See No Evil, Speak No Evil

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July 18, 2018

As I was finishing this post, Donald Trump went to Europe. He trashed America’s allies, declared them foes, and, as the civilized world watched with disbelief, the American president surrendered America’s values and world leadership to the thug of the Kremlin. His performance appeared to many as an act of treason, which act, in the language of the Constitution, consists in waging war against the United States or “adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

The Constitution requires two witnesses to convict. Trump counts his witnesses by audience ratings, so no problem with getting witnesses. The 2-hour private meeting, Trump/Putin, with no witnesses is the real concern, but no problem; he went on live TV. And if the Helsinki performance does not rise to the level of treason, it is certainly a violation of the presidential oath of office in which the President-elect swears to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” Given the enormity of those events, I was tempted to scrap what I’d already written and start over. But I decided to go forward. I think the subject below to be important.

What follows, then, is an attempt to understand just how bad the Trump administration is, to distinguish between policies that one finds wrong-headed and actions that reach a higher threshold of wrongness. And where is that threshold? It is also an attempt to apply, carefully and accurately, historical precedent. My training has been in history, so I have applied those models that have seemed most relevant. It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about American fascism and the fragility of democracy, sets my compass; “It” is happening here. But what exactly is happening? And where do we find the right words to describe it? Since this is longer than my usual commentaries, and I’ve added this gloss.

In 1946 Albert Camus was invited to address a gathering of Catholic theologians to discuss the terrible events of 1933 to 1945. Camus was looking for common ground between the unbeliever, as he self-identified, and people of faith. Despite the rebirth of hope in Europe, Camus was uneasy. He was tormented by the question of evil. Where does it come from? Augustine, whom Camus quotes, had found no answers to this age-old conundrum. Nor had Camus. But he was certain that the question of evil, le mal, was still before us. How do we know it? Can we identify it in time to stop it? What does it feed on? He finds tentative explanations in the ascendance of the political man with his devotion to ideologies and slogans over the “real human,” in the bureaucratic indifference to suffering, in the establishment of laws that permit cruelty in the name of state security, and in the use of state terror.

Camus had a particular revulsion to the torture of children; he mentions it several times in his address. Christians, he urges, must, in future crises, join with non-believers and become a unified force for humanist resistance to evil. He, always politely, asks of his audience, where they were during the last crisis, the deportations, the executions, the torture, why did they not speak out? Nay, why did they not cry out? The Christian community (with notable exceptions, like Pastor Bonhoeffer) neither saw evil nor spoke about it, while all around them a previously unimaginable crime was unfolding, a crime that posed an existential threat to all that was holy to believer and unbeliever alike.

Albert Camus insisted that evil is not a theological abstraction; it is always in the process of being actualized in the world. Evil, le mal, is a term that we might be reluctant to use seventy-five years later; it might seem an archaic concept that, not wanting to appear alarmist or sensational or intellectually lazy, we avoid. But I am convinced that the reality of the present moment requires that we frame our understanding in a way that allows thinking beyond our customary ways. With Trump and Trumpism, the cult of personality that has grown around him, we are confronted with a situation that is beyond politics, beyond the sorts of “preferences” and “biases” that make up the diversity of opinion in a pluralistic society, that is beyond the normal range of political conflicts. “Normal” has seemed, each year since 1945, a little less dangerous, less irrational, and that the normal is often distasteful or unjust is, of course, true. Trump, however, has gone beyond any credible sense of the normal.

His words and actions, and those of his enablers in the Republican Congress, are far beyond things about which reasonable men might disagree. Donald Trump is on the way to destroy not just American democracy but the Western civilization that brought America into existence 250 years ago. Once I would have thought this an extreme thing to say. I no longer do.

An observation by Raymond Aron (1903-1983), Camus’ contemporary, seems helpful in putting all this in context. Aron wrote that in dealing with the world of men one always needs to distinguish between the wrong and the despicable, and more important, between the despicable and the truly evil. The opinion that something is wrong falls with the range of normal discord. I, for instance, find the American conservatives decades-long effort to undo the social policies of the New Deal to be terribly wrong. Unjust, unkind, and selfish. But I recognize that “wrong” often depends on one’s perspective, one’s class, race, gender, or political orientation.

Things become less relative, however, when we consider issues of more wide-ranging consequence: the destruction of alliances that for 60 years have kept the world relatively stable and safe from Russian aggression or denying the imperatives of environmental responsibility or refusing to provide one’s fellow citizens with an equitable health care system.

These last three examples involve moral values, political ideals, and historical perspective. In these instances, I find Trump and his Republican allies, his co-conspirators, despicable. I would go a step further and argue that climate change denial amounts to a crime against humanity, but since many say that to deal with this existential challenge would be bad for business or that human-caused climate change can’t be true because God is in charge, I know that this crime will never be treated as such, not, at least, by this generation. Others crimes, however, are easier to identify. And we approach the question of evil.

In a recent interview (The Guardian, 8 July), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said: “Things that are happening now are genuinely, seriously bad.” I agree and have thought this ever since Trump’s white Supremacist tendencies became visible and as his contempt for the law emerged. Madeleine Albright, an observer of politics and politicians with far experience that I have, has, I am sure, come to her conclusion carefully. Her book, just out, is called Fascism, a Warning. Mrs. Albright quotes Adolf Hitler in the Guardian interview.

“I will tell you what has carried me to the position I have reached. Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them… I reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me.”

And “the masses,” or at least 30% of Americans and 80% of Republicans have done just that, followed Donald Trump. There is no denying that Americas economic and political problems are real, but their complexity has been aggravated by the Republican party’s ideologically-driven obstructionism and the resulting deadlock in Washington. No Compromise is the Republican default position and this means that politics, as the essential art in a democracy, has been sabotaged.

Senator McConnell stated after Obama’s election that the Republican Party’s single most important goal was to make sure that Obama had a failed presidency. This was, to my ears, a chilling statement. The good of the country and of the people were no longer in the Republican calculation. Power was their sole objective. Trump, they had thought, would be their instrument. One remembers how the German industrialists and bankers thought that they could use the “little corporal” to crush the unions and the Social Democrats, and then push him aside. We know how that turned out. Attracted to power, as clearly the Republican legislators are, they have become his willing collaborators.

Mrs. Albright’s analysis of the American crisis has made it intellectually credible to consider the parallels with the Third Reich. I have long thought it relevant but held back because terms referring to the Hitler years have been tossed about all too carelessly. But we disallow relevant history at our peril and Mrs. Albright clearly thinks the time to make us of that historical frame. Her comparisons were made, I am sure, with great care, based on facts, not on feelings. Her conclusion is described in the Guardian as follows:

It is in his methods that Trump can be compared with, if not precisely likened to, the dictators of the 1930s. Fascists are typically masters of political theatre. They feed on and inflame grievances by setting “the people” against their “enemies”. Fascists tell their supporters that there are simple fixes for complex problems. They present themselves as national saviors and conflate themselves with the state. They seek to subvert, discredit and eliminate liberal institutions. She reminds us that they have often ascended to power through the ballot box and then undermined democracy from within.

Trump’s “enemy” is immigrants, especially from Latin America. His simple solution is to build a wall. Of the complex problems, Trump says over and over that “I alone can fix it.” The key institutions of democracy, a free press and the rule of law, are systematically undermined: the media is fake and tells lies; and the FBI is part of a “deep state” conspiracy to remove a legitimate president. Hitler came to power through the ballot box, having a plurality but no majority, he was appointed chancellor in a moment of parliamentary crisis, a frozen government, a nation that had become ungovernable. Trump had no majority either, and thanks to Republican no-compromise obstructionism, the United States was also in a political crisis.

Trump’s choice of enemy is a powerless people that he demonizes and dehumanizes; he uses terms so like those the Nazis used about Jews, “infestation, vermin, animals,” that one’s historical antenna fairly trembles. Trump’s enemies are a particular class of immigrants, refugees from Latin American poverty and violence; significantly, they are dark skinned. When they reach our border they are poor, powerless, and desperate. They bring with them some clothes, their children, bottles of water, and something larger, the hope that America will treat their application for asylum in a just fashion. Those who enter illegally, crossing the river as it were, are following the path of generations of Mexicans coming, as they have since the late 19th century, to do the jobs Americans didn’t want to do: stoop labor in the farms of California and Texas, the slaughterhouses of Iowa. Often they returned to Mexico, but many have stayed and they or their descendants are integrated into the fabric of American society. As most Anglo residents in border cities––El Paso, McAllen, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Los Angeles–– would testify, there is no immigration crisis. These are comfortably blended cities.

An estimated 11 million immigrants are undocumented, hence technically illegal. They work, raise families, and according to all available studies are more law-abiding than those native whites who have less to fear from the government. The category of “undocumented” has been morphed, by Trump and his allies, into proof of criminality. A traffic violation, even a brake light missing, by an undocumented Mexican becomes a crime justifying arrest and deportation.

Latino immigrants are the Jews of this day, filling a role in the political theater through which Trump keeps his people’s emotions stirred up and himself in power. Trump characterizes this wave of human misery—mothers, fathers, and their children—an “invasion.” How pathetically weak Trump and his supporters must really be! Children as invaders! Yet they have captured power, the power of the office of the president; they have used the power of the irrational and of fear. The emotions that Trump plays on are like those the Nazis exploited, a fear of racial “pollution” of the country. Nazis were the champion of an Aryan race; Nazism, as a movement, was built on racial identity. Trump’s White Supremacy rhetoric must be understood within this frame.

A new and dangerous phase of white anxiety has apparently begun. Trump has ordered a federal police agency to inflict pain, humiliation, and degradation on helpless people. Trump’s decision to separate children from their parents at the border is simply monstrous. Children, some are so young they don’t even know their names, have been literally torn from their parent’s arms. Orwellian euphemisms have emerged from the dark recesses of the Trump administration: “Family residential centers” and “Tender Age” facilities are the names for the prisons and cages.

A repurposed Walmart store, a windowless warehouse-like space became a prison for boys and girls aged 10 to 16 who arrived unaccompanied or separated from their parents at the border; it is called “Casa Papa.” Lest we forget, lest we pretend that it cannot happen here, America has had facilities properly called concentration camps before; the camps for Japanese Americans during the Second World War that were called “relocation centers.”

Euphemisms have always been part of the propaganda arsenal of criminal governments; deception and concealment have been essential. The Nazis leadership understood that what they were doing could be unacceptable even to their most ardent supporters; thus sonderaktion, “special action,” was the term for extrajudicial executions and “final solution” for mass murder, the Holocaust.

This practice is not limited to recent immigrants. Undocumented fathers and mothers, who have been in the United States for many years, are routinely arrested without regard for their position in their communities, their complete absence of criminal record, or the children, United States born and thus not subject to this exercise of state terror, who are left stranded, often without even notification of what has happened to their missing parent.

A federal police force, called ICE, that does this reprehensible “work;” they raid factories, wait outside churches, catch their targets as they leave for work. The detainee is then shackled hands and feet and disappears into the labyrinth of the deportation process. “Disappearing” has been a standard practice of fascist states across history, whether Argentina under the generals or Nazi Germany. Disappeared: one is nowhere, stateless, alone, without recourse: a terrifying experience.

Supporters of Trump’s policies say that these people have broken the law. But what is the purpose of law: to bring stability to communities, to protect life and property, to encourage well being, to order societal transactions, to punish crime. To want a better life is not a crime. In dark hands, the law is used to terrorize. The Nazis, from the Enabling Act of 1933 to the Nuremburg Laws, had a compliant parliament and judges loyal to the leader who produced laws to justify everything they did. Dissent was against the law. To criticize the leader was against the law. To have even 1/4 of Jewish blood put one outside the protection of the law.

The idea of the law’s purpose, “to serve and protect” as the ideal is expressed on the doors of NYC police cars, is being dangerously corrupted. ICE has become a reliable enforcer of acts and orders that a moral person would refuse. These are men and women who obey without question. The Nazis accomplished complete population control by domestic terror, a terror inflicted by similarly loyal and obedient police forces whose names are synonymous with evil, SS and Gestapo. Creating a cadre of Americans, either at the bureaucratic level or the police level, who are selected for loyalty to Trump and willingness to do anything, is a dangerous trend. The talk now circulating to abolish ICE represents a growing awareness of this issue.

Adan Galicia Lopez is three years old. He was separated from his mother for four months, held in a facility where no one was permitted to touch him, to comfort him. The facility was run by a private contractor whose incentives are profit. The rules were strict. He was not to cry. He was not to sit on the floor. He did not know his last name. His mother was moved from one detention facility to another; each time she was moved it was in shackles, hands and feet. There are nearly 3000 children still in “custody” and separated from their parents. Adan is one of the lucky ones. With the help of volunteer lawyers, his mother found him. The American government has misplaced a great many these children or already deported the parent. These are, indeed, days of infamy.**

The breaking up of families should be understood as a signature gesture of Donald Trump. It defines him. The acts are cruel, arbitrary, and have the purpose of proving to Trump’s base that he is a strong man, a leader capable of doing even the worst to protect his fearful, insecure “people.” The kidnapping of children to be used as hostages, the terrorizing of these parents, transcend the despicable. They are evil acts and the men and women who ordered them are evil people.

America, of course, has not descended to the Nazi level of barbarity and probably never could. Recent events have shown that a capacity for moral outrage still exists in American society. The pushback, (in the last weeks of June and July, 2018; I cite the date so we can measure where we are a year from now), from all the mainstream churches (Evangelicals excepted), from a handful of Republican lawmakers, and from the street, was powerful. A great many Americans were appalled by men with guns snatching children from their parents; they spoke out and Trump retreated. But it was a tactical retreat only. His agendas remain the same.

Trump is testing, looking to see how much he can get away with. So far, he has been challenged on very little. The only possible check is the Republican congress and they apparently will not. Anything from Trump is possible. He is probing the limits. This is a man who called the Democrats failure to stand and applaud him at his first state of the union address “treasonous” and “un-American.” How far would he go to suppress and punish this sort of dissent?

This was the man who said that he could shoot someone to death on Fifth Avenue and not lose votes. His penchant for violence was noted during the campaign and was the subject of my commentary #17. How far would he go if he feels that his hold on power is truly at risk? Would he fire Mueller and pardon himself? If this were to happen, the American experiment with the rule of law would be over. America would be over. With no restraints, how far would Trump then go? Would he start a war? Declare martial law. Camus’ warnings about evil must not be ignored. What he did to these children is the warning. Evil is with us.

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