I cannot vouch for the source, but Mark Twain is reputed to have once remarked “History doesn’t repeat, but it sometimes rhymes”. For reasons of both personal history and temperament, I have always found it difficult to be optimistic. But in the wake – an apt word, if ever there was one! – of the recent presidential election, I find it flatly impossible, and even trying to be such would grate on my sensibilities as an exercise in dishonesty. The most I can do at this point is to offer some perspective. But even this, modest as it is, may turn out to be considerably less than comforting and encouraging. For the precedent I am going to cite, the most relevant template, will be the final death throes of the Weimar Republic and the rise of fascism in Germany, as embodied in Adolf Hitler. And before your knee jerks and you cite Godwin’s Law, I will concede that, yes, Godwin's Law is indeed a serious cautionary critique of the tendency to cry "Wolf!" But in the same breath, please allow me to remind you of how that story ended: in the end, the wolf turned out to be real.
The following parallels should make any rational person nervous.
The Myth of the Stab in the Back
In the years following the declaration of the Armistice in 1918 and the official signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the belief metastasized that the Germany army was actually in the process of winning World War I – or at the very least, holding its own. The Kaiser’s forces, the argument went, would eventually have prevailed, but for a traitorous conspiracy of German industrialists, the financial elite – most especially Jews – who undertook to stab Germany in the back – the infamous DolchstoB in den Ruecken – that led to surrender on the battlefield and national humiliation at Versailles.
Very early in his presidential campaign, Donald Trump argued that the US had suffered the mercantile, monetary equivalent of the Weimar DolchstoB. “We [the US] never win anymore,” he argued, citing NAFTA as past precedent and the President’s advocacy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as a future part of that incipient “America last” tradition. At least implicitly and by inference, agreements like the Iran nuclear deal – and even fundamental alliances like NATO and defense pacts with, e.g., Japan and South Korea -- are instances of American naivete in the face of hard dealing by adversaries … and even by friends. I will not break a lance defending NAFTA or TPP. But the idea, which Trump has been careful to foster, that the defense of France, Germany, and Japan is exclusively an exercise in pure, uncompensated American altruism with no selfish admixture of defending American interests in Europe and northern Asia is in the tradition of the fascist depiction of one’s own nation as the perpetually cheated victim … rather like white individuals who always complain of “reverse racism”.
Playing the “victim card” is a reliable fascist rhetorical ploy. As this past election shows, it works surprisingly well.
Danger from Subversive Groups
With the fascists of the immediately post-Weimar era – actually, beginning in the early Middle Ages with the “Christ-killer” and “blood libel” myths – Jews were seen as commanding the financial and academic heights of European civilization to the exclusion of Gentile, specifically Aryan, people. Hence the Nuremberg Laws; hence the Star-of-David lapel patches.
With Trump, the 21st-century equivalent is Muslims. Not just jihadist sociopaths like the extremists who attacked London, Madrid, Paris, and the Hollenbeek area of Brussels, and who attacked the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on 9 / 11 … but Muslims per se, Muslims tout court. Hence “Muslim registration”; hence the proposed prohibition of Muslim immigration without regard to criminal record.
I hardly need to rehearse the history of the Austrian AnschluB of 1936 or the perfidious surrender of the Sudetenland, and eventually all of Czechoslovakia, by Daladier and Chamberlain in 1938 – eventuating in the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. And I will mercifully skip the rest of World War II, of which these events were only the earliest overtures.
To his credit – I say this with all due caution – Trump does seem rationally and prudently reluctant to engage in “nation building” – an activity he professed to revile in his recent meeting with the media elites in Trump Tower. But the reason I am so cautious is because I also remember his vow to “bomb the [….] out of ISIS,” and to resort to military force in retaliation for Iranian sailors giving the crew of American naval vessels in the Persian Gulf a middle-finger salute.
Contempt for “Imperfect People”
All the fascists of the 1930s had a perverse and perverted talent for warping the highest achievements of European culture. Mussolini could warp Roman history, politics, and culture for his purposes. Hitler would turn Franz Josef Haydn’s String Quartet No. 62 in C-Major, a heartbreakingly tender 1797 anthem in honor of the birthday of the Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, into a jackbooted celebration of Teutonic martial violence in Deutschland Ueber Alles (“Germany! Germany over all in the world!”), and even out-Nietzsche’d Nietzsche in the advocacy of racial purity.
Donald Trump feels similarly free to “rate” women by their anatomical characteristics – and to supplement that attitude with actual empirical research under women’s skirts and underwear. As for people born with physical limitations … everyone remembers his ridicule of a New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski, with a neurological condition. And at the recent convocation in Trump Tower, he admonished an editor of the New York Times for portraying him as too fat.
Disregard of Constitutional Government and Due Process
Hitler was at least brazenly honest in requiring the Bundestag to pass the Ermaechtigungsgesetz (the so-called “Enabling Act”) of 1933 whereby Hitler’s de facto status of absolute dictator was given a thin veneer of de jure parliamentary legitimacy.
Trump seems determined to achieve the same goal piecemeal. He is already on record as advocating the “open[ing] up” of libel laws to facilitate bringing suit against media outlets – specifically the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others – for daring to criticize his public statements and policies. Never mind that there is no national- / Federal-level libel statute. (In Trump’s America, we can all be thankful that New York Times v. Sullivan remains to free speech what the 14th and 15th Amendments were to black slaves, though how long it will remain such depends on the decisions of a future Supreme Court dominated by Trump appointees. Trump would be as glad to rid himself of Sullivan as conservative evangelical pro-life Christians would be to be rid of Roe and Casey.) Trump’s contempt for due process needs no more proof than his statement that section 1 of the 14th Amendment applies only to US citizens, though the language explicitly says “persons," with the sole exception of the "privileges or immunities" clause. (Similar remarks apply vis a vis the “due process” clause of the 5th Amendment, which likewise uses “person” language.)
Notwithstanding my contempt for Trump as a constitutional scholar, I would make bold to predict that he will demonstrate at least a rudimentary knowledge of the US Constitution in one especially critical way: at some point in his Presidency, he will seriously propose, perhaps through his spineless-wonder, tapioca-backboned gauleiters in Congress, the repeal of the 22nd Amendment limiting a President to two terms. Such a constitutional amendment may well be motivated by an overly inflated allegation of some 21st-century equivalent of the Reichstag fire of February, 1933, maybe a supposed plot -- by Muslims, of course -- to detonate a dirty bomb or a biological agent. No evidence? No problem! Least of all in a "post-factual" era when mere repetition, in conjunction with the "M-word," renders any statement self-authenticating. Remember: you read it here first!
'Way back in the Middle Cambrian, when it was still possible to disagree vehemently yet civilly, I remember an episode of William F. Buckley's urbane and sophisticated discussion / debate show Firing Line when Buckley's guest for the evening was Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, historian and one of the senior knights of the Kennedy Camelot. Schlesinger made a remark to Buckley that has stuck with me ever since. He said people born in and acculturated to life in a constitutionally governed, latitudinarian, "rights-centric" republic very often have a hard time believing that the authoritarian-and-demagogue-du jour actually means precisely what he or she says. So Hitler becomes in their minds a mere frustrated artist; Mussolini, a mere buffoon; Trump, a mere windbag. Like Daladier and Chamberlain, they believe the hungry wolf at the door is actually an overgrown, playful puppy. Like Daladier and Chamberlain, they believe the wolf is a wolf only when it is too late.
So ... if you call me a rank pessimist, I will not object. I will claim the title proudly. You see, I agree with Prof. Schlesinger: I still believe in wolves.
James R. Cowles
Fascism quote ... Robert F. Whitlock ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic