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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Essay Peter Drexler, historian: on Trump in 2016. Think. How to Think About Trump.

 Visit German. Zivilcourage. Volte face -- the about-face, reversal, tide turning. Gleichschaaltung, the demand to get in gear.  Concepts from the experience of others to weigh heavily. The context is described in an essay source dated November 10, 2016, attributed to Peter Drexler, without title (I call it an essay on current times). It arrived in 2016, like the stork's gift, by email without attribution beyond name.  Is it fair use to quote a source that way?  Peter Drexler.  I find him, I think, but not it. No time! So "fair use" in this sense it is:  unfair to him to let it lie without dissemination, in times we live in.  Fair to all of us who can benefit from perspective. Agree or disagree, but think.  We are the path of all nations, at all times, sometimes. Path of Trump.  Where leads. Where not. Why not think about it.

I'll email the original to myself here as a comment. Will that work to preserve the actual original I received. How to think about Trump. Fine title. Offer suggestions, Mr. Drexler.  We are still searching for biographical data, see Foddersight.


Just as few people thought Trump could be elected, even fewer have thought seriously about how a Trump presidency might unfold.  Our natural reaction tends to be split.On one hand we abhor him as a man, and worry about specific actions he might take (Obamacare, women’s rights, immigrants). On the other hand, we are decent people and hope for the best.
Maybe the responsibilities of office will restrain him. Maybe he’ll hire good advisors. Maybe the constitutional balance of powers will restrict what he can do. We have a natural instinct to give the other guy a chance, to hope we can all pull together as Americans
Neither approach gets to the bottom of the matter. Ultimately it’s not about his personality, nor about specific issues. It is the fact that this man displays all the criteria of a potential dictator. Can’t happen here? It has happened in Germany and Russia, in Japan and China. 
It has happened in Italy, Spain and most of Latin America. It happened in revolutionary France and in Cromwell’s England. It happened in democratic Athens and republican Rome (a period of history full of contemporary parallels). And it can certainly can happen here.
Everyone has strong opinions at the moment. I hesitate to offer mine. But I think one area where I might have something useful to say regards dictatorships. 
My family lived through a dictatorship in Germany. I have studied that period intensively, particularly Hitler’s first year in office.
This is not a matter of comparing Trump to Hitler. He has shown no desire to invade Russia or murder millions. (Though it’s also true to say that the last political leader to advocate the forcible removal of millions of people bore the name of Adolf Hitler.) 
Instead it’s a matter of understanding how dictatorships work, how they can succeed against all expectations. Having experienced no revolutionary upheaval for two hundred years, Americans will find it difficult to imagine how suddenly and drastically our world can change. How will we know if a dictatorship may be in the making? Where to look for analogies? 
There are clear patterns, things to look out for. The conditions in which Hitler came to power, and the way he used that power may help give us a template for evaluating Trump, and what he might do in the next year.
Germany, having lost WW I and finding itself in the midst of the Depression, was in far worse shape than America today. But the fact is that political conditions in Germany in the early 1930s bear some striking resemblances to contemporary America. 
A.  How did such a man gain power? What were the political conditions he exploited?
1.     There was a pervasive sense of resentment and insecurity. Germany became what one writer calls an Angstgesellschaft, a society full of fears. It was a deeply split society, just like America today. 
2.      In the economic upheavals of the time there were major winners and losers, and suddenly the losers demanded to be heard. 
 3.      A new form of media, emotional rather than rational, utterly immune to calm analysis, played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power. The new propaganda films of the 1930s played a role similar to that of social media today.
4.     The center cannot hold. In Germany the decent politicians of the center were discredited. They were seen as corrupt, out to protect their own interests, and most importantly, weak and unable to get anything done.
5.     In such conditions of gridlock, the little guy, buffeted by global factors beyond his control, took keen pleasure in what the same German writer called die Inszenierung der Macht, the naked display of power on the national stage after a decade of seeming immobility.
6.  The Nazis broke the traditional left-right mold of German politics. They were nationalist and socialist. Just as Trump has broken the mold of right wing conservative vs. progressives, cannily incorporating bits and pieces from both sides.
7.     From initially being considered an impossible outsider, the dictator suddenly develops a sense of inevitability, of destiny.
These were some of the background elements which allowed a demagogue and dictator, a bully and a braggart to rise to high office. Will Trump become an American version of a dictator? He may be more like Mussolini than Hitler, or more like Argentina’s Juan Peron, or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. 
But the German example in 1933 is the best studied case, the one that can give us key clues to watch for, a kind of checklist to monitor what we may be up against.
All the accounts of German experience recount how suddenly everything changed, almost overnight. “It was like a thunderstorm.” Everyone seemed to get on board the new train. It was called Gleichschaltung, meaning getting in the same gear or on the same track. 
Americans aren’t particularly well equipped to recognize the symptoms of all this. We can’t quite believe things could change so profoundly and so quickly. We hope it will blow over. Like the Germans we may tell ourselves: once in power he will have to change his ways; the realities of office will constrict him; he’ll have smarter advisors.
I particularly remember my German aunt Marlisa once ruefully telling me that she had advised her Jewish friends, who were contemplating emigration, to stay in Germany. “It can’t get any worse,” she assured them.
We share a natural human instinct to think things can’t change drastically, that they won’t get much worse. We can’t quite put ourselves in a mindset to contemplate a whole new world.  
B. Here are some the clues to look for as we evaluate Trump:
 1)    The nastiest people in society are suddenly emboldened; they begin to crawl out of the woodwork. 

They prey on the weak and defenseless and get away with it. In response the government piously intones against such acts, but in their own coded language they encourage it. In some localities the police begin to turn a blind eye. 

It sets a tone of fear. We’ve already seen this at Trump’s rallies, in threats to journalists, and the threat to jail his opponent. This is one important measure: in no election in the past 240 years of American history has a candidate threatened to jail his opponent.

2)    The dictator takes all the instruments of power into his personal control. Trump will already have control of Congress. Will he appoint an extremist and conspiracy theorist like Giuliani as Attorney General? Even more importantly, watch who takes over the FBI.

3)    At the local level, new opportunities arise for advancement for those previously the marginalized as extremist. There are wholesale replacements in leadership at law enforcement agencies by people full of their new-found powers and loyal only to the dictator.  

4)    The new strongman has the wind at his back. Those who had publicly opposed him suddenly throw themselves at his feet. People are simply stupefied by how quickly the tide turns. Paul Ryan the day after the election strikes me as the perfect example of such a volte face. 

The smart dictator quickly destroys the careers of a few opponents to instill fear, and then graciously accepts the others into his camp, as lap dogs, who can’t wait to prove their loyalty. After all, they can see which way the wind is blowing, don’t want to be cut off from power and influence; don’t have the character to stand firm.

5)    Big business senses the way the wind is blowing and kowtows to the strongman. There’s money to be made. Things to look for: business leaders joining the government; big announcements of new factories in America; money begins to flow to the new man of the hour. Nobody wants to be left out, for there isn’t any big business which isn’t dependent on government for orders, regulations, permits, research funding, no company which isn’t vulnerable to being “investigated” for something or other. Plus business has a bit of a bad conscience over its actions in the past ten years. Best to play along in the new game.

6)    The same may apply to Democratic leaders such as governors. They too depend on federal largesse, would love to benefit from new infrastructure projects. They can’t afford to be left behind in the seeming rush to help the common man. They no longer speak out.

7)    The dictator enters office with a flurry of activity in all directions, creating a sense of excitement and new opportunities. Everything revolves around the strongman himself. In this whirlwind, the opposition hardly knows where to turn, where to oppose him. They become distracted, caught off guard (we never thought he would do that), begin to feel helpless, always one step behind events. Everything seems to be happening too fast to organize any effective opposition. Opponents feel wrongfooted, off balance, helpless.

8)    Then emergency measures are suddenly called for by some emergency, either real or imagined. The public thinks: “Well, something finally has to be done about all this. Maybe in this one instance we can stretch the law just a bit.” In Hitler’s case it was the burning of the Reichstag (the parliament building). Of course, we reassure ourselves that it will just be temporary.

9)    The shrewd dictator attacks one opponent at a time, allowing his other opponents a sigh of relief and the feeling: at least I escaped this one. They tend to shut up.

10)      Foreign policy is the particular preserve of dictators. They love to preen themselves on the international stage. (Look at Trump’s ludicrous foray into Mexico.) Here they have wide scope for action without Congressional approval. Instead of pursuing long term national interests, alliances, and an agreed set of rules of the game, the dictator sees foreign policy as his personal stage. It all becomes a matter of personal deals. It’s dramatic, captivates public attention, makes the strongman seem like a figure of destiny. He has no sense of the international order built up over decades; both free trade and NATO may become things of the past.

11)      Free Press. The major TV channels and other media are owned by large corporate interests which could find themselves vulnerable to the same regulatory and financial pressures as other big businesses. Do they start hiring Trump supporters “to give the other point of view?” (Cory Lewandowski at CNN). Do journalists fear being cut off from news sources if they don’t toe the line? Will TV ratings go down if your journalists no longer have the access to power, the scoops. Does the government continue to try to intimidate the press?

12)     Free trade. No major candidate spoke out in favor of free trade. Here Progressives agree with Trump, and free traders have already been nearly silenced. But the fact is that throughout history the free movement of people, the free movement of ideas and the free movement of capital and trade have always been correlated.

 Dictators don’t like freedom of any kind. Look for restrictions on foreign investment, forced repatriation of funds held abroad, the breakup of the postwar free trade agreements, attacks on “disloyal” companies.

We should also prepare ourselves for the idea that the strongman achieves what initially look like dramatic successes. From appearing to be a buffoon, the strongman, for all his faults, suddenly appears a winner—a man who can make things happen. An air of inevitability surrounds him. 

What might we look for? A big new agreement with Russia? China accepts to a new trade deal? The stock market jumps as taxes are cut? A terrorist plot is foiled?

C.  The German example in the early 1930s carries one final lesson. What the Germans lacked was Zivilcourage, the courage to stand up for their rights and civil liberties as citizens. 

They had much less experience in democracy and faced far more daunting challenges than we do. When politics becomes so ugly, there’s a great temptation to throw up one’s hands. 

Too often the Germans either sought advantage in the new opportunities, or crawled into the snail shell of their own private life. Pessimism bred resignation. What’s needed is not pessimism, but a powerful and optimistic reassertion of what we really believe in.

If you don’t believe we’ve entered a new world, consider this. Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel told Trump she would cooperate with him “on the basis of respect for human rights.” The world has come a long way when Germany has to lecture America on democracy and basic freedoms. Good for her.

I may be wrong about all this. I certainly hope I am.  But I think it’s worth laying out some guidelines, a kind of roadmap for judging what happens next. Maybe Trump will only check three or four of the boxes. But even one is too many."
 Paul Drexler                                                                                          Nov. 10. 2016

And now to Red Riding Hood....