What Is the Appeal of Trumpism?

How Trump creates a powerful bond with his followers.

Posted Sep 12, 2020

"Carlos Herrero/Pexels"
Trump International Hotel Chicago
Source: "Carlos Herrero/Pexels"

In February 2017 I published a post titled, Is There a Fascist Impulse in All of Us? As a European intellectual historian with a research interest in the Holocaust, it seemed clear to me that fascism in the form of illiberal demagogic populism was making a comeback. The realization hit me in January 2016 when, on the very day I was lecturing on Mussolini and his “invention” of fascism, Donald Trump made his infamous remark that he could “stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone” and his followers wouldn’t abandon him. It was a harbinger of Trump’s many incendiary statements and struck me at the time as proto-fascist.

I asked my students, “Why would someone utter such a thing? To whom is he speaking? What does it tell us about his psyche?”

Almost on cue a few weeks later, Trump tweeted a quote from Mussolini. Over the course of 2016 it became clear to me that at the very least, Trump represented an impetus toward American fascism. My post in 2017 was my attempt to sound the alarm and concluded with the question, “Has fascism come again?”

At the time, the debate by liberal intellectuals was whether Trump more closely resembled Hitler or Mussolini. In hindsight, that was not the question to ask. In her recent article, Sarah Churchwell argues “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here.” It is a powerful article. Churchwell ties Trump’s fascist impulse historically to the Ku Klux Klan and concludes: “When the president declares voting an 'honor' rather than a right and 'jokes' about becoming president for life, when the government makes efforts to add new categories of ethnic identity to the decennial census for the first time in the nation’s history, and when nationwide protests in response to racial injustice become the pretext for mooting martial law, we are watching an American fascist order pulling itself together.”  I urge everyone to read it. Whatever happens in the upcoming election and its aftermath, Trumpism as a movement will be with us in one form or another.

But how did this happen? Trump’s claim that he could shoot someone and not lose support is frighteningly true. His followers are connected to him by emotions that have the capacity to eclipse any rational debate. I regularly listen to C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. Trump supporters often call in arguing that he was sent by God to save America. The majority of Trump’s support is among non-college educated white Americans. And clearly the callers on C-SPAN who share my views are baffled and stunned that the American people cannot see Trump for what he is. On the other hand, I have a college-educated friend who is a diehard Trumpeter and who, despite the current political polls, consistently claims Trump is going to win in a landslide. He also sidesteps criticism of Trump in the most bizarre ways. For instance, when Trump’s comments about the military were brought up, he sent a clip of a Chris Rock joke as the origin of Trump’s claims about John McCain being no war hero because he was captured. As if that justified the statement!

Once again on C-SPAN, one Trump supporter — a middle-aged white gentleman — related a story of a Zoom reunion he had with his high school friends. He said everyone was hesitant to bring up politics to avoid embarrassment. It turned out that 9 out of 10 were Trump supporters. The fact that they were initially embarrassed suggests that they were somewhat aware that their rational minds had given way to Trump’s emotional appeal.    

Trump has established an emotional connection with 40% of the American people. In my opinion, it is a narcissistic identification with Trump that is at the heart of his appeal. That Trump can say he can shoot someone and retain appeal, or grab women by the genitals, suggests he has tapped into the unconscious desires and thoughts of millions of Americans. His vulgarity, indecency, and law-breaking leads his followers into a narcissistic identification – as if they are Trump.

Theodor Adorno, working off a Freudian vision, said as much long ago, claiming that a leader taps the unconscious desires of his followers by exploiting “his own unconscious outward” life has taught him how “to make rational use of his irrationality.” In this sense, Trump is selling his followers a figure of identification through which they can live out their unconscious desires. He says publically the content of their unconscious. This creates a profound attachment that rational argument cannot break. In this way, the more criticism Trump receives, the deeper the attachment. When Bob Woodward asked Trump about white privilege, his response, "You really have been drinking the Kool-Aid,” once again tapped into his follower’s unconscious thoughts, since so many of his followers disdain the “intellectual elites.”

Finally, this identification is exceptionally dangerous when the follower’s unconscious is activated and set free and turns into a violent defense of their leader as the recent events in Kenosha suggest. It also means Trumpism will remain with us in one form or another as long as he is alive. It also means our democracy is in peril. Fascism is happening here.