Cleansing Ourselves of Trumpism

tags: far right, authoritarianism, Donald Trump

JIM SLEEPER is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal RacismHe lectured in political science at Yale from 1999-2000, teaching a seminar on “Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy.”

My first, vivid intimation of the real menace that was shortly to engulf our republic came one late-winter morning in 2016 when I walked along a quiet country road in western Massachusetts, hard by the New York State line and, noticing an abandoned, nearly-collapsed wooden house with trees growing out of its windows, poked my way in.  From a pile of mildewed books on a storeroom’s earthen floor, I picked up What Mein Kampf Means to America, written in 1941 by the Irish-American writer Francis Hackett, a literary editor of The New Republic from 1914 to 1922. I stood there for an hour, riveted by passages such as these:

Right before our eyes, like something on the screen, the vast social fabric of familiar Germany has crumbled and the moral Germany that has stood the test since Martin Luther. On its ruins, with the speed of a world’s fair, Hitler and his confederates have run up a political front of startling and provocative modernity…The Nazi hand has been so much quicker than the democratic eye, and for his violence we have so little precedent. All the democratic countries, or if you like, the parliamentary countries, are unaccustomed to murder gangs…

But democracy is merely an equilibrium. When this has been…overthrown by ambition or distress or stupidity or viciousness, our securities are forfeited. We can no more count on the fruitful prospects of earlier days than we can count on ease in a hurricane. We…who made for ourselves a habit of give-and take in the faith that we were not at cross-purposes with anyone, have to confess that if goodwill runs out of the machinery of government and domestication is wrecked, to repose on our security is suicide.

Historical analogies can be facile, even dangerous; but ignoring history’s cautions can be equally dangerous to people who are inclined to repeat its follies. Hackett’s book serves well as an impassioned explanation of how and why Donald Trump “means business”—even more so than when he was a businessman—in his efforts to displace democracy with authority. 

In 2016, his demagoguery enlarged and exploited a social and moral vacuum that was already swallowing faith in the republic and a corporate-capitalist economy that has driven countless little stabs of heartbreak and self-doubt into our lives. Its casino-like financing of jobs and homes and its intimately intrusive consumer marketing have battened onto dispossession and distress by hawking palliatives, degrading entertainments, and other come-ons driven by swirling whorls of anonymous shareholders.

These forces have been dissolving our freedoms for decades now, not out of malevolence but out of  mindless, routinized greed. Trump has focused free-floating, inchoate rage against these material and cultural assaults into a syndrome that substitutes Authority for democracy by feigning populist indignation and by scapegoating women and people of color. His true believers’ growing violence won’t recede or be reversed even if it’s set back, as Hackett reminded us that Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was set back in 1923, if Trump is indicted, convicted, and even if he’s confined to write his own Mein Kampf  in the form of a new reality show or his own cable news network. 

Even in the unlikely event that Trump is exiled to Elba for life, something like Trumpism will outlast him because the fabric of liberal-democratic and civic republican norms and institutions was weakened long before his presidency: Leaders who weakened citizens’ trust in public initiatives and assets were market-fundamentalist economists such as Milton Friedman, James Buchanan (both of whom died before Trump even ran for President), and Arthur Laffer, who advised Trump’s 2016 campaign; businessmen who’ve long meddled in politics, such as the brothers Charles and David Koch and private-equity baron Stephen Schwarzman; and media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and demagogues Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson. Why did such culprits leave progressive economists, political consultants, data-point jockeys, pollsters, donors, and media savants winded, and often clueless, amid rising public mistrust and cries for a strongman?  History does offer suggestions about why Trump was able to dispel trust and about what kinds of public narratives and indispensable economic and political initiatives, Americans need to restore. 

Read entire article at Democracy

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