07 Dec Accountability
Trump and Trumpism have been the result of years, even decades, of preparation.
McCarthyism in the 1950s. Or Ronald Reagan–the genial manner, B-movie star smile, hard line politics. Or Newt Gingrich and his disgust that there was too much civility between the major parties; there should be stark partisanship with no room for a compromising middle. Undeniably, Trumpism’s been around a while, certainly since the debut of the Tea Party, followed by Sarah Palin (who was, lest we forget, supported by all those Republicans now part of The Lincoln Project, possibly doing penance). However far back you go, there’s been a strain of authoritarianism, even of fascism, masquerading as American populism.
It’s always been reliably sexist, racist, anti-immigrant, anti-lesbigay, and highly reluctant to share any form of success with ordinary people, opting instead to concentrate wealth and restrict privilege to itself. The characters may have changed: people forget that at one point the enemy was “filthy Irish micks,” or “dirty Italian wops,” or “disgusting wetback Mexicans” or “evil Orientals,” and consistently (with too many epithets to list here), “the Blacks,” and “the Jews.” It’s usually about jobs being stolen from white, less educated, working-class men; it’s invariably mixed up with identity and religiosity; and it’s always rooted in fear of change.
In those particulars, the recent wave has been no different. What’s especially interesting about this particular strain, though, is its accompanying self-pitying factor so evident in Trump’s tweets, statements, and world outlook, which articulates the grievance feelings of his target base. Still, we’ve been here before.
In Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic, in the years between World War I and World War II, the Germans had a name for this: Dolchstosslegende–which translates as stab-in-the-back myth. It was a key element in the propaganda promulgated by German generals after World War I. According to this absolutely false narrative—seized on by right-wing extremists, including Hitler–the Kaiser’s army didn’t lose The Great War on the battlefield; although in retreat in the fall of 1918, the army could have kept up the fight but was undercut by scheming defeatist politicians who settled on an armistice. Such a self-serving lie should’ve been obvious–and in fact was: the strategic situation was disastrous, the German armies were being royally routed, and the civilian populace was approaching starvation and more than ready to surrender. Everyone knew this, but the stab-in-the-back myth wasn’t meant to be understandable, it was meant to be understood. It puffed up the nation’s humiliated pride and played into its worst prejudices. (As an aside, we should note that whenever a segment of society has a genuine grievance and finally struggles to name it out loud, that’s met with cries of exasperated dismissal, as “playing the victim.”)
Mass propaganda knows that its audience is primed at any given moment to believe the extreme, even absurd, lie, no matter how ridiculous; in fact the more ridiculous and the bigger the lie, the better, as Hitler wrote and as Josef Goebbels reputedly said:
[I]n the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation.– Adolph Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1, Chapter X.
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State. — Josef Goebbels
Remember the saying that a lie can go around the world in the time it takes the truth to put its boots on? And in the age of the Internet? Wow. But it’s more than that, since the Dolchstosslegende worked because so many Germans knew in their hearts—in “the deeper strata of their emotional nature”—that it was not true—but they shared the inadmissible–in–public goal of overthrowing democracy by claiming that the Weimar Republic was founded on treason.
That half-knowledge is crucial: it means the propaganda was more than just a lie. It was an intentionally wielded political weapon, and the target was democracy itself.
When we try to examine the enablers, that long line of people who defended or collaborated outright with Trump, I tend to put them in four camps. There are the Mitch McConnells and Lindsey Grahams, who know exactly what’s going on, but are utterly amoral, cynical politicians who will do anything to get and keep power. Then there are the people who, whether from fear, opportunism, or confusion, drift in the wind—for example, those who actually shifted from having voted for Obama to voting for Trump, an act I find astonishing. Third, the main body of Trumpists, who, whether ready to admit it (or usually not), share his odious beliefs and positions. And last, the hard-core of the hard-core, almost a cult: the people for whom he literally can do no wrong.
The first group must be organized against and voted out. The fourth must wait for demographic and generational change. It may be quixotic of me, but I think that the second and even to some extent the third group can be connected with and “educated.” I’m sorry if that sounds condescending, but I base it on new research showing that a large number of those who respond affirmatively to questions about whether the election was rigged are, when pressed, likely doing so less from conviction then from wishful—and temporary—thinking. So where does that leave us?
I assume that Trump, who’s already said flat out that he will never concede the election, will simultaneously pivot and announce his 2024 race to reclaim the presidency on the inauguration day of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, trying to steal the thunder and press coverage as usual. We know that since major funders deserted him, he already has a massive grassroots fundraising effort underway, getting people to buy his snake oil tweets, to send him their nickels and dimes so he’ll have plenty for legal fees and also for a political platform from which to wield what power he can. Since Election Day, he has raised over $208 million (and still counting). We know he hopes to build that power over the next months and years and, even when the media get bored with covering him, he’ll still try to monopolize a large chunk of it, if not FoxNews, somewhere else.
But there is something we could do that would definitely cramp his future plans, and the plans of those who enabled and collaborated with him. We could bring enormous public pressure to bear for his being charged, prosecuted, and hopefully convicted of criminal behavior.
I understand Biden’s position that he does not intend to prosecute Trump once Trump’s out of office. That would be counterproductive: it would inflame his base, play into his stab-in-the-back myth, appear blatantly partisan, and look vindictive. I think that’s a wise decision, because it leaves the Justice Department properly independent of the White House—free to prosecute or not—as it should be and was until Trump decided to claim it as his own personal law firm. As to whether Trump pardons himself or not—whether he can or not—that’s a question for constitutional lawyers to chase each other’s tails about. But this much we know: even if he is able to pardon himself, or arranges things so that Pence pardons him, such pardons have no power to stop state charges, such as those being readied now in New York. These range from financial crimes and election law violations to public corruption, partisan coercion, and staggeringly blatant obstruction of justice. (Some of these crimes date from before his White House tenure, but it is nowhere written that winning a federal election immunizes a candidate from consequences for earlier crimes.)
There’s the revenge factor to consider. It’s genuinely difficult to put aside the realization that should those forces ever hold power again, they will have no compulsions about the moral niceties of revenge. But I’ve thought long and hard to keep the revenge factor out of this. I’ve also thought long and hard about the dangers of our turning into precisely the kind of autocratic state Trump wanted/wants us to become, wherein law-enforcement authorities become politically weaponized by the reigning party. We cannot let that happen. However, I do believe we need to mount urgent legal and political systemic reforms, the lack of which (for instance, an assumed dependence on “norms” of voluntary behavior, like making public his tax returns and health records) permitted Trump to get away with as much as he could without being stopped.
But the truth is that electoral defeat is not enough of a recompense.Ford’s pardon of Nixon was controversial, and considered outrageous by many. Nixon’s having resigned in disgrace—in effect admitting he had been guilty—was a subtlety lost on most Americans, who simply saw him get off to live in cushy retirement. And they learned that lesson.
What lesson this time will be learned by the neo-Nazis, the Proud Boys, the KKK? What will be learned by the Koch brothers? What will be the take-aways of the Trump minions: the Gulianis, the Roger Stones, the Michael Flynns, Steve Bannons, Stephen Millers, Bill Barrs? What about McConnell and his obedient senators?
The gradual undermining of democratic norms and institutions, which can ultimately prove fatal to democracy, is a slow process, done piecemeal. When one party violates the norms we rely on to ensure a peaceful transfer of power—the core of democracy—this undermines trust in our electoral process and says to their supporters that the other party can never win power legitimately.
Recent polls have found that as many as 70 percent of Republicans now claim they don’t believe the election was fair—although it’s important to remember two things: GOP membership has been under heavy attrition, so there are far fewer Republicans to begin with; also keep in mind that wishful-temporary-feeling research above. But whether or not those remaining think this way is immaterial because vociferously defending what isn’t factual is itself a rite of passage in many extremist groups, and the GOP is decidedly trending that way. Glance back again at history.
Had Ford not pardoned Nixon, we would not be in this situation today. Had Ford not pardoned Nixon, an example, however painful, would have been set: the president is not above the law.
The Founders of this country knew that. They believed that. They would have recognized and understood it. Think about them, what their reactions would have been to today, to letting Trump off. They would be utterly horrified. They structured our Republic the way they did to avoid this situation.
We cannot let this repeat itself. Not out of partisanship, and not from revenge. From simple justice. Simple because accountability is required. Simple since letting a president off because he’s president is all the more absurd: precisely because he’s president he should be held all the more accountable. Such charges and such a sentence would anger some people, yes. No use pretending otherwise. But when will we ever learn that the threat, and the fear of the threat, is always greater than the reality?
This doesn’t solve the questions that swarm like flies around the dung heap of fascism; it doesn’t address the fascistic mind, although we suspect rather strongly that the authoritarian state has its roots in the authoritarian family, and that both are patriarchal. But it does give us a glimpse into just why all the “good Germans” were who they were, why they were the ones who just didn’t know.
I will apologize no longer for the comparison with Germany’s Nazi party. We cannot wait for things here to reach that point. Without some kind of truth and reconciliation commission, or at the minimum unless New York and other state attorneys general will prosecute Trump under the law, these past four years will eventually repeat themselves—and in the not-so-distant future.
Even more crucial is this bitterly tautological reality: If Trump is not held accountable for alleged and even admitted crimes, then he literally was above the law. And for that, you and I will be held accountable.