Tan Kian Ann is a first year BSc Politics and International Relations, with an interest in uncovering the nuance behind on-going policies and individual agendas.
We are not unfamiliar with Trump’s cult of personality appeal and the framing of his political campaign as a rescue mission to “Make America Great Again”. Nor are we less accustomed with his divisive rhetoric and sharp personal attacks against opponents – from calling Clinton “unstable” and “unbalanced” to, more recently, attacking Biden’s mental fitness.
Yet, these tactics pale in comparison to Trump’s broader election vision over the past few months. As if emboldened by the momentum gained toward his 2024 Presidential bid, Trump had reached a new level of unrestraint. On the tip of the iceberg, one may observe how his recent use of the word “vermin” to refer to his political opponents made the headlines. Digging deeper, one would further notice Trump’s distorted framing of America’s political context as an existential crisis as well as the revolutionary overtone of his campaign. These emerging frames are no innovations; they share intrinsic similarities with frames employed by historical dictators of the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong - and shall be further explored below.
Political Context - An Apocalyptic America
The “existential crisis” frame had taken root in the 2016 campaigns. This can be observed via diction: the Mexican “invasion” not only implies that illegal immigration poses a threat to the American way of life, but even to its national security. Furthermore, “Make America Great Again” also suggests that the US was on the verge of no longer being the superpower it used to be.
Yet, the “existential crisis” frame of today goes far beyond diction – it is a dramatic and blaring depiction of a real-life apocalyptic dystopia. After blaming the Israel-Hamas conflict and the Russian-Ukraine war on the weakness of the Biden Administration, the “prophet” proceeds to warn of an impending World War III and that the US would require the development of an impenetrable missile defence shield to safeguard itself. The “prophet” then morphs into a “whistleblower”, highlighting the existence of a “deep state” – a clandestine network of power within American institutions, that operates independently of political leadership, which is corrupt and needs to be “obliterated” before the nation is destroyed first: “either they win or we win”.
The “existential crisis” frame is no new invention – in fact, it has been employed by notable totalitarians across history. Where Hitler described the Jewish people to be the “biggest threat to the Aryan race”, Mao described the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a “battle for China’s soul”. Perhaps Trump’s “deep state” was inspired by Stalin’s Fifth Column, which described foreign agents as embedded within the state, and was used to justify widespread purges from members of the Bolshevik party to intellectuals and ordinary citizens.
Political Aspirations - A New Political Movement
But Trump does not stop at this portrayal, of him being the solution to every single problem the nation and its people face. He describes his candidacy as “far more than a campaign – we are all involved in a great political movement…greatest in the history of our country”. While this movement is vaguely defined, clues may be found in the January 6 Capitol Attack – large-scale mobilisation of the masses and impassioned, bottom-up violence when the situation demands for it.
Revolutionary movements, too, have been a convenient toolkit in the totalitarian repertoire – in fact their employment is what distinguishes totalitarian leaders from autocratic ones. Whereas strongman leaders say, “I alone can fix it!” and encourage apathy or obedience of the common man to maintain a regime, totalitarian figures engage the masses and mobilise them to participate in revolutionising the status quo and “reform” society.
For instance, Mao leveraged the student militias (known as the ‘Red Guards’) to carry out the Cultural Revolution, mobilizing them based on purging the “impure” elements of Chinese society and “reviving” the revolutionary spirit of the civil war. Hitler created the ‘Hitler Youth’, to reshape the nation’s youngest generation into one that conforms with the Nazi ideology. He concurrently incited the Hitler Youth (and the wider population) against the Jews which he labeled as “parasitic Jews” that needed to be “eradicated”. Intrinsic similarities may be observed here: the use of a forceful purge to achieve reform, and a dehumanizing narrative to wash down feelings of cruelty and guilt by perpetrators of violence. Coincidentally, both elements may be easily identified in Trump’s employment of spiteful, revolutionary language when he promises to “root out the communists, Marxists … that live like vermin within the confines of our country”.
Has Trump devolved into a true totalitarian in spirit? Or at the very least, has Trump’s recent campaign been inspired by the strategies employed by historical totalitarians? While linkages may be clearly drawn, and signs of similarities are apparent, it remains to be seen whether a deeper, intentional malice indeed exists - based on a few election speeches and campaign framing. One could make a convincing argument that Trump had simply gone overboard with his sensationalist rhetoric. Besides, checks and balances within the US constitution would never grant Trump the power of a totalitarian even in the event he is elected; talk is cheap without the backing of power. However, more in-depth analysis into the totalitarian elements and resemblances of Trump’s campaign remains meaningful. At its worst, it is an intellectually stimulating pursuit involving the guessing of Trump’s political ambitions. At its best, it would provide insights regarding the state of American democracy and the political appetites of the American public.