BERLIN – Donald Trump is getting lots of flak for allegedly retweeting a Benito Mussolini quote — after a Gawker journalist set an elaborate Twitter trap for him. The joke is on the mastermind of the sting operation: The phrase “It’s better to live a day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep” did not in fact originate with the Italian dictator.
Trump’s anti-intellectualism is so in-your-face that people who consider themselves intellectuals are affronted. They like to fact-check Trump to show how ignorant he is. When during a recent campaign appearance in South Carolina Trump told an apocryphal story of Gen. Jack Pershing executing Muslim rebels in the Philippines with bullets soaked in pig’s blood, rebuttals were all over the media and Internet.
This time around, however, the story everywhere, from The New York Times to the BBC, and even in Italian papers, is that Trump tweeted a Mussolini quote:
After this tweet appeared, Gawker let it be known that its senior writer Ashley Feinberg had created the Twitter account @ilduce2016 in December specifically to tweet Mussolini quotes at Trump in the hope that he would retweet one. The tactic paid off. Gawker’s Alex Pareene wrote:
At the time of the account’s creation, Gawker Media Executive Editor John Cook expressed some concern that the joke behind the account was far too obvious, and wouldn’t trick anyone but a complete idiot. Today, Trump proved him — and all of us — right.
I can’t laugh with Gawker and the rest of the media that reported on the Trump retweet. Time Magazine attributed the quote to Mussolini in a story published on Aug. 2, 1943. It appeared on some Italian coins during Mussolini’s rule. But it’s actually a proverb from Emilia Romagna, the region of Italy where Mussolini was born. The proverb entered the political lexicon after an Italian soldier wrote it on the wall of a building in Sant’Andrea del Piave in 1918, during the Battle of the Piave. The Austro-Hungarian Army attacked Gen. Armando Diaz’s Italian troops on the banks of that river in Northern Italy and failed miserably. The Austrian defeat was one of the final nails in the ailing empire’s coffin and a proud moment for Italy. The bit of wall carrying the graffiti is preserved at the Fagare della Bataglia memorial.
Trump, of course, had no idea whether it was a Mussolini quote, a bit of wartime graffiti or an Italian proverb. It probably didn’t even register with him that the account which tweeted the quote at him was called “ilduce” — or he didn’t understand the Italian. “It’s a very good quote,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else — it’s a very good quote.”
In a strange way, he’s right. The proverb was strong enough to stand as a populist slogan, so Mussolini used it. So did Trump, with his instinctive sense of political sound bite.
This is not about Trump’s ignorance — or the failure of some journalists to research the quote before shooting it at the republican front-runner. It’s not even about Trump’s allegedly fascist views: The quote doesn’t espouse racism or totalitarianism. I’m not even sure Trump holds any views at all — at least not for much longer after words leave his mouth. He does, however, know what words will resonate with people who are angry and tired of losing. That’s why it doesn’t matter to his voters where his quotes or stories like the Pershing one come from.
Trump doesn’t use language to communicate information. He uses it to elicit emotion. His utterances are weaponized sound, not speech. Information is complex, and knowledge is spotty on all sides. Emotion dressed up as information is simple and powerful. Fact-checking is simply extraneous to what’s going on.
Every society has a number of people who react to such signals. When they are the majority, an unscrupulous politician can use it and set up a nasty regime. So far, however, Trump has only won a plurality of Republicans in several states. The U.S. is hardly ripe for a fake Mussolini.
Based in Berlin, writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.