With this tweet, the president both revives fascist propaganda and exploits a new age of Internet post-truth: He follows a trail blazed by fascists, but adds a twist that is his own.
A fascist guide to commentary on elections would have eight parts: contradict yourself to test the faith of your followers; tell a big lie to draw attention from basic realities; manufacture a crisis; designate enemies; make an appeal to pride and humiliation; express hostility to voting; cast doubt on democratic procedures; and aim for personal power.
Trump achieves all eight with admirable concision in this one tweet. He decries voting by mail, but praises absentee ballots, which are nothing else but voting by mail. The blatant contradiction, the test of faith for the true believer, is there right at the beginning, a gatekeeper for the rest of the tweet.
The big lie, in all capitals, is that the coming elections will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent in history. Historically speaking, the greatest source of inaccuracy and fraud in our elections is the suppression of African American votes, which is bad now but has been much worse. Of course, this is not at all what Trump means, and that is the point of a big lie: to replace a familiar reality with a nonexistent problem.
Tyrants in general and fascists in particular like to manufacture crises. Something that is true but of limited significance is transformed into an emergency that requires breaking all the rules. So, true, it does take time to count ballots, and some states do it better than others. But the claim that this requires an extraordinary step such as delaying an election is a manufactured crisis.
The cleverness of the manufactured crisis is that it plays out at the level of emotions rather than facts. If people accept it, they put their emotions in the service of the tyrant. The next move, made in the next sentence of the tweet, is to invoke humiliation. The “great embarrassment” has not happened and will not happen, but if we choose to feel humiliated, we then look for the wrongdoer.
This has been the siren song of tyrants: Some shady enemy has done us wrong, and we must restore our honor. In this tweet, the enemy is implicit: Someone has made voting improper, unsafe and insecure. From the context, it is clear that what is meant is that Democrats have tried to make voting easier. In fact, paper ballots are the most proper, safe and secure way to vote.
The basic substance of the message, then, is a call to resist voting and question democratic procedures. In that way, the final three traditional fascist objectives are achieved. Citizens are supposed to forget about their individual right to cast a ballot and doubt the familiar procedures of democratic elections, while the president simply remains (as he imagines it) in power.
So we circle back to the grand contradiction. The president claims to defend voting but does so by expressing the desire to have elections indefinitely delayed. He blames others for the risks we face and the problems, although it is his own White House and his Republican allies in the Senate who have blocked legislation that would extend voting at home and block intervention from abroad. He calls for dramatic action to resolve a nonexistent problem and suggests a power he does not actually have.
This is where the differences with historical fascists begin. Fascists believed in responsibility: a terrible responsibility, as they understood it — the need to destroy an old decadent world in the name of a new racial paradise, to drown democracy in blood, to fight wars for territory abroad, to set the world on fire. Trump has no such visions and no sense of responsibility, terrible or otherwise. He simply prefers to stay in power and have a comfortable life. He expresses just enough fascism to make this possible.
Hence the “just asking” part of the tweet, at the end, expressed as “???.” Whenever anyone asks about a tweet’s authoritarian character, the response of Trump and his minders will be that he was just posing a question. This makes it harder for his critics to pin him down, but also harder for his allies to take him seriously. No one goes to the wall for three question marks.