In August, I wrote that Donald Trump, for all intents and purposes, was not a fascist. His rhetoric used fascistic devices — a reliance on the self ("I alone can fix it"), anti-liberalism, and the scapegoating of an amorphous "other" (be it Muslims, immigrants, or women). But Trump himself, as I saw it then, was not a literal fascist.
I was wrong. Donald Trump is a fascist. Or, more accurately, the image he projects is. And ultimately, that image is far more important than Donald Trump himself.
We know nothing of Trump beyond that image, to be honest. He descended on an escalator in June 2015 as Donald Trump™: billionaire, major philanthropist, and change agent. This Trump makes millions of dollars a year, yet still takes the time to shake hands with supporters outside Trump Tower. He is frank to a fault, willing to battle the scourges of America's working class and do so with a smile. He had, and has, no real policy positions, because those have never been necessary for his rise.
Who will serve on the Supreme Court? Trump will decide. How will we fight ISIL? Trump will lead us. Trump adheres to the Führerprinzip, or "leader principle," the Germanic concept of one man above all — and above the law. He won't need Congress to enact his plans — he can deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and rebuild the middle-class through the power of pure will.
All of this is bullshit, of course, but it doesn't matter. "Trump’s platform is an inkblot, inviting voters to see whatever they want in the smudgy contours of his fiscal plans and foreign policy," Time's Nancy Gibbs recently wrote. And for many of Trump's supporters, that's enough — because he is enough.
There is historical precedent for what is happening. In 1975, culture critic Susan Sontag reviewed a photography book by Leni Riefenstahl for the New York Review of Books. Riefenstahl was Adolf Hitler's favorite filmmaker — the vision behind The Triumph of the Will, a documentary about the 1934 Nazi rally at Nuremberg, and Olympiad, a two-part propaganda film about the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Riefenstahl's films presented images of a future in which the German people had given themselves over to Hitler, and had been rewarded handsomely. Not to Hitler the man — the failed Austrian artist, the poor writer, chosen by the then-president as chancellor of Germany because he seemed easy to control. But to Hitler the image — strong, dependable, trustworthy, and, as Sontag says, "irresistible." Trust him, Riefenstahl's films seemed to say, he looks like he knows what he's doing, and if we all just give in to him, it'll all work out.
This is the fascism of Trump — or rather, of the image of Trump. And even as his campaign falters, this rhetoric remains. He is "taking slings and arrows" for his followers, he says. He's still strong, he tells us, the father our nation needs — but the forces of evil have unified to steal the election from him. Now, more than ever, he needs his followers to submit to him so that he can deliver the future. Only he can save us.
He can't. A lot of people knew this already. They could always see the man behind the curtain. But that's not really the point. The problem is not that Trump can't deliver on the image he projects; it's that millions of Americans craved that image — of an authoritarian father of their very own — in the first place.