Herr Drumpf: A Thought Experiment
CRAPPY NEW YEAR
Well, 2018 is off to a rollicking start as the self-proclaimed Very Stable Genius at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (apologies, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) has already managed to do what many thought was unthinkable — that is, behave in a manner even more infantile, destructive, and jawdropping than we previously thought possible. From flaunting his racism with the “shitholes-vs-Norway” comment, to revelations that he paid hush money to a porn star (also: made her watch Shark Week), to shutting down the government over his border wall (or fence, or window, or whatever it is this week) to the capper of them all, revelations that he tried to fire Bob Mueller last June and was prevented only by the White House counsel shooting a Thorazine-tipped dart into his neck, it’s already been a banner year for transgressions both great and small. And it’s still January.
Needless to say, many of these actions would have — individually — been presidency-ending events in any previous administration, but never mind. We are in uncharted waters and here be dragons. We need not even debate the accuracy of Michael Wolff’s salacious instant bestseller, Fire and Fury: Trump’s frantic, frothing-at-the-mouth response lent the book all the credence it could possibly want. Nice job, Don.
Hard as it is to believe, speculation that the Fake President of the United States is not only unfit for the office and a danger to humanity but a functionally illiterate mental defective has become the norm, notwithstanding the hilariously over-the-top evaluation of Rear Adm. (Dr.) Ronny Jackson, MD.(which, apparently, is standard procedure with all of Trump’s physicians.) Like an active duty US Navy doctor — with a Southern accent, no less — was going to come out on his own initiative and say, “The President is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.”
Somehow we’re supposed to feel relieved that the pretender-in-chief was (reportedly) able to pass a cognitive assessment test used to determine if accident victims are brain-damaged, the same way we’re supposed to believe that Trump grew an inch and is in Olympian health despite subsisting almost entirely on Kentucky Fried Chicken and Diet Coke.
I guess we were overdue for a remake of Caligula, but I thought it would be on HBO, not CNN.
MARAT/SADE, FROST/NIXON, MUELLER/TRUMP
Meanwhile, despite the continuing, unconscionable assault by the White House and GOP, the Office of the Special Counsel continues its disciplined, opaque labors, the polar opposite of Trump in every way. On that front, word that Mueller’s team is seeking to interview the fake president himself seemed to throw His Orangeness’s lawyers into a dead panic, exactly as one might expect. Naturally, their preference is for their erratic and undisciplined client to reply in writing. Presumably Trump would do so via Twitter, in all caps.
But now it seems the White House has bowed to the inevitable and agreed to an in person interview. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in that session. Attention Aaron Sorkin: I can see the Broadway play already.
Aaron Blake of the WaPo posed six questions he thinks Mueller’s team will (or ought to) ask. Given Donald Trump’s temperament, allergy to the truth, and everything else we know about the man, I find it impossible to imagine that he can honestly answer any of those six questions in a way that will not incriminate him. (That is, if he is not surrounded by a battalion of lawyers machining his every word.) The operative word, of course, is “honestly”…. and again, given all we know about Trump, there is every reason to believe he will lie. But of course, if he does, in light of all the other evidence the Mueller team has amassed — including cooperating witnesses like Mike Flynn and possibly even wiretaps — he will have perjured himself. Ask Bill Clinton how that might pan out. It is indeed a “perjury trap” of sorts, as the cartoonish Roger Stone warned, but if so it’s a trap with an absurdly easy escape route built in: don’t fucking lie.
Mueller’s efforts may eventually bring Trump down; Donald and his people are certainly behaving in a hysterical manner that suggests that they are (correctly) terrified about that, which in itself is suspicious and suggests guilt. (See the antics of Devin Nunes, Sen. Ron Johnson, and Lou Dobbs, just for a start.) But as almost every sentient observer has noted, that downfall will depend not on facts — alternative or otherwise — but on the integrity of the Republican Party.
Hang on — I need to go brush my teeth because that line just made me throw up in my mouth.
IMMIGRANTS: WE GET THE JOB DONE
While we wait for Bob Mueller to save the republic, it’s worth exploring some of the deeper causes of this crisis, ones that even Trump’s demise — should it come — cannot rid us, much as we’d like to believe it could. To that end, please indulge me in a little thought experiment.
In 1885 Donald J. Trump’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from the town of Kallstadt, in what was then still the independent Kingdom of Bavaria. (His grandson’s dislike of immigrants presumably post-dates that.) The family name is in dispute. Last year John Oliver launched a campaign get everyone to refer to then-Candidate Trump by the Dickensian surname of Drumpf, which some allege was the original name before it got Anglicized into its current, more Runyonesque form.
Apart from entertainment value, the provenance is sort of irrelevant. A Trump by any other name would still stink just as bad.
But it’s interesting to ponder what young Donald’s future might have held had his ancestors not emigrated, and what kind of man he might have grown into had he been born 45 years earlier, at the turn of the century, rather than when he was, at the apex of its horrors, in the bloodiest year in all of recorded history, 1945.
In other words, at the risk of drifting even further into absurdism, what if Donald Trump had grown up in Nazi Germany?
THE MAN-CHILD IN THE HIGH CASTLE
First, a disclaimer.
As I’ve written before, Godwin’s Law is currently in abeyance. (There are many variations, but in essence Godwin’s Law contends that in any argument — especially online — a comparison to Hitler and the Nazis will eventually be made, and as a corollary, the person who first makes it automatically loses.) A bit like the embattled Goldwater Rule, Godwin’s Law is a useful brake on reckless rhetoric and sweeping, half-baked comparisons. But under certain circumstances both of those guidelines can be counter-productive, and even dangerous, by stopping people from acknowledging undeniable realities and urgent threats.
We are surely living in one of those times: an “in case of emergency break glass” situation in which comparisons to Nazism have never been more in order.
Let us imagine a Donald Trump born in Kallstadt in 1900. Bavaria, of course, was the deeply traditional and politically conservative part of Germany from which the Nazi Party sprung. Likely the youngster would have avoided service in the trenches of World War I with a quartet of student deferments and a fifth for mysterious bone spurs. After the war, his family’s fortune might well have insulated him from the privations of the Weimar years: no wheelbarrows full of worthless reichsmarks to buy a loaf of bread for der familie Drumpf! With the rise of the Nazis young Donald surely would have been among those in full-throated cheer of the hateful, divisive rhetoric of Herr Schickelgruber and his brownshirts. One can readily see him happily sieg heil-ing along at a rally right out of Riefenstahl. (Witness the thuggish tenor of Trump’s own campaign rallies.) Even without relocating his birthplace from Queens to Bavaria, it is easy to imagine Trump as part of the pro-Nazi sympathizers in the US led by Lindbergh, whose “America First” motto he has appropriated quite literally and with no discernible irony.
Hell, Trump’s personality profile reads like a eugenics recipe for a Nazi in the appendix to Mein Kampf. By all accounts, as a schoolboy he was a bully who had no real friends and beat up other kids. We see it in his innate playground instinct for the weakest and most vulnerable spots in his victims (think of Lil Marco, Lyin’ Ted, Crooked Hillary, or most recently, Sloppy Steve)….his fondness for violence, whether it’s the mob pummeling protesters at his rallies, cops manhandling suspects, or NFL linemen clotheslining running backs….his zeal for demonizing outsiders, especially foreigners and those with different skin tones…..his history of nonchalant anti-Semitism (resistant even to the incursion of Jews within his own family)…..his juvenile adoration of the military (without any sense of obligation to submit himself to its rigors) and arrogant presumption of his own mastery of the art of war (without any education or experience to justify it)…..his reactionary embrace of the simplest, crudest, and most primitive solutions to all problems, lack of empathy or any kind of normal human decency, pathological selfishness, greed, and hypocrisy, casual cruelty about almost everything……
I could go on.
In fact, one can hardly imagine a more perfect candidate to fall eagerly in line with the goose-step. It is criminally easy to picture Donald von Trump as a successful German industrialist circa 1938, with a swastika pin in the lapel of his business suit, enthusiastically supporting the Nuremburg Laws, gleefully applauding Kristallnacht, being photographed with party leaders at important functions, and — given his oft-rumored predilections — even slipping into private clubs to enjoy a little black leather BDSM with the notoriously decadent machers of the NDSAP. (Ick.)
When you look at how eager Trump is to engage in fascist-like behavior in the United States in 2017 — whether it’s his relentless attacks on a free press for which he has obvious and longstanding contempt; his vision of the DOJ as his private gestapo with which he has “the absolute right” to do as he pleases; his demands for pledges of personal loyalty from the heads of the FBI, CIA, and NSA; his repeated insistence that the Attorney General of the United States ought to behave like a Mafia consigliere for the White House; and, of course, his praise for the “very fine people” among the ranks of neo-Nazis — it’s not a stretch to imagine how enthusiastic an old school Nazi he would have been in 1939.
(Richard Cohen of the Post makes the comparison explicitly here.)
AUTOCRACY FOR BEGINNERS
It isn’t hard to grasp how Trump became the appalling human being that he is. He was a classic poor little rich boy who got no love from his emotionally icy daddy, who — in a toxic combination of contradictory signals — also drummed into him the notion that he was a “king.” As a result, Donny was inculcated with the ruthless lack of empathy that is on display every goddamned day. We can leave it to the psychiatrists and the philosophers to debate how culpable that leaves him, or any of us, for our failings in adulthood. For all we know (and notwithstanding the Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test), when Trump finally shuffles off this mortal coil and is autopsied, the pathologists will find a Charles Whitman-like tumor the size of a lacrosse ball pressing on his medulla oblongata.
None of which really makes any difference to the damage he is doing from the Oval Office that he unaccountably occupies and the Resolute Desk behind which he unaccountably sits.
Nor is it any surprise that Trump’s taste runs to the authoritarian. The other world leaders he most admires are anti-democratic would-be “strongmen” like Erdogan, Duterte, and of course his the fellow who most makes his heart go pitter-pat, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. His shameless pandering to the most base impulses of xenophobia, jingoism, and nationalism are all out of the Fascism 101 textbook, not to mention the sanctification of some mythical American past by way of fomenting the divisiveness and prejudice that serve him in the present. Writing in the The Washington Post, Michael Gerson puts it well:
Rivals are not only to be defeated; they should be imprisoned. Critics are not to be refuted; they should be fired. Investigations are not to be answered; they should be shut down. Trump’s defenders point to the absence of oppression as proof that these concerns are overblown. But protecting legal and political institutions from executive assault has been the constant vigil of the past year — as it will be for the next three. And we are depending on the strength of those institutions, not the self-restraint of the president, to safeguard democracy.
All these textbook authoritarian impulses are on display in Trump’s flagrant attempts to obstruct and derail the Russiagate investigation, from slandering his own FBI (and he certainly sees it as “his own”), launching spurious smear campaigns against Mueller and his team, and using the machinery of the presidency, his allies in Congress, Fox News, and the entire right wing media to try to undermine and discredit any legitimate investigation. The Washington Post reports: “Trump, appearing frustrated and at times angry, has complained to confidants and aides in recent weeks that he does not understand why he cannot simply give orders to ‘my guys’ at what he sometimes calls the ‘Trump Justice Department,’ two people familiar with the president’s comments said.”
(See New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait here on the GOP’s craven willingness to indulge and exploit Trump’s authoritarian streak. More on that in a bit.)
It goes without saying that Trump plainly does not understand that the president is not above the law, although that’s not really the source of the problem. Like a true sociopath, Trump only cares about what is good for Trump at ANY cost (stiffing hardworking Atlantic City contractors, throwing faithful allies under the proverbial bus, refusing the bolt to door to foreign monkeywrenching in our democracy even after it’s clear that our national security has been significantly breached). It has nothing to do with his (mis)understanding of constitutional law. Sitting the Very Stable Genius down and force-feeding him clips of Schoolhouse Rock and patiently explaining how the US government and rule of law work would not miraculously cause a lightbulb to materialize over his head and him to turn into a paragon of democratic virtue.
Trump is a snake whose only concern is the next mouse he can swallow.
ALTERNATIVE HISTORY AND ALTERNATIVE FACTS
So what is the point of re-stating all this, which is not news to anyone?
One might argue that this whole thought experiment is an unfair form of baroque speculation. It is true, of course, that there is no way for any of us to know who Donald Trump — or anyone — might have grown up to be had circumstances been different. It’s a pointless parlor game of “what if?”, the stuff of butterfly effect armchair philosophy or bad science fiction. And just to be clear, I’m not comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. Hitler at least could give a rousing speech (content notwithstanding). Trump, by contrast, can’t even form a complete sentence these days, communicating primarily by means of crude tweets that read like they came from a sociopathic fifth grader. But that is precisely what his Know-Nothing fans love.
But would anyone seriously argue that it’s more likely that a German-born and raised Donald Trump would have been a profile in courage, a bulwark of democracy during the darkness of the Nazi era? That he would have rejected the racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and general demagoguery of the Third Reich and stood with the White Rose at the risk of his own life?
Maybe he would have. Maybe some act of kindness by some primary schoolteacher could have changed the whole course of Donald Trump’s life. (One could speculate likewise about Adolf Hitler, while we’re abrogating Godwin’s Law.)
So I realize that this thought experiment is both unfair and imprecise. I am sure that Trump’s apologists would consider it a perfect example of liberal “hysteria,” scoffing at the whole notion that we ought to be on guard against incipient fascism in the US. (They were cool with portrayals of Obama as Hitler, though.) Oh no, we are told: it can’t happen here. I offer this thought experiment only to put in perspective the kind of man this pretender to the throne is, how we might consider viewing him, and the stakes of not fighting him with every fiber of our collective being. In the end only God will judge Donald Trump, and only God forgives.
The other and possibly more important purpose of this experiment is to ponder not what it reveals about Donald Trump, but what it says about the rest of us.
MEDICE, CURA TE IPSUM
Fast forward sixty-five years from the childhood of the bully I described in the previous section…..not the alternative history version who grew up in interwar Germany, but the actual one that grew up in Queens. That bully is now our president. What does that say about us a nation? Even accounting for Russian meddling, sixty some million Americans still saw fit to champion this ignorant cretin to be the leader of the Free World.
Volumes have been written about how the German people descended into madness. It’s become a cliché, but it remains true that at the turn of the 20th century and into the two decades that followed, Germany was arguably the most civilized nation in Europe. It was the land of Goethe, of Beethoven, of Gutenberg, of Wittgenstein. And it was far from the most anti-Semitic country in Europe (ne c’est pas, France?) There were many factors that contributed to that terrible fate — economics, the epochal trauma of the Great War, the stupidly vindictive Treaty of Versailles (see William Shirer for the full account) — but one thing is clear: it was not the result of some genetic abnormality unique to the German people. There was no lacrosse ball-sized tumor pressing on the collective Teutonic brain stem. Buffeted by the aforementioned factors and whipped up by a monstrous demagogue with a bad mustache, they fell prey to the worst impulses of human nature.
Can anyone plausibly say that the American people, subjected to similar conditions, would not go down the same black path? Current events do not provide much credence for that self-flattering view. Indeed, it is all too easy to imagine, for Trump’s rise has shown America at very near our worst.
In a grim assessment, Andrew Sullivan recently wrote:
(B)y far the most important development in all this, the single essential rampart, is how, through all this, Trump has tightened his grip on 35 percent of the country….. And this base support is unshakable. It is not susceptible to reason. No scandal, however great, will dislodge it — because he has invaded his followers’ minds and psyches as profoundly as he has the rest of ours. He is fused with them more deeply now, a single raging id, a force that helps us understand better how civilized countries can descend so quickly into barbarism. In a country led by a swirling void, all sorts of inhibitions slowly slip away. Nativism, racism, nationalism: these are very potent catalysts of human darkness.
A FISH STINKS FROM THE HEAD
Of course it goes well beyond the hoi polloi — the “poorly educated” whom Trump openly loves, and for obvious reasons — and the other damaged sociopaths of Breitbart Nation. This sickness is endemic within the right wing leadership in this country.
Forget Trump’s impulse toward fascism. Let’s talk about that of so-called “mainstream” Republicans, the ones who are keeping in power this man they know to be monstrously unfit and openly dangerous (as Fire and Fury plainly showed — perhaps the greatest public service Wolff’s book performed). The real problem is not that Trump is a Nazi, but that the GOP enables and protects him and allows him to behave in these terribly destructive ways for its own partisan gain. (Exhibit A, Your Honor: the tax heist.)
Incredibly, once-respected members of Congress are doing the fake president’s bidding. Witness the pathetic spectacle of Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) making a nonsensical recommendation that former MI6 officer Christopher Steele be prosecuted for the oppo dossier he compiled for Fusion GPS. Likewise, the GOP majority in Congress has shown suspiciously little enthusiasm (as in zero) for investigating a Russian attack on our sovereignty that the US Intelligence Community has compared to 9/11 in its strategic impact, yet they rush to re-open an ice cold inquiry into the Clinton Foundation? Are you effing kidding me?
Here is Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker May 2016, when Trump still looked like he was gonna get stomped on Election Day:
He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler — until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn’t so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.
The Republican Party’s willingness to abandon principle, integrity, and even the pretense of adherence to basic principles of democracy has shocked even those of us who long ago grew accustomed to shameful behavior from the erstwhile party of Lincoln (and Nixon, and Reagan, and Hoover). We have reached a point where no American citizen can remain a member of the Republican Party in its present form and still make any credible claim to genuine patriotism. The GOP is no longer even a political party in the conventional sense. Noam Chomsky memorably described it as having turned into a radical insurgency, but that was two years ago. It can no longer correctly be called “insurgency” when it holds all the reins of power.
If we survive the Trump era — and I don’t mean that figuratively — there will come a time when we will all have to answer for our actions or inactions therein. Did we do nothing more than wring our hands and gnash our teeth and complain about the craven complicity of the GOP leadership? Or did we stand up and force the issue? What will we say when our grandchildren ask, “What did you do to try to stop Trump, Grandma and Grandpa?”
Mock if you wish. I contend that this question is not hyperbole or alarmism. If you will tolerate one last violation of Godwin’s Law, lots of people in the Fatherland and elsewhere in Europe weren’t worried about that threat either, until it was too late.
The good news is, we’re not talking about the majority of Americans whom we must fight. As I have written many times in these pages, Trump’s troglodyte base is no more than 30% of the country. And Trump’s own human hand grenade style of “governance” has put once-solid GOP Senate seats in Arizona and Nevada (among others) in play in 2018, just as it cost McConnell a seat in Alabama last month and dealt the GOP a severe blow in Virginia in November. If, after all our gnashing of teeth, we can’t get it together enough to organize and out-vote these bastards, we deserve to be ruled by this insane clown president and his despicable followers. (Actively anti-democratic GOP efforts to suppress and rig the vote are a separate issue.)
To judge from the history of mankind, the impulse for authoritarianism (fascism, to call a shovel a shovel) is very resilient in human nature. Like hope, it seems to spring eternal, resurfacing every time we kid ourselves into thinking it has been permanently vanquished. Perhaps we should find a way to keep it alive in a lab somewhere, like smallpox, just so we can inoculate ourselves periodically as necessary.
Someone get on that please.
In keeping with the Teutonic theme of this essay, let us end with a few lines from Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Brecht of course lived through the rise of the Nazis before fleeing in 1933, soon after Hitler became chancellor. (Popularly elected, I hasten to remind.) The play is a very direct allegory about his rise, in which the Nazis are portrayed as a Chicago gangsters in the 1920s; Brecht wrote it (reportedly in just three weeks) from self-exile in Finland. It’s one of his lesser known works, rarely staged until recently, but much performed by theater companies all over the West in the past two years. It ends with the fall of Ui, the Hitler figure, but this warning:
Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the beast that bore him is in heat again.
Pretty smart guy, old Bert.
#MichaelWollf, #FireandFury, #RichardCohen, #AndrewSullivan, #AdamGopnik, #NoamChomsky, #AaronBlake, #JohnOliver, #BenjPasek, #JustinPaul, #MichaelGerson, #SinclairLewis, #JonathanChait, #AaronSorkin, #BertoltBrecht