Movie at the Ellipse: A Study in Fascist Propaganda
On January 6, Trump supporters gathered at a rally at Washington DC’s Ellipse Park, regaled by various figures from Trump world, including Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani. Directly following Giuliani’s speech, the organizers played a video. To a scholar of fascist propaganda, well-versed in the history of the National Socialist’s pioneering use of videos in political propaganda, it was clear, watching it, what dangers it portended. In it, we see themes and tactics that history warns pose a violent threat to liberal democracy. Given the aims of fascist propaganda – to incite and mobilize – the events that followed were predictable.
Before decoding what the video presents, it is important to take a step back and discuss the structure of fascist ideology and how it can mobilize its most strident supporters to take violent actions.
I. The Fascist Framework
Increasingly central to Trumpism is the QAnon conspiracy theory, which, as many commentators have now pointed out, closely resembles Nazi anti-Semitic myths. QAnon is just the most obvious manifestation of the increasing parallels between Trumpism and Hitler’s framework itself. Indeed, several contemporary fascist and white supremacist movements find similar roots in the framework Hitler developed, even if they did not culminate in such extreme actions as the Nazis.
Chapter 2 of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s first and most famous book, is entitled “Years of Study and Suffering in Vienna.” In it, he documents what he describes as his gradual realization that behind the various institutions of power were the Jews. His enlightenment supposedly begins with the entertainment industry, where he remarks that “[t]he fact that nine tenths of all literary filth, artistic trash, and theatrical idiocy can be set to the account of a people, constituting hardly one hundredth of all the country’s inhabitants, could simply not be talked away; it was plain truth.” But it was, Hitler writes, when he “recognized the Jew as the leader of the Social Democracy” that “the scales fell from [his] eyes.” Hitler describes a growing sense, foundational to the ideology the book delineates, the ideology of Nazism, that Jews were controlling the apparatus of the state, both as important party politicians in the Social Democratic Party, and as operators behind the scenes of the press and other institutions.
In Nazi ideology, Jews are represented by an unholy alliance between Jewish capitalists and Jewish communists. The goal of the Jewish plot is to destroy national states, replacing them by a world government run by Jews. This diabolical Jewish plot involves destroying the character of individual nations, by flooding them with immigrants, and empowering minority populations. Hitler describes the German loss in World War I as part of this plan, a “stab in the back” of the German people by Jewish traitors seeking the ruin of the nation. In Nazi ideology, liberal democracy is represented as a corruption, a mask for this takeover by a global elite. Hitler reveals his true attitude toward liberalism in Mein Kampf, when he writes (in the characteristically sexist terms of Nazi ideology):
Like the woman, whose psychic state is determined less by grounds of abstract reason than by an identifiable emotional longing for a force which will complement her nature, and who, consequently, would rather bow to a strong man than dominate a weakling, likewise the masses love a commander more than a petitioner…
Fascism is a patriarchal cult of the leader, who promises national restoration in the face of supposed humiliation by a treacherous and power-hungry global elite, who have encouraged minorities to destabilize the social order as part of their plan to dominate the “true nation,” and fold them into a global world government. The fascist leader is the father of his nation, in a very real sense like the father in a traditional patriarchal family. He mobilizes the masses by reminding them of what they supposedly have lost, and who it is that is responsible for that loss – the figures who control democracy itself, the elite; Nazi ideology is a species of fascism in which this global elite are Jews.
The future promised by the fascist leader is one in which there are plentiful blue collar jobs, reflecting the manly ideals of hard work and strength. In Nazi propaganda, many white collar jobs, the domain of Jews – running department stores, banking – were for the idle. And the fascist nation’s heart and soul is the military – as Hitler writes, “[w]hat the German people owes to the army can be briefly summed up in a single word, to wit: everything.” The fascist future is a kind of restoration of a glorious past, but a modern version – replete with awesome technology that glorifies the nation to the world. The German V-2 rocket was a characteristic representation of Nazi might. The fascist future is, in the famous description of Jeffrey Herf, a kind of reactionary modernism.
Fascism uses propaganda as a way of mobilizing a population behind the leader. Fascist propaganda creates an awesome sense of loss, and a desire for revenge against those who are responsible. In the face of the supposed betrayal of the nation during World War I by Jewish “vipers,” Hitler describes the proper response to have been to place the “leaders of the whole movement…behind bars.” Hitler writes, “[a]ll the implements of military power should have been ruthlessly used for the extermination of this pestilence. The parties should have been dissolved, the Reichstag brought to its senses, with bayonets if necessary, but, best of all, dissolved at once.” The goal of fascist propaganda is to mobilize a population to violently overthrew multi-party democracy and replace it with the leader.
Fascism is not an ideology consigned to Europe. Black American intellectuals from W.E.B. Du Bois to Toni Morrison have spoken of American fascism. America has a long history of anti-Semitism similar to Nazi anti-Semitism, central to the ideology not just of the Ku Klux Klan, but to Henry Ford’s “The International Jew.” In its American version, communist Jews supposedly use Black liberation movements, control of Hollywood, and labor unions to destroy the nation in the service of a global elite. We should not be surprised at all by the rise of a fascist movement in the United States. And if it does arise, it would be no surprise if it did so in the party that keeps alive the “lost cause” myths of the American South.
II. The Movie Shown at the Ellipse
This history, both European and American, illuminates the dangers we face today, laid bare in the video. In it, Trump is repeatedly represented as the nation’s father figure. It is laced through with images of masculinity, and mournful loss at the hands of traitors, clearly justifying a violent restoration of recent glory.
The video begins with Trump’s eyes in the shadow, and its second frame focuses the audience on the Capitol building – America’s Reichstag, where the decisions being denounced by the rally’s organizers were being made that day. The third frame of the video is the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. This image immediately directs the attention of an audience attuned to an American fascist ideology to the supposedly elite class of Jews who, according to this ideology, control Hollywood. The appearance of the Hollywood sign makes no other sense in the context of a short video about an election. The next two images, of the UN General Assembly and the EU Parliament floor, connect supposed Jewish control of Hollywood to the goal of world government. As we have seen, according to Nazi ideology, Jews seek to use their control of the press and the entertainment industry to destroy individual nations. The beginning of the video focuses our attention on this supposedly “globalist,” but really Jewish, threat.
The next clip lingers on Joe Biden, with a vacant stare in his eyes and the video footage slowed, while Trump’s inauguration speech plays, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government, while the people have borne the cost.” It is clear from the image of Biden that he is not making the decisions. The video shifts to an image of Senator Charles Schumer, reminding the viewer of prominent Jewish leaders of the Democratic party. Schumer is wearing a Kente cloth, an image evocative of Ku Klux Klan ideology — that Jews support Black liberation movements as a way to undermine white rule and destroy the nation. The next frame shows the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, flanked by two Jewish Congressman, Representatives Nadler and Schiff. Pelosi, too, is controlled by Jews.
Who, then, are this “small group in our nation’s capital”? The video suggests it is a group that controls Hollywood and the Democratic Party, and seeks to use Black liberation movements to undermine the nation, and bring about world government. In Nazi ideology, as well as its US counterpart, this group is the Jews. And what are the costs? As the inauguration speech continues, “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of this our country;” gunshots are fired and we are shown images of these citizens betrayed by a duplicitous establishment – mournful pictures of coffins of veterans, homeless encampments, and a series of slides varying between nostalgic images of white American families over dinner with rural destitution – a worn down home flying a large American flag with an old pickup truck in front. At the end of these grim scenes of the results of elite betrayal, Trump declares, “This all ends right here, right now.”
As the music surges, what follows is a series of photos taken during Trump’s first term. This phase of the video begins with images of enormous naval ships on the ocean, and moves to images of Trump striding in front of a military guard at a football game, the iconic sport of American masculinity (hence the very particular danger of the Black quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s challenge to white supremacy). It is followed by rally after rally with adoring masses cheering Trump. The images of women overcome with emotion at the sight of the nation’s father figure, and violent anger at his political enemies, are interspersed with heavy machinery in factories, churning out huge new pick-up trucks, fighter jets streaking across the sky, and Trump striding across the screen framed by the powerful American imagery of the Lincoln Memorial. A Black man and a white man are shown in brotherhood at a Trump rally. Trump is shown observing powerful rockets launch, images evocative, for those schooled in history, of the Nazi’s own obsession with this particular technology.
After these scenes of Trump’s glorious leadership, the restoration of American rocket technology dominance, the mood shifts, as we are shown former Attorney General Bill Barr swearing in at what appears to be a deposition, followed by a smirking Joe Biden. Treachery has entered in, stage left.
What follows is scene after scene of immense loss. Empty streets of great American cities, a forlorn white woman peering out of a window, trapped at home. Scrabble pieces spelling “FEAR” appear and disappear within less than a second, empty chairs at a school, a sign reading “closed.” We see an image of the Supreme Court, followed by what appears to be a Black Lives Matter rally on a street emblazoned with “DEFUND THE POLICE.” Joe Biden appears in a forlorn photo in a gym, speaking to a lone man in a chair – Biden is here a petitioner, not a commander. The video switches back to a representation of glorious Trump years – a rising stock market, more fighter planes, a Black man and a white man with a “Jesus Saves” shirt embracing in brotherhood – a reference to the power of a shared Christian identity to bond Americans across racial lines. It ends with the screen filling with a powerful image of Trump’s face, showing steely resolve.
The message of the video is clear. America’s glory has been betrayed by treachery and division sown by politicians seeking to undermine and destroy the nation. To save the nation, one must restore Trump’s rule.
Each of us can decide what moral responsibility Trump personally has for a video to rouse his supporters at the rally. How much of a role the White House or Trump himself may have played in deciding to show the video and sequencing it immediately after Giuliani’s speech, we don’t know. But it is worth noting that the New York Times recently reported that by early January, “the rally would now effectively become a White House production” and, with his eye ever on media production, Trump micromanaged the details. “The president discussed the speaking lineup, as well as the music to be played, according to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations. For Mr. Trump, the rally was to be the percussion line in the symphony of subversion he was composing from the Oval Office,” the Times reported.
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Worldwide, there have been many fascist movements. Not all fascist movements focus on a global Jewish conspiracy as the enemy, and not all of them were genocidal. Early on, Italian fascism was not anti-Semitic in its core, though it later turned that way. British fascism was not genocidal (though it also was never given the opportunity to be). The most influential fascist movement that takes a shadowy Jewish conspiracy as its central target is German fascism, Nazism. Nazism did not start out in genocide. It began with militias and violent troops disrupting democracy. In its early years in power, in the 1930s, it was socialists and communists who were targeted for the Concentration Camps, torture, and murder. But it must never be forgotten where Nazism culminated.
Editor’s note: Thanks to Justin Hendrix (@justinhendrix) for work with Just Security editors on this project.
Jason Stanley (@jasonintrator) is the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. His most recent books are How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House) and How Propaganda Works (Princeton University Press).