Sleep no more: How do we escape Donald Trump’s fascist dream machine?

In a conversation several years ago that I think about often, novelist Jonathan Lethem explained the state of America to me:

Who’s a greater dreamer than Donald Trump? He’s dreaming so hard we’re all stuck inside. And Trump’s dream is a dream of revenge. Donald Trump is like the outer-borough rich kid who is going to avenge himself on the elites in Manhattan. And we’re stuck inside Trump’s deep, deep dream. Trump has an entire dream machine at Fox News and its various shows and hosts. There’s an entire social media infrastructure for Trump. There is almost an entire industry dedicated to keeping Donald Trump from waking up.

In 2016, tens of millions of Americans willingly succumbed to that dream and elected Donald Trump president. The sleep was so heavy that many Americans became lost in it, no longer able to discern reality from fantasy. Many of them remain willfully lost in Trump’s toxic dream, convinced it was their own and a type of heaven.

Many Americans resisted the dream state, of course, to one degree or another, but they could not entirely shake themselves from sleep. The deep dreamers found it comforting, in a maladaptive way. The more we tried to wake them up, the more enraged they became.

Joe Biden’s election was a collective attempt by millions of Americans to wake up from Donald Trump’s dream. It was only partly successful.

I have a friend who has suffered from depression for many years. He would sometimes stay up all night and then sleep for 16 hours or more. On one occasion he slept for several days straight. How was that possible, I asked him? What did it feel like to lose all track of time and reality? Surely sleeping all the time makes your mental state worse? My friend laughed at me. He felt the most alive while asleep, he said, because his reality was too painful. In his dreams, he was set free to do whatever he wanted to. In many ways, what he described was like Donald Trump’s dream-nightmare, which so many of his cult followers find so welcoming. 

Joe Biden’s election as president was evidence of a collective attempt by the American people to wake up from the Trumpian dream-nightmare. It was only partly successful. Trump and his followers responded with a violent attempt to keep the American people in the dream-nightmare through an attempted coup and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Ultimately Trump was forced to leave office, but the dream-nightmare continued in the form of the Big Lie, and the larger campaign by the Republican-fascist movement to overthrow American democracy. 

Last week we saw another attempt to wake up, as tens of millions of Americans fought back against the Trump nightmare by voting for the Democrats in key elections across the country. Republicans expected a “red wave” that would swamp the Democrats, and perhaps overwhelm democracy. That did not happen. Democrats held control of the Senate, and Republicans only managed to win a slim and tenuous majority in the House. The power of the dream-nightmare has not been broken, but the American people won some breathing room and at least a momentary reprieve.

It now seems possible that American people are on the verge of waking up from Trump’s dream-nightmare. Trump and his followers and agents are desperately trying to stop this from happening.

On Tuesday, Trump finally announced that he will run for president again in 2024. In this sequel, we can think of Trump as a type of sleep demon, a fascist version of the legendary horror-movie monster Freddy Krueger. Trump’s third presidential campaign is meant to keep the American people asleep. If they wake up, Trump’s dark power may finally be broken.

In its report on Trump’s announcement, the Washington Post noted that

he has profoundly altered the tenor of American public life — shattering long-held standards of decorum and civility with often shocking attacks on political rivals, judges and reporters. He has frequently made racist and antisemitic remarks, mocked people with disabilities and denigrated developing countries, bragged about sexual assault and paid hush money to a porn star, praised dictators, declined to disavow extremists, inspired his supporters to resort to violence and defended white supremacists and Jan. 6 rioters.

In the Guardian, David Smith wrote that Trump was now playing a new role, that of “the ousted dictator, drained of power and surrounded by a dwindling band of loyalists in his last redoubt.” A potential Republican primary campaign between Trump, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence and other potential candidates “threatens to be a Republican ‘Lord of the Flies'”:

Trump would start with the disadvantage of multiple federal, state and congressional investigations hanging over him. Maybe he thinks, probably erroneously, that becoming a presidential candidate will shield him from the justice department. …

He delivered his address surrounded by 33 US national flags and elaborate Corinthian-style columns, beneath a ceiling of 16 crystal chandeliers and elaborate gold leaf decoration. The walls boasted mounted faux candelabra and giant Versailles-style mirrors. Giant TV screens proclaimed in white on blue: “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! TEXT TRUMP TO 88022. DONALDJTRUMP.COM.”

In another Guardian article, political scientist Cas Mudde explored Trump’s real motives in his seemingly desperate third presidential campaign: 

The key problem of the Republican party is that Trump does not care about “his” party. He does not even really care about being president again. Trump must run to stay out of jail. That is why all the media speculation about whether he has announced too early is silly. The former president is facing an onslaught of legal cases, on a broad variety of issues — mishandling of classified documents, insurrection, and tax fraud — for which he needs a lot of money and political coverage. As a mere citizen, even as a former president, he holds much less leverage than as a primary candidate, who may not be able to win the presidency for the Republican party but is probably still strong enough to lose it for them.

As for Trump’s actual speech, it felt like a remix of his infamous 2017 “American Carnage” inaugural address, full of fabrications, threats, victimology, incitements to violence and outright hate speech:

I believe the American people will overwhelmingly reject the left’s platform of national ruin.

Our southern border has been erased and our country is being invaded by millions and millions of unknown people, many of whom are entering for a very bad and sinister reason. And you know what that reason is.

Under Biden and the radical Democrats, America has been mocked, derided and brought to its knees, perhaps like never before.

The cities are rotting, and they are indeed cesspools of blood.

Anyone who truly seeks to take on this rigged and corrupt system will be faced with a storm of fire that only a few could understand.

As he has done repeatedly, Trump is echoing and channeling the same kind of violent, apocalyptic, fantastical and profoundly paranoid rhetoric that fueled the fascist movements of 20th-century Europe, up to and including Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. In recent months, Trump has become even more explicit in his threats of widespread chaos and violence if he is indicted or otherwise punished by the Department of Justice or other law enforcement agencies.

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He has said that journalists and whistleblowers (and by implication anyone else who resists the MAGA movement) should be subjected to rape in prison. After Nancy Pelosi’s husband was seriously injured in a home invasion by an unhinged Trump supporter, he told his followers that the House speaker was an “animal.” For decades, the American right-wing and “conservative” movement have used eliminationist rhetoric and stochastic terrorism — often framed as “jokes” — to encourage violence against Democrats, liberals, Muslims, immigrants and other individuals or groups they deem to be the enemy.

According to a Rolling Stone report, Trump has told advisers he’d like to find ways to send “significant numbers of reporters” to prison if he becomes president again. In recent rallies, he has approvingly cited China’s policy of summarily executing drug dealers, and repeatedly praised Chinese President Xi Jinping: “I call him king.”

Trump has told advisers he’d like to find ways to send “significant numbers of reporters” to prison. Maybe it’s just a thought experiment.

As for the American news media and political class, to varying degrees and in different ways, they are largely still living in Trump’s dream world. Most are lucid enough to perceive the difference between reality and toxic fantasy, but many do not consistently make that clear. Some may believe they are protecting the American people from ugly and unpleasant truths; others are malign or self-interested actors, eager to find ways to personally profit from the public’s dream-state. 

Too many in the media are already normalizing Trump all over again, defaulting to the same comfortable bad habits that helped to elect him in the first place. If Trump becomes the Republican frontrunner and the party submits to his power — as is very likely — most of the media will default to that narrative framework. They will treat Trump’s campaign as a sporting event, chasing down scandals and invented drama about Republican infighting, indulging in false equivalency, forced and irresponsible attempts at humor, an abdication of any moral imperative and a view of Trump as a “unique” and “unconventional” candidate rather than an existential threat to American democracy.

Perhaps the worst and most dangerous of these bad habits is the focus on Trump as an individual, a performer and a celebrity. As with most other neofascist movements, the leader is less important than what he or she symbolizes and channels for their followers in what they believe to be a revolutionary struggle born of destiny and fate.

The mainstream news media, trapped in its own dream state, largely chooses to focus on Donald Trump as a personality rather than the cultural, political and larger societal forces he represents. That first kind of story is easier and more familiar; most members of the mainstream commentariat could literally write it in their sleep. 

Whatever may happen with Trump’s attempt to force America back into his dream-nightmare, he will unleash vengeance and suffering and misery on all who stand in his way — including what remains of the Republican Party.

In a recent interview with MSNBC, Mary Trump was asked what her uncle will likely do if the Republicans try to exile him after their unexpected losses in the midterm elections:

Donald becomes his most dangerous when he fears loss of relevance, when he fears that he is no longer the center of attention… when he fears that he is no longer the one in control. We don’t know just what kind of information he has on other people in his party. What we do know is he would be willing to use it. … Donald will burn everything down if he feels like he is going down.

In fact, if Donald Trump disappeared tomorrow, the American people might feel that they have finally woken up from the bad dream. But as in Freddy Krueger’s universe, that might be an illusion. The larger dream-nightmare of American neofascism will not dissipate entirely; it will still be available for Ron DeSantis or some other demagogue to wield and control. Consider what David Rothkopf told me in an interview after the midterms:

The Republican Party is turning on Trump because they see how toxic he’s been for them. Trump has lost three elections in a row for the Republicans. Someone is going to step into that void who is just as dangerous in their impulses. My main worry is about Trumpism, white supremacy and fascism. I worry much less about who the current champion of it all is.

Frankly, I am relieved that Donald Trump has finally announced his 2024 presidential campaign. After that “reveal,” Trump is perhaps most vulnerable. Those Americans who believe in democracy must resolve to sleep no more — to force themselves fully out of their slumber and defeat him. Do not underestimate the power of Donald Trump’s dreams. This may be our last chance. 

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