Red Triangles and Dog Whistles
I remember, after the 2016 fiasco saying, to friends and associates, that when you start hearing Trump and his flunkies saying things like “You know the Nazis were bad and all that, but they weren’t all that bad…” or “You know Hitler was un-American and all that, but he had some good ideas…” that we will all know that we’ve turned the corner. I deliberately stressed “when” and did not say “if.” It was just a matter of time and relentless water-testing.
Yesterday the “Team Trump” re-election campaign posted images of an upside-down red-triangle, used by Nazis in the concentration camps to designate “political” prisoners, below a screed against the “radical left” and the amorphous “Antifa.” There were such 88 Facebook posts — “88” being a meme on the Far Right with H being the 8th letter of the alphabet, and 88 signifying HH or “Heil Hitler.” So now, although we may not have finished turning the corner, we have at least begun to do so.
I do not relish being a Cassandra anymore than anyone else. I have in the past, here on Medium and in the Public Seminar journal of ideas, opined that there’s no reason not to withhold the tag “Fascist” or “Nazi” to the Trump administration and the throngs of Trump acolytes and supporters. They might not publicly self-identify as such, or even privately think that they are Nazis, but when it looks like a goose and honks like a goose and steps like a goose — pun intended — it’s probably a goose. This is not guilt by association, but guilt by tacit admission.
Or maybe not. One might contend that these are mere “dog whistles” on the part of Trump’s campaign, on a megahertz level that only portions of his ultra-white-nationalist base can hear, but not indicative of any burgeoning Nazi ideology on the part of the Trump campaign. They are merely throwing red meat to a small but insignificant part of their base. At heart they are just corrupt and self-interested. This is certainly bad enough, but not as bad as being a white nationalist or neo-Nazi.
The dog-whistle explanation may or may not be true, but it avoids the key point that the rhetoric of Fascist dog-whistles is itself appalling and, historically, has been pretty much exclusively used by, well, Fascists. Jennifer Mercieca, in a recent article in The Conversation lists six rhetorical strategies that Trump and his campaigners have used to great and successful effect, one of which is paralipsis, the device of giving emphasis to something by professing to say little or nothing about it, as if to say “I’m not saying, I’m just saying”:
Dangerous demagogues use paralipsis because it gives them plausible deniability to assert that they didn’t actually say some controversial thing or that they were merely joking or being sarcastic.
Trump uses this strategy to spread rumor and innuendo and to give a “backstage” or “real” view of what he supposedly really thinks. It is rewarding for Trump because it allows him to say two things at once, without being held accountable.
For example, Trump repeatedly amplified racist white nationalist content on his Twitter feed while denying that he agreed with them.
Deniability is a necessity for the Trump campaign team. If Trump said outright something like “I agree with white nationalists” he would alienate potential support from those who, understandably, are aghast at the idea of anyone, no less the President, making common cause with white nationalists. Thus the text of Trump’s Facebook posts is a feverish far-Right rant, but not in itself Nazi. Add the inverted red triangle and the esoteric significance of “88”, and it is, just enough to signal the initiates, but not enough to clinch it for everyone else. “88 is just a coincidence! The red triangle is just a cool graphic we happened to like! It has nothing to do with Nazis! You are reading too much into this! Trump derangement syndrome!”
Paralipsis thus becomes a most effective rhetorical element in gaslighting. However the problem with gaslighting, as a national political strategy, is that you cannot do it forever, and expect it to work on everybody. It only works on those who are too naïve and trusting to succumb to it. And even naivete has a half-life. Ingrid Bergman figured out, with a little help from Joseph Cotton, what Charles Boyer was up to, in the end.
Are Trumpists neo-Fascists or neo-Nazis? They certainly have no qualms about employing the rhetoric of authoritarian dictatorship, and of sending coded message to those who are neo-Fascists and neo-Nazis. The naked racism and xenophobia has been on public display for the past three-and-a-half years: it is no longer sustainable as gaslighting, since only the hopelessly gaslit are the ones who are buying it. All that remains is an offhand quip about Hitler “not being all bad” to bring it out into the open and make the implicit explicit. And when it does happen, try not to be too surprised. Just saying.