I recently read somewhere that Donald Trump keeps a volume of Hitler’s speeches on his nightstand. If true I find this amusing, because it shows that Trump is not a very quick study. By all accounts Hitler was an electrifying speaker; there exist, for those who care to look for them, pictures of him rehearsing his speeches, and they show he was a master of the dramatic, messianic gesture. Though his trail through history was evil and blood-soaked, as a political orator Hitler was hard to match.
Trump, by way of contrast, comes off as nothing so much as a poor man’s Shecky Greene; there are the wild, spasmodic gesticulations, the repetitive “what gives?” shrugs, the constant shooting of the sleeves. Trump thinks he’s smart because he’s surrounded by people who tell him so, and watching him speak is like watching a drunken man performing at an open mike night at a strip mall sports bar, cheered on by his friends who’ve told him how funny he is when in fact he’s not clever at all. He’s not witty; he has no insight into the human condition that might prompt introspection or amusement; as a nominally “political” figure he was no vision beyond his vacuous platitudes about “greatness.” He’s all flash and no fire, and the impression he leaves behind him has all the permanence of the hoarse shouts of a corpulent carnival barker at a county fair. A more unlikely leader of a political movement is hard to imagine. Trump’s “substance” is only at the level of surface appearances, a kind of empty “bigness” of presence with no heft at all. He’s a vehicle for superficiality.
In short, to compare Trump to Hitler actually manages to do a disservice to Hitler, and not only at the rhetorical level. Hitler had a kind of demonic intelligence behind his eyes; he was quite adept at Machiavellian maneuvering; he had a worldview, detestable though that view was; and he had a program. Mein Kampf was an evil book by any measure, but despite history’s righteous judgment of it Hitler actually wrote it. The book represents his ideas and the lines of thought that lead to them, no matter how vile and twisted and obscene they were. In other words, Hitler was “thoughtful” in his own way, as evil as these thoughts were.
Try to imagine Trump writing a book (by himself!) about his political philosophy. It’s truly impossible, because it’s clear he’s never spent a moment thinking about politics. He has no political values or allegiances or ideology, no policies, no theory of governance, no proposed legislative priorities—nothing, nothing at all. This is not to say that the rest of the GOP field is comprised of people of big ideas, but at least they occasionally talk in some detail about this policy or that, wrongheaded though they usually are. Jeb Bush’s eyes reflect his haughty sense of entitlement, Ted Cruz’s betray his utter cynicism, Carly Fiorina’s are alight with the gleam of opportunism, and so on down the line. Even Ben Carson has thoughts, bizarre though they are, struggling to free themselves from something like a thorazine haze. The eyes of the stricken George W. Bush often had the cast of the wares of a fishmonger at the end of the day, but one could sense that neurons were firing somewhere in there, out of sequence perhaps, but firing nonetheless.
Now look into the dull pig-eyes of Trump. There’s no light back there at all. One imagines a skull full of dead, rotting, ground beef, incapable of generating any performance of cognition. On this reckoning Trump is a kind of mutant political creature. I’ve come to think of him as a walking, gesturing, animated mouth that constantly moves and makes sounds without the benefit of thought, but which somehow senses the resentments of its audience and then gives amplified and unapologetic voice to them. In this, the candidate Trump is the logical outcome of decades of overt and covert GOP pandering to racists and xenophobes; he’s the once barely suppressed id of the party base, finally burst forth and unleashed at a time of acute economic crisis and significant demographic shifts within our body politic. He’s quite happy to stir up the roughly 30% of the electorate which basically came unhinged after the election of a non-Caucasian president, and which are yearning for a return to “golden age” of unchallenged white, male, Christian privilege.
Yet Trump is no member of the Lumpenproletariat; the resentments he channels are not his own. It’s important to remember that he’s a creature of television, the medium of surfaces and superficiality. His oxygen is attention; he needs it to survive; it’s the only thing he craves. And if that means he has to demean women, or call all Mexicans rapists, or demonize BLM activists, or call for a pogrom on all Muslims, that’s what he’ll do. It’s just his nature, given the kind of creature he is. I’ve often wondered who was more morally despicable, racists and xenophobes who at least have the courage of their twisted convictions, or politicians who pander to these convictions out of political expedience. With Trump we have a third option: someone who will pander to such base emotions for the sake of ratings and clicks on social media—making him an especially execrable sort of creature.