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Cornel West explains the rhetorical trick 'fascist' Trump uses to beat his audience into submission

Cornel West explains the rhetorical trick 'fascist' Trump uses to beat his audience into submission
Photo via Gage Skidmore.

Eleven days ago, Donald Trump was hospitalized after testing positive for the coronavirus. His administration continues to hide the truth about Trump's health status.

Contrary to official word from Trump's mouthpieces, Olivia Nuzzi of New York Magazine reports that Trump was at one point severely ill and at substantial risk of not surviving:

Donald Trump was on the phone, and he was talking about dying. It was Saturday, October 3, and while his doctor had told the outside world that the president's symptoms were nothing to worry about, Trump, cocooned in his suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, was telling those close to him something very different.

"I could be one of the diers," he said. ...

Nine months into the pandemic and one month away from Election Day, the president considered for the first time that the disease killing him in the polls, threatening his political future, might just kill him, too. On the phone he remarked sarcastically, "This change of scenery has been great."… Then he admitted something scary. That how he felt might not mean much in the end.

"This thing could go either way. It's tricky. They told me it's tricky," the president said. "You can tell it can go either way."

More incredibly, the New York Times reports that Donald Trump planned to dress as Superman on his release from the hospital, reveling in his pretend-Übermensch status to thrill his supporters:

In several phone calls last weekend from the presidential suite at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Mr. Trump shared an idea he was considering: When he left the hospital, he wanted to appear frail at first when people saw him, according to people with knowledge of the conversations. But underneath his button-down dress shirt, he would wear a Superman T-shirt, which he would reveal as a symbol of strength when he ripped open the top layer. He ultimately did not go ahead with the stunt.

Trump is an expert political performance artist, a professional wrestling heel who is also the (illegitimate) president of the United States. Contrary to the hopes of too many members of the chattering class, Trump's brush with death has not humbled him or caused some type of personal revelation that would cause him to become less cruel, vile and tasteless.

While in the hospital and during his supposed convalescence, Donald Trump has continued his fascist authoritarian behavior, demanding that leading Democrats like Joe Biden, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton be charged with treason for their supposed "coup" attempt. During a phone interview with Fox News last Thursday, Trump continued his attacks on Sen. Kamala Harris, the first black woman to be nominated on a major-party presidential ticket, calling her a "monster" and a "communist," among other slurs.

As befits a malignant, narcissistic cult leader, Trump is again holding rallies where his followers can display their love and devotion to him, even though he is likely still contagious with the coronavirus and few attendees at his rallies wear masks. As the leader of a literal death cult, Donald Trump has been fully transformed into a human bioweapon. He is now an example for his followers, who are willing to do his bidding whatever that entails.

Several of Donald Trump's followers were recently arrested by the FBI for plotting to kidnap Michigan's Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and perhaps kill her. These right-wing terrorists also planned to attack police and other law enforcement agents if need be. The Trump regime has never explicitly disavowed the right-wing militias and other terrorist groups who serve as the president's foot soldiers and hooligans.

Given Donald Trump's manifest evil, a not-insignificant number of Americans were happy that he was sickened by COVID-19. For them, Trump's illness was a form of karmic justice, in which a man who has hurt so many through his negligent or criminal response to the pandemic (and other willfully cruel policies) was finally receiving his comeuppance. There was also the hope that Trump's illness might end the national nightmare of his presidency.

What do such emotions and reactions — including the obligatory demands that Trump must be sent positive wishes and prayers — reveal about America's culture at present? Is there a "right" or "wrong" way for the American people to react to Trump's illness? Given their professed values, should liberals and progressives be held to a higher standard in their reactions to Donald Trump's encounter with a life-threatening disease?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Dr. Cornel West. He is a philosopher, public intellectual, activist, scholar and author of several bestselling books, including "Democracy Matters," "Race Matters" and "Black Prophetic Fire."

West is professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard and a professor emeritus at Princeton. In this wide-ranging conversation he also shares his thoughts on democracy and the recent presidential and vice-presidential debates, as well as how the American people should best focus their emotions and energies once Trump is no longer president.

You can also listen to my conversation with Dr. Cornel West on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.


You are a philosopher. How should people manage their feelings about Donald Trump having been sickened by the coronavirus? Is it wrong to be happy at the possibility of Donald Trump receiving his comeuppance and karmic punishment from COVID? He has done so much evil.

What you are feeling is Janus-faced. Your feelings have two sides to them. Any kind of love and justice has to have serious accountability. In that way, Donald Trump has been unaccountable. As such, death would be a certain kind of accountability. There is nothing wrong with that conception of accountability. But the other side is a certain kind of contempt and revenge in the form of "You did it to us. Now we're going to do it to you. You've been doing us in. Now somebody — God, providence, fate, fortune — is going to do you in."

Democratic accountability is not same thing as revenge or divine retribution or the like. It is of a different register. Democracy is about human justice. Democracy is for we mortals. It's for we finite folk. And we finite folk, we've got to have some control over our propensity toward contempt and revenge, or it just adds more to the contempt and revenge in the world. But if we lean into love and justice and there's some accountability — with Trump getting sick, it may have been a certain kind of accountability, in terms of the virus coming back to haunt him — there is a different kind of spirit at work, one that you want to preserve.

Are liberals and progressives allowed to enjoy schadenfreude, those feelings of joy at another person's just and deserved misfortune? Or is that sentiment outside of what it should mean to be a progressive?

The best of what it means to be a progressive is that one never succumbs to any kind of bitterness, revenge, hoping somebody collapses or even laughing at somebody's misfortune or downfall. You are using that person, such as Trump, as a point of reference for your own sense of who you are and what you're doing. Don't surrender those values.

That's the reason why Jesus said, "Love your enemies." If you are really concerned about poor people and the wretched of the earth, then when you love your enemy, you're not loving the part of them that are gangsters. You're not loving their hatred. You're not loving their domination. You are just recognizing that they too are made in the image of God. Therefore you are using the point of reference for who you are, in the best of your own tradition as a barometer and guidepost. There is nothing sadomasochistic about loving one's enemies. Do not ever let them set the terms upon which you define yourself and your reality. If you do such a thing, you will be reacting to their hatred your whole life.

What of this expectation that the American people should send Donald Trump goodwill because he was hospitalized and apparently in perilous condition? As some have pointed out, such an expectation is emotionally abusive, in which where the victim is somehow supposed to empathize with and care for the person who is hurting them.

You must ensure that you are living a high-quality life in your own mind, heart and soul. When you are wishing Donald Trump goodwill, all you are saying is, "I refuse to be the gangster you are because you have been giving us ill will." I do believe that the golden rule is still worthwhile. And if a higher power takes Donald Trump away, then he's gone.

How does one resolve an expectation that they should wish goodwill on an evil person such as Trump?

There is an element of a person's humanity that is never fully reducible to one's gangster and thuggish activity. That's why the golden rule still has some applicability. Donald Trump still has loved ones. He still has folks who care for him. That means he is still a human being. Once you completely remove someone from the human family, you end up doing the same things that have been done to Black people with racism and white supremacy. If you let yourself be seduced by such forces and put people outside the human family, than you end up in the gutter along with the people who committed that first wrong. I refuse to go there.

The type of conversation we are engaging in is very rare in America's public discourse. The Age of Trump and this season of death has created a moral test for the United States and its people.

We saw that during the vice-presidential debate. The spiritual decay is so deep. Donald Trump has contributed to such a debased public culture and political culture that you have someone like Mike Pence, who can rationalize American fascism with a smile and be calm doing it. The moderator, Susan Page, made no attempt to keep Pence accountable whatsoever. Kamala Harris was doing the best she could to preserve her dignity. She knew Pence would be lying nonstop. She knows the disrespect is coming at her and the arrogance is flowing from Pence right at her. The condescension is flowing. The haughtiness is flowing against her too. Pence was trying to seize control of the debate and no one was trying to impose accountability on him. Kamala Harris tried several times. She did the best she could.

Pence's behavior during the debate was just the culture of neofascism in real time, done with a smile. We should not be overwhelmed and surprised by such an assault. We must be honest and candid about the depths of the decay and decrepitude that we as a nation are dealing with, in the form of Trump and Pence and their allies and movement.

When I see Mike Pence I think of Indiana, which was a fortress for the Ku Klux Klan during the early 20th century. In another era, Pence would be the type who could go from the Klavern to the boardroom of a bank. I worry that too many people believe that evil does not wear a business suit.

I believe that Mike Pence has been Trumpified. He has been shaped even more in the image of Donald Trump since becoming vice president. Pence loves the power. He loves the visibility. He loves the position of being vice president. In that way we can see the deepening corruption of Mike Pence's soul. That is why Pence was overflowing with toxic masculinity during the debate. Pence acted like he does not have to listen to anyone. Somebody asks Pence a question and he responds like they are nonentities. Pence just decides to ignore them and say what he wants to say. When Kamala Harris would try to interject and have her time, Pence looked at her like, "Do you really expect me to respect you? I'm Mike Pence. I'm part of the neofascist culture. We don't respect people like you." In doing that, Pence was also disrespecting the American people as the audience for what should have been a very important dialogue.

Any discussion of Mike Pence should also include "Christian fascist" in how he is described.

Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. He got 65% of white men and over 50% of white women. That is another sign of the cultural decay in this country. White supremacy is the public face of American neofascism. From the Ku Klux Klan to the White Citizens Councils, white Christians have always played a fundamental role in promoting white supremacist attitudes and practices.

In terms of deliberative democracy or communicative democracy, what did you see when you watched these first two debates?

Public life in America has become so emptied out and vacuous that the very notion of there being a public conversation, let alone a high-quality public conversation, is gone. The debates are an empty theatrical spectacle of talking points, at their best, and at their worst just bully-driven attacks and assaults on each other. I mean, Harris is much more intellectually talented than [Pence] is. In that way Joe Biden did not have any chance at all in his debate with Donald Trump.

Trump's debate with Biden was an exercise in fascism and authoritarianism. Trump won that debate, by those criteria. Unfortunately, too many people in the mainstream media and the general public keep applying old, comfortable standards, and in doing so frame their understanding of Trump's strategy, and this political moment more generally, around polls and focus groups. Trump's goal was to mock the premise of even having a debate. It was all the worst sort of demagogic, authoritarian political theater for him.

I would go even farther. I would say that Trump was not only was mocking, but fascist. One of the rhetorical strategies of a fascist is to beat your audience down, make the people feel as though there is no hope. The people must be made to feel that there is no other possibility. They may hate you, the authoritarian fascist and demagogue, but they hate the whole political process too. The people then become downtrodden in spirit: Their spirits are so crushed they cannot be moved to vote for anybody.

When Trump left the debate, he and his people likely said, "You not only won, you achieved your objective. You beat Biden down. You beat the moderator down. You beat the audience down. You beat the American people down."

We are in a world-historical moment. As Election Day approaches, and whatever may happen next in this country it feels exhilarating, scary and exhausting all at the same time. As human beings we do not see a moment of such consequence very often, if ever, in our lifetimes. Please help me navigate those feelings – feelings which I am sure many other people in this country and around the world are also experiencing. It is like rollercoaster of sorts.

It is like living in the 1960s in Africa, Asia, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and the apartheid American South. Between 1955 to 1970 was to live in the most world-historical transforming moment in a very long time. At present, we are living in a similar moment, with the Age of Trump and this upcoming election. But in this moment as compared to the previous one, there is ecological catastrophe, economic catastrophe, social catastrophe and spiritual catastrophe. There is a lack of ability for too many to imagine a world and reality that is worth fighting for, sacrificing for and even dying for.

Let us assume that there is some type of justice in the universe and Donald Trump is voted out on Election Day or otherwise removed from office. When that happens, there are going to be parties and celebrations in the streets. A joyous wave will sweep over the United States. What should good Americans do with that energy going forward?

If the leader of a neofascist movement dies, that is the easy victory. Now we have to deal with the source of the fascist movement itself. To do that here and now, American society must reshape a whole discourse and public conversation to make sure that poor people and other vulnerable people are at the center of the conversation and the agenda for change. If we maintain our core values and commitments, then if we are killed in the struggle we can say, "Here's the gift. Something bigger than me, because my life itself was a gift that came from something bigger than me." That sacrifice helps to sustain and create the positive change.

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