity could coalesce and harden, descending into cruelty and drowning them in a darkness they didn’t know existed. (In 1976, Ron Jones wrote a short story detailing what happened, and there also exists a 2012 documentary, The Lesson Plan, based on the events.)
“Be careful who you follow,” warns Mark Hancock, who was in Jones’ classroom, “because you never know where they might lead you.” For the students, the events of 1967 remain an abject lesson in “the psychology of leaders and followers, when passion for one’s cause leads to intolerance and persecution of others, extremist political and religious groups, cults, gangs, bullying, etc.”
Set in contemporary Germany, The Wave narrates events through the perspective of Rainer Wenger, a popular high school teacher who wears Ramones T-shirts to work to express his punk-anarchistic political leanings. The school administration refuses to let him teach the political history of anarchy, and instead, assigns him to lead a special week-long class on “autocracy,” i.e. totalitarianism. Rainer decides he won’t merely lecture on the subject—he'll show the school precisely how totalitarianism works.
On the first day of class, Rainer marches into the room and demands the students call him Herr Wenger. They must stand up quickly when he calls on them, respond in short, direct phrases and obey him without question. A few students rebel, insisting that there is no way Nazism could ever rise again in Germany. They believe their generation is too clever to be manipulated by a charismatic leader, plus they all know better than to repeat the errors of the recent past. In friendly tones, Herr Wenger tells them they can leave the class if they wish.
Given the conventional wisdom that adolescents hate following rules and loathe authority figures, Herr Wenger expects that most of his students will drop out. The next day, to his surprise, he finds his students not only in their chairs, but they immediately snap to attention when he enters the room. Secretly pleased, he works on getting them to understand the mantra: “Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action." Wenger teaches the students to march in unison, observing them as they revel in the giddy pleasure of power through numbers.
By day three, more students join Herr Wenger’s group, now calling itself the Wave, a movement with its own symbol and salute. As the Wave starts to morph into something darker, with students intimidating anyone who refuses to conform to their rules, Herr Wenger stops resisting his role as dictator and begins feasting on the power. An armed student appoints himself Herr Wenger’s personal bodyguard, and accompanies him everywhere. The Wave’s group identity continues to intensify, giving rise to a brawl with members of a rival high school’s water polo team, during which the Wave’s members attempt to murder their competitors. Luxuriating in the power, the last vestiges of moral ambivalence fully gone, Herr Wenger decides the moment has come to give a speech to the assembled members of the Wave, a fascist group in all but name.
When Herr Wenger takes the stage, the Wave’s members rise to their feet, ready to pledge fealty to their leader. He promises that the Wave will not end with the conclusion of the class, but must keep going until it encompasses all of Germany. The students are still certain there is no way Nazis could ever control their country again, yet they are now one uniformed body, collectively loyal to Herr Wenger and bound to their sworn goal of returning the Fatherland to greatness.
Herr Wenger doesn’t say how he plans on making Germany great again, and his followers don’t care. They at least have the excuse of being teenagers. Ideology has nothing to do with the intensity of their feelings. United through obedience to their leader and a deep longing for meaning, they thrill in the sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves: the joyful, romantic nihilism of the Wave.
The world is now watching the Wave unfold in real time across the U.S. Given the steady amplification of violence at Trump rallies, it is impossible not to notice the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent to political prominence, and the swift spread of the Wave under Ron Jones/Herr Wenger. Appealing to a disenfranchised working class angered over jobs and immigration, Trump plays to unspoken hopes that he will upend the racial hierarchy destabilized by President Obama and reassert the primacy of whiteness, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has argued.
Trump's campaign is itself the monstrous love child of pop culture married to ignorance. The “poorly educated” people Trump “loves” are simultaneously disgusted and enthralled by a media machine cynically profiting off their fears. Covert operators—all white, mostly male—who’ve managed to infiltrate Trump rallies have attempted to describe the peculiar energy there. They enter with vague expectations of entertaining weirdness, and exit with their faith in humanity shaken to its core.
“Everyone was just filled with so much hatred,” wrote Jordan Correll in a lengthy Facebook post that went viral.
If a protester had a sign, even the peaceful ones, they would take the sign from them, rip it up, and throw it back at the protesters...It was sickening. I felt truly nauseous. And these [Trump] people loved the protesters. They loved the drama and the chaos. And Trump fed upon it. It was easily one of the strangest and uncomfortable things I’ve ever witnessed.
This isn’t politics, it’s pure spectacle, right down to the messages from its leader. Trump paradoxically claims his lies are true, because to confirm a lie requires an ontological framework that assumes the possibility of truth. Eliminate truth, dismiss reality as so much media bias, and you automatically eliminate the lie, too.
If Trump is the first political candidate to understand we have entered the Age of Untruth— an age from which there is no turning back—it is also the case that his adherents are attracted to the glittering promise of a return to authoritarianism for precisely that reason. The greater the epistemological uncertainty, the more vital the need to externalize order through abstract systems such as the Church and the Law, which create bright lines of difference between “us” and “them.”
If all cats are grey in the dark, the authoritarian solution isn’t to turn on the lights but to kill all the cats. That psychological need to enforce a hierarchical social order transcends party affiliation, race and religion; it merely feeds on the darkest impulses of human nature. It remains satisfying as long as followers envision themselves the ones being empowered by a hierarchy "restoring" America to how it once was, which is to say, with themselves near the top, just one step down from the man with the money. Trump’s followers have amply proved their willingness to attack “outsiders,” a group that includes just about everyone who is not white, Christian, able-bodied, heteronormative, or male. His followers have acceded to Trump’s request that they pledge their support, not to the Republican Party, the flag or the United States of America, but to him.
In exchange for their allegiance, Trump promises to make America great again. Like Herr Wenger, he does not explain how, and his followers don’t care. Instead, they revel in the sense of power Trump pretends to give them. But in reality, that power is being loaned, and it will ultimately have to be paid back. With interest.
Following Trump’s canceled rally in Chicago, a militia group has formed to protect Trump’s political body. Calling itself the Lion’s Guard, the militia is “an informal civilian organization protecting the innocent, peaceful Trump supporters from violent Far-Left agitators.” The Lion’s Guard’s numbers quickly swelled to 500, with members asking for “uniform suggestions.” Just as Herr Wenger could claim that his students began beating up other students on their own, Trump can say the Lion’s Guard is not his doing, ignoring the fact that there ought to be no need for them if his rallies are the “love fests” he claims they are. Most of all, he is careful to ensure that nothing he says makes him liable for inciting the attacks that keep happening under the leaky umbrella of his protection. (Though the fact that they keep occurring more than suggests he secretly wants them to.) He feeds off the destruction in the manner of Heath Ledger’s Joker. The presence of a militia at his rallies does not signal control, but mob rule and anarchy. It is another destabilizing factor, not a centering one.
By orchestrating the chaos and calling it "beautiful," Trump invokes the aesthetics of popular performance in order to legitimize inchoate feelings of anger and despair. Meanwhile, political commentators have been calling on Trump to start “acting presidential,” as if being a good actor was a necessary and sufficient condition of being the leader of the free world. What does acting presidential actually mean? In Trump’s case, it means he will eventually step in and impose order on the chaos he has created; he will demand that his followers control themselves, which will succeed only if Trump has absolute power over their hearts, minds and bodies. Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action.
At this moment, however, Trump gains nothing by calming the madding crowds. He is focused on styling himself a strongman, declaring his strength of Christian faith, his strength of male endowment, his strength in negotiating. He furthers these ideas by maligning every oppositional force as weak (Cruz), weak (Kasich), weak (Sanders), weak (Clinton), and weak (the entire country under Obama, who is also weak all on his own). These are simple repetitions, framed according to black/white demarcations, yet they always center on Trump as the sole source of legitimate authority. He is the finial capping the architecture of exploitation, which does not exist in the same way gravity does not exist; it’s just a useless theory invented by liberals in ivory towers built by patriots who support Trump because he builds things, too. Real Americans don't need to know why bodies fall when you throw them off a cliff. They just know that they do.
Manipulation worked in The Wave, too. But the ending is not a happy one, because the bloodlust of the mob can drive reasonable people to act in unreasonable ways. As always, the artists are the first to pay the ultimate price, followed swiftly by the true believers, who are always willing pawns to be sacrificed. What happens to them? You already know. Just pick up any book on the history of WWII. The reboot is coming soon to a political theater near you.