A news blurb from the New York Times on January 11th seems to be describing Donald Trump showing his supporters the power fist, followed by a Nazi salute. A Nazi salute? What else could it be? Imagine what these words describe— first the fist, then he, “opened his palm in a diagonal wave.” How else would you describe a Nazi salute?
Shouldn’t this have been a big deal? Other than this mention, which doesn’t characterize the gesture as a Nazi salute, but clearly uses very particular, very precise language to describe the hand motion, I haven’t seen this make the news anywhere. Has it come to the point that we have become numb to Donald Trump acting like a Nazi? Has his embrace of Nazi symbolism become so common that we are missing the obvious point that Donald Trump is a Nazi?
Well, that’s a little unfair. We have moved past the point of debating whether it’s appropriate to call him a fascist, and we’re beyond giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t know phrases like “poisoning the blood” and “vermin” and, for that matter, “America First” were terms associated with actual Nazis and their fellow-travelers. The comparison is far more common today than in 2016, when the consensus opinion was that it was not accurate or appropriate to call Trump a Nazi or a fascist.
But it strikes me that this Nazi salute wasn’t called out at all. Not even in this blurb that seems to be taking extra care to precisely describe the motion. The lack of uproar strikes me because David Bowie did something similar, in 1976, that haunted him for years.
Bowie explored the idea of fascism and oppressive government throughout his career. The Diamond Dogs album (1974) was inspired by George Orwell’s 1984 and the song “Somebody Up the Likes Me” (1975) is about a demagogic politician. He’d play with the idea of who experiences adulation— demagogs, deities and rock stars. At one point he said of the latter, “we are the new gods,” and at another point he called Hitler “the first rock star.” Unfortunately he said more than that seemingly in support of fascism during the depths of his cocaine addiction in the mid-70s, so, when he got out of a car and gave a wave to a crowd, and that wave was caught at the exact moment it looked like he was giving a Nazi salute, the photo of the incident became an international scandal.
Bowie spent much of the rest of his career making a point that he was against fascism and all the bad things associated with fascism like oppression, war and racism. Songs like “Scream Like a Baby” (1980), “Under the God” (1989) and “Black Tie White Noise” (1993) make this clear.
The song, “China Girl” includes a line apparently inspired by the salute incident— “I stumbled into town, just like a sacred cow, visions of swastikas in my head; plans for everyone.” Bowie would repeatedly deny having actually given a Nazi salute and explained that he wasn’t in his right mind when he made his pro-fascist comments. I tend to believe him.
The most charitable thing I can say by way of an explanation for his comments is— blame the cocaine!
That said, I think there was more to the incident and the period. Having just gotten past the phase in his career when Bowie shocked the world with bisexuality, he might have been looking for a new way to be even more shocking.
Nazism had obviously been on his mind for a while. All the way back to the days of the song, “Quicksand” (1971), Bowie wrote of “Himmler’s sacred realm of dream reality.”
An article appeared in The New Republic (click to link) shortly after Bowie died explaining, “Bowie displays an acute awareness of Himmler’s understanding of National Socialism as political artifice, as an artistic and especially architectural construction, as well as a cinematic spectacle.” The piece, by Simon Critchley, went on to conclude that “Art’s filthy lesson is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments: fakes that strip away the illusion of reality in which we live and confront us with the reality of illusion.”
Oddly enough, Donald Trump might have reached the same conclusion. Bowie, while acting like someone playing a rock star in a movie, might have been inauthentic in his presentation, but in the process made real art— really good art. Trump is playing the part of a fascist. But in the process, he’s creating real political violence. Both views are based on the idea that there is no underlying reality. Bowie repeatedly made the point that the meaning of his songs are what his audience makes of them. If you want to be a star, act like a star. If you want to be a dictator, act like one.
The Washington Post reported all the way back in 2016 that, “Donald Trump [was] holding a casting call. He’s seeking the look.” The article reported on how Trump wanted appointees to look like they came out of central casting. I have always thought he presented himself less like any rich guy I have ever personally known and more like a poor person’s idea of a rich person. It’s as if he’s playing the part of a rich businessman, which is actually what he did on his show, The Apprentice (or so I’ve heard— I’ve never seen it). But while Trump might be obsessed with artifice, his push toward authoritarianism is very real.
So, just so we’re clear, what is fascism? I’m not going to answer that with a treatise in political science. Instead, I’ll quote three definitions:
“…a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition” (from Mirriam Webster)
“…a far-right, authoritarian, ultranationalist political ideology and movement, characterized by a dictatorial leader, centralized autocracy, militarism, forcible suppression of opposition, belief in a natural social hierarchy, subordination of individual interests for the perceived good of the nation or race, and strong regimentation of society and the economy.” (From Wikipedia)
“…extreme militaristic nationalism, contempt for electoral democracy and political and cultural liberalism, a belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites, and the desire to create a Volksgemeinschaft (German: “people’s community”), in which individual interests would be subordinated the good of the nation.” (From Brittanica)
Does anyone want to argue that these don’t describe Trumpism and the MAGA movement? I suppose there’d be a wing of Trump supporters who would argue that he favors economic freedom rather than regimentation. I’d respond that that’s debatable, on the one hand, and on the other, if that’s what you want to hang your hat on, I’ll give you that point if you agreed that in all other respects these definitions fit Trumpism to a tee.*
So, Bowie deserved to be called out for being too casual with fascism, even if he was out of his mind at the time. But he repented. Trump is not toying with the aesthetic or playing with a concept of performance as reality— he’s trying to be an American fascist. So we shouldn’t overlook his giving a Nazi salute. It might be the only thing worth talking about. With visions of swastikas as in his head, Trump has plans for everyone.
* OK, I can think of three other counter-arguments. The first is something I heard once on this very topic, when someone said that fascists were expansionists and Trump is closer to an isolationist. The problem with this observation is that American fascists in the 1930s were isolationists, who supported the expansion of fascism in Europe. The present-day equivalent is the support Trump and his allies have for the expansion of Vladimir Putin’s kelpto-fascist empire. So I’m not going to give you this one.
The second counter-argument is that Trump is not actually a member of a party that calls itself National Socialist or has “Nazi” in its name. Not all fascists are Nazis, and I’m using the terms interchangeably in this post, which is inaccurate. Well, guilty as charged. This is actually true. The larger point of my piece here, though, is that Trump is acting like what I think he imagines an American Hitler would act like in a movie. He conflates reality with reality TV and it’s tough to the point of pointless to disentangle them. I doubt Trump has spent too much time trying to understand the distinction between fascism broadly and Nazism in particular, but he’s playing the part. So if you got from this post that I’m saying that Trump is a card-carrying National Socialist, well, that’s not what I meant.
The third and final point that I sometimes hear is that Trump never achieved the type of totalitarian control that the European fascists of the 1930s did in their countries. He did not establish mass death camps and didn’t ban the free press or opposition parties. This is the, well, he wasn’t quite that bad argument. And it’s true. Try though he might, he didn’t succeed. His incompetence saved the day. None of that speaks to what he was trying to do, though, or, more importantly, what is is trying to do. This can be the subject of another post, or, really a book, but if you still need convincing, I’m not quite sure why you’ve read this far.