Donald Trump showed up in typical form at last night's Republican presidential debate, aggressively lobbing insults at his competitors and promising repeatedly to make America great again by…well, in truth it's never quite clear.
Trump frequently declines to propose anything that resembles what most would call a policy to resolve the problems he identifies, but even when he does, the legal and practical mechanisms by which he would implement those policies are almost always left unstated. He describes the effect he hopes to produce, but not the path by which he would get there, and when pressed, often waves off the question, saying, essentially, that details will come later, after he's in the White House. It sometimes seems as if Trump has a no-spoiler policy for his presidency. That it will be great and tremendous and classy and widely praised is all you really need to know.
One reason for this is that Trump often seems to have no idea what he is talking about, and frequently appears to be making it all up on the spot.
Perhaps the most telling instance of this during last night's debate was when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Trump about closing the Internet, an idea that Trump had previously brought up as a possible way of fighting terrorists. Here is their exchange:
BLITZER: Mr. Trump, you recently suggested closing that Internet up, those were your words, as a way to stop ISIS from recruiting online. Are you referring to closing down actual portions of the Internet? Some say that would put the U.S. in line with China and North Korea.
TRUMP: Well, look, this is so easy to answer. ISIS is recruiting through the Internet. ISIS is using the Internet better than we are using the Internet, and it was our idea. What I wanted to do is I wanted to get our brilliant people from Silicon Valley and other places and figure out a way that ISIS cannot do what they're doing.
You talk freedom of speech. You talk freedom of anything you want. I don't want them using our Internet to take our young, impressionable youth and watching the media talking about how they're masterminds—these are masterminds. They shouldn't be using the word "mastermind." These are thugs. These are terrible people in ISIS, not masterminds. And we have to change it from every standpoint. But we should be using our brilliant people, our most brilliant minds to figure a way that ISIS cannot use the Internet. And then on second, we should be able to penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS. And we can do that if we use our good people.
There is a surface level intelligibility to Trump's response, but upon even the most cursory inspection it becomes clear that he is barely saying anything at all, or at least nothing coherent. It's true enough that ISIS is using the Internet as a recruiting tool, but what does it even mean that ISIS "using the Internet better than we are using the Internet"?
That America's tech sector, which accounts for more than 7 percent of GDP, is somehow subpar when compared to ISIS? That's too dumb an idea even for Trump. That America's online intelligence operations are not as sophisticated as those of ISIS? It may be true that ISIS has managed at times to communicate online without detection, but that mostly serves to highlight the impossibility of effectively monitoring all electronic communications rather than any broad comparative judgment one can make about how ISIS uses the Internet versus how the U.S. uses it. That America is somehow worse at recruiting online? America, a wealthy 239-year-old nation-state, does not really engage in "recruiting," and to the extent that it does, it would be through immigration, which Trump wants to severely restrict.
It is probably a mistake to dwell on the details here. Trump certainly does not. He barely seems to even know what it is he is proposing, much less how to accomplish whatever that might be. Does he actually want to "close down" parts of the Internet, as he has indicated, or does he merely want to make a more concerted effort to stop ISIS from using the Internet as a recruiting tool?
Indeed, most of his answer is just rambling, in which he lobs insults, vaguely insists that the solution merely requires identifying the right people (the best, most brilliant individuals that only Donald Trump knows about) and putting them in charge, and dismisses out of hand any concerns about freedom of speech and other individual liberties.
Trump's answer does not tell us much about his plans for the Internet, but it does tell us something about Trump, and how his mind works.
He clearly has no idea what he is talking about, yet even in his incoherence, he gravitates toward insults and power grabs while insisting that anyone concerned about freedom must be ignored.
In other words, Trump's response when he does not know what he is talking about, which is often, is to engage in a kind of brainfart fascism. It is the half-hearted, gleefully shocking fascism of reality television and social media flame wars, the fascism of whatever dumb idea pops into his mind.
It's fair to say that Trump's brand of off-the-cuff statism does not meet the textbook definition of the committed, militarized fascism of early 20th century Europe (although it certainly shares many of the same elements), but it stems from a similar sort of impulse, one that has been combined with Trump's lazy and generally incoherent approach to policy.
The result is a campaign in which Trump rambles and free-associates his way towards a half-baked authoritarian agenda that really only has one item on it: to put Donald Trump in power, and let him figure out the rest from there.