If it Looks Like a Duck: Appeasement in America

Franny and I are sipping our morning coffee, reading the Sunday NY Times, pleased as always with our little ritual.  About a half hour into it, however, I come upon Lynne Olson’s review of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. Olson notes the “uncomfortable parallels” between this moment in U.S. history and the tumultuous 1930’s in Europe, calling the book “valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom…” As has become all too frequent these days, the news disrupts the morning’s calm.

With Prime Minister Chamberlain in the lead, Britain tried to avoid war at all costs.  He resisted activities that would tax her “Depression-afflicted economy” or expand her military, so necessary in protecting her increasingly vulnerable empire.  So Chamberlain, a former businessman, convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, “he could convince the Fuhrer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.”  We know how that worked out.

Though the analogy is surely a stretch and the danger not so great, I believe that we may find ourselves in a similar predicament if we fail to bring Donald Trump to heel–and soon.  Key American leaders in the Republican Party enable his anti-democratic campaign.  Many in the Democratic Party promote patience and decorum, acting as though there’s plenty of time to halt the progress of autocracy.  I think we need to act with a greater sense of urgency.  In that sense, those who “slow-walk” the opposition to our president, may, in the light of history, turn out to have been appeasers.

Let’s begin with the signs, and the increasing pace, of Trump’s assault on American democracy.   We have:

  • The assault on the free press
  • The weakening of Congress (or the House of Representatives), by bypassing the Senate’s ability to screen Cabinet Secretaries—they are now almost all “Acting Secretaries,” subject only to Trump’s direction; running roughshod over the House’s oversight capability by blocking and ignoring subpoenas; utilizing “executive privilege” and “executive orders” whenever Congress disagrees.
  • Hijacking of the Department of Justice, bending it to meet the personal needs of the President, thus building a protective shield for the president: through massive numbers of judicial appointments; by destroying, with Barr’s help, the independence of the Department of Justice; through the use of suits to delay and destroy efforts to convict the President.
  • Neutralizing the FBI and the CIA, by bypassing them and impugning their motives and patriotism, just as Hitler did, by criticizing and bypassing his intelligence agencies, and, more sinisterly, by “investigating” them when they threaten Trump’s rule.
  • The threat to extend his term past the date that it is officially completed;
  • Casting his lot, internationally, with other autocrats;
  • Bullying members of his own party with threats, mockery, and accusations;
  • Fueling racial divisions and animosity among white Americans, and assaults on refugees and immigrants, eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

This centralization of executive power does not seem to bother enough American citizens. Increasingly, the pollsters and the pundits tell us that Trump’s chances of election—with the help of the anti-democratic process represented by the Electoral College—continue to rise.

The enablement of Trump’s growing power is clearly visible.  Mitch McConnell has been the leader, not allowing discussion of legislation or criticism of the President to even reach the Senate floor.  William Barr, the new Attorney General, has joined McConnell with a passion, distorting the Mueller Report, and serving as Trump’s defense lawyer to thwart efforts to curtail executive power.

Of course, McConnell and Barr have had plenty of support, extending far beyond the Freedom Caucus and the Evangelical right, who will support Trump even when he violates their most sacred tenets.  Think of the 2016 presidential candidates, like Rubio, Cruz, and, above all, Lindsey Graham, who Trump demeaned mercilessly.  At first they saw the evil he could do and condemned him.  Now they are like lap dogs, supporting any agenda he has, even when it waffles back and forth.  Think of all the Republicans who were supposedly shocked and dismayed by Trump’s behavior towards women yet now keep their mild criticism “anonymous,” publicly supporting him down the line.

The case for appeasement is a little harder to make but I believe it is coming into focus.  Let’s start with Robert Mueller, who is neither a politician nor a Democrat, but, a man  with great stores of public and political capital.  I’m writing this essay the day before he is to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.  So much has ridden on his reputation for prosecutorial acumen, courage, and integrity.  Every legal pundit who appears on TV bows low to him.  A man of unchallengeable integrity.  A marine.  A man who will speak truth to power.  The operational words here are “unquestioned” and “unchallengeable.”  Those attitudes have insulated him from the criticism I think he deserves.

Given what we know of his somewhat puritanical attitudes, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller doesn’t deplore Trump’s crass and lawless behavior.  The pundits have that right.  But Mueller’s inability to move beyond the narrowest interpretation of rules is, in my mind, both cowardly and selfish.  He is operating “by-the-book” at the expense of his country’s welfare.  He holds himself to standards that the more powerful Trump does not, and that discrepancy does not seem to influence Mueller’s decisions.  He fails to see or, at least, to act on moral principles that transcend narrow legal interpretation or the letter of the law.  In that sense he is no patriot.  His limited view has turned him into a coward.  And, almost as importantly, the CNN and MSNBC legal commentators who have failed to call him out, seem to me cowardly (or at least blind) as well.  Together, they are the appeasers.

I regret to say that I have begun to see Nancy Pelosi as an appeaser. Unlike Neville Chamberlain, who shared some of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Pelosi shares none of Trump’s deplorable values.  And I have long admired her political acumen – her ability to martial Democratic votes for progressive causes.  But I have begun to wonder if, as the top Democrat in the nation—not just in the House—if she is up to today’s challenge.

Her basic strategy of holding the fort until we can vote Trump out in 2020 has a logic to it, and the majority of Americans may agree with her.  Along with a majority of Democratic lawmakers, she believes that she doesn’t have the votes for impeachment—and that a defeat of the Impeachment process would unleash a backlash against the Democratic Partly. Maybe that’s true.  But as we know from the way that Republicans turned on Nixon once the impeachment process began, judging the future by the present may prove a fear-based and overly conservative way to think.  Maybe Pelosi needs to take a risk.

Here’s what I most fear:  That Nancy Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Chuck Schumer, may be underestimating the momentum and therefore, underestimating the danger of Trump’s grab for power.  As Chamberlain hoped that he could wait Hitler out, I fear that Pelosi believes that she can wait Trump out.  In other words, Pelosi may be yielding to fear and failing to take the bolder course.  I see this position as appeasement – certainly not in intent, but, perhaps, in effect.

I don’t include the House Committee Chairs—Adam Schiff, Gerald Nadler, Elijah Cummings, and Richard Neal—in my analysis.  You can feel their pain about being held in check.  It’s clear they would move to impeachment if given the freedom to do so.

Finally, I’d ask: Where is our Churchill? Where is the person who is willing to risk it all to overthrow a tyrant before it is too late?

 

 

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Preparing for Fascism

Do me a favor: convince me that I’m being an alarmist?

During an interview about his book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale Professor, Jason Stanley, was asked if the American government was fascist.  “I would never say it in an interview,” he responded.  “It would be too dangerous.  In other words, by the time the people in power have instituted fascism, it’s too late to call it that.”

But the time may be near.  Ironically, it is during periods of uncertainty—not knowing, for instance, if a hurricane will really strike, whether an authoritarian leader will execute a coup—that it is hardest to know what to do.  It is tempting to deny the potential calamity.  Those who insist it is coming look like alarmists.  Sometimes, though, the “threat” is transformed into a reality before we know it, before we stop calling it a threat.  We who have watched environmental degradation called a threat long after it is wreaking actual damage know this danger all too well.

On October of 2016, John McNeil of the Washington Post asked “How Fascist is Donald Trump?”  Then he identified 11 characteristics of Fascism to help us judge whether the danger is imminent or distant.  They are: hyper-nationalism; militarism; glorification of violence and readiness to use it in politics; fetishization of youth; fetishization of masculinity; a “leader cult”; a “lost Golden Age” syndrome; self-definition by opposition;mass mobilization and mass party; a hierarchical party structure, which purges the disloyal; and theatricality. Most of these qualities are resonant in President Trump’s rhetoric and actions.

Let me add a few observations.  Trump has persistently, fervently, tried to weaken the checks and balances that are supposed to limit (democratic) presidential power. For instance, he attacks the press.  He now has an embarrassing degree of control over the Republican  Congress.  And, if Brett Kavanaugh, who believes in the immunity of the President from criminal prosecution, becomes a Supreme Court judge, then Trump will further insulate himself from the balance of power the founding fathers specifically erected against tyranny.

The international context further strengthens the possibility of authoritarian rule in the United States by making strong-man rule increasingly normative.  We need only think of Poland, Hungary, and Russia.  Or turn our thoughts to increasingly powerful right wing movements in France, Germany, England, and even Sweden.  Where are the bulwarks against the fall of democracy?

In a New Yorker review of Madeleine Albright’s new book, warning about the potential for fascism, Robin Wright noted this: On a Sunday morning in 2016, Donald Trump retweeted a quote from Benito Mussolini, the Italian Fascist dictator: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” Asked if he worried about his association with Mussolini’s thinking, Trump was casually unbothered.

We have been warned about the possibility of Fascism by credible sources.  And we may be standing on a precipice, easily tumbled by national crises—like the Reichstag fire that provided Hitler with an excuse to consolidate power, like a little war in Iran, that might “require” even more centralized power in the United States, or like a natural weather disaster that “demands” a larger than usual contingent of the national guard.  These are the kind of events that could plunge us over the line and into a fascist abyss.

Even if the risk is 10%, don’t we have to take it literally, not as some metaphor used to criticize an dangerous presidency?  In other words, if we take seriously the warnings, if we allow ourselves to think the unthinkable, if we believe that Fascism is a real, perhaps imminent possibility, what should we do?

At the least, we must exhaust all democratic options and, in particular, work to turn the House of Representatives now, then state legislatures over the next few election cycles, thus ending the gerrymandering that has allowed Republicans to win political dominance, even as minority party.

But, with the possible exception of turning the House this November, these are long-term solutions.  What if we at least hypothesize that the crisis is imminent.  How can we avoid the “pale cast of thought,” the paralysis that empowered the fascists in Germany, Italy, and Spain, during the last century, and the authoritarian regimes—Russia, Poland, and Hungary, among them—in this century?

If we had already become an authoritarian state, I don’t think that we would have qualms about forming a resistance movement.  Oddly enough, the moral choices grow easier as the enemy grows clearer.

I do appreciate that it is daunting to move from the idea of threat to its realization.   None of us want to consider this until it is absolutely necessary.  It would take a kind of courage that most of us have not been called upon to demonstrate.  We might admire the French Resistance.  We might romanticize the Republican struggle against Franco. We might wish that the Germans and Italians had begun to fight earlier.  But what about us?

I don’t feel very brave and I don’t know what to do.  But I am frightened.  So I am writing this essay to pose the question more strongly than I see it presented in the national mainstream media.  Even progressive venues such as The Daily Beast, Salon, and Politico have been reluctant to name the fascist threat as more than a threat.  To me, that is like saying that environmental degradation threatens our future when we know that it already produced undeniable consequences.

At the very least, we must begin to talk with one another and, possibly, to do so in an organized way.  We can ask what we should do “if.”  We can begin to plan for contingencies.  As Jason Stanley warns, there may come a time when we cannot have these conversations out in the open.  Now we can.

 

Fascism and Us: What Makes for a Credible Threat, and Are We There Yet?

When I first traveled in Europe in 1963, I kept my distance from Germany.  The very hint of the German language when we neared its borders frightened and repulsed me.  The Holocaust was still fresh in mind.

Last week, Franny and I spent a few days in Berlin.  Time has created distance, softened my feelings, allayed my fears.  Decades of German liberalism and cultural tolerance have attracted me.  The brass Stumble Stones (Solpersteines) in front of countless homes, each identifying the Jewish resident who lived there before being murdered in the Holocaust, speak to a deep reckoning among the German people.  Angela Merkel’s embrace of refugees has had me cheering.  Her attempt to stand firm against Trump’s abuses, though it might cost her her leadership position, has been admirable.  In those stark old terms, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

For the most part, we were not disappointed.  Berlin seems like open, optimistic city.  More like Paris than London, where we had just spent a week, with tree-lined avenues and thousands upon thousands of cafes line the streets, peopled by laughing and eagerly engaged young people.

But this may be what it appeared to Jews like me in the 1920’s and very early 1930’s, even as Nazis and Communists competed to overturn the Weimar Republic.  During that period, Berlin was bursting with a fierce and open discourse on the future of human society.

Then it happened.  Quickly, decisively and disastrously, Hitler and the Nazis were elected to power.  Remember that notion: they were elected. The liberals portrayed him as a thug, a buffoon, a liar and prophesied that he would soon be out of office.  They protected themselves with gallows humor.  They ‘knew’ that his rise represented an aberration in German society, when a minority outmaneuvered the majority.  Almost no one anticipated the use of the Reichstag Fire (the burning of the German Parliament) to serve as a national emergency that required the “temporary” creation of authoritarian rule.  But the ruse worked and the Nazis were instantly, and then inexorably, entrenched.

For decades after the defeat of Nazism in World War II, historians and social analysts searched for explanations for Hitler’s ascendance.  They argued that it grew directly out of German culture, with its myths of Aryan superiority.  They described the “authoritarian personality” that made the majority of Germans so responsive to Hitler’s call.  They noted how suffering during the Great Depression amplified the need for a savior.  In short, Nazism was portrayed as the inevitable outcome of cultural and economic forces.

But with the years, historians have come to see that the Nazi outcome was not inevitable.  The conditions were ripe, but people and decisions brought it to fruition.

When the Nazis first took power, people said that Hitler’s reign wouldn’t last, that the German people would come to their senses and the problems would pass.  This was the view of the Weimar liberals who had governed during the 1920’s; and it was the view of many Jews, who didn’t or, for lack of means, couldn’t, emigrate.  They missed the signs.  They simply couldn’t believe the Nazi menace would prove so cataclysmic.

This week, David Leonhardt, a New York Times journalist whom I admire, wrote that “this is not the time to despair or to panic.”  It is time to work as hard as we can, largely at the grassroots level, to build opposition to Trump and the hard right Republicans who protect him because they are convinced that he is useful in protecting their interests.

Normally, I would be in Leonhardt’s camp.  I have carried on a lifelong love affair with America and its Progressive traditions.  Over the years, though, I have grown more cautious, more skeptical about the untrammeled “power of the people,” more appreciative of the small “c” conservative checks and balances built into the Constitution and the trenchant dictates of our Bill of Rights. Still a patriot on my terms, I have become less of a romantic and more of a realistic democrat.

Where once the belief that the fundamental generosity of the human heart would lead to eternal progress, in which social and economic justice and equality would prevail, my eyes have now opened to the evil that men do.  I see the tendency to draw into tribes when we are threatened or simply feel threatened, then attack the “other” before the other attacks us.  I can’t help but see the almost explosive growth of nativism and outright racism in the United States and around the world.  And the nativists have formed into powerful groups, fueled, as Nazism was in Germany, by wealthy men, who thought it would serve their interests—and that they could control its excesses. These movements frighten me.

About a year ago, I wrote a couple of essays describing the parallels between Donald Trump and other fascist and authoritarian leaders.  I worried that fascism had grown too close.  Mostly the responses to these essays were tepid and slightly disapproving.  People thought me pessimistic, alarmist.  They thought my tone was too shrill.  The more psychologically minded wondered if I was just depressed.

I am sad to say that my fears have only grown. Trump and his Republican enablers have been systematically removing the constraints on his power.  With a second Supreme Court nominee, it is almost certain that the Court would deny challenges to his power.  With the disenfranchisement of the Mueller investigation, the challenge to Trump’s legitimacy is vanishing.  With the expansion of Executive Power, a century-long trend, the President can do more and more by fiat, claiming that he is the only one who knows the “will of the people.”  With our tendency to cover Executive Action of all sorts—from trade to immigration policy—under the veil of national security, the President is freer to dictate national policy.  As he does, Congress stands mute and impotent.  Finally, Trump has seemingly joined forces with Russia and against our European allies, which looks a little like the Nonaggression Pact that Hitler formed with Stalin prior to the second World War.

Despite the outrage of much of our press and of, I imagine, the disapproval of the majority of American citizens, Donald Trump seems to be moving almost ineluctably towards dictatorship.

Judge for yourselves.  Here is a definition of fascism: “…a form of radical authoritarian ultra-nationalism, characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and control of industry and commerce…”  Does that not sound at least a little familiar? If Trump were to successfully muzzle the press, might this be possible?  Does Trump’s embrace of Putin, Erdogan in Turkey, Duerte in the Philippines, Kim in North Korea, Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland, Assad in Syria, and other dictators around the world at least suggest that this is his ideal?

The accusation that we have hurled at pre-Nazi, “regular” Germans is that they missed the signs, that they never took Hitler seriously enough.  They didn’t fight hard enough or flee fast enough.  They couldn’t see how an elected leader could become a dictator.  How about us?

Could we have a Reichstag Fire of our own, a “national emergency” that “justifies” the consolidation of power in the hands of a narcissistic, power-hungry maniac?  Could he arrange a little war in Korea, Syria, or anyplace that demands greater executive strength—the quality he so admires in Putin?  How about an attack like the one in 2001?  By weakening our intelligence community, isn’t Trump making this more likely?   Might a few major hurricanes or wildfires provide an excuse?  There are so many potential crises that would do well enough as pretext to a “temporary” dictatorship.

Unlike Germany, the United States has not reckoned with it terrible past, with the enslavement, then oppression of Africans and African Americans, and with the virtual decimation of Native American nations.  We have been insufficiently reflective about our own culture, which may make us less able to deal with our current crisis.

Am I being alarmist here?  Maybe. But isn’t it worth sounding the alarm?  Shouldn’t we take more seriously this trend towards fascism? Shouldn’t we say that blinking light signaling a credible fascist threat has moved from yellow to red?.  And, if it has, what should we do?

Reclaiming Patriotism

A couple of weeks ago, my nephew, Noah, swam with his Amherst team in a meet at MIT.  Just before the swimming began, they played the national anthem.  We all rose to sing.  While most of us could hardly be heard, my seven year old grandson sang with gusto and great sincerity.  It felt like an old fashioned patriotism, the kind I had been raised in; and I couldn’t restrain myself from holding him to me.

It has been a long time since people like me, progressives, could claim the patriotic mantle.  During the sixties, we rejected the America that could rain napalm on the Vietnamese and club the people who marched on Selma to gain their American rights.  We still believed that we were the true patriots, true to American ideals, but Republicans seized on the criticism as disloyalty.  Since that time—about fifty years, now, the Republicans have laid claim to patriotism.  But I believe deeply in America and its ideals.  So do my friends and my Progressive cohort.  It’s time that we reclaimed the patriotic mantle.

The current era is fraught with apocalyptic imagery.  The Alt Right prophesizes the ‘end of days,’ brought on by the weakness and decadence of  Western democracies.  Progressives see the nearness of authoritarian, even totalitarian government, brought on by the gradual destruction of democratic institutions and by the greed of the One Percent.  Alternatively, progressives see the coming of international chaos, precipitated by a narcissistic child-president who can’t control his impulses.

The imagery brings to mind the flood that destroyed the ancient world.  According to the Sumerian Gilgamesh myth, the Book of Genesis in the Jewish Bible, the Koran, and the texts of other religious traditions, God punishes his people when they abandon his teachings and turn to evil ways.  At first, God sends his prophets to warn the people—and I am sure that many contemporary commentators consider themselves to be, in essence, modern-day prophets.  When the people fail or refuse to listen, then God abandons small measures, modest reforms, and, instead, destroys the world as it is known.  It seems that God has decided that his original plans for humankind were failures.  Best to begin anew.

Throughout history many apocalyptic thinkers, Steven Bannon among them, have argued that destruction must precede new beginnings.  To prepare for the flood, God instructs Noah to build an Ark and to populate it with the very diverse seeds of a new beginning.  The instruction explicitly calls for diversity—many animals, two by two—and not a single species.  Not horses alone.  Not lions or sheep alone.  Not White Anglo Saxon Protestants or Northern Europeans alone.  There is no divine plan for a master race.

Having arrived at such a consequential moment in the twenty-first century, we might wonder how to populate the American Ark.  With diversity, of course.  Biologists tell us that the health of living creatures depends on bio-diversity.  American history tells us that the mix of immigrants groups – one after another – has strengthened our country immeasurably.  It is this DNA that has made the culture and economy of our nation so robust.

But, just as Noah was meant to rebuild a world to reflect God’s values, I think that the most important cargo that the modern Ark can carry is our democratic traditions.  By that I mean our ideals and objectives—and the tradition of striving towards those ideals even more than any particular articulation of those ideals in policy or law.  I like the way that Langston Hughes expresses a similar thought:

O, let America be America again—The land that never has been yet—And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

Much as the ancient gods demanded that their people live to the ideals they had set down—the covenant between God and man—so we must demand that Americans strive to fulfill the covenant of justice, equality, and opportunity that form the foundation of our nation.   Progressives, not twentieth century Republicans, are the true carriers of American patriotism.  Here I include Jeffersonian and Lincoln Republicans, who, by any current assessment would be considered Democratic Progressives.  I mean Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party and FDR’s New Deal Democrats, Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and the better angels of more recent Democrats.  All of them understood their mission to be the realization of the American dream.

Much as they may wave the flag, twenty and twenty-first century Republicans vote against the expanded rights of American citizens.  They support tax and other economic systems that favor the wealthy and limit the ability of working people to collectively fight for their rights through unions. Republicans have stood steadily against affordable and universal health care, against the implementation of a “one person, one vote” principle, and against spending for greater educational opportunity in poor communities.

Republican patriotism has generally focused on (costly) military defense: keeping us safe against Communists, Muslims, Asians, and others who are different.  We see this in Nixon’s defense spending and Red-baiting, in Reagan’s Star Wars system, in the manufactured Iraqi war of the Bush-Cheney presidency, and in Trump’s belief that the USA must win at the expense of the rest of the world.  All of these presidents were willing to sacrifice our internal goals of justice and opportunity on the alter of  protectionism and military dominance.

For almost a century now, Republicans have conflated patriotism with nationalism.  They do not feel a sense of belonging in a multi-cultural society.  At heart, they are nationalists, not patriots.  Nationalism emphasizes the state and what both Hitler and generations of Russian Czars  might call the “volk,” an almost mystical invocation of a single ethnic group.  It is this invocation that lays just below the surface of the current—and traditional—nativism that has often pervaded Republican politics.  Trump and Bannon, like Putin, Hitler, and Mussolini, are nationalists.  They could care less about democracy.  In fact, where democracy or any other set of values conflicts with their nationalistic ideals and goals, it must be sacrificed.

To the extent that Trump is interested in ideas, he seems to feed from the Steve Bannon trough.  It turns out that Bannon’s philosophical foundations begin with men Baron Guilio Evola, the Italian philosopher who preferred Nazism to Italian Fascism, which he thought too tame.  As we know, Nazism fetishized the great Nordic race, that tall, solid, blond “volk” and  contrasting it with the Jewish “race.”  This may be an extreme comparison, but it’s not too big a stretch to see its parallel in Trump and Bannon’s nativist scapegoating of Muslims and Mexicans.   The Trump-Bannon ideology is the antithesis, the perversion, of the patriotic ideal in  America.  If realized, it will be the Flood—not a response to the Flood but the Flood, itself.

Through American history, Progressives have carried the banner and the burden of America’s patriotic ideals.  Since the turn of the twentieth century, Progressives have introduced legislation to optimize voting rights for all citizens, including women, African Americans, and other people of color. They have fought for gay and lesbian rights, the rights of the disabled, the rights of all to find good jobs that pay living wages, the right to organize against the might of corporations, and the rights of immigrants to both take advantage of our largesse and to enrich our nation.  This dedication to seeking the greatest good for the greatest number is what I consider the blood and guts of American patriotism.

The Progressive tradition is not so much attached to any specific way to frame these rights.  Conditions keep changing, generation to generation, and laws have to adapt with those changes.  Unlike the Scalia-led Originalists, who seem to think that the founders had formulated one set of ideas for all time and for all people, the Progressive tradition is built on the idea of adaptation to social and economic conditions and to the advances of science.

The American Ark is built on the tradition of democratic ideals, built for a diverse and evolving people.  Our sense of belonging is not so much to abstract ideas of constitutionality or to a single ethnic group or to military strength.  Rather, we come together to struggle, year after year, towards the practice, not just the idea, but the practice of justice for all.

When Bullies Become Tyrants

Ever since the he  swept into view last year, I have known the bully in Trump.  Only gradually have I realized how central it is to his persona and to his success.   I didn’t want to know that bullying could be so effective.

I’ve always hated bullying but haven’t fully credited its potential for power.  I’m an Alpha male myself, and always figured I could show up any bully who came my way.  I haven’t suffered the pain and indignities that women and my gentler friends have at the hands of such internally weak and injured buffoons.  For the most part, I haven’t suffered the tyranny that comes when bullies achieve institutional power.

That’s not entirely true.  I was a boy during the McCarthy period.  The FBI would occasionally come to the door of our apartment in the Bronx, asking after my father, who was always at work.  It was day time, after all.  In retrospect, I can see the visits as harassment, indirect bullying.  At the time, I was only mildly afraid.  Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover liked that, no doubt.  They wanted to create an air of anxiety in our culture, and they succeeded.

Now I see that there is no Trump without bullying. It is at the core of his “leadership.” His method is clear:  He enters the scene, any scene, with an air of implied threat, and feigned welcome.  He begins conversation with a criticism or an insult.  When he doesn’t get his way, he pushes.  When pushing fails, he manipulates.  When manipulation fails, he insults.  If the insults aren’t strong enough, he ups the ante through hyperbole and scandalous lies.  He is relentless.  He won’t stop until he has won…until he has backed people down, frightened them, worn them out, hurt them.

Trump fits well within our understanding of bullies.  Here are a couple of definitions that do him credit:  First: “Bullying is a distinctive pattern of harming and humiliating others, specifically those who are in some way smaller, weaker, younger or in any way more vulnerable than the bully.” Second: “…bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behavior characterized by the following three minimum criteria: (1) hostile intent, (2) imbalance of power, and (3) repetition over a period of time.[11] Bullying may thus be defined as the activity of repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another individual, physically, mentally or emotionally.”

Trump is not the first bully to gain political advantage.  His is a company of thousands, including McCarthy, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Stalin, and other dictators.  Dictators are bullies by definition.  They almost always gain power by bullying, though the centrality of bullying is not always obvious to followers at first.

Here’s the tyrant’s profile, written long before the current president-elect came to power.  You decide who it calls to mind.  First:

  • Continual claims for attention and admiration
  • Cold and uncaring behavior toward others
  • Other people are seen only as an extension of the self to be manipulated and/or eliminated as needed; an inability to relate to people as people or separate from oneself
  • Inflated/exaggerated sense of self-importance.

You may object to my grouping Trump with tyrants.  So far he only has the potential to join the club, but he does have that potential.  The likelihood of potential turning into reality most likely depends on the conditions in the larger culture.  Following World War II, social scientists labored endlessly to identify the conditions that readied German for Hitler.  They focused on the anguish and anger of the nation following the humiliating peace treaty for World War I,  the country’s social dislocation and economic depression, the availability of ready made scapegoats, and the tendency towards  “authoritarian personalities” among the populous. These are people ready to surrender their own power in favor of a strongman, who could tell them what to do.  Many Trump supporters fit that same profile.  They did not vote for his policies—what policies?  They voted mostly for the promise of a fix, the highlighting of a bogeyman (immigrants) and the promise that he alone could make things right.

You might ask: why am I writing this essay when we already disapprove of Trump’s approach to leadership?  The reason is simple: I want to put words to what we all know.  I want to say it out loud.  I want to be clear about the direction the Trump bullying might take.  Bullying women is one thing.  Slanderous reactions to John Lewis and his terrible Congressional district (he means the Black areas of Atlanta) is another.  Bullying the press takes it a step further. . Imposing private security teams with the potential to be small armies take the trend too far. And trying to bully other countries, those who cannot and those who might retaliate, may speak mainly to the grandiosity that often goes with the bully.

You might say that people like Trump are “just” bullies, not tyrants, and it’s not fair to place Trump in their ranks.  But don’t forget that these tyrants didn’t begin that way.  Hitler, for example, portrayed himself as a “little man,” much aggrieved and neglected.  Mao, Fidel, even Hugo Chavez were said to be men of the people.  Dictatorships that don’t begin in coups, begin as populist rebellions that draw on the people’s yearning for change.  These populist leaders, once they have gained institutional position, turn rapidly into dictators.

Their initial campaigns seek out enemies—often an oppressed ethnic group, like the Jewish people, or a callous elite, like the money-lenders (read financiers or read Shylock).  Often enough, they are elected to office.  Then the transformation from democratic to dictatorial leadership happens quickly and decisively.  Here is how “leaders” move from bullying to tyranny:

Control of public information and opinion Use of the law for competition suppression
Vote fraud used to prevent the election of reformers Creation of a class of officials who are above the law
Undue official influence on trials and juries Subversion of internal checks and balances
Usurpation of undelegated powers Conversion of rights into privileges
Seeking a government monopoly on the capability and use of armed force Increasing public ignorance of their civic duties and reluctance to perform them
Militarization of law enforcement Political correctness
Infiltration and subversion of citizen groups that could be forces for reform Increasing dependency of the people on government
Suppression of investigators and whistle blowers Use of staged events to produce popular support

I could go into much greater detail about the transition from bullying populists to outright dictatorship, but I hope you’ve got the general idea.

The next and probably more important subject is: what to do.  That will take some deep thinking and concerted action.  Remember, bullies and tyrants do not yield to reason, to compassion, to ethical standards.  In other words, they do not respond to the most cherished tools that are used by a non-violent opposition.   For them, it is not just power itself, the ability to achieve what you want.  It is the power over others.  The pleasure, the thrill is in humbling enemies and doubters; it is the thrill of domination.  What’s more, wielding power distracts bullies from personal insecurities, minimizing what can  otherwise be incapacitating anxiety for bullies.

We know that it’s important to stand up to bullies.  We have a thousand small, often personal, examples of standing strong.  Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Walsh, who helped to dislodge Joe McCarthy from his perch, are shining examples of this approach.  They are heroes.  But it will take more than the courageous acts of individuals to keep Trump from tyranny.  It will take organized opposition.  Thank goodness, the opposition has begun.

Democracy: “A device that ensures people will be governed no better than they deserve.”

How many articles have you read insisting that we don’t really understand the poor, disenfranchised White people who voted for Donald Trump.  According to their protectors, the White guys have lost and have been belittled so much that their rage and resentment follow almost inevitably.  The primary enemy?  Not the super rich, who this angry, misogynistic cohort actually aspires to be, but the eastern elite: the professionals, the intellectuals, the more modestly rich.  That huge voting block located in Cambridge, New Haven, and New York.  Well, maybe the enemy includes people of color, because, as Arlie Hochschild records, these jonny-come-lately Americans have cut in line, taking a place in American society that they don’t deserve.

During the campaign, Trump promised his aroused base anything they might desire, whether he believed in it or not.  Long ago, H.L. Mencken advised described the Trump strategy: “If a politician found that he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”  It wasn’t that Trump conducted surveys to discover what the people needed or wanted.  The process may have been in reverse.  It was the people “Choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what you think it is you want to hear.”  He certainly fed them the red meat of anger, and they were buying.

And by the way, the working White guys had some help in their march to victory.  How about all those Black and Latino people who couldn’t be bothered to vote, who would rather join the whining class, claiming that voting won’t help, that the establishment isn’t interested in them, that their lives have no value to the establishment.  Never mind that people of color are rapidly becoming the majority, which could lead to their being the establishment, if only they would organize well enough. What about all those millennials who also whine: it’s just so much harder for us than for other generations.

You have to wonder if the great majority, the people, even want to govern themselves.  I wonder whether the “elite” has grown a little sentimental and unrealistic about the capacity of the majority to govern.  Again, let’s listen to Mencken: democracy, he says, stems from  “A recurrent yet incorrect suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.”  But the most damning skeptic is Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

It seems to me that we mouth our belief in democracy without thinking too much about what it means.  Even those—and there are many—who concede that it is a flawed system but the best we have and the best hedge against tyranny.  There have always been doubters, beginning with the Founding Fathers, who did whatever they could to limit the potential damage of untrammeled democracy.  They created balances of power.  They created the Electoral College.  And they created powerful voter restrictions—no women of Blacks need apply.  In the eyes of the Founding Fathers, there was always the threat of mob rule and the need to protect against it.

Let’s face it, democratic institutions have not always provided a barrier against either tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of dictators.  Didn’t the French Revolution lead to The Terror?  Weren’t Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini elected to their positions?  Hasn’t Donald Trump been elected?  And don’t many of us believe that, with the help of an angry citizenry, he may well move our government in an authoritarian direction? Considering his attachment to his hotels, golf courses, neckties, and military men, we may become the largest banana republic the world has ever seen.

Again Mencken enhances our understanding when he says that democracy is “Election by the incompetent many for the appointment by the corrupt few.”  I wonder if the Trump base will even raise an eyebrow to the many ways that Trump financial empire benefits from their newfound power.

Mencken tells us that “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”  It seems that Prince Donald’s proposed Cabinet of Deplorables portends just that.  Just look at this group:

  • Ben Carson, who thinks that public housing is a Communist plot, will try to dismantle as much affordable housing and neighborhood diversity as he can.
  • Betsy DeVos will do her best to destroy the very educational system that gives the people their best chance to rise above their parents
  • Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions will try to roll back civil rights to the days of the Dixiecrats.
  • Andrew Pudzer, the fast-food exec will be the first Secretary of Labor who advocates fewer jobs and lower pay for the people.
  • Scott Pruitt, the EPA nominee, will do his best to support the fossil fuel industry and get us out of treaties and policies aimed at preserving our environment.
  • Tom Price, HHS, will do his best to take health care from twenty million Americans—children included.

I began this article with some skepticism about the disenfranchised Trump voters, but it’s the “eastern elite’s” acceptance of this perspective that galls me almost as much.  Mea culpa, mea molto culpa, they intone.  Really?  I think we ought to throw the accusations back at the people.  If you don’t like what’s going on, get off your rear ends and work to change it.  Don’t just vent your anger on the establishment, organize, vote, rally.  Get the working man’s and the working women’s issues on the ballot.  And put people into office who will work your will.

I do believe that there is a good chance that the United States is inching closer to the rest of the world’s authoritarian governments.  If this election campaign is a good test, then we are taking that direction not just with the consent but with the urging of the governed, who would rather complain or vent their anger than work together towards strategic solutions for a more just and equitable future.  Unless, of course, you think the Cabinet of Deplorables will take you there.

Taking a Moment to Reflect

While almost everyone I know is gnashing their teeth, looking for something to break, or searching for something constructive to do, the Trump victory has left me strangely contemplative, almost calm.

Like so many others, I have terrible forebodings about the upcoming presidency.  It requires little to imagine the start of mass immigrant deportations and gross violations of civil rights for Muslims, journalists, and all of us who object to Trump’s ascendance.  He will further empower and enrich the crassest of the wealthy class and, simultaneously, he will profoundly disappoint those who put their faith in him.  He will accelerate the degradation of our planet and the degradation of our culture, legitimizing bigotry of all kinds.  He is already installing neo-fascists, like Stephen Bannon, within the heart of our government.  And the Bannon appointment probably foreshadows alliances with right wing governments in Austria, Hungary, Russia, France, and many other nations.  Is this the time when democracy is dumped into the trash heap of history?  The possibility is all too real, all too immediate.

Maybe, as thoughtful policy analysts like Steven Kinzer suggest, Trump will also have some positive effects, chief among them diminishing the chances of nuclear confrontation with Russia and backing off of the idea that we are responsible for world economic, social, and political order.  Hillary Clinton, after all, is but a warmed over cold warrior, and it’s time that we rid ourselves of bankrupt foreign policies, based on American exceptionalism.  It may be that Trump’s victory awakens our youth.  The world, with its massive demographic, political, and climate shifts demands a response of comparable dimensions.

There are lots of fine people telling us to resist and organize now.  Take this moment as a blessing in disguise.  Carpe diem.  It is only when the world is disrupted, in disequilibrium, that you can change it.  Isn’t that the message of all modern change theorists, from Prigogine in physics to Stephen Jay Gould in evolutionary biology to Eleanor Duckworth in education.  How else can we respond the vast demographic shifts brought on by migrations, droughts, genocides—and the shadow of the twentieth century when Hitler and Stalin, alone, murdered tens of millions of people.  We are a world that’s ready for a change—but change for the good is only one possibility.

All of this volcanic activity seems, in the short run, to have had a paradoxical effect on me.  It seems to have released me from the external chaos and turned me deep into myself.  The campaign’s outcomes are too raw, too painful to contemplate head on.  If I read the news at all, it’s to hurry through, to almost turn my head so I don’t see.  Having withdrawn from the news and from the anxious build-up to the November vote, I find myself calm, even relaxed. I am pretty sure that this is momentary but that does not make it less true.

It’s like entering a personal monastery, taking vows to remain until I find a new place for myself, a new way to see the world and my relation to it.  Even though part of me thinks this is bad, amoral at least, I am going to remain in my monastery until I’m ready to emerge.

To the extent that I am paying attention to world events, it is as an almost disinterested observer.  It doesn’t feel like we know enough to spring into action.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing about the marches, the calls to resist and organize.  They have fed me all my life.  But I need to see what the Trump people are doing.  I need to get oriented. There will be time and reason and urgency enough to organize over the next several months, years, and decades.  The rush to action may be soothing—do something, anything to avoid feeling like a passive victim—but I don’t think it will have much of an impact right now.

It would not surprise me, for example, if Donald Trump is impeached within the next few years.  He criminal activities are unbounded.  His impulsiveness is likely to frighten even the most rabid Republicans.  We could be at war within a year.  If he is impeached, then Pence will be president, the type of outcome the Republican Right has wanted all along.  Short of impeachment, he may simply find himself in power struggles within his supposed party—he’s not a Republican, after all—struggles that will try his patience, leading him back to the businesses that he’s not supposed to attend to during the presidency.  Or, in the face of political and journalistic opposition, he may fully show his fascist colors, trying to dismantle democratic institutions and traditions.

In the meantime, I am more aware than ever that the upcoming fight is not primarily my fight.  It is not the fight for my generation.  It is the younger generations that will have to step forward.  They will have to lead.  This moment signals the passing of the guard.  We can—we must—support their leadership but support will be our primary role.  We will have to adjust to our loss of position, our loss of face, our many failures.

But I digress.  All along I have intended to say that I have retreated in order to gather myself.  And I wonder what the retreat will mean.  I wonder if it is time to pay more attention to questions of the soul.  These last few days, my pace has slowed.  I pay attention to the people who are close, to the food that I eat and the air that I breath. I have substituted philosophical texts for the political columns that kept my heart rate up.

Is this a failure of nerve?  A cop out?  Will I abandon my monastery before I am clear what to do?  Maybe.  But it feels good.  The rest has helped.   And, in the meantime, what can I do to stop the tide of history.  Why shouldn’t I take comfort in the next generations taking their rightful place in the defense of civilization.