A recent New York Times column by David Brooks about Donald Trump’s philosophy got me thinking about a study of fascist fantasy novels that were penned by disillusioned German officers after World War I. It all comes down to a fetish for things hard and a horror of things soft.
Brooks is trying to understand why Trump has moved away from his expressed concern for white working class Americans. Unconvinced by his first two theories that Trump, in various ways, has been coopted by establishment Republicans, Brooks floats a third possibility:
The third possibility is that Donald Trump doesn’t really care about domestic policy; he mostly cares about testosterone.
He wants to cut any part of government that may seem soft and nurturing, like poverty programs. He wants to cut any program that might seem emotional and airy-fairy, like the National Endowment for the Arts. He wants to cut any program that might seem smart and nerdy, like the National Institutes of Health.
But he wants to increase funding for every program that seems manly, hard, muscular and ripped, like the military and armed antiterrorism programs.
Indeed, the Trump budget looks less like a political philosophy and more like a sexual fantasy. It lavishes attention on every aspect of hard power and slashes away at anything that isn’t.
Klaus Theweleit’s study is titled Male Fantasies: Women, Floods, Bodies, History. Theweleit unearthed a large trove of fantasy novels written by German Freikorps members and discovered recurring image patterns. The Freikorps were paramilitary groups composed of World War I veterans who felt, as Hitler did, that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” when the government abruptly surrendered. They fought against the Weimar Republic up until 1923, when they were outlawed, but would contribute to the rise of the Nazi party.
Their sexual fantasies are sadistic horror shows (and sometimes masochistic self-pity parties) and are revealing. Here’s a passage from one involving a Jewish Bolshevik “rifle-woman.” Believe it or not, Pahlen and the captors are the good guys:
“In that case,” Pahlen says softly, his face a frozen mask, “you’ll have to beat this woman to death. But not with those clubs of yours. Use that little Cossack whip that’s hanging from her wrist.”
“I’ll be damned!” the one man says. “That won’t be easy!” the second man declares, scratching behind his ear.
Pahlen pulls out a wallet that still gleams with the imprint of a seven-pointed crown, its edges worn smooth with use, and hands them a large bill. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s not against orders. She’s murdered so many people that this is simply a punishment for her crimes.”
“A rifle-woman then?” the first one asks.
“A genuine rifle-woman!” Pahlen nods absent-mindedly.
The first man laughs and licks his lips. “Then everything’s in order. We’d have done it even without the bill. One of the famous rifle-women, is she?” He repeats, shaking his head as he stares at her. Then they bend down again, grab her by her shattered arms, and haul her brutally away. Pahlen takes one last look at her face; she seems fully conscious, yet it is distorted by an animal hatred. Curses spring from her protruding lips, pouring forth with every breath she takes.
I turn to a review by Paul Robinson in The New York Times for a summation of Theweleit’s argument:
[Theweleit’s] central contention is that the Freikorps soldiers were afraid of women. Indeed, not just afraid, they were deeply hostile to them, and their ultimate goal was to murder them. Women, in their view, came in only two varieties: Red and White. The White woman was the nurse, the mother, the sister. She was distinguished above all else by her sexlessness. The Red woman, on the other hand, was a whore and a Communist. She was a kind of distillation of sexuality, threatening to engulf the male in a whirlpool of bodily and emotional ecstasy. This, of course, was the woman the Freikorps soldier wished to kill, because she endangered his identity, his sense of self as a fixed and bounded being. In this manner Mr. Theweleit links the Freikorps soldiers’ fantasies of women to their practical life as illegal anti-Communist guerillas: the Republic had to be destroyed because it empowered the lascivious Red woman, while it failed to protect the White woman’s sexual purity.
The solidity craved by the Freikorps soldiers and later by the Nazis can be seen in the hard, straight lines of Nazi art. They didn’t like anything soft or ambiguous, which explains their horrified obsession with liquidity and dirt:
[Theweleit] argues that aquatic and other liquid metaphors were associated in the minds of these soldiers with the loss of a firm sense of identity. Much of their literature speaks of Communism as a flood, a stream, or a kind of boiling or exploding of the earth – images he shows to be associated traditionally with sexuality.
In similar fashion, he argues that the idea of dirt terrified the Freikorps soldiers precisely because it also was linked in their minds to the loss of self and to bodily pleasure. The connection is perhaps clearest when the metaphors of liquidity and filth are combined, as in such notions as mire, morass, slime and excrement. Again, Mr. Theweleit shows how the anti-Communist rhetoric of the Freikorps soldiers was systematically informed by such metaphors, and he makes a plausible case for linking this political sentiment to their fear of sexuality. The member of the Freikorps, he writes, was hostile to ”all of the hybrid substances that were produced by the body and flowed on, in, over, and out of the body: the floods and stickiness of sucking kisses; the swamps of the vagina, with their slime and mire; the pap and slime of male semen; the film of sweat . . . the warmth that dissolves physical boundaries.”
To Robinson’s account, I add that their hostility stems from repressed desiring. The Freikorps soldiers resented the ice cold mothers they idealized and longed for the vibrant liquid bodies they demonized. Their hatred of the latter was really a hatred of how their emotions were opened up, leaving them feeling vulnerable.
It’s not only Freikorps officers who have such anxieties. Think of General Jack Ripper’s obsession with “precious bodily fluids” in Doctor Strangelove, which captured an authoritarian response to nuclear anxieties. And then think of white nationalists’ fear of emasculating women and interracial marriage. Theweleit’s theories can be extended to authoritarians of all stripes.
Not that Trump is an authoritarian. Like Paul Krugman, I see him as a wannabe authoritarian, one who lusts after the power of a Vladimir Putin or a Kim Jong-un but is checked by our constitutional democracy. Scrutinizing him through the lens of Theweleit’s fantasies, however, still seems to bear out Brooks’s assessment that he is guided by a preference for manly hard over nurturing soft.