A Tipping Point

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October 23, 2018

Almost exactly one year ago, I explored the confused state of distress and depression into which the American political crisis had driven me. “Alarmed hardly expresses what I feel. The impossible is happening.” And it goes on happening.

The theme of that post was violence. In Trump’s candidacy, the invocation of images of violence was striking: violence against Americans and violence against Trump’s opponents. At the center of this narrative was Donald Trump, the big man who, we surely remember, as a candidate for President of the United States said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. That a candidate for the presidency would make such a statement was astounding.

It is integral to the American presentation of itself to the world that power changes hands in the United States without violence, and that America’s leaders were committed to lawful governance. Much of America’s influence in the world was through “soft power,” the belief that, despite flaws, America was still a moral nation, an example. Trump’s offhand comment indicated that a sea-change, an inversion, was in progress. It might have been taken as a tasteless joke then, but can no longer be so easily dismissed. Violence has come to the American political scene.

The idea that America is under attack from violent criminals from without, Latinos who are rapists and drug lords, and from within, again Latinos—a chapter of MS-13 in every town—and by blacks identified though barely-veiled racist slurs, is core to Trump’s appeal and a staple of his demagoguery. In his inauguration speech, Trump dispensed with the traditional messages of unity and hope, a vision for a better future, and said, “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” For most Americans, even those in big cities like New York, where violent crime rates have been going down steadily since 1990, there is no carnage.

But for Trump and the Republican Party as led and defined by Mitch McConnell, fear has been a successful motivator. Fear not just of crime, but of the unthinkable. The ad below, attacking the Democrat Kyrsten Sinema who is running for John McCain’s Senate seat, appeared in Arizona mailboxes the day that Trump held a rally in Arizona for her Republican opponent, Martha McSally.

McSally has called Congresswoman Sinema, a “traitor.” Her treason apparently is to be a centrist, non-ideological Democrat who advocates a rational and orderly immigration policy, humane health care policy, and who has a proven ability to work across the aisle on many issues. The cynicism and dishonesty that will craft a message like the one pictured above is not just Trump’s. It is the new standard of the Republican Party. There are those, they say over and over, “bad people” who would do us great harm. The bad people are Latinos, Blacks, Muslims, Middle Easterners. All who can be called “the other.”

Fear of the “other” is the underlying message. The only group that can be identified clearly enough to be attacked under the cover of law are undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, the majority of whom are from Mexico. They are being rounded up as fast as ICE can find them; it does not matter that they might have been productive and law-abiding members of their communities for many years. Their crime is to be undocumented hence subject to arbitrary arrest: hand-cuffed, without even a chance to bid their children goodbye, jailed, and deported.

There are an estimated 11 million such people in the United States, men and women who heard the Statue of Liberty’s message about “the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free.” America needed their skills and their willingness to work, and for many years welcomed them, silently agreeing to ignore their immigration status. Now they are demonized as criminals, a poison in the body politic.

“There are bad people among them,” Trump says over and over. This applies also to current refugees from poverty and violence in Central America. A column of destitute Honduran men, women, and children, is moving slowly, on foot, through Mexico toward the border with the United States. Clearly, they have not heard that they will not be welcomed. America is a legendary place, a place that offers hope for a better life. And they are pawns in Trump’s and the Republican’s fear mongering, their effort to hold and consolidate power. No rational Democrat, including me, denies that immigration is a complex issue, one requiring thought, decency, and good government. But for Trump and the Republicans, a few thousand ragtag people, more than half who are women and children, are about to “assault our country” and he will call out the military to protect the southern border.

Does one laugh or cry? Neither. His believers believe in him and, deprived by Fox News or poor education of the capacity for critical thought, they feel the menace is real. We need to take these outrages to intelligence and morality seriously. There are historical antecedents. Herman Goering, Hitler’s second in command, made the following statement during the Nuremberg Trials

It’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship… The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.

Trump and the Republicans have taken a page from the Nazi playbook.

A year ago, the willingness to consider the similarities between the current American political crisis with the failure of German democracy and the rise of the Nazis was considered an extremist idea. It is no longer. We have Madelene Albright’s Fascism, a Warning, Cass Sunstein’s It Can Happen Here, Livitsky’s How Democracies Die, and numerous op-eds in the mainstream press.

The similarities are easy to identify. Fear-mongering is, of course, not a tactic unique to the Nazis, but it was central to their political tactics. In 1933, even the most moderate parties, like the Social Democrats, were smeared as Communists, a mob, and called unfit to govern.

The more alarming aspect of Trump’s invocations of violence, however, is that he uses it as the Nazis did: to frighten and intimidate those who oppose him. Indeed, violence was crucial to the Nazi political success. Brown Shirts on the streets before they took power and the Gestapo after 1933 when politics were no longer necessary. At campaign rallies, Trump spoke about smashing faces and offered to pay the legal expenses of any of his supporters arrested for violence committed on his behalf.

Trump’s special target has been the press. He has repeatedly threatened to find ways to end the Constitutional protections of a free press. He wants, for instance, to change libel laws so that any criticism of him can be punished. Simpler methods of intimidation are aimed at individual journalists; at his rallies, he always points out the representatives of “fake news.” He calls them “bad people.” The out-going UN Commissioner for Human Rights has said that Trump’s attitudes toward journalists “is getting very close to incitement to violence.”

The willingness to use violence to silence criticism reached a peak this last week with the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a 60-year-old man who was educated in the United States, who was a resident of the United States, and who was a frequent contributor to The Washington Post, one of the two papers that Trump regularly singles out as his enemy. Trump’s open hostility to a free press has, as many, including New York Times publisher, insisted with alarm, created an atmosphere of sinister permissiveness that was spreading in the authoritarian sectors of the world.

Once, America standing up for human rights, for the necessity of a free press, for the rule of law, served as a check on kings and dictators who, in the past, could kill or jail their critics with impunity. Being called out, being shamed by the United States as leader of the civilized world, was often effective. No longer. The Saudi prince, MBS, irritated by Khashoggi’s columns, must have said to himself “who will rid me of this troublesome journalist?” He knew who—they worked for him—and he sent them to do the job. And he must have said, “President Trump won’t mind. He likes the money we’ve spent buying his condominiums, likes our money in his hotels, and he liked the show we put on for him.”

And MBS was right. Trump didn’t mind. Only under political pressure that he has he done anything. He is making angry faces at the Saudis, but it is unlikely that anything will change. How Trump feels about violence against journalists was on open display when, barely a week after Khashoggi’s death, he praised the Republican congressman who body-slammed and beat a journalist for asking a question about health care that he didn’t want to answer. A man who will body-slam a journalist, said Trump, is “my kind of guy.” MBS is also Trump’s kind of guy. And the compliment goes both ways.

Now, two weeks after the murder, Trump has made critical comments. But he has not condemned the murder. He says it was a “bad plan” and the “cover-up was the worst in history.” It was not murder that bothers him. It was that they botched it. Murder is what Donald Trump would do if he thought he could get away with it. Does that seem extreme? It no longer does to my mind. Trump openly admires the likes of Putin, Kim, Duterte, and MBS. Murderers all of critics and political opponents.

It not only can happen here; it is happening. The murder of Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul will stand in my mind as a marker. Civilization has encountered brutalism over and over again in history. Civilization prevailed in World War II and kept its nerve and values through the Cold War. We have come to a time of a new test.

For now, even Trump’s enablers in the Republican Party seem shocked by the Khashoggi affair. But who knows about the future. The past has another lesson. During Hitler’s rise to absolute power, the old guard, the elites—Prussian nobility, industrialist like Krupp, and bankers—believed that they could use the Nazis to crush the labor unions and eliminate Communist ideologies, but that ultimately they could control Hitler. He was, after all, a crude and often embarrassing parvenu. But as violence became the new normal in post-Weimar Germany, it was too late and the old guard had no choice but to live with it, which they did. Doing business as usual justified closing their eyes. It was a gradual releasing of civilizational restraints in 1933 Germany that made Nazism possible.

Today’s new normal, as this aberration, this corruption of values, this degradation of America, is called, seems disturbingly similar.

Donald Trump proclaims that he is a great leader who has awakened the MAGA spirit in Americans. And it is certainly true that Trump, the right-wing media, and the McConnell Republicans have encouraged this “awakening” by enflaming pre-existing threads of fear and hate. And they have dangled the temptations of violent solutions before them. But I think it is useful think in terms of a corollary, that the men and women who chant his name at the rallies have created this leader, this Donald Trump; they have in a sense called him up. He is the projection of their worst fears and darkest impulses. And he is their savior. It is important, therefore, to understand who they are.

These same emotions, fear and hate, were central to Hitler’s success. In that case, violence was offered and the people accepted it as satisfying, as necessary, as heroic, as cathartic, as settling scores with the world that had so badly used them. This is where I find the parallels between then and now most significant, and most disturbing.

The link between these two periods is the centrality of “the other.” I think “racism” is too thin a term, but for the moment it will serve. Trump’s racism is obvious. He says that we don’t want immigrants from “shit-hole” countries in Africa or from Latin America, but we would welcome immigrants from Norway. Send us white people, yearning to be richer.

White superiority is the better term. It seems more complex and deeper than prejudice or racism. It implies that God created humans in a racial hierarchy. First and best are white; all others are accidents, aberrations, or flaws. In America, this sense of superiority was sustained because, in the first two centuries of the republic’s existence, there was an overwhelming dominance, politically and numerically, of Caucasians. Whites are still the majority—61 % averaged across the states—but 61% no longer represents overwhelming numerical dominance. In some states, it has even reached parity. The demographics are changing. Hispanics now make up 18% nationally and blacks 12%. Mixed ethnicity or race are not factored into these numbers because they are hard to count.

This change, this “browning of America” as Ezra Klein of Vox has called it, has produced a profound anxiety in many, fear, bordering on panic. White Supremacy as a movement, as a claim is, in fact, a psychological condition of declining self-worth and fear of future weakness. Might I someday be discriminated against in the same way that my race has discriminated against them? Police brutality become black or brown against white? Might whites be lynched? Might my new neighbor be the “other,” be different than I am, speak Spanish, or have black skin? Might the job go to a Mexican instead of me? Might there be another black president?

White supremacy is, in short, the defensive position of beings who sense that their era is coming to an end. Indeed, when a ragtag column of Hondurans can threaten the nation’s identity, when a mild-mannered Saudi Journalist who advocated free speech can threaten a dynasty, we are dealing with individuals—or political culture in the case of Saudi Arabia—whose inner core, self-esteem, moral and psychological health, is made of inferior stuff.

Across history, a sense of inferiority has often resulted in desperate actions. For right-wing Germans of the Weimar Republic, the inferiority came out of military defeat (WWI), economic disaster (the Great Depression), a sense of victimhood at the hands of the international community (alles gegan uns, “everyone against us”), and political deadlock. These forces, in the hands of Hitler and Propaganda Minister Goebbels, became the terrible drive to become the Master Race, an ambition that almost burned the civilized world to the ground.

Are there parallels here with this American moment? Defeat: Vietnam with the divisions, shame, and self-doubt that the military and political failure in Southeast Asia created. Economic: the dislocations and distortions caused by globalization (real, I believe). Victimization: Trump’s nationalism is based on claims that even America’s traditional allies are attacking the U.S. with unfair trade practices. Deadlock: the Republican Party’s refusal to engage in any political compromise (a political crisis as severe as existed in Germany pre-1933).

Out of this socially and politically toxic stew has come the counterclaim of white superiority. The base, Trump’s most passionate supporters, are people whose socio-economic situation means that it is only whiteness that make them feel superior. For the ruling clique, the Republicans and their donating masters in the 1%, the fear and hatred in the masses at Trump rallies are cynically exploited to ensure their political and economic dominance, to further their real objectives of cutting their taxes and eliminating environmental constraints of, in short, appropriating the country’s wealth for themselves.

For these radical transformations of society, subverting or even destroying democracy, to be successful, in the Weimar case or in the present American case, there had to be an enemy, an “other.”

How did the Germans identify a member of the master race, this fictional notion of the Aryan? It was a drop of Jewish blood. Even 1/16th was enough to deny the claim of racial purity. The Nazi ideology of racial superiority had to do with blood purity, a matter of genealogy. It is much easier for Trump and McConnell’s Republicans to identify and demonize the “other.” It is a matter of skin color. Weakness produces fear. Fear produces hate. And hate results in violence.

Many will remember from the orgy of violence and madness that ends William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: “Kill the pig, kill the pig.” The more intelligent of the boys, Simon and Piggy, are killed. The chant goes on and on. “Kill the beast. Cut its throat. Spill its blood.”

“Lock her up, lock her up,” is now aimed at Speaker Pelosi. We are in a Lord of The Flies moment in the United States, a nation deliberately marooned and increasingly alone on its island. “Build the Wall. Build the wall.”

The midterm is the most important election in America’s troubled history. The Republic hangs in the balance. It is a tipping point. Please vote.

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