Are you calling Trump a fascist?

Jason Stanley, a Yale University philosophy professor, published How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them in 2018. The paperback was released this May with a new preface summing up developments since 2018. In short: the fascist talk in the US and elsewhere is being concretized in fascist policies, and democratic institutions are being further undermined. I am posting excerpts, as I do, on my friend-only Facebook page. And I know—though I whacked my friends list in half a month or two ago—that someone will reply to my posting of these excerpts with this question: Are you calling Trump a fascist?

(Compare my earlier post, Speaking of Hitler, in which I contemplate the question: Are you comparing Trump to Hitler?)

I resist the question. It makes me the actor, and a bad actor at that. “Look at James! He is coming unhinged. He is calling the president of the United States a fascist. Oh, how James hates Donald Trump!” I sense that both Trumpists and some never-Trumpers among my friends think this way.

But it’s not about me. I am not an important person. Why make it about me?

There’s a reason: For Trumpists, dismissing as haters those who see through Trump’s charlatanry is a central tactic in the strategy of truth-denial and delusion-preservation. It is a quintessentially Trumpist tactic, because Trump himself is a hater, and Trump always defends himself by shouting at the top of his lungs that others are guilty of the sins and crimes of which he is himself guilty. Hating and stirring up hatred and anger is his forte. And as Stanley points out, it is a fascist tactic.

I have learned that it is impossible to argue Trumpists out of the their delusion. So I am not talking to them here. I hope their minds will change, but that will require a cognitive-dissonance explosion, a revolution, a gestalt shift, which is to say a kind of conversion. The only way we can try to make that happen—and really we cannot make it happen, only a higher power than any of us can do that—is by steadfastly speaking the truth to them with love, and with a greater emphasis on the love than on the speaking, since the central problem is an inability to ingest and digest the speaking.

Rather, I am talking to my non-Trumpist and anti-Trumpist friends, and especially those who are fellow Christians. Here is my message to you: Do not worry about me. It is well with my soul. I am not claiming not to be deeply disturbed by what is happening to my country, but I do not need to be soothed or fretted over. I am OK and will be OK. My true life is hidden in Christ, but Jesus does not call me to a life of serenely pious disinterest in the suffering world around me. In a context of injustice, indifference is complicity. If you want to worry about me—thank you, I appreciate it. I really do. But worry about the extent to which I have lived and am still living in complacent, complicit indifference rather than walking the via crucis of self-giving engagement.

I have noted that a number of people have told me that I hate Trump as a way of dismissing what I say about Trump. Do I hate Trump? No. But also, in a sense, maybe yes? Let me explain.

Trump the human being, Trump the creature of God and bearer of God’s image, Trump the living soul so deeply wounded by his upbringing, so desperately needing love and so far from having found it or having any clue how to find it, I do not hate. This is Trump the Thou. This is Trump my brother—not as a Christian (clearly he is not that) but Trump the potential Christian, i.e., a man whom God loves and calls to repentance, invites to lay down his burden at the cross. My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ requires me to love and pray for this man, and the Holy Spirit enables me to do so. Not with perfect consistency, any more than I have achieved perfect consistency in any of the other tasks in my ongoing sanctification.

That’s the “no” part of my response to the “You hate Trump!” accusation. It pertains to Trump the “Thou,” the Trump I would see and respond to if Donald Trump were to show up alone, knock on my door, and ask if we could sit and talk, or if he were to phone me for a private chat, or if he were to show up at a church service, without agents and aides and cameras and come forward after the service for prayer, or if I were to spot him sitting alone and lonely in a cafeteria or on a park bench. This would be Trump the Thou, and I would respond with compassion, not feeling superior, not speaking or acting in anger, but responding with empathy, hoping to encourage, hoping to share the love that is God.

But these scenarios are far-fetched, implausible. Donald Trump is not available to me as a Thou except in my imagination, which means also in my prayer life—which is important, and which I must not neglect. But otherwise Donald Trump the Thou is unavailable to me and to you. Instead we have before us—massively, unavoidably, and consequentially—Donald Trump the He and the It, Donald Trump the cultural and political power, the prince (as in “principality”), the symbol. To us Donald Trump is the main embodiment and voice in the United States of forces that are at work, powerfully, in the world around us. And those forces are—as Stanley’s book explains—fascist.

There are two mistakes that Christian citizens of the US must avoid. One is to strip the man Donald Trump of all of his humanity, which is to say all of his image-of-God essence, leaving him as a hollow shell inhabited only by demons of anger, greed, lust, and pride. Satan wishes to shut down the Thou (i.e., wants to keep Trump disconnected from any authentic relationship with God and with other humans) and turn his He into an It. That is Satan’s work, what Satan wishes to do to all of us, and as far as I can see it is a successful work in Trump’s case. But you and I as followers of Jesus are in the business of contesting Satan’s claims in every case. It is true that the apostle Paul left us the example, in a rare case, of consigning a recalcitrant person to Satan for the destruction of the flesh in hope of the salvation of his spirit in the day of the Lord. But even that is a way of contesting Satan’s claim. If we ever have a chance for meaningful personal interaction with Donald Trump, we must address him as a child of God, a fellow creature, a fellow object of the love of Christ.

The other mistake that Christian citizens, as citizens, must avoid is confusing our two roles (as citizen and as Christian) and Trump’s (or any other politician’s) two identities (Thou and He/It). We must not isolate these roles from each other—the Christian must be a citizen in a Christian way—but neither must we confuse them. To respond to a symbol, a principality, a power—a cosmic It—only as if it were nothing but a Thou is to commit a category mistake. And in the case of a politician—a president, even—who has become a symbol and embodiment of anger, hatred, greed, exclusion, and all of that and more in a manner that is fascist, to respond with support, or with respectful deference, or even with acquiescence and reticence, rather than with emphatic condemnation is a grave error indeed. It is at best an abdication of the role of citizen. It is at worst a failure to perform even the role of Christian, provided that you understand the role of Christian as including constructive, truth-speaking engagement with “the world” rather than complete withdrawal from it. To the extent that “Trump” has become a symbol and agent of evil, the proper response of the Christian citizen is unrelenting, unambiguous opposition. We call a thing what it is. And if some call that hatred—well, that’s their choice. They think I am in danger of hating the sinner, and truly that is a danger. I think they are in danger (or worse) of loving the sin.

My own principle, whether it’s Trump or anyone else, is to steer clear of denunciation and ridicule in the second person. This, I believe is the meaning of Jesus’s warning against saying “Thou fool” to a brother even though throughout scripture “fool” is used copiously in the third person. My Trump discourse is third-person. So I will use denunciation and even ridicule. But more basic and important is straightforward description. That is what the Stanley book is about. If Stanley (or anyone else) calls Trump’s tactics, aim, or effects fascist, that is not necessarily hate speech. It could be—it intends to be—straightforward description: calling a thing what it is.

Last night Trump said, “We want all voting to stop.” That’s a quotation. This in the context of his characterization of vote-counting as fraud. He wants states to stop counting ballots that their laws require them to count after an election because he knows—since he denounced voting by mail in a pandemic even though he votes by mail himself—that mailed ballots are more likely to favor Biden. So he calls counting those ballots fraud. This man is clearly saying, and has been saying for five years, that any election that he loses is by that very fact shown to be fraudulent. So when he says that he wants all voting to stop, we have every reason to take this statement not just as sloppy speech but as a revelation of his anti-democratic core. Call it a Freudian slip, perhaps. Or maybe it’s just a plain, open statement of his truth.

The question is not whether I am calling Trump a fascist. The question is why, when he has been trying so hard, in so many ways, to tell us that he is, so many of us refuse to believe him.

I have not yet read all of Stanley’s book, but it comes to me highly recommended by better people than I, so I feel comfortable recommending it to you as well.

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