Wednesday, May 4, 2016

It Can Happen Here

So that's it. It happened so much sooner than we had expected. Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican party. Those of us who used to imagine the possibility of one day writing that sentence and laugh are now running through the streets in terror. "It's really not funny anymore," is a sentence you've probably heard a lot this week, if your friends and acquaintances are anything like mine. I was having dinner with my Dad last night when the news came down that Cruz had formally withdrawn and the GOP nomination race was now all but over. It felt as if we were huddled at the edge of an abyss. The image that came to mind was one of Robert Lowell's, about another very real prospect of armageddon:
A father's no shield
for his child.
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

I recall back in June seeing coverage of one of the early Trump rallies. It had no message, no core, no program, apart from the most naked aggression toward immigrants and Mexican people, and watching the thing unfold, one did dare to ask oneself the old question -- Can It Happen Here? And of course, it could. Trump discerned early on that there is a rough quarter or so of the human population that is perennially susceptible to the fascist message, if someone is willing to dish it to them -- "[A] kind of family circle," as Nabokov once described it, "[...] linking representatives of all nations, jolly empire-builders [...] French policemen, the unmentionable German product, the good old church-going Russian or Polish pogromshchik, the lean American lyncher[.]"

Trump knew precisely the hints and suggestions to cast before such an audience -- the "we love our police" line; the reliance on blatant conspiracy theories; the euphemistic denunciations of "political correctness"; the pretense of caring about veterans -- those great casualties of empire-builders who are brutalized by war, acculturated to a life of violence, denied a place in the society to which they return, and who also formed the earliest shock-troops of every fascist movement of the twentieth century; the unspeakable obscenities uttered against Muslims and Mexicans and others; the encouragement of violence and thug tactics on the part of his supporters, which has been put into practice directly against BLM and other protestors at Trump rallies-- much as the followers of Sir Oswald Mosley used to rough up Jews and Communists who picketed their events-- and which has unleashed a flood of death threats, stalking, and white supremacist hate speech online directed against journalists who cross Trump and company.

There will perhaps always be a certain hard core of fascism in every human group -- there are Buddhist fascists (vide events in Sri Lanka and Burma), there are Muslim fascists, there are Zionist fascists, and plenty of other unwholesome varieties. What allows this subset of the population to gain control of a state is almost never their numerical supremacy; but a confluence of circumstances that prevent the rest of society from putting up an adequate resistance.

One thing should be clear by this point -- if Trump is to be prevented from becoming a genocidaire or ethnic cleanser, it will not be due to any restraint or scruple in his own personality. I don't really think at this point that, provided he is encouraged along the way, Trump has any real limit within him as to how far he is willing to go. He is an ill person, who displays no sign of being able to distinguish as healthy minds do between megalomaniac fantasies and the strictures of the reality principle; nor any indication that he is aware that the pain of others is real.

The real test is whether our institutions will be strong enough to prevent this ill person from attaining the power he seeks. If they are not, and Trump does manage to get his hands on the nuclear launch codes this November with god knows what results, I submit it will be due to the following factors-- which I offer as a sort of belated J'accuse -- and a belated mea culpa:

1.) Internecine and ego-driven struggles on the left. Hitler never came close to winning a majority of the vote, let us recall; but the opposition to him was so riven by Stalinist tactics and infighting that it never managed to arrest his rise.

That is why it is time for Bernie to get out. That's right, get out Bernie! There is absolutely no reason for you to still be in the race, other than your ego. You cannot win, all you can do at this point is further damage and divide the opposition to Trump. Get out of the race now. I'm ashamed I supported you at any point and just hope the damage you've wrought already won't be irreversible. Perhaps there was some point when the impact you were having on the race was still relatively salutary, but that time has now long passed. Get out! Have I said that clearly enough?

But of course, he won't leave the race, given that there's a handful of primaries coming up in states with largely white and working class populations where he can do well. These cannot possibly win him the nomination, but they can stroke his ego for a time, and take energy and resources away from the Hillary campaign. Thus, I'll say it plain-- Bernie Bros, "Bernie or Bust"-niks, Glenn Greenwald -- get it together now, friends, or there will be blood on your hands in November.

2.) Trump was seen as a joke for too long. I'm as guilty as anyone here. I laughed to keep from crying along with the rest. I also can't exactly claim the mantle of prophecy and prescience this campaign season, given that I was writing a post mortem on Trump back in February. Still, there are a few of my own lines on this blog that still stack up pretty well, I believe, and that I offer here without further commentary --

From as early as this past July:
When you see that Oompa Loompa
   Prating away up there
A Gerald L.K. Smith
   With rather more orange hair
Your sides they shake with laughter
   Your eyes and nose go runny
(But then—I hear they used to think
 The goosesteppers looked funny)
That comparison, you tell me,
   Has started to seem quaint
(Comparisons always are of course
Until one day they aint) 
And from November:
 The instinctive response to many Trumpisms – I’ve experienced it, I confess-- is a kind of mirth. "What’ll he do next!" The man’s candidacy is already being treated as yesterday’s headline, and his obscenities are relegated to the same wacky news column as a Kardashian wedding. And well, plenty of journalists in the lead up to the second World War thought Hitler was a laugh riot too – the typical Bloomsbury term for him was “buffoon,” rather than "monster."
3.) Our news culture, in a misguided attempt to appear "even-handed" and "objective," will begin to portray Trump as a mainstream candidate. They can't be seen to have a "liberal bias," after all. Perish the thought! So we'll be treated to an endless parade of point/counter-point. "And now, speaking for the Trump campaign, we have..."

The other day on Here & Now, the NPR reporter paused her guest in the midst of a comparison he was making between Trump and Joseph McCarthy -- and then Hitler -- to suggest that "Trump's supporters might say he is just a larger than life figure, like Harry Truman -- you know, 'Give em hell' Truman." If she was trying to suggest that both men have it in them to commit nuclear atrocities, the comparison is probably apt -- but I don't think that's what she meant.

As our media culture begins to accept Trump as more or less a normal GOP nominee, his white supremacist hate speech and following will enter the mainstream of American politics. American intellectual culture will shift over to make room as they do so, just as Hitler's initially lumpen movement eventually persuaded scientists and artists that it was the great wave of the future.

4.) The Republican Establishment and other elites will decide Trump is "a man with whom one can do business." The Krupp and Hindenburg calculation, in short. How long does the American elite continue to care that "first he came for the Mexicans; then he came for the Muslims" -- so long as he does not appear to be coming for their assets and holdings? Paul Manafort appears to have been recruited, one notes, chiefly for the purpose of smoothing their ruffled feathers on these subjects.

5.) We all thought "politics is a game anyways." How often has it been said in those depressing "man on the street" interviews on NPR? "I'm supporting Trump because the politicians have done such a rotten job that I think, how could he do any worse?"

Of course, he can do infinitely worse.

How many times have we heard from the left, "There's no real choice between the parties!" This time, there's never been a choice that mattered more.

Our cynicism made us watch with a kind of twisted delight as Rome burned -- didn't it just prove what an absurd and meaningless spectacle the whole thing had been from the start? But now, the flames draw closer. Now, we choke on the ashes. We'll start to find some "meaning" in a big hurry. As D.H. Lawrence once wrote:
"They say: Après moi le deluge! and calmly expect
that the deluge will never be turned on them, only after them. 
Post me, nihil! -- But perhaps, my dears,
nihil will come along and hit you on the head."
I don't know what happened to Donald Trump to make him the way he is. I do know that any concerns one might express about his future crimes and atrocities is no mere speculation. Has he not told us time and again he means to torture people, to detain them indefinitely, to rain death from the skies on children, to deport millions of people, to deny entry to the desperate and the persecuted? Go on and ask him! He'll say, yes, yes, and yes -- that's the Trump program!

No one has the right now to draw a clear terminus to where this disaster stops. Has it not already gone so much further than we could possibly have dreamt?

All I can say is, with Louis MacNeice:
"O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me"

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