When I was young, on the eve of Yugoslavia’s demise, I worked as a journalist for a Bosnian magazine frequently covering those distinguished individuals whose politics were indistinguishable from plain lunacy. Among them was Vojislav Šešelj, a former dissident turned leader of the Serbian Radical Party, staunchly commited to making Serbia great again, and railing about injustices inflicted upon his people by a world of enemies. Once we published a long interview with him under the headline Planet Serbia.
In 1991, Šešelj was one of the guests on a popular Serbian TV talk show. Fighting had started in Croatia, and a volunteer unit of Šešelj’s followers was already in action there. Before a live studio audience, he joked about his men’s devotion to slitting throats, saying, “We have new and improved methods: now we slit throats with the shoe spoon [that is, the shoe horn], and rusty too, so an autopsy can never establish what killed the victim, the slit throat or tetanus.” A little later, Šešelj pulled out his gun to show it off. The audience was greatly entertained.
I recalled Šešelj after hearing Trump’s instructive fairytale about General Pershing dipping bullets in pig’s blood to shoot (extrajudicially) “terrorists”— the Filipinos resisting U.S. occupation — thus fixing “the problem.” The well-instructed Charleston audience cheered in approval of being tough and vigilant, “or we’re not gonna have a country, folks.”
Trump didn’t show off his gun in South Carolina when exhibiting his enthusiasm for creatively eliminating enemies. But his intellectual kinship with a fascist like Šešelj (underscored yesterday when he retweeted a quote from Mussolini) was evident. Just as both say whatever comes to their minds, they will do whatever it takes to restore their nation’s greatness. Their discourse is charged by a craving for incoherent, yet symbolic, violence. Their violent incoherence is the message, not the noise.
Šešelj was not kidding in 1991: after the war, in 2003, he was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for his crimes against humanity. But that has not much diminished his sinister ideological appeal in the Balkans. On the contrary, he is still an occasional celebrity guest on Serbian TV, while the current Serbian President and Prime Minister have both started their careers in his party and are cut, if more elegantly, from the same far-right cloth. Which is why Šešelj’s public support for Trump is not mere Rodmanesque tomfoolery. “I’m convinced that the Serbs living in America will vote for [Trump],” Šešelj has said, “as will those Americans who appreciate my political views and share my ideology.”
Šešelj is a natural Trump ally, belonging to the same global tribe of rabid nationalists and racists. And then there’s the fact that 1 million Serb-Americans are a valuable constituency, particularly in a state like Ohio, where a large number (about 400,000) resides. Presently, Trump might not know where Serbia is, but soon enough he might look it up.
In my irresponsible youth, I dismissed Šešelj’s murderous bluster as pathological, if entertaining, buffoonery. But his entertainment value reached zero as the war reached its full potential and spread to Bosnia, my homeland, where Šešelj’s followers would eagerly slit many a Muslim throat. At around the same time, Šešelj became a Serbian parliament member and a close ally of Slobodan Milošević, the Godfather of the Greater-Serbia project and one of the greatest war criminals of the very competitive twentieth century. Šešelj would get into fistfights in the parliament, and once beat up his debate opponent in the TV studio right after the broadcast was over. Even on trial in The Hague, he retained his Trump-grade bravado. In his four-hour opening statement, he declared his regret that the death penalty was not on the table “so that proudly, with dignity, my head upright like my friend Saddam Hussein, I could die and put a final seal on my ideology.” On another occasion, he suggested to the Tribunal to “suck his dick” and “eat the shit they shat out,” graciously offering to “fuck all of their mothers.” When the Tribunal granted him temporary medical release in 2014, the justices surely felt relief.
What Šešelj has done for me, and what Trump might do for us, is expose a self-protective proclivity to dismiss the unimaginable as impossible. Accepting the possibility that someone like Šešelj (or Trump) could advance so rapidly from bombast to mass murder requires questioning the fabric of reality before it unravels and shows itself to be fragile and disastrously dependent on an assumed ethical consensus. What I’ve learned is that people are addicted to the inertia of their common reality, to the desperate belief that everything shall continue as it is simply because it’s been going fine up to this point. Šešelj taught me what lies beyond this point. Trump and his troops are killers in making.