American aphanisis: in search of Donald Trump

by Sam Kriss

American society – the industrial society with anonymous management and vanishing personal power, etc. – is presented as a resurgence of the “society without the father.” But we are warned: the society of brothers is very dejected, unstable, and dangerous, it must prepare the way for the rediscovery of an equivalent to parental authority.
Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

Something strange about the question ‘is Donald Trump a fascist?’ Already, it’s the wrong question.

If we define fascism as a discrete political ideology whose advocates in Europe came to brief power in the first half of the twentieth century, as a checklist of traits that we can match something up against, then Donald Trump is not a fascist. He’s not created any paramilitary body, he has no mystical insignia except his own name, and there’s no indication he’d try to suspend the operation of formal democracy. He doesn’t want an economy in which capitalist production satisfies the needs of the nation rather than private profit; he doesn’t glorify the aesthetic qualities of war; he doesn’t seem to have any line on art, degenerate or otherwise, whatsoever. In fact, he doesn’t really have any politics at all: all his reactionary positions are provisional, calculated for thrust and impact; they’re projectiles; it’s the trajectory that matters more than anything like content. And in any case, you can be a right-wing demagogue without necessarily being essentially homogeneous with the death camps and the Final Solution. But all this only makes sense if we define fascism as a discrete political ideology, which it isn’t. And to simply say the opposite, that Trump is a fascist, that the politics of evil have once again broken into the mainstream, is just as stupid. Actually listen to Trump’s supporters, see what they say about him. ‘He’s just saying what we’re all thinking.’ Donald Trump has one hand grasping at the stars and the other slimy with brains; he takes the swarming private agonies that drill away at the inside of your skull, the ones only expressible as a wordless scream, and screams that scream right on national TV. Donald Trump, the shaman-king, maps the cannibal fury of the imaginary on a symbolic terrain. He says what people are thinking. And what are people thinking? Without anyone other than Trump to tell me, I went to find out. This is a travel blog. This is what I did on my holidays.

I’d hardly arrived in Los Angeles, and already they were trying to deport me. At various stages in the long line for immigration, an array of machine terminals scanned my fingerprints and my retinas and asked me if I was importing explosives or genocidal ideology or bull semen. A signposted ‘pledge to travellers’ explained to me what I could expect: they promised to ‘cordially greet and welcome you to the United States,’ to ‘treat you with courtesy, dignity, and respect,’ and to ‘present a single face worthy of this great nation.’ Big video monitors drooped from the ceiling, playing on repeat a short message of welcome from the peoples of the United States. ‘Welcome,’ said a punk girl on rollerblades. ‘Welcome,’ said a cop in full SWAT gear as gunfire crackled from somewhere out of shot. ‘Welcome,’ said a colourful Latinx family in chorus, waving from a kitchen table heavily encrusted by charming Catholic tat; Virgin Mary keychains glittering deliciously among the flakes in their breakfast cereal, a clone army of plastic Popes standing to attention where they should have had teeth. ‘Welcome,’ said a toothless meth addict, hunched over shivering on the corner of a filthy mattress; and while it was out of focus, the city behind him seemed to be on fire. ‘We need the end of your tongue,’ said the passport control guard. I must have gaped. ‘It’s a new security requirement,’ he said, picking up a pair of secateurs. ‘We need to snip off the end of your tongue. Please extend your tongue no less than one inch and lay it on the centre of this tray here.’

Clearly something was wrong. The guard held my tongue up in gloved fingers, examining it from various angles, before making a few experimental prints on my passport with the bloodied edge where it’d been cut. He held the thing up to me. ‘What does that look like to you?’ he said. ‘Uhkluhgh,’ I said, trying to be friendly and polite and not attract any suspicion. I’d lied: my blood was seeping through the paper; it didn’t look like a cloud, it looked like a blot. ‘Doesn’t look much like a cloud to me,’ he said.  ‘Clouds look like other things. A doggy, for instance.’ He snapped my passport shut. ‘Follow me, please.’ I was led through a tight warren of peeling-linoleum corridors to a secondary screening area, a grubby little waiting room, full of other people, almost silent. Two sounds: one, the flat rhythmic wheeze of an ageing, bloating Mexican in a cowboy hat strapped to an enormous respirator, his eyes washing from one side of the room to the other in subdued terror; two, the minute sobs of a twelve-year-old boy as a woman in uniform explained exactly how he’d be murdered once the paperwork for his deportation to Colombia went through. Very occasionally, the snap and clink as officials trotted through the room, pulling on blue rubber gloves, grabbing some unfortunate by his cuff and dragging him behind a door to be interrogated.

I must have waited three hours before my turn came and I was hauled before what were, I think, a pair of identical twins: the same cueball heads, the same dented noses, a pair of taut and glossy tits. They seemed to know everything about me, and at the same time nothing at all. Somebody had faxed over an itemised list of every time I’d had sex, the date and duration stamped in crowded black numbers with lines through the zeroes; they made me go through the whole list. ‘Get a bit excited that time, huh,’ they’d crow, or, ‘losing all feeling, are you? Worrying that you have a diminished capacity for physical pleasure, buddy? Starting to feel like you’re too good, too rarefied, for the most basic biological and psychological urge of human existence-‘ and then, in a grinning parody of my accent – ‘mate?’ But then none of their documents spelled my name the same way twice, and there was no sign that they even knew why I’d been sent to them. ‘Why is it you think you’re here?’ one asked. ‘We want to hear it from you.’ ‘Because my tongue didn’t look like a doggy,’ I said. ‘I can tell you,’ he said, ‘it’s not that.’ His companion nodded. ‘It’s not a crime in any jurisdiction if your tongue doesn’t look like a doggy.’ They spent a while going through my old school reports. Wants to coast by, doing the absolute minimum necessary. Socialises very poorly. Doodles in maths. The first threw up his arms. ‘He must have done something wrong,’ he said. ‘Fuck this. Let’s just shoot him.’ ‘Please don’t shoot me,’ I said. This seemed to upset them. ‘Listen, bro,’ one said. ‘You are a visitor in the United States of America. You do not make the rules. I make the rules. You do not tell me what to do. You want me to deport you? Piss me off, and I’ll have you put on the next plane back to…’ He scrunched up his face. ‘The uni-ted king-dom.’ And then they put a bag over my head, tied me to a post, put a gun to my cheek, and pulled the trigger.

Afterwards, I thought: thank God that Donald Trump has not yet brought fascism to this country’s shores, or else there might have been bullets in that thing.

I was free: Los Angeles was mine. I was in the desert. I discovered that primitive society, that thing loosely theorised by early twentieth-century anthropologists, really does exist, and what’s more, it’s a recent invention. The home of Hollywood isn’t a sophisticated net of postmodern virtuality draped over the prehistoric hills; it’s the wilderness itself. I learned that the first time I saw someone dying of thirst, dragging himself by the fingernails along a deserted sidewalk untraversed in a century. On one side, low suburban houses with their clashing historical forms, melting mile by mile into the miasma; on the other, a thirty-six-thousand-lane highway. I walked and took the bus, two things you must never do in Los Angeles, convincing myself I was taking up the traditions of Guy Debord and Iain Sinclair and Ivan Chtcheglov. The announcement on the bus had a strange cadence, an underworked voice-actor’s drawl, someone trying to be a gangster or a cowboy. ‘For your own safety, please WATCH YOUR STEP when exiting the bus.’ (It’s actually the voice of former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which is essentially the same thing.) In other cities people are stupid and comfortable; in LA they’re falling off the edge of the socius, and they’re afraid. Primordial danger: less a concrete city than the colloidal suspension of ten million anxieties. Fears loop and mingle, they amplify each other, so that the crack of a gun somewhere south of Downtown might echo and send the whole city sinking into the San Andreas Fault, so that the drought might bring packs of starved coyotes down from the hills to tear your children’s throats out, so that aliens might invade and strip-mine the earth of its sprouting alfalfa. People were afraid of Donald Trump. The weather was beautiful, and they wore big heavy winter coats whenever they went outside, which was seldom. Space worked differently. Two places close by could be entirely unrelated – downtown, the five-star hotels butted onto sad rows of pawnshops and dollar stores: unlike so much of the city, this place was real, and it was falling apart. Walking, it made no sense; in a car, you just get on the freeway to somewhere else, grab a wormhole, pinch the map together with hyperspatial hands. Less science fiction than shamanism. All the glamour and spectacle has very little in common with industrial modernity or its narrative conventions. You know how the film will end as soon as you see the trailer; it’s a fireside show, a ritual war-dance, masks and all, cinema from the howling infancy of the species. No wonder that as soon as Adorno and Horkheimer arrived in southern California, they started writing about barbarism.

I became fascinated by the sight of old people in the city, perhaps because they so clearly didn’t belong. You could watch them through windows at Burger King, vertebrae popping like blisters through their shirts, poking at their flat gristly crystal, looking so utterly defeated, like a cartoon of the dying year. I couldn’t eat anything until my tongue healed; I drank vegetable juice and looked at billboards. All the season’s TV shows were about what would happen if America were under occupation by cartoon Nazis, and the networks had decided to promote them by putting up propaganda posters from their imagined futures. Above the low houses, Los Angeles was full of swastikas. Imagine how America would look under fascism. So I imagined. They seemed to think that fascism meant banning entertainment, or the suppression of any form of enjoyment by a dictatorship that exists solely to be cruel. It meant, essentially, not being able to party. Whatever they did, it could therefore never be fascist. Walter Benjamin defines it differently. Fascism is ‘the aestheticisation of politics.’ It’s the subordination of all modes of life to entertainment; American fascism would first of all be fun. But any game needs its rules. I went to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, which told me that the Holocaust was the result of one man’s inexplicable hatred, and a cowardly population’s failure to confront it. Prejudice has no origin or cure. Intolerance causes inequality; inequality does not cause intolerance. At one point there were two doors, lit up in red and green: the red one said Prejudiced; the green Not Prejudiced. The green door was locked. After all, aren’t we all a little bit racist?

It was around that time that I started seeing Donald Trump everywhere. At the La Brea tar pits, a big gassy bubble globbed up to the surface of the pond. Just as the tension broke, its tear formed a puckered little mouth. ‘Winners,’ it whispered, leaving the stink of bitumen. Inspecting my turds one morning, I found them to be bright orange, like a newborn baby’s. Their creases and joins looked like a human face. ‘We will make America great again,’ screamed my shit. I tried to flush the thing, but it wouldn’t go down. ‘I’m being repressed by the establishment,’ it screamed as it fought its way upwards through the toilety gyre. ‘They don’t want to have me on TV.’ At night the moon swam hazy through a fume-fettered sky, big and round and wearing a combover that wasn’t fooling anyone. The moon sang to me in my sadness. ‘It will be a beautiful wall,’ sang the moon. ‘And Mexico is going to pay for it.’

There were storms and riots before I left. The drought was breaking, rain crashing seawards in ballistic volleys, a grey Pacific churned into something as messy as the land. Cops had killed another innocent black kid, they’d left his body out on the street for an ambulance that never came. The police knew they had an image problem; all that body armour, all those rifles and armoured vehicles, it made them look like the repressive forces of some distant dictatorship, which they were most certainly not. So when the mobs came for justice there was no tear gas or baton rounds. Instead, they held a recruitment fair. If you don’t like the way your police force operates, then join up and make a difference! We are an equal opportunity employer, read out LGBTQIA+ policy, learn about our retirement benefits. The leaders went first, scrawny young men taking selfies with oversized police caps falling over their ears. Only when about half the protest march had been deputised did the action start. As we drove to the airport, a freeway suspended five hundred feet over Inglewood, I saw blinding white streaks fall through the rain. Low rumbles as the warheads erupted. It was all so far away. Later, at the airport, Donald Trump’s face materialised out of the spinning blades on a jet engine. ‘Black-on-black violence,’ he said. ‘They should sort out their own communities before telling us what to do.’

Donald Trump, the billionaire property developer whose words get top billing on the TV news every night, is a political outsider – because he says what everyone’s thinking. In other words, he takes those things that are unsaid but which nonetheless structure the political discourse, and he says them. Sometimes people will try to defend Trump from accusations of fascism by pointing out that he doesn’t have any consistent politics, he’s only saying whatever will appease his reactionary base and whatever will provoke the media into giving him attention. Actually, they’ve just unwittingly stumbled on a fairly decent definition of what fascism actually is. All he does is gather up what’s already there, below the surface of things, and what’s below the surface is fascist ideology. As Ishay Landa and others have pointed out, it’s not heterogeneous to liberalism, but forms one of liberalism’s defence mechanisms, something that prickles up when class society finds itself under threat. Before the death camps there had to be colonial genocide and the Fordist assembly line; none of these things are intelligible without the others. We’re already living under fascism: all that violence and horror is a byproduct of the production process, it’s always been and always is latent to the capitalist order. Latent, in the full Freudian sense of the word: as in the latency period in psychosexual development, the false pause in which the same oedipalised energies of the initial stages are redirected outwards into the world, the repressive repression of that which is itself repressive – and as the latent content, the hidden content masked by the dream-work. And we are not awake.

Yes, Donald Trump is a fascist. But only because everything else is fascist too.

I’m writing this from New York City. It’s safe here; the Army came in and blew up all the bridges, and while the Bronx has been lost entirely all the other boroughs should be able to hold out. Life has, unavoidably, changed – Central Park is farmland now, millet mostly; a colonel with a tiny flat little nose went on TV to say that actually working with our hands ‘might do you people some good.’ You people; he didn’t actually use the J-word. I went down to Times Square, thinking that all the lights would be replaced by propaganda signs telling me in no uncertain terms what to do. But while there were tanks blocking off Broadway, Coca-Cola was still there. And that’s how I knew I would be OK.