Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Not a heart attack - just gum disease

Marlene Dietrich, from The Blue Angel
I blogged the other day about Babylon Berlin, the sixteen-hour made-for-TV series about Berlin in the latter days of the Weimar Republic, that noble attempt at democracy Germany made between the end of WWI and the Hitler takeover in 1933.  I mentioned that I was so taken with the parallels between the failure of the Weimar democracy and what’s going on around me that I kind of took it for granted that I understood something about the filmmakers’ motivation in making the film – the fact that the failure of democracy during the Weimar period would speak to the fears of people today that democracy is on the run. It has failed in Victor Orban’s Hungary, is going down in Poland, and people are panicking that it’s going down in Trump’s America. 

Just take a look at some of what is on the best seller list these days. I don’t mean just:

1. Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the White House.

Granted, many consider that a hatchet job, poorly documented, exaggerated and slanted in places.

I went looking for David Frum’s latest book, Trumpocracy, so I typed it into Amazon’s search. Look what popped up:

Not just

2. David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.

But also:

3. David Cay Johnston’s It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America

4. Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die

5. Paul McGuire and Troy Anderson’s Trumpocalypse: The End-Times President, a Battle Against the Globalist Elite, and the Countdown to Armageddon

6. Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump

7. Luke Harding’s Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win

8. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

9. Charles J. Sykes’ How the Right Lost Its Mind

10. Bob Riemen’s To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism

11. Brian Klaas and David Talbot’s The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy

12. Donna Brazile’s Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House

I could stop with an even dozen, but there are more:

13. David Martin’s Donny’s First Year – granted, Martin is a satirist rather than a serious critic, but like all the evening satire shows,  Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, Bill Maher and others, his humor has an unusual sharpness to it that goes beyond normal chiding satire. Martin says, for example, “with such daily craziness, it’s often difficult to stay ahead of the satirical curve.”

Then there is:

14. Michael Mathiesen, who seems to have gotten to the term before Frum:

Trumpocracy: A Demonstration Democracy

That’s enough to suggest maybe the burden of proof is on the Trump camp to demonstrate that he is not actually subverting democracy.

Still looking for more on the topic, I came across an interesting panel discussion at the Brookings Institute.

First on the panel is David Frum, who got this ball rolling for me, the Republican conservative and onetime speechwriter for George W. Bush, often credited for the origin of the term “axis of evil”. Like many who supported the Iraq war at the beginning and became disillusioned, he admitted that he was unduly persuaded by the conservatives he hung around with who turned out to be wrong. Frum is clearly a thinking man, an honest intellectual who has been unafraid to drift into new territory and today is one of the more ardent of Trump’s opponents.  The kind that saw it all coming: he voted for Hillary.

Also on the panel is Elaine Kamarck, an expert in American electoral politics and senior fellow at Brookings, lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and member of the DNC. Has a PhD from Berkeley in political science and worked in the Clinton White House.

The third panel member is Benjamin Wittes, also at Brookings. He is a journalist with a background in law; he is co-director of the Harvard Law School project on Law and Security.  He has described the Trump’s policy on refugees and visas as "malevolence tempered by incompetence."

Moderator is Jonathan Rauch, also of Brookings and, like Frum, an editor of The Atlantic.

The discussion is worth listening to. In a nutshell, the two men, Frum and Wittes, worry there is a serious threat to democracy, while Kamarck insists that American institutions are strong enough to resist what’s coming down. And when we say institutions, it’s the media and the judiciary most at risk. Both, Kamarck insists will not only survive, but the challenge is actually doing them good.

While Frum makes some of the most cogent arguments, it is the contrast between Kamarck and Wittes that most interested me. It’s the old story – what doesn’t destroy you only makes you stronger. It’s just a question of whether the test is too severe. Wittes worries about what will happen in post-Trump America, when the rules of gentlemanly behavior once associated with the White House have been shattered.  Will the memory of how easy it was to break things down encourage another Trump down the road? In fact, Kamarck is working on a research project to search out potential future Trumps and head them off.

Will it only be easier from now on to take advantage of America’s weaknesses? I hope Wittes is wrong, but I also believe he’s got a point – once the toothpaste is out of the tube, Americans will not know how to put it back, I fear.

There is also this thing called the law of entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, which I have always understood as “Everything eventually turns to shit.”  OK, so physics is not my strong suit. But I have observed that it’s harder, for example, for decency to survive against indecency since the former plays by rules which the latter feels free to break. The guy who plays dirty has the upper hand. And in the current battle for control of government, it’s the liars who seem to be getting away with murder. Short of wholesale outrage at deception, there is no way to fight the deceivers. And whether the enlarged Ego at the center of things is manipulating those who want to help the rich get richer – or whether they are manipulating him is a less interesting question to me than whether we can survive in the devastated America he leaves behind once he’s either kicked out of office or goes quietly at the end of his term.

To return to the Weimar comparison, my understanding of why the Weimar democracy failed is chiefly that the Germans had no experience with democracy. They were experimenting, making it up as they went along. Internally, the country was sharply divided between communists and nationalists. The former, remembering what it felt like to be at the bottom of society during the imperial years under the kaisers, wanted to bring the Russian Bolshevik revolution to Germany. The nationalists, on the other hand, wanted to bring the monarchy back.  To a great degree, it was a battle between the haves and the have-nots.

[Some comic relief here, if you're finding this all a bit dry: Have a listen to a march I first learned at Carnival (Fasching) in Munich back in 1960. “We want our old Kaiser Wilhelm back! – The guy with the beard – the long long beard.”    Back in the days “when grandma was able to drink the water directly out of the Elbe River – it was so clean.”]

There were parties in the middle – the socialists on the left and the liberals (what in America we call conservatives) on the right, as well as a (catholic) Center Party – but without a full commitment to democracy, a deep-seated understanding of the need to work together with others who held opposing views, there was a tendency for everybody to be pulled to the extremes. With loyalty going to the party one belonged to and not to the nation, the nation, in the end, could not stand.

Adding to this problem of polarization was the cultural element. In the big cities – Berlin, in particular, in addition to a large number of working class folks on the left, you had the artists and entertainers – the Hollywood types of the era. The glamour set of the “Roaring Twenties,” who exposed attitudes that offended the good country folk – too little clothing, too much vulgarity, homosexuality and gutsy (many would say “loose”) women. Babylon Berlin opens on a scene of the vice squad breaking into a porno ring. Law and order meets decadence.

Comparisons between Weimar and America become impossible to resist. We’ve got the ascendance of the evangelicals into the Trump administration and the demonization of “Hollywood types” by the Republican Party. We’ve got the extreme polarization and the quite evident proof that Republicans, who once were deficit hawks, for example, are now willing to go trillions more into debt to serve party interests: read: the furtherance of the financial interests of the 1%. We’ve got the direct attack on the judiciary and the press – examples galore on a daily basis. People who listen to Fox don’t listen to MSNBC and vice versa. Except, of course, to gather material to fan their outrage.

The Weimar period ended in 1933 with the legal election of Adolf Hitler. Many point out that the handover to Trump took place legally, as well. Never mind the gerrymandering and the abomination that is the electoral college. The election took place according to the rules in place at the time. It was perfectly legal. Never mind the arguments that he didn’t win the election so much as Hillary lost it.  Weimar rightists made much of the “blood and soil” meme, blood meaning “the people” not the outsider Jew/Mexican/immigrant, soil being the land, not the cities. Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann used to talk about the people in the middle as, “the real Americans.”

Trump is not Hitler. He doesn’t advocate the creation of a Gestapo to pull his enemies out of bed at night. Elaine Kamarck is right – our institutions are holding – and are a long way from collapsing as they did under National Socialism. But just as Germans in the Weimar period read Mein Kampf, where Hitler put into words his plan to exterminate the Jews, and elected him anyway, Americans listen on a daily basis to Trump demean women, urge violence – “I’ll pay your legal bills…”, and let it be known that he expects lawyers and judges, the FBI and anybody else in government to do his bidding, show personal loyalty to him as opposed to the traditional ethical standards of their profession, and his supporters let it all pass. In fact, such Trumpist actions only seem to increase their support for him.  The “Lock her up” chants he cheer led shows he’d really like to not just to defeat his political opponents, but imprison them. Like Hitler, who admired Mussolini and Stalin, Trump has repeatedly expressed an admiration for tyrants – Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Duterte, to name the ones that come immediately to mind. And now he wants a military band to march down the boulevard and salute him. The parallels with dictatorships continue to grow in number.

Trump is no Hitler, and this is not Weimar Germany. But the elements are in place. It’s not whether it can happen, but whether we can keep ourselves from becoming like the frog in the kettle, unaware that the water is heating up until it’s too late to jump out.

David Frum argues that the decay of democracy is not something that happens overnight. People have it all wrong, he says. It’s not like a heart attack. It’s more like gum disease.

One reads history not just to understand how we got where we are. There are historical lessons out there we’d do well to take a closer look at, to see where we really don’t want to go.

 photo credit - the iconic image of Marlene Dietrich

trivia note: In the movie The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich plays Lola Lola a woman who ultimately seduces Immanuel Rath, played by Emil Jannings, a would-be embodiment of the essence of bourgeois propriety. Perhaps it's pure coincidence, but Volker Kutscher used the name Rath for the protagonist in his series of novels, the first of which the movie Babylon Berlin was based on. Pure coincidence, maybe, and Gereon Rath is not destroyed by a shady lady in the end, so the resemblence ends with the name. But when you're retired and have some extra time on your hands, you've got time to notice little things like this.


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