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Sign of the Times

Photo of the head of a Native American chief

The killing of George Floyd and the righteous anger that followed it have thrust our society into a maelstrom of emotion over racial inequality, police reform, and a cultural reckoning in which the symbols of past injustices are being scrutinized and, in many cases, torn down.  Confederate statues are being removed or unceremoniously toppled from their lofty perches.  The Washington Redskins, after years of defiance, have announced that they are changing their name.  The U.S. Army has agreed to rename military bases named after Confederate generals (although Donald Trump opposes it).  And in Durango, Colorado, our little corner of the world, a controversy has arisen over a large sign of a Native American “chief” whom some regard as historical folk art while others view as a derogatory depiction of Native people.

I have to confess that when I learned of the controversy over the “Chief” sign, I struggled to recall what the sign looked like.  I’ve lived in Durango for three decades and have driven by, parked beside, and walked beneath that sign hundreds if not thousands of times.  I had reached that point of familiarity where I no longer saw what I had obviously seen numerous times, like knowing how to drive to a place on the other side of town although you’re unable to give someone directions because you can’t recall the street names.  When I was told that some Native Americans found the sign offensive, I had to Google the sign’s image before remembering what it looked like and questioning why someone might be offended by it.

Photo of the Chief sign in Durango, Colorado
Durango’s “Chief” sign has stirred a debate over whether it is folk art or a demeaning representation of Native Americans

As with any cultural controversy, people fall on both sides of the issue.  The sign’s owner argued in a letter to the editor of the Durango Herald that their Native American art gallery, Toh Atin, is a family business that has worked with Native people “as friends and partners for over 60 years.”  They purchased the sign years ago from the defunct Chief Diner and asked their Native artists if they approved.  “Nearly every artist we asked voiced their support and no one felt it was offensive,” the owner wrote.  Moreover, since the controversy arose, “the number of emails, texts and calls we have received from people who adamantly want the Chief to stay speaks loudly.”

One of the people supporting the sign was Pearl Casias, former chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.  In a letter to the Herald, she wrote, “To us, the sign represented a friendly place [referring to the Chief Diner] where Indians were welcomed.  None of us felt the sign was offensive.”  She added, “I believe the ‘Chief’ sign is an important part of local history that conjures positive memories for those of us who frequented the diner over a half-century ago.  It should be celebrated, not destroyed.”

For a different view, I’m turning to Faith Roessel, a Navajo Indian and Fort Lewis College alumna who serves on the Fort Lewis College Foundation Board, where I also serve.  As a child growing up in this region, later as an FLC student, and then as an adult, Faith appreciated the quality Indian art displayed in Toh Atin, but she came to realize, she wrote in a letter to board members, that what was also being promoted by the “Chief” sign was “the stale image of the ‘old west.’”  As a parent, she said, “I constantly remind my boys that we define who we are, others do not define (us).  I will readily admit this is much easier said than done, especially when I am up against distorted depictions of American Indians that undercut how I view myself, my community, and what I want for my children.”  Faith began seeing “the affable ‘Indian’ in a different light. . .  No longer did he represent a sign innocuously marking a store.  He was a representation; a fiction of how non-Indians saw us.”

It helps to put the “Chief” sign in the broader context of what is happening across the country as so many have been awakened to centuries-long inequalities and injustices minority communities have endured.  The anger, shared by many in the majority population, quickly morphed into protests, demonstrations, and violent confrontations with police.  Confederate statues, long a point of contention for many people, were targeted as symbols of racial oppression, and some local governments voted to remove them.  But this process was not swift enough for some people.  Unruly mobs (are any of them ever “ruly”?) took it upon themselves to decide which statues should remain and which torn down, dispensing the kind of vigilante justice mostly seen in old westerns when angry citizens break into the town jail and string up an accused without a trial.

Some people have suggested closing museums, expelling all reminders of an injust past, as though removing the evidence can expunge the guilt we’ve inherited from our ancestors whose perspectives and cultures were not as evolved as we believe ours to be.  This begs the question:  how will our distant descendants view us?  What mistakes are we making now that they will condemn when our choices and our opportunity to defend ourselves lie in the dust with our bones?

When does the past become history rather than a crime?  Should we condemn Mark Twain for having used the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn, arguably one of the greatest American novels?  Should we demolish the Washington Monument and rename Washington, D.C. and the State of Washington because our first president was a slave owner?  Should we burn the Declaration of Independence because it was drafted by another Virginian who owned slaves?  Should the Roman Colosseum be torn down because it was the site of the public slaughter of  hundreds of thousands of gladiators, slaves, and wild animals, all to the delight of ancient Roman citizens?  Should Auschwitz be leveled as a prominent site in the Holocaust?  Or should it be preserved as a reminder and a memorial?

We can’t rewrite history by destroying its artifacts.  Nor can we expiate our modern guilt over what transpired hundreds of years ago by consigning historical relics to the dustbin of present-day political correctness.

Illustrations of a stereotypical 1950's housewife
What if the “Chief” sign was instead a caricature of a 1950’s housewife?

I believe the past should be studied and understood but certainly not erased.  Whether we choose to honor certain ancestors and events is a matter of individual discretion, but having mobs determine which monuments and statues are culturally and politically acceptable denies the rest of us the opportunity to join the debate and make informed, democratic decisions.  The owner of the Toh Atin gallery shared a Facebook post regarding the “Chief” sign in which the author of the post wrote:  “Either the business and city respond appropriately to this petition, or a campaign will escalate, likely including protests at the sign, pickets and sit-ins at the business, raucous peoples’ occupations of City Council meetings, and if it comes to it, the removal of the statue by direct action.  This is their last chance.  They are on notice.”  This ultimatum is precisely the type of vigilante threat that all of us, as citizens in a democracy, should abhor.  Discussion, yes, debate, yes—but unilateral destruction of private property, no.  In another letter to the Herald, former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Native American, noted that “violence is the wrong way to rectify other wrongs. . . There may be differences of opinion on the ‘Chief,’ but surely we can agree that vandalism is not the American way to make change.”

The debate may make people uncomfortable.  But as Faith Roessel wrote, “If we are uncomfortable with all this, then I am hopeful.  It is in our discomfort that we truly learn, let our guard down and have the potential to exercise compassion toward each other.”

Some have argued that the “Chief” sign is folk art, part of Durango’s history, and should be preserved because it is part of the town’s history and heritage as an Old West mining and railroad town.  Would some part of that heritage be lost if the sign were removed?  Is it an historical artifact in the same vein as a Confederate statue?  Or the Bill of Rights, which was partially written by slave owners?  Or the Jefferson Memorial, which at least one of his descendants has argued should be destroyed?  I’ll ask the question again:  When does the past become history rather than a crime?  Is it ever acceptable to honor imperfect people who nonetheless did historically great things?  Yes, George Washington owned slaves.  He also led a ragtag revolutionary army against the world’s finest army at that time—and won.  He was our first president and refused to be named king, thus preserving our republic as a democracy.  As imperfect as America is, it was still built on democratic principles that we can honor in their intent if not always their execution, and we can continually strive to live up to the promise.

I’ve been approaching the issue of the “Chief” sign by asking myself, what if it were different?

A caricature illustration of a Jewish man
What if you were Jewish and the “Chief” sign was instead this image in front of a Jewish deli?

What if I were Jewish, and the sign depicted a caricature of a Jewish man with a hooked nose and greedy eyes instead of a Native American?  The Nazis published such images throughout Germany in the 1930s to dehumanize Jews.  What if I were a woman and the sign depicted the stereotypical happy housewife of the 50’s wearing an apron and holding a mop?  What if I were an African-American and the sign showed a sharecropper picking cotton?  Or an Asian-American and the sign, pointing to a gallery selling Asian-American art, was a caricature of a Chinese coolie?

How would I feel differently about the sign if its image depicted my race—my identity as a human being—in a demeaning and stereotypical light?  I think as we contemplate the “Chief” sign, or Confederate statues, or the brand name of a syrup, or the mascot of a football team, this is the question we should be asking.  Maybe the death of George Floyd will ultimately have served a much higher purpose.  Maybe it will have raised our collective consciousness about the impact of names, signs, symbols, and images on our fellow human beings who are in some way different from us but nonetheless an equal part of the patchwork of humanity living on our planet.  We can’t change the past and should not try to erase it, but we are not obligated to continue the prejudices and practices of our ancestors or to honor them if doing so dishonors, devalues, or stereotypes others.

As Faith Roessel closed her letter, she wrote, “oRather than trap American Indians in a time warp and depictions not of their making, I believe Durango is ready to embrace a newfound appreciation of modern day native peoples.  We are overdue for a relationship that underscores mutual respect and recognition of each other. . .  The ‘Indian’ of Durango ought to come down so it no longer casts a shadow over our young Indian students and native community and so that it no longer reinforces a stereotype to the out-of-town visitors who may never have encountered an American Indian in their lives.  I do not see myself in the face of that sign.  I pray you do not see me in that token image either.”

Durango’s “Chief” sign is privately owned and sits on private property, and that must be respected.  Perhaps the solution is not to tear it down but to replace it with a modern sign designed by Native American artists, a sign that is dignified and respectful and still points the way to one of the finest galleries of Native American art in our town.  Replacing the sign would be costly, but perhaps some townspeople would contribute toward facilitating the transition of Durango from an Old West town to a New West town, acknowledging the past while creating a more inclusive future.  Whatever the owner decides to do with the sign, we should at least use this controversy as an opportunity to have some uncomfortable conversations with each other, to educate ourselves about the effects of stereotypes and tokens, particularly on our children, and to surface the unspoken assumptions we make about each others’ identities.  Nothing will change without thoughtful dialogue and a willingness to hear and see others as they really are today instead of whom we assume them to be based on historically prejudicial pigeonholing.  Nor will anything change if our purpose in listening to others is not to hear them and understand their point of view but to entrench ourselves in our own arguments and think only of ways to strengthen them.

However flawed Thomas Jefferson might have been (as viewed from a modern perspective), he wrote the words that will forever define American aspiration:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal.”  We should all aspire to live that truth.  We now have the opportunity and obligation to reach that truth together.

 

Faith Roessel’s comments from her letter are used with permission.

Photo credits:  Photo of the “Chief” sign by Terry Bacon; 1950s housewife illustration:  ID 42096947 © Retro Clipart | Dreamstime.com; portrait of a Jew by Liusa @ shutterstock.com.

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The Spring of Our Discontent

Illustration of George Floyd

The three most indelible images of the spring of 2020 will be shuttered stores, socially distanced Americans wearing masks, and a white cop murdering an unarmed, handcuffed black man by kneeling on his neck.  As I write this, protests over the death of George Floyd are continuing across the country and beyond.  Most of the protesters are peaceful, but some have vented their rage or taken advantage of the chaos by rioting and looting.  The nightly scenes of burning cars and buildings and lines of riot police and National Guard troops shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at surging crowds recall the worst riots of America’s troubled legacy of slavery and the oppression of minorities.  It astonishes me that more than one hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, some Americans still cling to the inane belief that ethnicity and skin color matter, that one race can be superior or inferior to another.

photos of burning cars
The rage provoked by George Floyd’s death was an unfortunate but inevitable outcome of simmering racial injustice and police brutality

The turmoil following George Floyd’s murder is no doubt exacerbated by months of enforced pandemic isolation, record unemployment, and the dread many Americans must feel, not only about dying from this pandemic, but about the prospect of losing their homes or apartments and feeding themselves and their children.  When forty million working Americans are out of work and watching their savings dwindle, and when hundreds of thousands of small business people are closing their doors, many of them forever, and when we witness a corrupt and incompetent president failing to address the pandemic seriously until it’s too late—the general malaise in our communities manifests itself in depression and systemic anxiety.  Then another black man is killed at the hands of a white cop, and this time the look on the cop’s face is one of smugness and superiority as he kneels on the black man’s neck for almost nine minutes, even after his victim lies unresponsive.

It is a sad commentary on our society that this could still happen in 2020, that such police tactics as restraining a suspect by kneeling on his neck haven’t been outlawed decades ago.  The murderer, Officer Derek Chauvin, is a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police and has a long record of using excessive force.  With that record, why was he still employed as a policeman?  How could the Minneapolis Police Department not recognize his penchant for violence and either fire him or take him off the streets?  A week after Floyd’s death, we watched as two members of the Buffalo Police Department shoved an unarmed, white, 75-year-old protester to the pavement and then walked on, along with a dozen of their fellow officers, as the man lay there with blood pouring from one ear.  What, in God’s name, has happened to the idea that our police are sworn to serve and protect?

It is gratifying to see so many white faces among the hundreds of thousands of protesters who have taken peacefully to the streets.  For systemic racism and injustice is truly not an African-American problem.  It is an American problem.  It is a human problem.  And at this moment in our history, it is a political problem.

We have a president whose pettiness, racism, misogyny, and self-service are not only blunting an effective federal response to the crisis but actively abetting the divisiveness and anger Floyd’s death prompted.  Trump’s decision to use of the American military to contain the protests is what petty dictators do when their citizens rise up.  And his cynical photo op at St. John’s Church was one of the low points of his dismal presidency.  Holding up a Bible as an appeal to his base was callous and reeked of insincerity and political calculation.  Anyone who believes that Donald Trump is a Christian, or has even read the Bible, is drinking the Kool-Aid.  This is not to say that Trump is without religion.  The evidence from his life and behavior indicates that he does believe in a holy trinity:  Himself, Money, and Power.  That is what he worships.

He is a malignancy, but even worse are the banana Republicans who have compromised their Republican ideals—and Constitutional responsibilities—to placate him, feather their own nests, and avoid offending his base by criticizing him or opposing him in any way.  As shocking and sad as George Floyd’s death was, it has been more painful to watch the slow erosion of our democracy at the hands of a disgraceful president and Republican senators who have failed, despite Trump’s repeated assaults on our institutions, free press, allies, and treaties, to resist his unquenchable thirst for power and exercise their responsibilities as a key branch of our government and a check his excessive use of executive power.

Photo of lines of police
Police and National Guard troops were out in force to quell the worse of the rioting, but Trump wanted to mobilize even more troops to dominate the streets.

The banana Republicans have stood idly by as this wanna-be autocrat has taken greater and greater liberties.  Now we’re facing an existential crisis on multiple fronts.  The Covid-19 pandemic has taken over a hundred thousand American lives, many of which were unnecessary deaths, because Trump ignored the signs and dismissed the virus when it was clear to the experts that it posed a lethal threat.  Now millions of Americans are out of work, perhaps permanently, and hundreds of thousands of small businesses (and some big ones) will fail because of Trump’s belated recognition that the pandemic was real and would not, as he asserted, disappear through some miracle.  Now we have serious civil unrest because the racism and white supremacy Trump coddles has led to a black man’s death that has finally ignited the level of acknowledgement and activism that could lead to significant change, if not in the hearts and minds of those who support Trump, at least in the policing practices that led to Floyd’s death.

The murder of George Floyd provoked a greater outpouring of rage than any of the previous killings of black Americans by white cops, and as I watched the video of that cop kneeling on Floyd’s neck, I wondered why this killing had so much impact.  I believe it’s for several reasons.  The image of a white man kneeling on a black man’s neck represents not just a single instance of racial violence but is emblematic of centuries of oppression—from the slave trade to reconstruction and the birth of the KKK, and from Jim Crow and segregation to police violence during the Civil Rights movement of the sixties.  Also potent is the image of a black man dying by an assault to his neck.  The neck is a highly symbolic part of the human anatomy.  People are executed by being hanged by the neck.  African slaves, particularly males, were often restrained by collars around their necks, and in one of the most disreputable periods of our nation’s history, blacks were lynched by white mobs.  Photos of those lynched bodies are a painful reminder of the racial fear and hatred that are part of America’s legacy.  Black lives do matter.  All lives matter.

Photo of a woman wearing a mask
Compounding the anguish over George Floyd’s murder is the pandemic that has left many Americans feeling isolated and depressed.

Our nation is in crisis, and the only hope we have to reverse this ruinous course will come in November with the general election.  No significant change will come from a racist president whose response to these protests has been to call the protesters “terrorists,” order the military to dominate the streets, and threaten violence by proclaiming, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”  No significant change will come from a national leader who lacks empathy, has no understanding of the Constitution, and views himself as an all powerful dictator.  And no change will come while we have do-nothing Republicans in the House and Senate who remain silent and cower when their master speaks.

We need to vote Trump out of office.  Equally, we need to vote out the complicit Republicans who have actively or passively colluded with him.  Maybe, if enough Republicans are defeated, the remaining members of that grand old party will regain their senses and return to the Republican ideals that have made them essential partners in our democracy.  Thereafter, we pray that we will be reunited as a people, that we will finally make real strides toward racial equity and equal justice, that our government will act in a non-partisan manner and return to responsible free-world leadership, and that the Administration will benefit all Americans instead of one man and his family.

 

Photo credits:  George Floyd vector art:  ariyantodeni / Shutterstock.com; burning cars: Micah Casella / Shutterstock.com; line of police:  Claudio Schneider | Dreamstime.com; tearful woman wearing mask:  Andy Dean Photography / Shutterstock.

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Nationalism and Its Malcontents

The cold wind of intolerance, authoritarianism, and nationalism is blowing across America and Europe. The unexpected rise of Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee in the United States and the recent political stirrings in Europe are oddly built of the same cloth. Intolerance of non-citizens, the belief that present governments have subordinated their countries best interests for outsiders, and the need for new leaders, whose view of their countries best interests seems to call for an upending of the joint efforts to build a collective defense system like NATO and an economic union like the EU. They are united in their belief that each individual country should do what’s best for their sovereignty, rather than build co-operative relations between countries.

—HuffPost, December 6, 2017

 

When Donald Trump vowed to “Make America Great Again!” he was echoing the campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Back then voters sought renewal after the failures of the Carter presidency. This month they elected Mr. Trump because he, too, promised them a “historic once-in-a-lifetime” change.

But there is a difference. On the eve of the vote, Reagan described America as a shining “city on a hill.” Listing all that America could contribute to keep the world safe, he dreamed of a country that “is not turned inward, but outward—toward others.”  Mr. Trump, by contrast, has sworn to put America First. Demanding respect from a freeloading world that takes leaders in Washington for fools, he says he will “no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”  Reagan’s America was optimistic:  Mr. Trump’s is angry.

—The Economist, November 19, 2016

 

Nationalism is on the rise across the world.  From Trump’s victory in 2016 to Brexit to Neo-Nazi resurgence in Germany to anti-immigrant politicians gaining power in Italy, Turkey, Greece and other nations, we are seeing a new wave of nationalism, the strongest since Hitler rose to power in Germany in the 1920s.  In a rally in Houston in 2018, Trump said, “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”  At the same rally, he denounced those who disagree with him. “Radical Democrats want to turn back the clock” to restore the “rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists.  You know what a globalist is, right? You know what a globalist is? A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that.”

Trump at a political rally
Donald Trump leads his malcontents at a political rally

As many pundits and presidential historians have noted, Donald Trump is the most divisive president in recent memory.  He rose to power and maintains it by railing against those he sees as “evil others”:  immigrants, liberals, Democrats, members of the so-called “deep state.”  Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines nationalism as “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”  Although Trump equates his brand of nationalism with patriotism, and he often wraps himself in the American flag and clothes his rallies in the stars and stripes, the dictionary says that patriotism, while emphasizing strong feelings for one’s country, “does not necessarily imply an attitude of superiority.”

The Evil Others

There is nothing wrong with having pride in one’s country, of course, but nationalism, unlike patriotism, veers toward an identity of exclusivity that leads nationalists to invent “evil others.”  For there to be an “us,” which nationalists value above all, there must be a “them,” others who are “not us,” who are different because they don’t share the nationalists’ heritage, birthrights, ethnicity, norms, values, or other aspects of their national identity.  When the people who share this national identity feel threatened or disenfranchised, it is easy to blame the “evil others” for their woes, and those others become excluded, feared, hated, and possibly repressed, outlawed, and exterminated.

Following a humiliating defeat in World War I, Germany faced burdensome war reparation payments and rampant inflation, which left ordinary Germans scrambling to survive.  The German government was inept, and communists were agitating for a socialist revolution.  Those circumstances opened the door for nationalist agitator Dietrich Eckart, his acolyte and successor Adolf Hitler, and their National Socialist Workers Party.  Hitler understood the mood of the nation and stepped in promising to “make Germany great again.”  He appealed to national pride and blamed Germany’s woes on its traditional enemies (Britain and France), on the communists, and, increasingly, on the Jews.  He found populist footing with his master race identity card and gained power by promising to restore Germany to its former glory.

As Hitler’s power grew, German politicians who might have opposed him were silenced by the fervor of his supporters, particularly those in the SA, the Nazi paramilitary arm, and an improving economy.  As the world emerged from a general depression in the early 1930s, the German economy improved.  Ordinary Germans were able to find jobs and feed their families, and they felt renewed pride in their German identity.  The foundation of Hitler’s rise to power was his ability to capitalize on the grievances of common people during a period of social stress and to blame Germany’s problems on enemies outside Aryan racial identity.  When he’d gained enough power to subvert Germany’s legal systems and not be challenged by the populace, he was able to take the next logical step—to purge the German nation (and then other nations) of undesirables (Jews, gypsies, communists, the mentally ill or infirm, and others he and his regime considered subhuman).

Nationalism is not inherently extremist, but when it is leavened by fear, resentment, and hate, it can twist violently to the right.  Movements to the left can be equally dangerous—witness the

Illustration of an elephant (Republication) punching a donkey (Democrat)
Nationalism requires enemies–an “us” versus “them,” an evil other to blame for all woes

purges by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.  Radical political swings to either extreme can yield polarization, hatred of the other, and societal acquiescence toward or participation in the elimination of perceived threats to the prevailing body politic.  When the dominant ideology in a state supplants the state, and when opposition to extremist rhetoric is silenced or suppressed, then the unthinkable can become thinkable as the norms that have governed moral and political right and wrong are perverted, and the new normal permits action against minorities or others who oppose the leader.

To be sure, every society includes a full spectrum of people who support the nationalist leader, on the one hand, or oppose that leader on the other.  Most people fall in the vast middle of the bell curve.  They are just trying to live their lives, go to work, raise their children, and pursue their version of happiness.  They have no strong political leanings or they don’t care enough, in normal circumstances, to become involved.  Given the opportunity, they will remain apolitical so long as their lives are essentially okay.  But nationalist drum banging and patriotic rhetoric (“Make American Great Again!”) can bleed the vast center and enjoin those middle-of-the-roaders, primarily the working class, in a movement to the right if the nationalist leader can persuade them that the threats he rails against are real (immigrants will take your jobs, liberals will allow criminals to roam the streets, other nations will cheat us or not pay their fair share for the common defense, climate change zealots will destroy industries like coal, Democrats will weaken our national defense, and so on).

Trumpian Conservatism

The danger of Trumpian conservatism comes not from the arch conservatives who support him because he will help them achieve their goals, no matter how repugnant they find the man personally.  The danger comes from the right-leaning middle who are inclined to believe the propaganda Trump spouts because they are concerned about their jobs, don’t perceive a brighter future for their children, or fear that immigrants and ethnic minorities will pervert their national identity.  White nationalists are especially fearful that immigrants and minorities will gain political clout as their numbers grow and will fundamentally change the way the nation looks, feels, and votes.  The malcontents of nationalism are the people from the vast middle who’ve taken MAGA to heart and support Trump despite his lies, boorish behavior, brazen attacks on opponents, and conspicuous displays of wealth and privilege, even as he proclaims himself the friend of working Americans.

Photo of a small Latino boy behind a metal fence
One of Trump’s Evil Others: an immigrant boy grasping a metal fence

Trump has steered these malcontents to the right by polarizing the country, wrapping his racism and nationalism is the flag of patriotism, and demonizing everyone who disagrees with him or points out his lies (hence, his relentless attacks on mainstream media, whom he calls “the enemy of the people”).  Trump’s brand of nationalism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but he understands that those who’ve bought his nationalist rhetoric aren’t up to scrutinizing him.  He has them in his pocket, just as Hitler had a growing percentage of average Germans in his pocket as he fervently spoke about the “evil others” who were keeping Germany down.

German nationalism in the 1920s and 30s should not be seen as an aberration but as a warning.  Don’t imagine that it couldn’t happen in America.  Already, the vast majority of hate-driven crimes since Trump’s election has been right-wing violence.  Anti-Semitic and racial animus are on the rise.  Hate speech is growing.  Increasingly, there is a divide between “us” and “them,” driven largely by Trump’ divisive rhetoric.  Trump is stirring the pot of malcontent, and he’s doing it for the basest of reasons:  to stay in power.  Trump has not been able to organize violence against his enemies, but he’s attempted it, notably in his rallies when he’ encouraged supporters to beat up protestors.  Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, wrote, “The President of the United States openly identifies himself as a nationalist, calls for the jailing of his political opponents, attacks the press & cozies up to dictators, while Republicans in Congress stand idly by.”

Trump’s brand of nationalism, aided and abetted by his malcontents and Congressional Republicans who appease them, has not yet become full-scale demagogy and violent nationalism, but it has that potential.

Nationalism in the Age of Covid-19

On March 23, 2020, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump tweeted:  “THIS IS WHY WE NEED BORDERS!”  As the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating in our country, his instinct is to protect America by keeping the Evil Others outside.  Secure our borders!  Build walls!  Allow no intruders to get in!  Isolate the country from the rest of the world!

Except this intruder, a virus so small it can’t even be seen in detail under a microscope, is incredibly infectious and would have gotten into our country no matter how strong our borders were or how high the walls.  To have prevented Covid-19 from reaching us, Trump would have had to seal the borders the moment the virus emerged, not months later.  He would have had to stop all travel into and out of the country and suspend all trade—an obviously impossible feat even for a president as grandiose in his puffery as Donald Trump.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the march of Trumpian nationalism by exposing the folly of Fortress America.  The virus respects no boundaries or walls and is an insidious, unseen enemy.  Trump has been trying to label it the “Chinese virus” and thus blame an “other” for a national crisis that is exposing his failings as a leader, but as the numbers of infected and dead rise, it’s clear to everyone, even FOX News, that the “Us versus Them” strategy Trump relies on to rally his base is ringing hollow in the face of a global disease.

World map showing coronavirus spread
Covid-19 respects no boundaries, walls, borders, or political barriers. Its insidious spread shows the folly of Trump’s Fortress America

In the fight against this pandemic, battle lines can’t be drawn between liberals and conservatives, or Democrats and Republicans, or immigrants and America-born citizens.  We are all in this together.  To win the fight, people from every part of the human and political spectrum must cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice across the board.  So, for the moment, Trump’s polarization has been swept away by the rising tide of the infection and its impacts on the healthcare system, food and medical supply chains, and the stock market.  When we emerge from this crisis, we will likely see a very different country, and Trump’s nationalism will only triumph if he can convince the survivors that to prevent further pandemics we need to build higher walls, keep more people out of the country, and treat immigrants, particularly illegals, as mortal enemies.

It’s difficult to imagine at this point how Trump will later try to spin the Covid-19 pandemic so that it’s the Democrats’ fault or a failing of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.  Trump is at the helm of the federal government, and his ship has been foundering as the crisis deepens.  He is trying now to re-write history and present himself as fully in command of this crisis, but his earlier dismissals of Covid-19 and its seriousness are on tape and will no doubt be replayed—as they should be—when the election nears.  No nationalist, no matter how grand his boasts or how loudly he tries to reshape history, can outrun a silent, unseen menace that has no regard for politics or respect for politicians.

To promote his brand of nationalism, Trump needs enemies, and with the presidential election coming in November, he will surely try to lay the blame on the Democrats.  To win, Donald Trump needs his loyal base, his mass of malcontents, his true believers, who numbly agree when a FOX spokesman declares that the coronavirus epidemic is “a Democratic hoax,” as Sean Hannity did just a few weeks ago.  Trump needs his malcontents to believe in the dream and the lie of Fortress America and to believe that all their grievances lie at the hands of Evil Others whom, they claim, are less patriotic and less righteous than they.  Trump thrives on division, not unity, and that will not serve him well as Covid-19 continues its unbiased devastation of people, our medical system, and the economy.

Nationalists like Hitler and Trump don’t need truth on their side as long as they have supporters whose grievances make them gullible.    They just need a well-oiled propaganda machine, which Trump has, and media outlets like FOX and Twitter available to trumpet their messages.  And they need a mass of malcontents who are willing to believe that the world really is an “Us versus Them” struggle and that the people the leader identifies as enemies—Jews, communists, Democrats, liberals, the Deep State, the mainstream press, immigrants—are to blame for all of their woes and are mortal threats to their national identity.

 

Photo credits:  Nazi flagbearers:  Everett Historical @Shutterstock.com; Trump rally:  Shot Stalker @ Shutterstock.com; elephant punching donkey:  Susilo Hidayatk @ Shutterstock.com; boy behind metal fence:  tcareob72 @ Shutterstock.com; Coronavirus:  ID 174295771 © Buddhilakshan4 | Dreamstime.com

 

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Hitler and Trump

By Jon Blake

May 3, 2019

As I was packing three weeks ago for what has become my annual trip back to Oxford for the International Media Law Moot Court Championships in the second week of April, I scanned the overflowing bookshelves beside my bed to look for a book I could read in the nooks and crannies of a hectic and gratifying week-long schedule of events.  What caught my attention was the thinnest most unassuming of the books, a paperback so old and tattered that it had lost its binding.  When I pulled it out, the barely functional front cover read, “The Last Days of Hitler” by Trevor Roper, an historian whose work I had long admired and who, shortly after the end of World War II, Britain had tasked with investigating Hitler’s death, in part to counter rampant rumors that Hitler had escaped and was living in all manner of places plotting his return to power.  I remembered those rumors as a boy.  They were prompted by the fact that Hitler’s remains had not been found at the time Roper wrote his book.  A popular explanation was that the Russian military, which was first on the scene at Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, had found them and secreted them away in Moscow. Stalin had been a major promoter of the idea that Hitler had escaped.  When Stalin died eight years after Hitler’s death, the Russians revealed that since the end of the war they had had the remains of both Eva Braun and Hitler, including Hitler’s jaw.  Based on prewar dental records, it was then definitively proven to be Hitler’s. In the 10th edition of his book, Roper described the unfolding of these facts.

The book, as a physical object, was on its last legs, would not survive until my next opportunity to read it, and was the right length to read throughout the week and most likely on the eight-hour return flight.  I was also certain that it would be relevant to the issue of hate speech, a major theme of the moot court arguments and related discussions and currently a hot, life-or-death issue both in our country and worldwide.

And so I started reading the fragile, browning pages that fell out of the binding as I turned them and fluttered to the floor of the trans-Atlantic flight returning me home a week later.  What leapt at me from the first few pages were the uncanny parallels between the environment in the complex of bunkers in Berlin where Hitler spent the last several weeks before he and Eva Braun, whose existence he had tried to hide from his country for over a decade, committed suicide, and the environment in our nation’s White House.  Hitler was a supreme narcissist, often had temper tantrums when he foamed at the mouth, and humiliated his cabinet ministers, aides, and military commanders and fired them for any suspected disloyalty.  All but one of his circle of closet advisers were toadies, trying desperately to outdo each other in their sycophancy.

For purposes of comparison, recall the cringe-worthy televised Trump cabinet meeting at which each of the members spoke of what they most admired about the president.  Roper refers to Hitler’s closest advisors not as a government but as the court of a 16th century potentate in a small, backward and corrupt Southeast Asian nation.  Another similarity came to me as I listened to the taxi’s radio that drove me home from Dulles Airport after my return flight.  It was reporting on Trump’s purge of the Homeland Security Department, purges being a staple of Hitler’s governance style.

As I progressed more deeply into the text, I also began to notice individual-by-individual parallels between Hitler’s inner circle and Trump’s.  Uninformed by any other source of information inside the cabin of the United Airlines plane, I paired Goebbels with Steven Miller and Bannon; Borman with Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and perhaps Nick Mulvaney; Himmler with Wilbur Ross or Steve Mnuchin; Goering with Giuliani or perhaps Scott Pruitt; Schellenberg, Hitler’s foreign intelligence officer, with John Bolton; and, of course, Hitler with Trump.

My imagination took me one step further.  Could a play be written about Hitler’s last months that highlighted, but not explicitly, the parallels between the overall environment of the two men’s flailing governments and the mentalities of their leading figures?  It occurred to me that several of the figures among Hitler’s closest advisors in the play could be made up to look like their counterparts in the Trump cabinet, without the counterparts being identified by name.  It would be easy, I thought, to make up the actor playing Hitler to look like Trump because of his hair, the Himmler character to look like Wilbur Ross with his tired frog-like appearance, and the Schellenberg character to look like John Bolton, because of his distinctive mustache.

As I read on toward the end of the book, I came to the period beginning a few weeks before his death, when Hitler repeatedly ranted that the German people were not worthy of his heroic leadership and, in a campaign of brutal retribution, actively sought to impose maximum suffering on the German people.  Thus, he gave orders from his bunker to withhold military support for his soldiers and German citizens on the Eastern front in order to let the murderous Russian army penetrate Berlin, rather than the Western allies that generally respected the rules of war contained in the Geneva Convention.  To further explain Hitler’s motivation, Roper quotes from Mein Kampf, which Hitler had written fifteen years earlier, a slogan that defined his mentality as “world dominance or total ruin.”  He had come to the “total ruin” stage.

I found it frighteningly easy to imagine Trump, in a moment of impassioned pique at some failure in his crazy agenda, lashing out at his countrymen and supporters in similarly punitive ways.  In fact, journalists as a group and even individually have been cast in that role since the start of his Administration, and Trump has repeatedly and publicly incited violence against them.  That said, Trump clearly lacks the steely resolve that made Hitler such a powerful leader.  Even Trump’s intense hatred of Muslims and other minorities, though similar to Hitler’s pathological campaign to exterminate Jews, gypsies, and Slavs, is lazier and for show.  There is not much there, there.  In the end, Trump is always the con man and Hitler, the true believer, though both, at their core, were rooted exclusively in themselves—one a buffoon; the other a man monster.

Hitler’s last days were full of dramatic events, e.g., Hitler’s order to kill Goering, Himmler’s betrayal, Hitler’s last-minute decision about who should succeed him after he committed suicide, his last desperate and repeated deployment orders to a German Army division that had been destroyed weeks before he issued those orders, and Hitler’s marriage to Eva Braun less than 24 hours before their joint suicides.  Perhaps oddest of all, as Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies were being burned in the garden above the bunker to prevent Russian soldiers from desecrating their corpses, the remaining members of Hitler’s entourage in the bunker—from Goebbels, his wife and five children, Bormann, the Iago of the group, and ordinary typists and policemen, broke into festivities, smoked (an indulgence that Hitler had banned) and even danced in the bunker—a reaction that even surprised the participants, both at the time and later when they were interviewed.

Fascinating characters also abound.  For a week or so before Hitler’s suicide, a bizarre young woman who cultivated her reputation as a heroic spy and pilot, stayed in Hitler’s bunker.  Of all the witnesses of the last days’ events in the bunker, she had the most unreliable memory, or perhaps was the most delusional or histrionic.  There was also one man in the inner circle, though not in the bunker, Albert Speer who was clear-eyed from almost the beginning of Hitler’s ascendency about the events, Hitler, and the people surrounding him.  But Speer could not shake off the thrall that Hitler cast over him.  He was executed for war crimes after the Nuremberg trials.

Lastly, of Hitler himself, here are the ruminations of his Finance Minister toward the end, who had been a German Rhodes Scholar before the war:  “It was terrible to hear, that no counsel, no reasoned arguments, no reference to the fearful sufferings of our poor people, can break through those walls which the Fuehrer has erected around his convictions, and behind which he allows nobody to see.  Can it be that there is really nothing there—only the gigantic obstinacy of a deluded spirit, sacrificing all to its self-worshipping Ego?”

In a note to the 10th edition of the book, Roper tries to answer the question why the Germans acceded, with so little resistance, to Hitler’s increasingly volatile, unstable, and destructive leadership.  He observes:  “Dictatorships kill political intelligence in the governed, as well as in the governors.”  I wondered as I read that sentence whether it isn’t after all the best explanation for why Trump’s base is so loyal to him despite all of his crazed actions, policies, and exhortations.

 

Commentary by Terry Bacon

I published this article by Jon Blake in part because he is a well-educated student of history and a keen observer of politics and politicians and in part because other observers of our current political situation have also noted the parallels between Hitler and Trump.  Are the similarities between these two men worrisome enough that we should fear an American rendition of the madness and ultimate destruction of Nazi Germany?  The idea that history repeats itself is an old one.  It’s first recorded use in English was reportedly in 1561, but its most famous expression is from Spanish philosopher George Santayana, who wrote in 1906, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So it behooves us to recognize the ways in which Trump is like Hitler–as well as the ways in which he is not.  The preservation of our democracy may depend on it.

I’ve just finished watching a fascinating documentary on Netflix entitled, “The Dark Charisma Adolf Hitler,” which I would highly recommend.  As I watched it, I kept Jon Blake’s article in mind and noted a number of similarities between Adolf Hitler and our current president:

  1. Hitler ignored or perverted the rule of law and assumed absolute power.  After becoming Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, Hitler asked President von Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag (the German equivalent of our Congress).  In the general election that followed, the Nazis received less than fifty percent of the vote, so in March of that year Hitler connived to have Hindenburg sign the Enabling Act, which allowed Hitler and his cabinet to pass laws without the new Reichstag’s involvement or approval.  In circumventing the legislative branch of the German government, Hitler seized sole executive and legislative power, effectively making him a dictator.   Trump cannot dissolve Congress, but he has found ways to circumvent our legislative branch of government when Congress won’t do his bidding.  After Congress wouldn’t fund his wall, Trump took money from other parts of government, mainly the Department of Defense, to fund the wall’s construction.  More recently, he and his administration have been ordering people like Don McGahn, William Barr, and others to ignore Congressional subpeonas.  Trump has extended “Executive Privilege” far beyond its traditional boundaries, and he’s used his power to pardon as a carrot or stick to reward people who are loyal to him or punish those who aren’t or might not be loyal.  Trump has not yet had the audacity to go as far as Hitler did in consolidating executive power, but that clearly is his impulse and desire.  He wants to make unilateral decisions and is frustrated when he can’t.  If he could govern without a legislature (aka Reichstag), he would.  Bear in mind that before he became president, he ran a business empire where he was the sole decision maker, virtually a god.  He doesn’t know any other way to govern.
  2. Hitler used violence against his enemies, killing many of them and sending others to prison or concentration camps.  Trump wishes violence upon his opponents.  He’s done it openly in rallies when he speaks about smashing a reporter or a protester in the face (and offers to pay the legal bills of any of his followers who will do that).  He praised the Montana GOP representative who body slammed a reporter, and he frequently talks tough in extreme ways, as when he said that if Iran went to war against the U.S. Iran would cease to exist.  Trump is a bully through and through and believes in violence as a means to an end.  We are fortunate that he cannot create a private police force like Hitler’s Storm Troopers and the Gestapo–because if he could he would–and thousands of his gun-toting supporters would join.
  3. Hitler took his racism and hatred to a genocidal extreme, ordering the deaths of millions of Jews, gypsies, and other people he considered undesirable.  Trump is also a racist and a misogynist.  His “Make America Great Again” is a euphemism for keeping America white, and his staunchly anti-immigrant position is a thinly veiled attempt to keep brown people out of the country.  He refuses to condemn white supremacist violence (ala Charlottesville) because it would rankle his base and, at his core, he approves of it.  His anti-Democrat, anti-liberal rhetoric is intended to inflame his supporters, and it works.  The instances of thwarted right-wing terrorist attacks against news media and Democratic politicians prove that point.
  4. Hitler reserved all the important decisions to himself, and while the Germans were winning in the early years of WWII they were content to allow him to make unilateral decisions because he considered him flawless.  As Nazi victories came so easily from 1939-1941, many Germans, including high-ranking military officers, thought he was a military genius.  Trump prefers to make all the major decisions by himself, too.  He once said, “I don’t listen to other people, deliberately.”  In a Fox News interview about all the empty positions at the State Department, Trump said, “I’m the only one who matters.”  Like Trump, Hitler was a narcissist and egotist who believed his own delusions about his infallibility and genius.  When the tide inevitably turned against him, he blamed everyone but himself.
  5. Hitler was at his best in large rallies.  He glorified in the adulation of the crowd and gave rousing speeches about the wrongs done to Germany by its enemies, about Germany’s rightful role in the world, and about his grand vision for the future of Germany under his leadership.  Sound familiar?  Trump is truly in his element at his political rallies, staged and orchestrated as they are by his staff, where thousands of MAGA hat-wearing loyalists hold signs with his name on them and clap, cheer, and chortle at his every pronouncement, no matter how false or nonsensical it might be.  Trump is a natural born marketer, and his favorite product is himself.  The glories heaped upon him by adoring crowds feed his ego like no other source of nourishment.   Likewise, Hitler stood proud and complete as throngs of Germans shouted “Sieg, heil!” and raised their right arms in the Nazi salute at pauses in his rousing speeches.
  6. Lastly, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, claimed that Hitler was sent by God to help the German people, and a bastion of the German Christian church not only supported Hitler but carried a version of the Nazi flag with a cross in the center instead of a Swastika.  Similarly, Franklin Graham and televangelist Paula White have opined that Trump was sent by God for the American people, a claim echoed by millionaire Michael Lindell at the recent CPAC.  More disturbing, a Fox News poll found that 25 percent of Americans believe Trump was sent by God.  When you believe that an obviously flawed leader was sent to you by the Almighty, then that person, by definition, can do no wrong.

America is not likely to follow the disastrous path Nazi Germany took, despite these similarities between Hitler and Trump.  Hitler was a powerful orator, and Trump is barely articulate.  Hitler was a powerful enough speaker to enlist the majority of German citizens in his quest for national and racial superiority, and he came to power when the German people were suffering from runaway inflation, depression, starvation, high unemployment, and national humiliation following Germany’s defeat in WWI.  Trump is claiming to make America great again, but most people believe the country was already great.  We aren’t suffering the deprivations the Germans were in the 1920’s and 30’s.  When Trump claims that he’s responsible for everything good in our lives now, including a robust economy, most of us know better, and when he tells us the press and the Democrats enemies of the people, we know he’s just trying to inflame his base.  In the end, I take solace in Jon Blake’s conclusion that Hitler was a true believer and a man monster, whereas Donald Trump is a con man and a buffoon.

I don’t normally quote Karl Marx, but in this case the quote is too apt.  He said, “Hegel remarks somewhere that history tends to repeat itself.  He forgot to add:  the first time as tragedy; the second time as farce.”  Hitler was the tragedy; Trump is the farce.

I’m going to close my commentary, first by thanking Jon Blake for allowing me to publish his article, and second by quoting Teddy Roosevelt:

”Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”

Here is a salute to all true patriots.

 

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How Donald Trump Wins

His Five Strategies for Conning His Constituency

He is a deeply flawed leader–a vain, narcissistic self-promoter; an exemplar of moral turpitude; an absurdly uninformed, undisciplined and inarticulate thinker; a grandiose misfit who can’t

Photo of Donald Trump with one arm raised
Donald Trump with arm raised

tolerate criticism and lashes out at every slight, deriding opponents with schoolyard taunts and blatant misrepresentations.  He is scandalously hostile or indifferent to our closest allies but embraces dictators and tyrants like new-found best friends.  And he lies, so shamelessly and so often that truth is obscured in the chaos of the noise and confusion he creates.

He is our president.

How he won the presidency—and how he maintains a loyal following among a devoted minority of Americans—is a case study in the art and practice of manipulation.  He longs to be incomparable among men, and while he is a deeply flawed leader of our nation he is unquestionably a great flimflam man, perhaps the greatest in history.  Flimflam is the art of fraud and deception, a con game achieved by clever manipulation of victims.  Donald Trump practices this dark art through the accomplished use of five strategies:  ignoring, counterattacking, obfuscating, agreeing (and then disregarding), and minimizing contamination.  He uses these five strategies so predictably that they’ve become behavioral tics, his signature moves for confounding both his allies and his enemies.

Ignoring Controversies

One of Trump’s most frequent strategies, especially in dealing with issues that would derail a normal president, is to ignore the issue long enough for it to die on the vine.  He has done this successfully so far with the Stormy Daniels controversy.  An alleged affair with a porn star is tawdry enough to rank with Bill Clinton’s use of a cigar with Monica Lewinsky, but Trump has simply declined to respond to the allegations with one notable exception—when he lied on Air Force One about not knowing about Michael Cohen’s payments (just days before the election) to Daniels to buy her silence.  But for that one slip, Trump has consistently ignored the Stormy Daniels controversy and allowed his minions to deny the affair and deflect Michael Avenatti’s ongoing attacks.

Photo of Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti
Porn star Stormy Daniels and attorney Michael Avenatti

The Daniels affair has generated ongoing buzz because Avenatti (Daniel’s attorney) has doggedly pursued it in the media, but Trump has been more successful in ignoring his affair with former Playboy model Karen McDougal, with whom he had an ongoing relationship after First Lady Melania Trump gave birth to their son.  It is arguably more morally repugnant to have an affair while your wife is nursing a baby than to have a one-time romp with a porn star, but the McDougal affair has faded into the recesses of public memory because McDougal lacks an Avenatti bulldog.

Ignoring his affair with Karen McDougal has worked beautifully for Trump.  So has ignoring the controversy surrounding White House aide Kelly Sadler’s comment that they could ignore John McCain‘s opposition in the Senate “because he’s dying anyway.”  That impolitic blunder made huge waves in the press and brought well-deserved ire down on a White House insider who crudely attacked a war hero and highly respected Senator.  Trump dealt with the controversy—by ignoring it.  He refused to address the aide’s comment and did not fire her, as most normal people would, and his minions chose to deflect attention to the outrageous comment about McCain by attacking “leakers” in the White House.

Trump also deftly ignored the criticism following his Oval Office meeting on immigration when he said, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”  Likewise, he ignored criticism of his failure to condemn far-right extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia, who marched through the streets carrying torches, screaming racist remarks, and attacking counter-demonstrators.  In both cases, his unpresidential behavior drew widespread bipartisan ire, and he dealt with it by ignoring it.  Trump knows that news cycles have a short half-life and when people become preoccupied with the latest controversy the previous one loses steam and fades into the dustbins of memory, disregarded by his loyalists and deflated in the minds of detractors whose endurance, after all, does have limits.

Counterattacking Opponents

Trump has frequently said that he is a counterpuncher.  What this means is that he allows no slight, insult, or opposition to go unpunished.  He uses this strategy to defend against the most serious threats to his self-image or position:  Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, the firing of James Comey, the Mueller investigation, and credible vocal critics.  He counterpunches principally through ad hominem attacks, labeling his opponents “Crooked Hilary,” “Slippery James Comey,” “Crazy Bernie (Sanders)”, “Goofy Elizabeth Warren” and “Pocohontas,” “Little Rocket Man (Kim Jong-Un), “Dickie Durbin,” “Liddle Bob Corker,” and so on.  In an unusual moment of candor, Trump revealed his purpose in using these schoolyard put-downs to 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl when she asked why he relentlessly attacked the press.  He replied, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

Photo of Josef Goebbels
Nazi propaganda chief Josef Goebbels

That is Trump’s strategy in a nutshell:  to discredit his opposition through relentless accusations and name-calling, which he knows will stick in the minds of many rank-and-file voters if he repeats it often enough.  As Nazi Propaganda Chief Josef Goebbels once observed, “The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine.  Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitious.”  Trump knows this better than any living politician.  If you append a simple, demeaning moniker on an opponent and say it frequently enough through mass media, you can discredit your opponents and persuade millions of people to believe the worst about them, even if they’re lies.

The Mueller investigation of Russian meddling in our 2016 election is the most serious threat to Trump’s ego, credibility, and presidency, and his counterattack on Robert Mueller is consequently more complex though it’s essentially the same strategy.  Through a rotating team of lawyers, he has sought to denounce the investigation as unconstitutional, politicized, and unfair.  Many of his Twitter attacks are focused on the Mueller investigation, wherein he repeats the words, “Witch hunt,” “no collusion,” and “angry Democrats.”  His lawyers, notably Rudy Giuliani, frequently appear on news channels berating the investigation for one reason or another.  Giuliani confessed recently that they were attempting to damage Mueller’s credibility enough to undermine any subsequent attempt to impeach Trump.  Never mind that the truth matters and that Russian meddling in our democracy is a serious and ongoing threat to the country; their only aim is to protect Donald Trump.  And it appears to be working.  An alarming number of Americans today believe the Mueller investigation is politically motivated.

Creating Alternate Realities to Obfuscate the Truth

A common Trump strategy is to blatantly lie so as to create an alternate reality.  His charge last year that the Obama administration wiretapped his campaign phones is one example.  There was absolutely no truth to this charge, but to Trump the truth doesn’t matter.  His aim is to make noise and distract both his supporters and detractors with conspiracy theories so patently ridiculous that only fools would believe them—and plenty of fools do.  They’re the same fools who argue that the Earth is flat, that NASA faked the moon landings, and that our government masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon.  The lunatic fringe is eager to believe such nonsense, but a sizable part of the population is also gullible because they want to believe Trump’s claims.  They support the conservative tide he represents and are willing to believe it’s possible that Obama, whom many of them hated, could have stooped to wiretapping his political enemies. Here, confirmation bias is working in Trump’s favor.  People are inclined to believe something that confirms what they already think is true, so if Trump’s claims the Democrats are to blame for separating immigrant children from their parents–a claim Trump has made many times although it’s untrue–people in Trump’s base are inclined to believe it because they are already biased against Democrats.  Similarly, Trump has claimed that Democrats want to protect criminal gangs like MS-13.  This is another blatant lie, but enough of Trump’s supporters will believe it because they want to believe Democrats are weak on crime.

Just a month ago, Trump was promoting what he termed “Spygate,” the idea that the FBI planted a spy in his campaign.  He railed against this phony offense on Twitter, and many of his supporters ate it up.  Trump’s been trashing the FBI (largely because of their role in the Mueller investigation and because the hated James Comey used to direct the agency), so Trump’s more gullible loyalists could well imagine that he’d been wrongly spied upon by our own government.  When Congressional leaders heard the classified account of what the FBI actually did, the Spygate charge lost its luster.  No less a conservative Republican than Trey Gowdy said there was nothing to Trump’s Spygate charge, and Paul Ryan later confirmed Gowdy’s conclusion.  Both of these Trump-manufactured conspiracy theories were nonsense, but he doesn’t care.  His goal is to use fake facts to create noise in the system, to rile up his supporters and dominate the news cycles until he uses Another Next Big Lie to sow more confusion.

Like a good propagandist, Trump understands the value of symbolism.  He surrounds himself with American flags, military bands, and members of the military.  He professes outrage at NFL players taking a knee during the National Anthem and uses the media to excoriate them, saying not only that they should be fired but that they should leave the country.  He wraps himself in the symbols of patriotism and denounces his opponents for being unpatriotic.  In the 1930’s, Hitler did the same thing in Germany, and the Nazi flag became a symbol of righting all the imagined wrongs that Germany’s enemies had inflicted on the Motherland.  Hitler built his power base by excoriating his enemies and adopting German patriotism as both a rallying cry for his supporters and a weapon against his detractors.  When Trump declares that Democrats are unpatriotic, you should not believe it–but many people will, particularly those in his polarized base–but also many people who might be on the fence.

Illustration of Donald Trump and an American flag
Donald Trump and the American flag

Appearing to Agree—and then Disregarding the Agreement

During his presidential campaign, Trump was repeatedly asked to make his income tax returns available.  He delayed by saying that his returns were being audited, so he could not release them.  The IRS said that an ongoing audit did not matter; his returns could be released.  But Trump stuck to the assertion that he couldn’t release his returns until post-audit.  Then the election came and went, and he still hadn’t released his returns.  Afterwards, when people asked for his returns, he said he won the election without releasing his returns, so it obviously didn’t matter to the voters.  He still hasn’t released any returns.

With this strategy, Trump appears to agree with someone, makes excuses why it can’t happen right away, and then allows the issue to become a non-issue by delaying until it no longer matters.  Another example of this strategy is his response to the Parkland, Florida mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  In the horrific aftermath of that massacre when there was so much emotional fervor about gun control and taking steps to curtail the violence in our schools, Trump met with some Stoneman Douglas survivors and parents, and he earnestly promised to take steps to curb school violence, including some gun control measures.  He spoke loudly and (in)sincerely in a cabinet meeting about not being afraid of the NRA.

Then he appointed a commission to study how to end school violence, and he put Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in charge of it (surely the best way to ensure that nothing beneficial will come from it).  Recently, the DeVos commission said they were studying many ways to curb school shootings but were not looking at guns as an issue.  So much for Trump being unafraid of the NRA and being invested in ending school violence.  Just over two months after the Parkland shooting, he was a headline speaker at the NRA Convention.  When Donald Trump appears to agree with you, watch out.  He is as insincere as a con man’s smile and slipperier than a smooth-soled shoe on ice.

Minimizing Contamination

Here is a warning to Trump’s close friends:  you may be in-house now but if stuff sticks to you you’ll be out-house soon.  Among Trumps close friends who’ve felt the wind on their backs as they’ve

Photo of Michael Cohen
Michael Cohen leaving a Federal courthouse

been dumped are Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, and Michael Cohen.  Trump demands unconditional loyalty, but his own loyalty to others is barely skin deep.  His strategy, when scandal strikes nearby, is to minimize the contamination by distancing himself from the infected party.  After Paul Manafort came under Mueller’s microscope, Trump’s staff spun the idea that Manafort was a minor player in the campaign.  Trump dismissed him as having served only 45 days on the campaign.  Likewise, after Michael Cohen’s woes deepened, the official line was that Cohen actually did very little legal work for Trump and is no longer representing Trump.

Trump’s White House washing machine has a huge spin cycle operated by the likes of Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and no distortion of the truth is too large for these intrepid image cleaners.  They can make the dirtiest laundry look and smell brand new, or at least they try hard.  Many  people can see through this charade and recognize the attempt to manipulate reality, but enough other people will be fooled to make the effort worthwhile.

 

The pattern here is as evident.  If an issue is an embarrassment to Trump that he can’t make go away he will ignore it until it drops off the front page.  If an issue is serious, he will counterattack, usually through ad hominem attacks or he’ll try to create an alternate reality based on big, bold lies.  If he can’t avoid an issue, he may appear to agree and then disregard the agreement later, and if the issue is an insider who’s caught in a scandal, he will minimize the contamination by distancing himself.  What these strategies rely upon is the gullibility of a large part of Trump’s audience and his willingness to misrepresent the facts in order to create noise and confusion.

This is how Donald Trump wins.  It’s how he’s always won, and it’s how he will continue to win.  God help us if the country’s best interests get in the way because nothing matters to Trump except winning.

 

Photo credits:  Trump with arm raised:  Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com; Trump in front of U.S. flag:  VILevi / Shutterstock.com; Trump at rally:  a katz / Shutterstock.com; Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti:  JStone / Shutterstock.com; Michael Cohen:  JStone / Shutterstock.com.