Democracia y PolíticaÉtica y Moral

Mafioso Politics


Hannah Arendt insists that we look reality in the face and seek to understand even what is most strange, difficult, and horrific. There is a lot of reality we are inclined to turn away from these days. I know for someone like myself, attending to what Donald Trump says at his campaign rallies is something I’d rather not do. And yet, it is without a doubt part of our present reality that the former President may well also be the future President. Timothy Snyder analyzes the context of how Trump is seeking to normalize criminality and violence. Snyder’s essay reminds us of Arendt’s worry in her final essay, that “Public opinion is dangerously inclined to condone not crime in the streets but all political transgressions short of murder.” For Arendt, Richard Nixon was the embodiment of the rising tolerance for criminality, the rise of a politics dominated by “con men, rather untalented Mafiosi.” What Arendt saw was that even putably normal and good politicians supported Nixon not because they respected him, and not because power corrupts, but because power attracts. “The trouble, I think, is less that power corrupts than that the aura of power, its glamorous trappings, more than power itself, attracts.” The people who abuse power, Arendt writes, generally “were corrupt long before they attained power. What the helpers needed to become accomplices in criminal activities was permissiveness, the assurance that they would be above the law.”

That the promise of protection and assurance that one will not be held accountable for crimes is of the essence of the kind of mafioso government Arendt worried about. And it is the core reason that former President Trump is fronting his promise to pardon those he calls the political hostages imprisoned for their crimes on January 6th.  Talking about Trump’s recent rally in Ohio where the former President sang a song along with imprisoned hostages and spoke of the potential for a “bloodbath” if he were to lose, Snyder writes

The Vandalia rally began with a brazen celebration of the convicted criminals who took part in Trump’s failed coup attempt.  Those present were instructed to «please rise for the horribly and unfairly treated January 6th hostages.»  The reference was to convicts serving time for attempting to overturn the results of the last presidential election and thereby overthrow the American form of government.

The phrase «horribly and unfairly treated January 6th hostages,» booming over the loudspeaker, was substituted here for the call to rise to the flag or the national anthem.  The people who tried to overthrow the Constitution were inserted where a pledge to American values would ordinarily be.  Americans were being asked to honor violence in the service of overthrowing the American system.

This Gesamtkunstwerk was designed to bring people into a sense of unity with the perpetrators of the January 6th crimes.  As a chorus of convicted criminals sang over video, people rose and then joined in song.  They put their hands on their hearts.  Along with the coup convicts, those who attended the rally performed a perforated version of the national anthem.  In so doing, they joined a virtual community of violence.

The singing was interwoven with a recording of Trump reciting the pledge of allegiance, as though he were the only American who mattered.  Baseball cap still on head, Trump saluted a recording of himself.  Both of these details, too, are mockeries of patriotic performance.  Trump has no right to salute at that moment.  Not removing the cap means that he, and he alone, is above it all — the martyr in chief, the most «horribly and unfairly treated.»

After the blasphemous mashup was complete, Trump began his Vandalia speech with these words:
«Well, thank you very much and you see the spirit from the hostages, and that’s what they are is hostages.  They’ve been treated terribly and very unfairly and you know that and everybody knows that, and we’re going to be working on that sooner.  The first day we get into office, we’re going to save our country and we’re going to work with the people to treat those unbelievable patriots, and they were unbelievable patriots and are.  You see the spirit just cheering?  They’re cheering while they’re doing that and they did that in prison and it’s a disgrace in my opinion.»

So, right at the beginning, Americans at the rally are told to identify themselves with people who tried to overthrow an election by force, who are celebrated as «unbelievable patriots.»  That is perhaps the most essential element of context to Trump’s later reference to a bloodbath.  He has already made clear, in a the collective performance, that violent insurrection is the best form of politics.  Well before he actually used the word, he had instructed his audience that bloodbaths are the right form of politics.  (This is, by the way, not just the context of this rally, but of his rallies generally.)…

The cult of criminals as martyrs also suggests a historical context: the fascist politics of violence.  Before Hitler came to power, Goebbels worked hard to find a violent Nazi who could be portrayed as a victim of the far left.  He eventually found a dubious character called Horst Wessel, who became the subject of the Nazis’ main song.  Trump has made an eerily similar move, turning his coup criminals into musicians of martyrdom.

The fascist-style martyrdom cult justifies violence, in two ways.  It makes a hero of criminals, thereby making criminality exemplary.  And it establishes prior innocence — we suffered first, and therefore anything we do to make others suffer will always be justified.  The Nazis sang their Horst Wessel Song as they conquered countries and killed millions.

In another way, Trump’s Vandalia speech also summoned up the fascist historical context.  For fascists, political opponents are enemies because they are animals or are associated with animals.  The border theme in Trump’s campaign is meant to link the Biden administration to violent subhumans.  In the Vandalia speech, Trump called migrants animals, snakes, and monsters.  In this passage, he called them inhuman:

«Young people, they’re in jail for years, if you call them people, I don’t know if you call them people.  In some cases they’re not people in my opinion, but I’m not allowed to say that because the radical left says that’s a terrible thing to say.  They say you have to vote against him because did you hear what he said about humanity?  I’ve seen the humanity and these humanity, these are bad. These are animals and we have to stop it.»



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