Thursday, July 21, 2016

Being Honest About Trump

[ed. Whatever you think of Donald Trump's chances in November it says a lot about our country that he's achieved what he has so far. In the end, it's not enough to say... oh, I made a mistake, or, I thought we just needed a change (Brexit, anyone?). Even if you're not fully aware, you're still fully culpable. See also: The Beginning of the End.]

...We walk out of the beautiful museum and find ourselves back in a uniquely frightening moment in American life. A candidate for President who is the announced enemy of the openness that America has traditionally stood for and that drew persecuted √©migr√©s like Moholy-Nagy to America as to a golden land, a candidate who embraces the mottos and rhetoric of the pro-fascist groups of that same wretched time, has taken over one of our most venerable political parties, and he seems still in the ascendancy. His language remains not merely sloppy or incendiary but openly hostile to the simplest standards of truth and decency that have governed American politics. Most recently, just this week, he has repeated the lie that there has been a call for “a moment of silence” in honor of the murderer of five policemen in Dallas.

This ought to be, as people said quaintly just four or five months ago, “disqualifying.” Nonetheless, his takeover of the Republican Party is complete, and, in various postures of spinelessness, its authorities accede to his authority, or else opportunistically posture for a place in the wake of it. Many of them doubtless assume that he will lose and are hoping for a better position afterward—still, the very small show of backbone that would be required to resist his takeover seems unavailable. Even those who clearly fear and despise him, like the Bush family, seem able to register their opposition only in veiled language and cautiously equivocal formulations; Jeb Bush knows what Trump is, but still feels obliged to say that he would “feel sad” if Trump lost.

What is genuinely alarming is the urge, however human it may be, to normalize the abnormal by turning toward emotions and attitudes that are familiar. To their great credit, the editors of most of the leading conservative publications in America have recognized Trump for what he is, and have opposed his rise to power. Yet the habit of hatred is so ingrained in their psyches that even those who recognize at some level that Trump is a horror, when given the dangling bait of another chance to hate Hillary still leap at it, insisting on her “criminality” at the very moment when it’s officially rejected, and attempting to equate this normal politician with an abnormal threat to political life itself. They do this, in part, to placate their readership. In the so-called mainstream (call it liberal) media, meanwhile, the election is treated with blithe inconsequence, as another occasion for strategy-weighing. The Times, to take one example, ran a front-page analysis criticizing Trump for being insufficiently able to exploit a political opening given by the investigation into Clinton’s e-mail, with the complaint seeming to be that Trump just isn’t clever enough to give us a good fight—to be the fun opponent we want. If only he had some more skill at this! While the habits of hatred get the better of the right, the habits of self-approval through the fiction of being above it all contaminate the center.

A certain number of the disengaged insist that Trump isn’t really as bad as all that. And there may indeed be another universe in which Donald Trump is one more blowhard billionaire with mixed-up politics but a basically benevolent heart, a Ross Perot type, or perhaps more like Arnold Schwarzenegger, preaching some confused combination of populism and self-help and doomed to flounder when he comes to power. This would not be the worst thing imaginable. Unfortunately, that universe is not this one. Trump is unstable, a liar, narcissistic, contemptuous of the basic norms of political life, and deeply embedded among the most paranoid and irrational of conspiracy theorists. There may indeed be a pathos to his followers’ dreams of some populist rescue for their plights. But he did not come to political attention as a “populist”; he came to politics as a racist, a proponent of birtherism.

As I have written before, to call him a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.

What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners. That it can appeal to those who do not understand its consequences is doubtless true. But the first job of those who do understand is to state what those consequences invariably are. Those who think that the underlying institutions of American government are immunized against it fail to understand history. In every historical situation where a leader of Trump’s kind comes to power, normal safeguards collapse. Ours are older and therefore stronger? Watching the rapid collapse of the Republican Party is not an encouraging rehearsal. Donald Trump has a chance to seize power.

Hillary Clinton is an ordinary liberal politician. She has her faults, easily described, often documented—though, for the most part, the worst accusations against her have turned out to be fiction. No reasonable person, no matter how opposed to her politics, can believe for a second that Clinton’s accession to power would be a threat to the Constitution or the continuation of American democracy. No reasonable person can believe that Trump’s accession to power would not be.

By Adam Gopnik , New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Spencer Platt/Getty