One of the privileges and delights of being a foreign correspondent for CBC was to get to know very smart people who helped me to understand their country in ways that I could never discover for myself.
Dan Carter, one of the most distinguished historians in the US, is one of those people and we’ve remained friends since I left Washington a decade ago. His specialty is the history of the South, from the Civil War to the present day. His prize-winning biography of George Wallace, “The Politics of Rage,” is an amazing introduction to the transformation of modern US political conservatism and the importance of race.
Dan just shared with me his thoughts on the roots and portent of Donald Trump’s election, an op-ed inexplicably unpublished in the US. I am proud to put it up on my blog for sharing as widely as possible
RESIST THE BEGINNINGS: CONSIDER THE END
For nearly 50 years I have written and taught about modern American politics and I’ve often been asked to comment upon contemporary as well as past events. Even when I wrote an “opinion” piece, however, I have always tried to step back emotionally and write with as much objectivity as possible.
I cannot do so in responding to the election of Donald J. Trump.
Like millions of Americans, I fear the damage likely to our environment, to the poor, to women and to religious racial and sexual minorities and I shudder when I consider the long-term damage that will come from President Trump’s judicial and political appointments. Even more dangerous are his proposed advisers on foreign affairs. No wonder the rest of the western world is shaken. And God help the Palestinians.
To a far greater degree it is the same disappointment I felt upon the election of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
But even though I have sometimes been disappointed in the outcome of Presidential elections, I have never felt that the Republic was in jeopardy.
That is not the case with the election of Donald Trump.
Over the last two decades, I have read and re-read Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free, a haunting book about Germany during the rise and fall of Nazism. In 1951, Mayer—a journalist, a Jew and a World War II conscientious objector—lived in a small town outside Frankfurt where he conducted lengthy interviews with ten former Nazis, none of them directly involved in war crimes, all of them “good” Germans.
A sympathetic listener, Meyer seldom challenged their efforts to excuse their actions, capturing their defensiveness and their sense of shame and bewilderment as they looked backward. How did it happen, they asked themselves? How did an era begin with hope and faith in a dynamic—if crude—leader end in the ruin of a nation and the smoking death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald?
The one thing upon which they agreed was that the decline came gradually as political leaders—supported by their passionate followers—abandoned the self-imposed restraints that underlie any real democracy. Step by step the German people embraced a charismatic but psychologically damaged individual, acquiesced in the demagogic creation of Jews as scapegoats, accepted the vilification of political opponents and ultimately the substitution of naked force for the rule of law until what was once unthinkable had become the norm.
Donald Trump is no Adolph Hitler. He is by the evidence of his own words and actions, a particularly American type: a shamelessly amoral hustler who prides himself on his ignorance of complex problems, a blowhard television personality, a vicious misogynist, a racist, a bully and a narcissist whose moral core revolves only around his personal glorification and his dominance over others. But he has ridden the wave of economic frustration and the fears of an overwhelmingly white electorate that is uneasy in the presence of powerful women and feels dispossessed as religious and racial minorities move from the shadows toward a majority in our nation.
Above all, Trump grasped the fundamental weaknesses of our current political culture. He has repeatedly bullied opponents and lied with the kind of brazen disregard for truthfulness, and for civilized norms of political debate. Instinctively he understood that most of the media—particularly the broadcasting and cable networks—would simply broadcast these lies in the name of journalistic objectivity, the more outrageous the better. And in a political environment in which complex issues are reduced to 30 seconds of: “She’s a liar”/“No, she’s not”/ “She’s a crook,” “No she’s not,”/ democratic debate was reduced to the 140 characters of the tweets he used so effectively.
As Leslie Moonves, CBS chief executive told his stockholders, the presidential race “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” For his network and for FOX, CNN, MSNBC, ABC and NBC—in Moonves’ words, “the money’s rolling in.” And so, in the media world dominated by President-elect Trump, life and death issues have been transformed into a shallow, exciting and vulgar game show that brings in more revenue.
In the coming weeks, the chattering classes will endlessly explain what has happened either by pointing to the weaknesses and miscalculations of the Clinton campaign or the grievances that Trump so successfully exploited. Reporters and pundits will parse the exact meaning of his appointments. Does naming GOP Party head Reince Priebus chief of staff indicate a conventionally right-wing course? Or is the appointment of white supremacist Stephen Bannon as chief counselor the real key to understanding his coming administration? Priebus and his like will become “steady hands” and Bannon will be transformed from an overt racist, sexist and anti-Semite into a “right wing media provocateur.” We will all analyze Trump’s tweets and contradictory statements like Roman seers poring over the entrails of dead chickens, breathing a sigh of relief when he decides to deport only three million Latinos instead of eleven million and pushes through some flim-flam healthcare fig-leaf to justify the destruction of the Affordable Care Act.
And step by step we will normalize Trumpism.
What had he learned from the rise of German fascism, Milton Meyer asked a German high school teacher who lived through rise and fall of Nazism? Remember the classic warning by the Roman poet Ovid, replied Henrich Hildebrandt: “Principiis obsta: Finem respice: Resist the beginnings: consider the end.” That is a difficult task, he admitted, for “one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings.”
We cannot know for certain where our story ends and we are certainly a more resilient society than Germany in the 1930s. But we are sailing into uncharted waters, guided by a sociopathic captain who has no understanding of, or respect for, the institutions and the values of a democratic society and the first thing we need to do is to stop pretending that this is simply another election.
University of South Carolina