This weekend, Donald Trump held a rally in Indianapolis, where he planned to “whip up the base,” as the press describes his usual demagogic performances. Trump did briefly contemplate canceling, he admitted — not to mourn the 11 Americans massacred in the worst episode of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history — but because he was having a “bad hair day.” What with the inclement weather and the bothersome outdoor presser about the mass shooting — the presidential mane had taken a beating. “Well, I was [at] … a very unfortunate news conference. And the wind was blowing and the rain, and I was soaking wet … and that’s what I ended up with, today,” he added, referring to his disarranged coif. “At least you know it’s mine … I said, ‘maybe I should cancel this arrangement because I have a bad hair day.’”
Many lambasted Trump for these self-centered, tone-deaf remarks, and for ignoring how his racist rhetoric might be inciting precisely the kind of violence committed by anti-Semites like Robert Bowers — but what the president actually revealed at that rally was more insidious than mere oblivion.
Trump was not ignoring the Pittsburgh massacre. He was doing something far subtler and more dangerous: He was “translating” a tragic assault on the body politic into a comic assault on the presidential body, downplaying the crushing emotional impact of the day, and thereby instructing the audience in their response to the shooting. By poking some easy fun at his famously artificial-looking hair (“at least you know it’s mine”), he was signaling that, appearances to the contrary, nothing grave had happened. He was reassuring the audience, too — his hair was authentically his, his physical self was real. And the thing that made the “unfortunate” news conference “unfortunate” was simply the toll it had taken on his hair. The crowd could relax. To Trump, the horrors of Pittsburgh represented nothing other than a threat to Republican hopes for the midterm elections. His chosen remedy was to deflect, refocus, and reassure his base, via a meditation on his own fetishized body, in a ritual displaying all the hallmarks of fascist cult worship.
Trump drove home this emotional sleight of hand by concluding the tonsorial portion of his speech with an attempt at an amusing flourish: “And the bad news: somebody said [my hair] actually looks better than it usually does.” To punctuate this bit of self-disparaging humor, Trump grimaced and made a dismissive downward flapping gesture with one hand — a gesture of vernacular pantomime instantly recognizable (especially to New Yorkers) as the visual equivalent of, “C’mon, gimme a break.”
Thus did he complete his demagogic bait and switch: replacing real bad news with a meaningless observation about himself. Rather than simply pushing aside the tragedy, Trump subsumed it into his own person, taking on the cataclysm and rendering it intimately personal to himself.
During the Third Reich, fascism was marketed as a kind of civic religion — the goal was to inspire quasi-religious devotion in its followers. Nazi propaganda masters invented secular versions of Christian rituals, including, for example, a kind of Nazi baptism ceremony in which children were inducted into the Party before an altar displaying a photo of Hitler instead of an image of Christ. The idea was that followers would replace their own religion, as well as any critical examination of Nazi politics, with an unquestioning faith in one special, charismatic earthly leader, their Führer. Hitler was offering himself — his body, his image, his life — as a Christ substitute through whom true believers were encouraged to conduct their lives. Donald Trump is doing nothing less.
The audience responded as Trump knew it would, with some light, knowing, that’s-so-Trump chuckling. Trump had permitted a moment of complicity with his followers, graciously allowing them to laugh (just a bit!) at his vanity, then forestalling further discussion with that flap of his hand (which also resembled a slap). He and his crowd were all back reassuringly on the same (blank) page. The casual laughter he provoked was the precise inverse of the sobbing of 11 Pittsburgh families that day, effectively confirming — and endorsing — the emotional distance between the rally crowd and the suffering of their fellow citizens. (He even had Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” playing in the background — for which Williams is now threatening to sue.)
Make no mistake, this was a pseudo-religious ritual, and that is the most sinister, and in fact, the most fascistic part. Through his odd brand of personal alchemy, Trump morphed the violence of Pittsburgh into the undoing of his own precarious hair style. Within the logic of this equation, the bloodied bodies were transmuted, rhetorically, into no more than some disordered strands. This is an example of a grotesque, fascistic analogue to the Christian concept of atonement: The Savior taking upon himself the sins and suffering of the faithful. Even more disturbingly in this case, it was used to draw attention away from a Jewish tragedy.
Trump has said he is not interested in “toning down” his rhetoric, that his base in fact prefers for him to “tone it up.” But his content and his rhetoric are inversely related: While he may be “toning up” (or heating up) his speeches, what he has to say in them — what he will acknowledge, riff on, discuss, address — spirals ever downward in terms of significance and base mendacity. Trump is crafting a massive propaganda machine deliberately focused on minutiae, on the tiny, on the inconsequential. In a technique borrowed directly from the European fascists, he has set himself up as a savior of trivial or invented concerns, using his own person as the focus and mystical center of a destructive faux religion.
Having effectively reduced the violent deaths of 11 Sabbath-celebrating Jews into a salon emergency, Trump then told a reassuring tale of physical restitution: The bodies and lives of those murdered Jews, of their families and their communities, may be shattered, but his hair is okay, actually better than before, and all may laugh.
The original version of this article incorrectly referred to the Christian concept of atonement as “transubstantiation.” It has been updated.