Before last night’s speech to Congress, Donald Trump didn’t seem to have much use for heroism. In an interview with Bild and the Times of London a couple of months ago, he was clear in his disapproval of the whole enterprise: “I don’t like the concept of heroes,” he told his interlocutors. “The concept of heroes is never great.”
Trump has gone out of his way to dismiss not just the concept, but particular figures who are themselves variously acclaimed as heroic. John McCain: “not a war hero,” just “another all talk, no action politician.” John Lewis: “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results. Sad!” When pressed in that same interview for anything resembling a role model, the best Trump could do was admit that he “learned a lot” from his father, Fred, a brutish man who allegedly rioted alongside Klansmen and Blackshirts in the 1920s.
But last night at the Capitol, Trump’s disdain for heroism—like so many of his avowed convictions—was replaced by a passionate commitment to its exact opposite, as if no other way of looking at the world could have ever existed. First, Trump spoke of “heroic veterans”—“our veterans.” Then he addressed the daughter of a police officer killed in the line of duty: “I want you to know,” he told her, “that your father was a hero.” And then there was his eulogy for William “Ryan” Owens, a Navy SEAL killed during a botched raid in Yemen under Trump’s watch. Trump was unrestrained in his praise of Owens—whom he repeatedly referred to by his nickname and whose father, incidentally, has refused to meet with Trump. (“My conscience wouldn’t let me talk to him,” Owens Sr. told the Miami Herald on Friday.) After praising Ryan as a “hero,” Trump said that his “legacy is etched into eternity.” He compared the officer’s sacrifice to Christ’s by way of the Gospel of John, and led the audience in a standing ovation, the length of which was so impressive to Trump that it led him to ventriloquize the dead man’s reaction in heaven. It turns out that Ryan in the afterlife sounds very much like Trump in ours, on Twitter: “Ryan is looking down right now, and he’s very happy because, I think, he just broke a record.”
Such florid hero worship represents a new liturgical moment in the political theology of American power—and a major shift in Trump’s rhetorical posture, which has previously made very little room for accomplishments other than his own. Yet it is far from unfamiliar in the world history of demagoguery. The European fascist regimes of the 20th century are especially notable for their cultivation of hero worship in perhaps the fullest sense of the term since classical Greece. For the two “successful” fascist regimes—Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy—this culminated in the institutionalization of what historian George Mosse has termed a “civic religion” of heroism. In Germany, the sixteen National Socialists killed during Hitler’s failed putsch of 1923 were hailed as the movement’s “blood martyrs.” A swastika flag they had carried, bloodied in the fray, became a sacred object, the so-called “Blood Banner”; during his annual rallies in Nuremberg, Hitler would touch new flags with it, ceremoniously “consecrating” them as if through magical contagion.
For Italian Fascists, the March on Rome came to serve a similar ideological function to the Munich putsch. The Blackshirts killed during the events of late October 1922 were acclaimed as sacrificial heroes, and, as the years passed, their number was steadily exaggerated—from the actual dozen or so to no less than 3,000. For the March’s tenth anniversary, a massive Exhibition of the Fascist Movement was put on in Rome, running until 1934. The exhibition’s centerpiece was a massive “Sacrarium of the Martyrs” a kind of memorial chapel, complete with an ambient soundtrack of pre-recorded voices proclaiming “Presente!”—the same invocation of immortality used at Fascist funerals. What would Trump, with his fondness for architectural excess, make of the production values of Mussolini’s own take on “etched in eternity”?
But the analogy is imperfect. Trump’s movement, such as it is, hasn’t suffered any fallen paramilitary martyrs in its rise to power. Nor can Trump tap fresh memories of military sacrifice and battlefield defeat of the sort that followed World War I. Nor, for that matter, can he deploy any personal credibility in such matters: unlike Hitler or Mussolini, Trump can claim no record of military service, let alone of frontline combat. Where Hitler waxed grandiloquent about his Reich as an organic fulfillment of the “great heroic time of 1914” and Mussolini described his ideal regime as a “trenchocracy,” Trump can only promise to hire a cabinet full of “the greatest killers you’ve ever seen,” a claim so macho and hyperbolic that it can only reveal a frantic insecurity on the part of the speaker. For all his bigotry, strongman posturing, and talk of national irredentism and collective renewal, Trump hardly conforms to the fascist mythos of the nobly self-sacrificing warrior-leader. If anything, he embodies what a midcentury fascist propagandist might have caricatured as its decadent and self-serving opposite.
Yet what might disqualify Trump as a definitional fascist appears to represent no real-world impediment to his success as a Trumpist. And this is precisely what we should expect. Interwar fascisms drew upon and reacted to specific potentiating circumstances: the trauma of World War I, economic catastrophe, demographic dislocation, and the threat of a politically militant Left (in the form of Bolshevism). For better and for worse, these forces and events represented touchstones that were public, shared, and manifestly world-historical.
Trump, by contrast, has come to power following years of neoliberal austerity that have, on one hand, atomized the workforce and, on the other, preserved a simulacrum of stability via a jobless recovery. Likewise, whatever its prospects in the future, any semblance of a powerful, broad-coalition American Left over the past decades has been frustrated thanks to the systematic dismantling of organized labor. At the same time, America has become a nation constantly at war—yet without a draft or anything resembling mass awareness, let alone mass mobilization.
Any collective experience of martial sacrifice or national humiliation Trump can conjure must thus be drawn from other sources: the toughness of some much-praised general, the pathos of the families of dead soldiers or police, the propagandized suffering of “American Victims” of “Immigration Crime.” And no matter how Trump may fabricate, purloin, or just plain hystericize any claim of valor or sacrifice, he’ll invoke them with his patented brand of boundless self-confidence, transparent gullibility, and starfucking obsequiousness. Fascist authoritarians like Mussolini and Hitler could capitalize on tectonic shifts that had impacted vast populations, and could leverage their own direct connection to those events via heroic narratives of personal hardship. Trump, for his part, hails from neither public service nor the armed forces, and instead of having struggled with economic misery, he has skated above and even profited from it. He has even proclaimed this background as a virtue, mocking supposed icons of heroic sacrifice with a reality TV star’s zeal for picking feuds and contrarian branding.
But now, as commander-in-chief, Trump can offer us a much more compelling spectacle than he ever could as a celebrity provocateur: the pageantry and piety of American militarism itself. He can even have it both ways, claiming credit for a military operation one week, then foisting any responsibility for it onto his generals the next. What’s more, the current taboos of American civic religion mandate that even Trump’s opponents feel compelled to stand up and applaud with him in his most transparently cynical photo-ops—as if there weren’t already more than enough incentives for establishment elites to proclaim Trump “presidential” on matters of national security in the first place.
Whether this does or doesn’t resemble fascism is not the point, since we must be profoundly suspicious of our own desires or expectations that Trumpism “be” (or not be) fascism in the first place. Trump is not a carbon copy of any past authoritarian—but his speech last night proves that he’s as willing and capable of waving bloody shirts and preaching the sanctity of violent sacrifice as the worst of them. The shirts aren’t his, and the notion of sacrifice—in its particularities and in general—eludes him. But it doesn’t matter: much like the organs of our bloated and heavily privatized security state, such rhetoric is a resource at his disposal. Trump’s opportunism in deploying it now, combined with his stated conviction that “America should start winning wars,” should leave us with no illusions about where this all tends. Historical fascism was born in a crucible of near-apocalyptic war, in global violence that it inevitably reignited; that Trumpism, a fascism for the end of history, has been born in different and less bloody circumstances does not mean that it cannot end in worse.