Donald Trump thinks power looks like masked men in combat uniforms lined up in front of the marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial. He thinks it looks like Black Hawk helicopters hovering so low over protesters that they chop off the tops of trees. He thinks it looks like troops using tear gas to clear a plaza for a photo op. He thinks it looks like him hoisting a Bible in his raised right hand.
Trump thinks power sounds like this: “Our country always wins. That is why I am taking immediate Presidential action to stop the violence and restore security and safety in America . . . dominate the streets . . . establish an overwhelming law-enforcement presence. . . . If a city or state refuses . . . I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them. . . . We are putting everybody on warning. . . . One law and order and that is what it is. One law—we have one beautiful law.” To Trump, power sounds like the word “dominate,” repeated over and over on a leaked call with governors. It sounds like the silence of the men in uniform when they are asked who they are.
Trump got these ideas from television and Hollywood movies, and he had the intuition to recognize them. He knew what he wanted to imitate. We know that he likes the military and its parades. (A senior Administration official, speaking with the Daily Beast, attempted to downplay the President’s interest in tanks: “I think that is just one of the military words he knows.”) Perhaps he has seen many movies that feature the Black Hawk, that monster of military-industrial production, the metal embodiment of brute force. Perhaps Trump heard that, when Russia occupied Crimea, it flooded the peninsula with men in unmarked uniforms—they dominated without ever identifying themselves. Perhaps he heard the word “dominate” in his recent telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin. Perhaps he had seen a picture of Hitler in a similar pose, or perhaps he just conflated two gestures that symbolize power in American politics: one hand raised, the other on the Bible—this may explain the slight uncertainty of his display, as if he weren’t sure how much the book was supposed to weigh.
The President is a talented performer who plays an exaggerated version of an idea of who he is. On “The Apprentice,” he played what he thought a wildly successful real-estate developer would be like. He made inane pronouncements with great aplomb, and, as my colleague Patrick Radden Keefe wrote, in a Profile of the creator of “The Apprentice,” Mark Burnett, Trump made bizarre decisions that the makers of the show then scrambled to make look credible in the editing room. When the show started, Trump was a has-been, an occasional butt of tabloid jokes; by the time it ended, he and the audience both believed that he was one of the wealthiest and most successful businessmen on the planet. That, in turn, made his Presidential campaign if not immediately plausible then at least imaginable.
A power grab is always a performance of sorts. It begins with a claim to power, and if the claim is accepted—if the performance is believed—it takes hold. Much as he played a real-estate tycoon in the most crude and reductive way, Trump is now performing his idea of power as he imagines it. In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition. Whether or not he is capable of grasping the concept, Trump is performing fascism.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of eleven books, including “Surviving Autocracy” and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.