I just finished Masha Gessen’s truly great The Future is History, her story of “how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia”. It was hard to read, not just because of the grey bleakness that choked out all Russian political space throughout the book, but because of the vast parallels between Russia and the United States…especially, of course, between the rise of Trump and the Reign of Putin.
I don’t mean, right now at least, in the strictly legal or political sense. The book doesn’t at all touch on potential collusion, or cooperation between the parties. Trump is really only mentioned a couple of times at the end, once where Gessen is talking about the growing global influence of Alexander Dugin, the philosopher of Putinism and Russia’s aggressive revanchism, with its white nationalism, hatred of modernity, anti-gay hysteria, political oppression, and swaggering love of upsetting norms.
In the epilogue, she writes of his growing international fame: “With the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the neo-Nazi movement known as the ‘alt-right’ gained public prominence, as did its leader Richard Spencer, an American married to Nina Kouprianova, a Russian woman who served as Dugin’s English translator and American promoter.”
This, I think, is part of the key. The philosophy behind Putinism, especially once his second terms started, has been aggressive and deeply conservative, almost atavistic. And that movement, which I’ve lumped as “white suprenationalism“, has been the driving moral force behind Trump.
This isn’t a full review of the book, nor is it trying to tease out the enormity of the Russian connection, in a spiritual, legal, and economic sense (indeed, every time I try to, I get lost in the vastness of the details, which might be the point). I hope to do a full review this week, and hope to bring out more connections as we go along.
But there was one passage that struck me, and that clarified a lot of what I have been thinking about when we talk about arming teachers.
That idiot idea has been picking up some steam in the last few years, and now has the full weight of the conservative movement behind it. There are of course deeply cynical reasons why the vile Dana Loesch and the NRA and your Hannity and lesser Hannities are behind it: it pretends to be doing something while maximizing the number of guns in the country. It has a certain swagger to it, but protects the NRA and their business. It places the burden on teachers, and not on anyone else. It gives the impression of caring more than the gun control freaks, and assumes for itself a mantle of moral weight to serve as a counterpoise to those sneering Parkland brats.
It’s easy enough to point out why this is crazy, both morally and practically. For one thing, it creates the illusion that gun control is impossible and that mass shootings are just part of who we are, and there is nothing we can do (To be fair, I sort of agree with the first part, but draw opposite conclusions). It acts like guns are a natural part of the landscape, like rain. It is an abdication.
And practically? I mean, come on.
So how did this crazy, reckless idea suddenly become the most important one? Become for them a shrieking moral cause? Well, for one thing, because they are scared of the Parkland kids and scared of the movement, and this lets them pretend they actually care more. But for another, it is because Donald Trump, with his childish fixation on violence and self-image as the last cowboy, has become attached to it.
That is currently the only thing that matters. Once Donald Trump becomes attached to an idea, the whole weight of the government and the right-wing propaganda machine lines up behind it. There is interplay between the noise machine and how he gets his ideas, of course (the Fox and Friends ouroboros), but once he has them, it is To the Barricades!
I’ve been trying to figure out, though, how this maximalist proposition has suddenly become Gospel, and while it has for the reasons above, there is a reason why it is this one, instead of some other dumb idea. Why, exactly, Trump latched onto the worst, and was encouraged to latch onto the worst. Gessen clarified it.
Hannah Arendt wrote that an ideology was nothing but a single idea taken to its logical extreme. No ideology was inherently totalitarian, but every ideology contained the seeds of totalitarianism–it could become encapsulated, entirely divorced from reality, with a single premise eclipsing the entire world. Totalitarian leaders, she wrote, were interested less in the idea itself than in its use as the driver and justification of action. They derived the “laws of history” from the single chosen idea and then mobilized the people to fill these imaginary laws.
The “idea”, here, is Trumpism. Trumpism, with its awaggering anti-modern vibe, its adherence to a made-up past, an overwhelming desire to irritate and drive mad the opposition, to be anti-science, anti-diversity, anti-immigration, anti-multilateralism, anti-everything. To throw away old values like decency and respect.
Trumpism is the idea, and it works because it is a stupid one. It’s a dumber (though less violent and total, for now) version of what is happening in Russia. You see its near-peak with the idea of arming teachers, but you see its full form when Trump goes after “coward” cops, calling them out by name, and the thuggish gears of law enforcement and their enablers stand quietly by.
When a football player sugessts that cops shouldn’t murder unarmed black folks, police unions and Fox and the right go into hysterics. When Trump calls out a cop by name, multiple times, for being a human being, you don’t hear peep. That’s more than garden-level hypocrisy. That’s because Trumpism is what is most important.
There’s a lot more in Gessen’s book, and a lot more ties with Russia. There are a lot more ways to understand the relationship between Putin’s ideas and the rest of the world, including Trump. Hopefully, we’ll get to them.
But for now, I hope it is clear what I mean about Trumpism being totalitarian. Totalitarianism doesn’t have to mean 1984 and all that. There can be personal space. But there can be no political space. Trumpism as an idea has choked out all political space on the Right and in the Republican Party (and to be fair, they’ve wanted to be choked out). It is increasingly pushing out all other space, as every day we debate and pull our hair out over the latest disaster, the newest idiocy, the most recent semi-literate and hateful tweet. It is encroaching everywhere, including our minds and health.
Trumpism is not totalitarianism in practice, yet. but it is in theory. And as it invades our private space, it creeps closer to actual totalitarianism, a chaotic idea of governance that makes democracy all but impossible.
The sounds of the totalitarian government don’t have to be jackboots and truncheons bashing wetly on skulls, but they can be the piteous cries of the wounded, the clatter of shells on a high school floor, the inanity of ideas shrieked at you, and the absence of silence. When all that is in your head is terrible, fighting back becomes almost impossible.