Quo vadis, America? To where are we headed? by James Lloyd Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
“As an American citizen of German birth I finally testify that I am painfully familiar with certain political trends. Spiritual intolerance, political inquisitions, and declining legal security, and all this in the name of an alleged ‘state of emergency.’ … That is how it started in Germany.” Thomas Mann in response to accusations by the House Un-American Activities Committee that he was a communist.
The novelist who gave us a classic novel, The Magic Mountain, was an early and fierce critic of Adolf Hitler and the poisonous culture of the Nazis. Because of his public, even fearless words against them, he was forced to flee his native Germany in 1933, eventually finding refuge in the United States where he became a citizen in 1944. Yet, even in America, he found himself similarly threatened and hounded by the forces of McCarthyism as he publicly protested and wrote against the oppression of American writers and intellectuals during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that amounted to nothing less than fear mongering persecution, eventually leading to blacklisting and even to prison sentences as in the case of the Hollywood Ten. As a result of his public criticism of yet another fascist movement, he was finally forced to leave the U.S. and return to Europe.
The McCarthy era was a low point in American history, proving beyond doubt that the fears of those Americans like Sinclair Lewis, who in 1935 imagined the seed of fascism could find fertile soil in the American psyche, were more than prophetic, The House Un-American Activities Committee and the later McCarthy hearings in the Senate demonstrated that “it can happen here” and it did to the extent that the foundations of intellectual oppression and propagation of fear was laid. All that was lacking was the proper demagogue, a role that McCarthy tried desperately to fill. Thankfully he was thwarted. The saving graces of our nation at the time were the decency and strength of its leadership, as exemplified in people like attorney Joseph Welch who challenged McCarthy at the Army hearings, and the power of the free press, the courage of journalists like Edward R. Murrow. The eventual shaming of the demagogues who very nearly destroyed the character and intent of our Constitution was inevitable, but not before they exacted a terrible price on their victims, literally destroying the reputations and careers of thousands of people on the basis of lies and baseless accusation, creating an environment of fear and mistrust.
All of that seems now to have returned and we are once again faced with the ugly specter of fascist intent and unprecedented demagoguery in the person of Donald Trump. Time and again, this amoral, despotic individual has proven himself invulnerable to every criticism, moving by incremental steps toward autocracy by pushing against the moral and institutional constraints that we always believed were inviolable. He toys with Congress, attacks our courts, vilifies his critics, challenges and ruthlessly mocks the authority of anyone in our government who tries to oppose him.
On any given day, one could point to any one of a dozen of his actions as a dangerous precedent, the sort of behavior that would eventually bring down any previous politician… and yet, it almost appears as if he draws strength from every cry of “foul” that comes his way. What is it that makes this man invulnerable?
Has he so wearied his critics with his lack of shame that they simply give up in frustration? We know well enough that for all his faults, his enablers are willing to forego any appearance of personal integrity for the rewards they receive when he satisfies their corrupt intent, giving them the license they’ve always craved in pursuit of autocracy. But now, even his greatest critics within the government seem impotent, utterly restrained from meaningful action against him.
Is it possible that they too see opportunity in the phenomena he’s unleashed? Are they afraid of him? Or merely and similarly as jaded as his enablers. The answers may not come from a normal perspective. Perhaps they will come from a parallax view, an unpopular and skewed perspective from the fringes of our society, from a perspective that may no longer exist in our contemporary culture. Perhaps it will come from the distance, from the past, from the echoes of what we once held dear but seem, somehow, to have lost.
Where is our Sinclair Lewis?
Where is our Thomas Mann?
Where is our Joseph Welch?
Where is our Edward R. Murrow?
Or have we become the very force that feeds the beast we fear, if not through outright support, then with silent acquiescence? Is this present circumstance the sum of our failures, the substance of our corruption as a nation? If we hope to survive, we’d better find out just what it is we have lost and regain it. And soon.
Time is not our friend.
I’ve written about this before in other venues, been criticized for the analogy accordingly, but I truly never better understood until recently, if at all, how the German people allowed such a bizarre, motley crew of bigoted fanatics, political extremists, and the outright criminally insane… how they allowed such dangerous, posturing fools as those surrounding Hitler to march them so proudly into self-destructive trends with such obvious intent from the outset. One need only read Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf, which was published in two volumes in 1925 & 1926 to understand how he might respond in the 1930’s and 1940’s as a leader of the German Reich. The predictability was stunning.
By the same token, one need only observe the people surrounding Trump… to have listened to everything Trump was saying before he was elected to the office of the presidency of the United States in order to not only know how he would respond to the power given him, but to accurately predict that he would seek to abuse the office, broach the legal limits thereof, and to personally enrich himself from a position of authority in our government.
Nonetheless, early and numerous critics of his amoral and despotic style notwithstanding, who among the red-hatted throngs that followed him from the start could possibly predict that Trump would so easily discern the corruption around him and use the profound lack of integrity extant in American politics today to his advantage in dismantling the very government and its Constitution which he is theoretically sworn to uphold and protect? Certainly they cannot still be blind to his character… or, more properly, his lack thereof. Do they even care? And if not, why not?
So many American people, like the Germans before them, seem to need and to love a strong man who will soothe their fears concerning uneasy perceptions of threats from within and without. For all their denial… for those, at least, who do not say such things aloud for fear of criticism… his message is unwavering and infinitely clear. It’s a very dark message. Is it now the message of America?
I’m reminded of the Bible verse, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
I have no doubt that the critics of Hitler, those who were not fooled by their fears, could easily discern the subliminal truth in the evil of his message. Were they happy enough to shrug their objections aside when the German economy rebounded as it re-armed itself with a mad sort of pride in its growing invincibility? Is that why they let him continue?
They did, you know… let Hitler continue. He could never have done what he did if they’d truly opposed him when opposition was possible. Is that what’s happening here?
People prefer not to say it, but it’s there.
Watch him work.
It’s like a symphony and he’s the conductor.
Maybe you don’t want to watch, but you should.
It’s time to wake up and recognize the meaning of it all. Something terrible is happening and we can no longer deny it. The prohibitions of moral compulsion have not constrained it and we wonder, now, if even the rule of law is able.
After all, t’s not as though one man is the source of it.
Trump himself is but the wink and the nod that unleashes those sleeping dogs of incivility and aggression that rested in that dark other room we seldom ever visit for fear of waking the things we would rather deny. We’ve been astounded at how easy it was for him to spark such a movement, but the truth of it is… all he had to do was to know it was there and exploit it. He can’t, then, be rightly accused of inventing a storm that was not his, but just waiting for one who was willing enough to stir it from slumber, to whistle up the wind that now rages around us.
Why cry havoc, after all, when all that’s required is to vent the pressure with the license of a grin? Donald Trump is nothing, after all, but a permissive conduit for all that is vile and suppressed within us. Surely no man could ever deny it… or try to suggest all that which is vain and terrible within the mob he unleashed did not exist before he stirred it to life. It was there all along unexpressed… ready to be tapped, a roiling boil, seeking only his permission to be vented.
And how good they must feel to be finally liberated, free to express what is never permitted. Profanity laced permission… dog whistles and strokes of intention… approval, encouragement, the wink and the nod that whispers to the sleeping dogs… “It’s okay to be angry. I’m angry too. Let’s be honest. Let’s stop pretending. Let’s finally take back dominion. Let’s take back the nation that’s meant to be ours. Let’s take back the land that was meant to be ours. It was meant to be ours.”
Blood and Soil.
Blut und Boden.
It’s happened before. Or have we forgotten?
Oh, I know. I’ve heard the connection is purely hyperbolic and the phenomenon should never be taken so seriously as all that. It never is.
That’s how it grows.
In the end, people ask, “How did it happen? How did it ever get so far out of hand? Why didn’t someone see what was coming?”
…for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke
So… with a false and thoroughly premature public dismissal of the Mueller report, before anyone beyond the Trump-friendly Attorney General, a man who was selected, one has to believe, for his recorded disdain for the investigation, has even had the chance to read its content, Trump declares himself vindicated and imagines himself free to pursue his campaign to flesh out the foundations of his autocratic political stronghold. And why wouldn’t he? Nancy Pelosi made it clear she is not interested in impeachment and the Senate? Trump territory, no spine to be seen therein to take a stand for democracy and justice. What’s good for corporations is good for the Senate and Trump has shown a willingness to play for pay and to dismantle those troubling regulatory agencies in the Federal government that corporations would like to have neutered and unable to inhibit their predatory practices in pursuit of profit.
Trump is free to act as though resistance is quite as it seems… futile. In a New York Times report by Robert Pear, also published on March 25th, we read, “The Trump administration broadened its attack on the Affordable Care Act on Monday, telling a federal appeals court that it now believed the entire law should be invalidated.” This sudden change in direction, a bold move by the Trump administration could entirely undermine and eventually destroy Obamacare, a move that is not only politically unsettling to his own party, but also threatens the stability of the insurance industry… to say nothing of the more than 100 million Americans who may lose their health insurance. But if Trump doesn’t want it? Consider it gone and to hell with the consequence.
In the Washington Post, Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey reported on the same day that, “… at an Oval Office meeting on Feb. 22, Trump asked top advisers for ways to limit federal support from going to Puerto Rico, believing it is taking money that should be going to the mainland, according to senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of the president’s private remarks.” Trump has never been shy about expressing his disdain for the people of Puerto Rico, acting almost as if he is ignorant… or even contemptuous… of the fact that they are citizens of the United States and not foreigners in another poor and powerless “S***hole country” of the Third World as he has so scornfully described some African nations in the past.
Again in the Times, we read a report on Monday by Peter Baker and Nicholas Fandos, “President Trump and his Republican allies went on the offensive on Monday, vowing to pursue and even punish those responsible for the Russia investigation now that the special counsel has wrapped up without implicating him or his campaign in a criminal conspiracy to influence the 2016 election. Mr. Trump, grim faced and simmering with anger, denounced adversaries who have pounded him for two years over Russian election interference, calling them ‘treasonous’ people who are guilty of ‘evil’ deeds and should be investigated themselves. ‘Those people will certainly be looked at,’ he said.” These chilling remarks are worthy of any dictator… but certainly not worthy of an American president, nor of any other leader in any nation of the free world.
By taking an unprecedented step in recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and receiving Netanyahu as friend and ally, Trump not only bolstered the strong man of Israel’s shaky political underpinnings, but sent a message to another strong man in Russia, his old friend Putin, concerning Russia’s annexation of Crimea that America no longer stands up for oppressed nations around the world. This sort of unsettling unorthodoxy is never surprising when it is preceded by the name of Trump… and that in itself should be an alarm bell, in that any single event prompted by such dangerous perspectives would normally be enough to rally protest and ensure censure, but as each day passes, marking the bold, uncontested crossing of yet another Rubicon by Julius Trump, our Congress does nothing and the Senate seems obsequious in its silent assent.
All the signs are there… dire threats to his critics and the press, unwillingness to even consider political consequences for himself or his party, the negation of our nation’s treaties and longstanding international alliances, and the embrace of dictators, murderous strong men, and similarly corrupt individuals within the private and public spheres of influence in America. All that is required of his enablers is that they give him unquestioned loyalty… for which he is willing to provide an open hand and an unfettered, unimpeachable license to steal.
The question, America, is this… what are you going to do about it?
Is there really such a thing as Trumpism? Or is the man, the administration, and the thrust of his presidency purposely and aggressively indefinable, an ambiguous, amorphous fog, made up of mere visceral reactions to both impulse and the momentary influence of stray voices passing through his mind? Lacking disciplined approaches or the need to develop constructs of vision, the man who neither reads nor even trusts that which has been proven by consensus and subsequently recorded as fact, much prefers hypotheses to conclusions, and possibly represents the very pinnacle of reactive thinking.
Agog with affection in the presence of authoritarian leaders, he lacks the stone and substance with which to emulate their brand, coming off, instead, as little more than the reflection of a spoiled and petulant adolescent. Seated, his posture is oddly defensive, arms crossed so tightly about him at times, he looks to be romancing himself… while his facial expression betrays the possibility that the affection can never be returned, much like a man who possesses a powerful, even passionate love/hate relationship with himself, but one in which the component of disdain has utterly and irreversibly overcome the struggle. Having no confidence and no rigid core of character within him, perhaps he is a liquid human tide subject to the influence of superior suggestive forces within his orbit.
If indeed there is such a thing as Trumpism, perhaps it does not emanate from this one man…
….but from an amalgam of individuals, a collective perhaps, a coalition of names… like Jared and Stephen and Vladimir and Kim. A pastiche of somewhat unusual men… like Bolton and Bannon, Pompeo and Flynn. Cohen and Cohn, Mussolini and then… Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh and such… Don Junior and Eric, Ivanka, of course… Pence and Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos. The list goes on and on and on and must also include every angry voice in the crowds of adoring, MAGA-hatted fans… and passing thoughts from Twitter feeds… indeed, every passing voice that somehow strikes a serendipitous chord within the molten, mercurial mass of what passes for thought in the primordial presidential soup behind that often vacant stare from the man who is ultimately in charge of the future of our nation. This man who somehow… and perhaps quite by some fluke, some paradigm shift in the fabric of the universe, a glitch in the foundational laws of probability… now finds himself at the very helm of global history.
What is Trumpism? I believe we’ll only get the answer when we finally understand the question or when his epoch has ended… and if that sounds like I’m at a loss to describe Trumpism definitevely and with confidence? You get an “A” for the course.