Sunday, July 24, 2016
The Grand Old National Socialist Party
I watched parts of the Republican National Convention this week. I endured all 75 minutes of Donald Trump’s dark and disconcerting acceptance speech Thursday evening. For a while I was almost certain I had been transported in time and space to Germany, circa 1933.
It wasn’t just the ultranationalism. It wasn’t just the painting of the American canvas in such gloomy tones that our only hope of a less dismal future lay in an authoritarian egomaniac with delusions of omnipotence. It wasn’t just the veiled threats against those he blames for our awful predicament. It wasn’t just the pure propaganda that is so internally inconsistent as to be absurd when viewed dispassionately. It wasn’t just the bald-faced lies presented as truth. It wasn’t just the open belligerence and the promise of yet another war to conquer foreign enemies. It wasn’t just the vacuous promises of law and order and safety that he cannot deliver on without stealing the freedoms he claims to want to preserve. It wasn’t even the fact that moral high ground was being claimed by a spectacularly immoral man. It was the reaction of the mindless crowd. Cheering. Chanting un-American, unconstitutional, and embarrassingly evil threats.
“Lock her up!” was a favorite, referring of course to Hillary Clinton, who has been thoroughly investigated and found careless but not criminal. What is shocking, though, is to hear this sort of chant from a crowd that supports a man who “has been sued at least 60 times by individuals and businesses who accuse him of failing to pay for work done at his various properties,”1 who is currently being sued for defrauding students at Trump University, and who has been accused twice of rape and sued once for multiple acts of attempted rape. One rape accusation was made by Trump’s first wife, Ivana (and included a violent physical assault over a botched scalp reduction job by a cosmetic surgeon recommended by Mrs. Trump); the billionaire’s former wife changed her tune after a divorce settlement that likely required such a retraction. The attempted rape accusation was made by the wife of a business associate who dropped her lawsuit (but not her accusation) after Trump settled a separate suit brought by the victim’s husband. Most troubling, though, is the current lawsuit brought by a woman who accuses Trump and his buddy, Jeffrey Epstein, now a level 3 registered sex offender, of raping her multiple times in 1994 when she was thirteen.2 But even if Trump is convicted in a court of law of being both a crook and a criminal, that is not what makes him particularly perilous to our great American experiment.
As NBC’s Nicolle Wallace put it after Trump’s speech, “Listening to this, I was struck by two things I always believed during my two decades in Republican politics. One, the voters always get it right, and two, the Republican Party that I worked for for two decades died in this room tonight.”3 If you were listening carefully, more than that died. We’ve entered new and dangerous territory as an American people. And no, the danger isn’t any of the things Trump railed against. The danger is Trump himself.
As former world chess champion and dissident Russian politician Gary Kasparov put it, “I’ve heard this sort of speech a lot in the last 15 years and trust me, it doesn’t sound any better in Russian.”4
I’ve seen the question asked recently, How exactly does fascism infect and then conquer a society? Well, we witnessed a textbook case during the entire Republican National Convention. Fortunately, we still have time to reject it if enough of us can come to our senses before November. Yes, a large majority of Americans find Trump repugnant. But if enough of us stay away from the polls or vote for some third-party candidate in protest, we may just be inviting a future none of us want. You think I’m overreacting? Let me quote Adam Gopnik from the New Yorker:
“As I have written before, to call [Trump] a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form—an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.
“What all forms of fascism have in common is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners. That it can appeal to those who do not understand its consequences is doubtless true. But the first job of those who do understand is to state what those consequences invariably are. Those who think that the underlying institutions of American government are immunized against it fail to understand history. In every historical situation where a leader of Trump’s kind comes to power, normal safeguards collapse. Ours are older and therefore stronger? Watching the rapid collapse of the Republican Party is not an encouraging rehearsal. Donald Trump has a chance to seize power.”5
Thank goodness I am not a Republican. I have no moral dilemma about whether to support Trump or not. But I have a moral obligation to warn others about what he represents. Yes, Hillary Clinton is a flawed and mistrusted candidate. Yes, she has been careless and overly protective of her privacy. Frankly, I don’t blame her for that, considering what she has endured. And yes, many of you have been taught over the years to hate her. But she is a benign and mostly harmless cyst compared to the malignant tumor that is Donald Trump. A Clinton presidency would be predictable and quite possibly beneficial to the American people. A Trump presidency would also be predictable, but in a terrifying way. Beneficial? Not a chance.
Everyone already knows The Donald has shamelessly lied and bullied and insulted his way to the top of one of our two powerful political parties. Everyone knows that he has divided the party. Nevertheless, most members of the Republican establishment have caved in and reluctantly supported him. They are spineless and have now surrendered even any pretense to the high moral standing they once claimed. And even though they may secretly hope that Trump will be defeated and the GOP will return to its normally dysfunctional and directionless self after the election, they are playing with fire. As much as I detest Ted Cruz and nearly everything he stands for, I admit that I grudgingly admired his public refusal to support Trump, even though I understand well enough that Cruz is not doing this on principle alone. Mitt Romney and John Kasich and others have likewise turned away from endorsing him. Still others, like Mia Love, have merely hidden from him, hoping to escape the dark shadow he might cast over their own electoral hopes. But this is not enough. To defeat him, all of these dissenters need to swallow the bitter pill and throw their support behind Hillary, because sitting this one out just isn’t an option.
* * *
So, let’s look at what actually went down Thursday evening during those dreadful 75 minutes. Trump did exactly what he had to do to convince frightened and angry American voters to give him the most powerful position in the world. He inflated troubles into crises. He played on the fears and angers and, yes, the racist tendencies of his followers and told them he was the only answer to all these horrible failures of democracy. Yes, of democracy. Because what Trump is proposing is not democracy. Please understand this.
He promised first and foremost to make America safe again. Safe from terrorists, at home and abroad. Safe from mass shootings. Safe from illegal aliens, even from those who only accidentally kill people in automobile accidents (look it up). Safe from police shootings and from those who shoot police. So, how is he going to do this? Well, he didn’t say. He never gives specifics, either because he doesn’t really have any or because he knows his listeners would reject them out of hand. But let’s be honest. In order to stop the violence in American society (which, by the way, is at historic lows right now, except in a few large cities), he really has only two possible solutions, which during implementation usually morph into one: (1) create a police state or (2) take your guns away. The only truly safe societies are those like the former Soviet Union (ever wonder why Trump is so high on Putin?). And did I mention that Adolf Hitler promised to restore law and order as part of his rise to power? Trump is likewise trying to situate himself as the law-and-order candidate. It’s a very appealing promise to those who don’t understand what it entails.
And here you conservatives have been all paranoid about Obama coming to “get your guns.” President Obama would never do this. He respects the Constitution, but he understands that it can be (and until recently has been) interpreted in ways that permit reasonable limits on certain freedoms (like banning military-style weapons and requiring more stringent background checks, two ideas that a huge portion of American voters, even Republicans, favor, but that can’t get past the NRA-cowed Congress). Trump declared his allegiance to the Second Amendment Thursday evening, but if he intends to make America safe again (and on the day he takes the oath of office, according to his own inflated rhetoric), he really has no choice. Tough talk isn’t going to deter either the home-grown radicals or the deranged and broken souls who feel compelled to create carnage for whatever reason.
What Trump is promising is a federal takeover of what has always been a state and local responsibility: police protection. This is, needless to say, not Republican. And neither was virtually everything else he offered in his dark diatribe. He’s going after ISIS, certainly with boots on the ground. Another Middle East war that we can neither afford nor stomach nor win in the long run, as Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us. He’s going to expand our already oversized military. Even though we spend more than the next ten countries combined.6 He is also going to provide more and better educational opportunities and take better care of our veterans. He’s going to fix our crumbling infrastructure. And of course, he’s going to build that yuge and ineffective wall that Mexico surely will not pay for. All of this and more should warn conservatives that Trump is not a small-government Republican. And he’s going to do all this with a massive decrease in tax revenue. This may be the one element of his plan that is vintage GOP. He’s offering modest tax cuts to the middle class (less to the lower class, because they don’t pay much income tax anyway). But what he doesn’t say is that the wealthy will once again make off like bandits, with tax savings for the top 1 percent estimated at nearly 100 times what the middle 20 percent will see. This is why experts have projected that his economic proposals will cost us $12 trillion over the next decade.7
But here’s the catch. You can’t really believe anything Trump that comes out of Trump’s mouth. Everything he says is calculated only to mow down everyone and everything in his path to ultimate power. What he actually might do once in office is anybody’s guess. My own guess is that he will continue to act exactly as he has acted in his personal life, in his career, and in his campaign. Which is a frightening thought.
* * *
Many Republicans are asking themselves how on earth their party came to this particular end. The answer is simple. The GOP has been heading toward Trump for some time now. He just came sooner than they were expecting. With all the right-wing bluster about American exceptionalism, the step from patriotism to nationalism was very small.
Next, all the antigovernment rhetoric coming from Republicans over the past decade or so has made a large portion of the GOP angry and resentful of any government “insiders,” a group that just happens to include all the Republican Party elite. Couple this with the fact that Republicans have created a dysfunctional Congress by refusing to work with their colleagues across the aisle and by making “compromise” a derogatory term, and that left the door wide open for a true outsider, a self-promoter with no government experience who claims to be able to “fix” government.
A third key that opened the door to the Orange One was the Republican Party’s determination from day one to oppose virtually everything President Obama sought to accomplish, even a health-care plan that came straight from conservative think tanks and practical applications (Romneycare). In reality, President Obama has been an unusually careful and thoughtful president, who has often outmaneuvered his obstructionist opponents and along the way has somehow accomplished a great deal of good for the country. History will likely be very kind to him and his legacy. He entered office with the economy in freefall and the financial sector in a deep freeze. He took calculated risks and (unlike Europe) promoted sound economic policy, and the results have been positive, if not spectacular. The results would have been better if he had had some cooperation from the GOP, but they put partisanship ahead of the good of the American people and opposed sensible proposals at crucial times, even shutting down the government once in a tantrum over Obamacare. In spite of Republican shenanigans, though, the economy has been performing well for a good long time now, and unemployment is low, although if Obama had had his way there would be less inequality. But he has had to deal with a particularly pernicious economic zombie, supply-side economics, which has acted as a ball and chain on the economy’s collective ankle. Still, things are so much better now than when Obama took office that it places the Republicans in a bind. In order to convince voters that they should be put in charge of the economy, they have to engage in apocalyptic scare tactics, painting things as bleakly as they possibly can. And this sort of negativism plays directly into the hands of someone like Donald Trump. In reality, most of the problems we’re facing in the economy are the result of such factors as low tax rates on the wealthy, corporate greed, a minimum wage stuck in the 1950s, and forced austerity measures in a time of low interest rates. These are all Republican issues (except greed, which tends to be universal). But the Repubs have painted themselves into a corner, and so their only option is to double down on dysfunctional economic ideas like even more tax cuts for billionaires and a blanket refusal to even connect the minimum wage to inflation indexes.
There are other factors that have led to the rise of Trumpism, such as a lingering undercurrent of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that runs through a particular segment of conservative America. Trump read this undercurrent perfectly and has played it to his advantage. Not surprisingly, Sunday’s Deseret News printed an article reporting that white supremacists were thrilled with Trump’s convention speech.8
So here we are. The Republican Party, as we have known it, is no more. As party insiders admitted in 2013, the GOP needed to change. But not in this way. It did not need to become the Grand Old National Socialist Party. We can only hope this new party is as inept as it is frightening and will lose this presidential election in a grand old landslide.
1. Fox News, “Dozens of Lawsuits Accuse Trump of Not Paying His Bills, Reports Claim,” http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2016/06/10/dozens-lawsuits-accuse-trump-not-paying-his-bills-reports-claim.html. First time I think I’ve ever quoted Fox News!
2. The details on the current rape accusation are especially troubling, because apparently the alleged victim has a witness who worked for Epstein, finding adolescent girls for his parties, and witnessed several of the assaults. Trump had this to say about Epstein: “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” See Lisa Bloom, “Why the New Rape Case Filed against Donald Trump Should Not Be Ignored,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/why-the-new-child-rape-ca_b_10619944.html.
3. See, among many other sources, Scott Whitlock, “Networks on Trump: A ‘Dark Speech’ from a ‘Vengeful’ ‘Demagogue,” http://newsbusters.org/blogs/nb/scott-whitlock/2016/07/22/networks-trump-dark-speech-vengeful-demagogue.
4. James Griffiths, “World Reacts to Donald Trump’s Acceptance Speech,” http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/22/politics/donald-trump-rnc-speech-world-reacts/.
5. Adam Gopnik, “Being Honest about Trump,” New Yorker, June 14, 2016.
6. See International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Top 15 Defence Budgets, 2015,” https://www.iiss.org/-/media//images/publications/the%20military%20balance/milbal2016/mb%202016%20top%2015%20defence%20budgets%202015.jpg?la=en. A different estimate by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows the U.S. budget being larger than the next eight countries, but two (Russia and Saudi Arabia) of the countries include expenditure for public order and safety and may be overstated.
7. Citizens for Tax Justice, “Donald Trump’s Tax Plan Will Cost $12 Trillion,” http://ctj.org/ctjreports/2016/03/donald_trumps_tax_plan_would_cost_12_trillion.php#.V5QPMqKleVo.
8. Steve Peoples, “Energized White Supremacists Cheer Trump’s Convention Message,” Deseret News, July 24, 2016, A14.