During the Trump presidency, writers in various pursuits have often felt a professional obligation to call attention to or criticize the administration’s flagrant use of rhetoric to foster cruelty and perpetuate a fantasy of violence. The fantasy, what 50 years ago literary critic Richard Slotkin described as germane to “American mythogenesis,” imagines a nation “tor[n] violently from the implacable and opulent wilderness.” It helps code potential administrative action as valiant, while soliciting heroism from readers who can ascend from the rank-and-file to warriors in the life-threatening context of American life.
On the one hand, it’s just words.
On the other, it’s not.
Trump recently tweeted another contribution to the annals of his fantasy in response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 DACA ruling. The majority decision, penned by Bush appointee, John Roberts, called the federal administration’s decision to terminate DACA “arbitrary and capricious,” noting it failed to provide adequate information that “policy concerns outweigh[ed] reliance interests.” Dreamers were consequently granted temporary reprieve.
The aggressive language casts the decision as murderous, and its violent imagery helps facilitate the Manichean worldview on which fascism depends. It’s us against them, Trump warns, by any means necessary. Here, fascism’s nationalists are redefined as an army of warriors who, because they face the life-endangering threat of political opposition, are freed from the rules governing shared reality.
The fantasy of violence is effective in part because it activates a superficial imitation of the limbic system’s flight-or-flight trap. Its efficacy is activated by defining a threat to life that justifies any retaliatory action, even if unreasonable or illogical.
It’s not surprising that a fantasy of violence bolsters a federal policy apparently informed by white supremacy. But it’s important to recognize its degradation of the shared reality on which we depend. It’s also important to note that it’s the same fantasy informing the “warrior worldview,” which, propagated through rhetoric, fosters systemic division through perpetual distortion.