To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Is Donald Trump The Ghost of Adolf Hitler---Or The Living Soul Of Teddy Roosevelt?

We’ve heard a lot about 2016 as not being a “normal election year.” One of the things highlighting the abnormality is how many American pundits have cast Donald Trump as the incarnation of Adolph Hitler, or any number of other anti Semitic demagogues from the fascist 1930s: Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, "Radio Priest" Charles Coughlin, aviator and "America First" leader Charles V. Lindbergh. It would be one thing if these analogies were merely left wing hyperbole, the word “fascist” pronounced with a hiss and with neck cords stretched to the point of tearing. Or if these comparisons were coming soley from the ethnic Jewish press, like the Forward or Tablet where ethnocentric perspectives are the stock in trade. 

But a good number of these Hitler accusations are coming from otherwise serious people with prominent places at major American news organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Bloomberg News and the New Yorker as well as spots at our most prestigious think-tanks: Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, New AmericaBig names here with lots of visibility: Roger Cohen, Leon Wieseltier, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, Dana Milbank, David Remnick, Jeffrey Goldberg and more. Given the reputations these pundits have for intellectual seriousness and journalistic precision, this is out of character, almost derangedly so.  

According the the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick, who has devoted at least three columns to this theme (here, here and here), Trump's trajectory tracks with the rise National Socialists in the Germany of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Trump’s resentful white working class is the equivalent to the degraded German Volk of the Weimar Republic, and the weaknesses in the GOP nomination system that Trump was able to exploit strongly correspond to to the constitutional vulnerabilities in Weimar democracy that brought You-Know-Who to power. Such fine-grained historical analyses are laced with reminders that Hitler became German Chancellor through entirely legal electoral means, carrying the implication, given this year’s electoral uniqueness, that “It can happen here” too.   

Warning about the "Dangerous Acceptance Of Donald Trump," Gopnick writes:  

He’s not Hitler, as his wife (Melania) 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 American Republic stands threatened by the first overtly anti-democratic leader of a large party in its modern history—an authoritarian with no grasp of history, no impulse control, and no apparent barriers on his will to power.

If Trump came to power, there is a decent chance that the American experiment would be over. This is not a hyperbolic prediction; it is not a hysterical prediction; it is simply a candid reading of what history tells us happens in countries with leaders like Trump.    
Trump may have a dictatorial management style that might seem somewhat authoritarian in the broad sense. And the rhythms of his speaking style do bear similarities to Huey Long, the demagogic Louisiana governor who gave FDR a scare when Long riled up southern “crackers” back in the run up to the presidential election in 1936. But Trump is hardly Der Fuhrer, and no matter how many economic and social problems the country has or what kind of sense of “lost greatness” is haunting it, America in 2016 is hardly Weimar in the early 1930’s. 

The things that have made the pundit class prone to such apocalyptic thinking and have made that direness echo so loudly in the commentariat seem to be a function of a number of things, a few of them generally considered too ethnically sensitive to discuss. I’ll give it a go here however because a) the Hitler analogy is unfair, inaccurate and insulting; evidence to substantiate such a serious moral charge simply isn’t there. b) the charge seems to mirror the very "paranoid style in American politics" that much of the commentariat has used to disparage and marginalize Trump and his alt-right supporters, as per the 1964 book by historian Richard Hofstadter and c) the charge represents a form of incitement, if not to justify violence in the form of “Would You Kill Baby Hitler?,” then to rationalize the deliberate suspension of journalistic norms that has been discussed by the Columbia Journalism Review, the New York Times and others where the media deliberately “target” Trump in order to weaken him in the eyes of the “deluded” masses, to cite a phrase Leon Wielsetier used in a Washington Post piece back in June.                

One thing the Hitlerization reflects is a certain privileging of Jewish historical experience and how readily the paranoia and insecurity instilled by this historical experience can be triggered, in this case in response to Trump’s populist attacks on the American elite status quo. There is a “Jewish tradition of being wary of populists,” Phil Weiss notes on his Mondoweiss blog.  

This is because Jews have, like it or not, been linked to western elites in the last 150 years; and populist resentment of those elites fed anti-Semitism and helped to create the Jewish question in Europe. The elite role became part of the Jewish condition: Jews led many modern professional trends in the 19th century, from banking to journalism to real estate to medicine, and that rise carried us out of the ghetto and fostered resentment, too.

Weiss clearly knows he's standing on a landmine here, but adds that

It has always been my contention that honesty about the Jewish role in the establishment is not going to spark another Holocaust: because history doesn’t repeat itself, because people already know about that presence, and because Americans have a right to discuss the sociological character of elites…

What also seems to be an important factor here is significant Jewish overrepresentation in the pundit class itself. Not every American pundit has resorted to the fascist trope. But almost every Jewish pundit has, despite the Anti Defamation League having declared the Hitler analogy "so facile that it is dangerous." Which given the demographic profile of that pundit caste makes for a whole lot of Hitler. Much in the same way that many pundits (mainly neocons) saw the Iran nuclear deal as an echo of the appeasement of the Munich in1938, many of them (mainly liberals) now see Trumpism as an disturbing reincarnation of the serried ranks marching around Nuremberg in 1936. 

Discussing this overrepresentation is often considered gauche, or anti Semitic---an exercise in “counting noses” that is associated with conspiracies about Jewish media "control" in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But in fact the overrepresentation is real. According to Peter Beinart, a liberal American Zionist who writes a column for Haaretz,  Jews are a major "force in American journalism," who now edit "The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Weekly Standard, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Vox, Buzzfeed, Politico, and the opinion pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post." And while the the Tribe’s overrepresentation doesn’t discourage diversity of opinion on most subjects, such as the US-Israel “special relationship” or issues subsidiary to that such as the Iran nuclear deal, that diversity of opinion has been lacking on the question of Trump’s fascist potential. This has privileged a tribal narrative more pertinent to Mitteleuropa in the last century than today’s America, and makes Trump, as well as the populist movement behind him, into something far more threatening than necessary.

This isn’t to diminish the experience of German anti Semitism, among other narratives of Jewish historical victimization. But to project this experience on to something like Trump’s presidential candidacy and those supporting it seems inappropriately ethnocentric. It also feeds into a certain unfortunate trope of a "Jewish elite" that is both alien and hostile to a lot of America. I mean, call Trump "Hitler" and all those energetic, mostly goyim crowds jamming Trump’s rallies all over America start looking a whole lot like brownshirted Nazis, no? Which is exactly as news reports have depicted them, even though it was Bernie Sanders' supporters who were acting like storm troopers in the streets of Chicago and in Las Vegas during the primaries. Likewise the Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, who were breaking glass, burning flags and bloodying Trump supporters when they protested at a Trump rally in southern California at the end of April.  

Gratefully, there have been serious historians who have offset some of this tribal panic by emphasizing the similarities between Trump and historical moments more in the American vein. One of them is University of Washington history professor Margaret O’Mara whose essay on the History News Network noted that liberal progressive hero Theodore Roosevelt faced a similarly political moment of broad systemic corruption and sharp economic inequality ---and proposed measures very similar to Trump in attempting to reform it. Writing in the summer run-up to the GOP primaries last summer, O’Mara says that just as Donald Trump was very much a “a phenomenon of celebrity, media and voter discontent” so too was Teddy Roosevelt in summer of 2010, when he first launched his effort to recapture the White House, which he had left in 1908. Like Trump, TR was “a bombastic and wealthy New Yorker” who “became the nation’s biggest political story.” O’Mara explains that Roosevelt  

had been in the public eye for decades, but he’d never been this much of a renegade. He drew large and passionate crowds and dominated headlines from coast to coast. At a moment when most other presidential candidates seemed uninteresting or unable to do the job, here was a mega-celebrity who promised to make America great again.

The ex-president barnstormed through a nation that, like today, was experiencing massive political and economic change. The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer, and the middle class had got squeezed in between. Millions of immigrants – Italian, Eastern European, Russian, and more – streamed into the US, speaking alien languages, practicing different religions, and redefining what it meant to be an American. Smoke-belching factories of the new economy had replaced the family farms and workshops of the old economy. Voters were worried and angry, and looking to political leaders for answers.

Like Trump, Roosevelt started talking about ideas that had long hovered on the political fringe but that hadn’t been embraced publicly by national candidates of either major party. Like Trump, Roosevelt tapped into a real hunger for change, and drew energy from existing grassroots reform movements. Like Trump, he was a master of new media: Teddy dropped one-liners on newspaper reporters like Trump blasts out tweets.

O’Mara emphasizes that Trump and TR “have little common ground when it comes to the substance of policy and statesmanship.” But the immigration speech Trump gave the other night seemd to my ear resonant with many of the policy thinking and proposals that TR himself had both written about and advanced throughout his career--- as an urban reformer in turn-of-the-century NYC, as president from 1901 to 1908, and as a candidate seeking re-election as standard-bearer of the American Progressive Party, also known as the Bull Moose Party, in 1912 and again in 1916. While the New York Times has slammed the Trump speech as an anti immigrant rant that drew praise from "nativists across the land," the speech’s emphasis on assimilation and on controlling the flow, as well as subordinating immigration policy to what first and foremost was good for America, was classic TR. As Trump put it, many of the 59 million immigrants we’re admitted since the last major immigration reform of 1965 “have really enriched our country,” but there was an obligation to them, and to their children  “to control future immigration – as we have following previous immigration waves – to ensure assimilation, integration and upward mobility.” 

TR made one of his more forceful statements on immigration in a 1893 article called “True Americanism,” which he published in a journal of ideas called the Forum. At the time, the Forum was one of the country’s foremost journals of ideas, rivaling Harper’s and the Atlantic in terms of circulation and stature. 

According to Roosevelt, “The mighty tide of immigration to our shores has brought in its train much of good and much of evil; and whether the good or the evil shall predominate depends mainly on whether these newcomers do or do not throw themselves heartily into our national life, cease to be Europeans, and become Americans like the rest of us.”  
More than a third of the people of the Northern States are of foreign birth or parentage. An immense number of them have become completely Americanized, and these stand on exactly the same plane as the descendants of any Puritan, Cavalier, or Knickerbocker among us, and do their full and honorable share of the nation’s work. But where immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, do not heartily and in good faith throw in their lot with us, but cling to the speech, the customs, the ways of life, and the habits of thought of the Old World which they have left, they thereby harm both themselves and us. If they remain alien elements, unassimilated, and with interests separate from ours, they are mere obstructions to the current of our national life, and, moreover, can get no good from it themselves. In fact, though we ourselves also suffer from their perversity, it is they who really suffer most. It is an immense benefit to the European immigrant to change him into an American citizen. To bear the name of American is to bear the most honorable titles; and whoever does not so believe has no business to bear the name at all, and, if he comes from Europe, the sooner he goes back there the better.
It is urgently necessary to check and regulate our immigration, by much more drastic laws than now exist;and this should be done both to keep out laborers who tend to depress the labor market, and to keep out races which donot assimilate readily with our own, and unworthy individuals of all races–not only criminals, idiots, and paupers, but anarchists of the Most and O’Donovan Rossa type.
From his own standpoint, it is beyond all question the wise thing for the immigrant to become thoroughly Americanized. Moreover, from our standpoint, we have a right to demand it. We freely extend the hand of welcome and of good-fellowship to every man, no matter what his creed or birthplace, who comes here honestly intent on becoming a good United States citizen like the rest of us; but we have a right, and it is our duty, to demand that he shall indeed become so and shall not confuse the issues with which we are struggling by introducing among us Old-World quarrels and prejudices.    
I know it’s stretching it a bit to draw a straight line between Trump and TR. But there is notable convergence between the two men’s thinking on the subject of immigration and assimilation, in broad outline if not in the exact specifics. In fact, it would not surprise me if Trump, or at least his speechwriter, was aware of the similarities, and how much the kind of progressivism that TR preached might apply to the challenges of today.   

Of course it perfectly clear why today’s pundits might find it difficult to recognize anything coming from Trump as being “progressive,” given how much progressivism has been redefined by the racial and ethnic essentialism inherent in today’s identity politics---Jewish identity politics and the victimization narratives that define it definitely being part of the mix. But if they did have a look at “True Americanism” or any of the other articles or speeches like it that TR wrote, they might see things that speak to the moment.  

The Hitler analogies have been so thick, and so over the top, that you have to wonder whether those making them realize they are in 2016 America and not the Europe of the 1930’s --- and if the level of paranoia they are projecting is healthy. Reading the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick made me curious whether the magazine still has a special psychiatric ambulance service on retainer to whisk delusional writers to the booby hatch, as it was rumored to have back in the days of legendary editor William Shawn. With Gopnick seeing in Trump and Trumpism not just an echo of the same pathology on the part of the Volk that propelled Hitler to power but the very essence of it, Gopnick is clearly “not well." A little time away in a nice restorative environment might put the demons of history in historical perspective. 

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