Umberto Eco, writing about an “Ur-Fascism” in the New York Review of Books in 1995, quoted Eugène Ionesco, who said “only words count; the rest is mere chattering.” Donald Trump was certainly not at a loss for words in Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech. He gave us plenty of words. Beautiful words. The best words. Words that would have likely worried Eco.
This is not a post about Trump-as-fascist. We have read plenty of those takes, many of which tend to fear-monger as much as the administration does. However, Eco’s understanding of the idea of an “Ur-Fascism” gives us a means of understanding the way the Trump administration talks about security politics—it can contextualize the contours of the discourse. While Trump is not a Mussolini or a Hitler, there is a commonality in the functions of language in how Trump talks about security.
Because of space, I cannot offer a full discourse analysis of the speech, but I will highlight the connection between the rhetoric and Eco’s understanding of an “Eternal Fascism” using text from the speech, in order to point to commonalities—especially in the way Trump constructs security issues in the speech. I will focus on six of Eco’s 14 defining features for the sake of space.
Fear of Difference
Fear of difference is a common theme. In thinking about frequency of usage, the speech equates immigrants with the MS-13 gang throughout, repeating the name of the gang four times. The immigration debate is not just about fear; it is about connecting difference to existential threat.
An Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class
This message has a clear target audience—the speech, in a skillful way, ties in security, immigration, and the economic safety of Americans into a single trope about the negative effects of the immigrant on the middle class. He states: “The United States is a compassionate nation. We are proud that we do more than any other country to help the needy, the struggling, and the underprivileged all over the world. But as President of the United States, my highest loyalty, my greatest compassion, and my constant concern is for America’s children, America’s struggling workers, and America’s forgotten communities. I want our youth to grow up to achieve great things.” The threat of immigration is not just a material security issue, it threatens an entire way of life for the middle class.
Obsession with a Plot
The most glaring example of plot obsession in the SOTU is the attempt to connect illegal immigration with gang violence, making a factually incorrect claim about the frequency of immigrant violence, and suggesting a methodical struggle between immigrants and working class communities. He says: “For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”
For Trump, immigrants are flooding the borders; they are coming to kill your families and to take your jobs.
Enemies are Too Strong and Too Weak
The trope of simultaneous weakness and strength appears throughout the speech. At one point, Trump talks about the problems of American weakness: “Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values. In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense. For this reason, I am asking the Congress to end the dangerous defense sequester and fully fund our great military.”
At another point, though, in talking about terrorism, he makes clear that “when possible, we annihilate them.”
Cult of the Hero
Nothing represents the expression of the “Cult of the Hero” more than the sheer quantity of recognitions of people in the crowd. The word “hero,” in fact, shows up a total of eight times in the speech itself, including in the context of ICE agents’ efforts to fight illegal immigration.
The level of “newspeak” in Trump’s speeches deserves its own series of blog posts, but it is hard to ignore double talk and innuendo in the SOTU, including terms like: “chain immigration” and “rogue regimes.”
Eco makes it clear that these characteristics are necessary, but not sufficient, characteristics that—in some combination—contribute to fascist tendencies. He argues, actually, that these characteristics “are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism.” I do not think Trump is a fascist. Fascism is an historically specific ideology, and without a sensitivity to context, we do a disservice to our understanding of both Trump and historical fascism.
However, in briefly illustrating themes in the SOTU related to security, I hope to emphasize that the construction of the “Other” in Trump’s discourse—and especially that of the “illegal immigrant” is dangerous. If words matter, we should be worried about what 2018 holds. More than that, security studies scholars—especially those of the critical vein—need to start reevaluating what we can do with our analytic tools—what we can do with the historical, critical, and theoretical sensitivity we use to make sense of the world. It is not enough to compare Trump to despots and fanatics; we have to tell people why words matter.