Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Trump-l'œil

Best Before (2016) by Pants

Democracy has thrown up a lot of lemons lately, and not the kind from which you can easily make lemonade. Unless you're a cartoonist or comedian. In which case, Mazel Tov! Although perhaps not. American satirists are complaining that their attempts at lampooning Donald J. Trump mostly fall flatter than a gluten-free crêpe. (The J. doesn't stand for Jerk-off, as I'd assumed, btw.) Trump supporters either judged the spoofs mean or found them oddly endearing. There you go. As our own Tim Minchin sang-whined last week,

'It doesn’t work any more to laugh at a fool. The fool is now the king. When the jester becomes the king, what do we do?'

 What indeed? There's simply no defence against a man who claimed that the election was rigged when he thought he was going to lose it and now claims it was rigged because some people apparently voted for the other candidate. All comedy is redundant in the face of such diabolically clever farce. It's the Twitter equivalent of an Escher drawing. So, how does this man manage to fool many of the people all of the time? Again, forests of digital trees have been sacrificed explaining the classic despotic moves Trump has so successfully deployed - Big Lie/Liar technique, Man of the People trope and, by far the most penetrating - tell the people what they want to hear. Even if it's not rationally conceivable, a dream, even an impossible one, is better than nothing. Dreams are currency in America. Hope? Well, that's obviously for pussies who haven't got the balls for winner takes all.
 

There probably isn't a lot of point in bringing up history when so many people were apparently born yesterday, but I happen to be re-reading The Past is Myself, a memoir by Christabel Bielenberg. An English aristocrat married to a Hamburg lawyer, she was resident in Germany from the rise of Hitler and the Nazis until the end of the war. The book includes some poignant, retrospectively insightful and seriously scary observations. At the risk of falling foul of Godwin's Law, I think it's worth looking again at the relationship between Hitler and the public he so successfully exploited, given that it ended up plunging the world into a six-year war, nearly wiping out European Jewry and destroying great chunks of Europe.

The Bielenbergs fell into a category not a million miles from the much disparaged 'cultural elites' of today who find scoffing at Trump the only rational response. They and their friends watched the Nazis rise to power with the same dismayed but dismissive distaste most of us broadsheet-reading poseurs now direct at Trump et al. Persuaded by their gentle, respectable neighbour Hans to at least give the National Socialists a look in, Chris and Peter Bielenberg attended at rally at which Hitler was the star attraction in 1932. They laughed when they discovered the venue was Hagenbeck's Zoo. Crammed up against the giraffe house, they listened with awed incredulity. Afterwards, Peter Bielenberg remarked to his wife,

'You may think that Germans are political idiots, Chris ... and you may be right, but of one thing I can assure you, they won't be so stupid as to fall for that clown.'

Three months later, Adolf Hitler became Germany's Chancellor, rendering 'famous last words' forever speechless. Having previously 'kampfed with four turgid pages before giving up' on the Hitler manifesto Mein Kampf at Hans's insistence, Bielenberg admits to bafflement and asks herself,

'What had Hitler provided which seemed to satisfy so many and persuaded them so easily to relinquish their freedom and to turn aside from the still small voice of their conscience?'

Turns out the question could only be guessed at in hindsight,

'Hitler understood his Germans well, or maybe he had just chanced his luck with human nature. There was a titbit for all in his political stew pot. Work for the unemployed, an army for the generals, a phoney religion for the gullible, a loud, insistent and not unheeded voice in international affairs for those who still smarted under the indignity of a lost war: there were also detention camps and carefully broadcast hints of what might be in store for anyone who had temerity enough to enquire into his methods too closely, let alone openly disapprove of them. He made every move, though, behind a smoke-screen of legality and also of propriety, for he was shrewd enough to know that the spirit of his revolution came from the disgruntled, disenchanted, dispossessed middle classes. He must strike the right note therefore, and he did so by making respectability the quintessence, the irresistible pièce de résistance, of all that he had to offer.' 

Spot the parallels. Well, we know Trump can stitch his own deepish pockets to one or two other pairs of similarly endowed trousers. Maybe he can build a media network big enough to qualify as a propaganda machine in the Facebook era. Perhaps he can get a get a mass surveillance and suppression system to work in the Instagram age. We'll see. Hitler's grand plan was an immediate success because he was able to conveniently loot Jewish wealth to fund it and later to keep it running with slave labour from conquered territories. How is Herr Trumpf to pump-prime the Make America Great Again project? Empty the coin purses of deported domestics? What we used to call the quality media outlets have been chasing down and quizzing professional, articulate, outwardly sane Trump supporters and posing the wtf question to them for months. They know the guy's an arsehole. Turns out they want, even think the country needs an arsehole at the helm. That's the point. A final parallel from Christabel Bielenberg's memoir,

'How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his régime? Would it have been with that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery?'

It would appear so. And that's the thing we all need to be afraid of. Trump has that ability. To unite and divide all at once and with potentially devastating results. There is a momentum there which we would be foolish to continue to underestimate.

It's taken a long time to get this post together. The shock and disbelief about the crazy events of this year have been repeated and repeated in and on my preferred news sources, as if chanting our collective incredulity will somehow alter the outcome. Why not? If trickery can deliver Trump the White House and the three stooges of British politics their Brexit, why can't good magic make it disappear? There are plenty of people suggesting that what we've seen this year could be part of a wider trend. There's to be a study published in January showing a severe decline in the percentage of people living in a democracy who say it's 'essential' to live in a democracy. It's particularly low in the Anglophone countries and most particularly amongst the young. Less than thirty per cent for Millennials. Democracy is an idea that must be believed in in order to survive. Doesn't look good for the Democracy Fairy.

This article by Martha Gessen appeared in the New York Review of Books this week. She is currently in Australia talking about the threat of Trump to democratic principles. Gessen  cautions against accommodation and compromise. She offers a different historical context for the dilemma of acting against moral instincts in the belief that ameliorative engagement  will enable some control and possibly deliver a less terrible outcome. She relates the story of her great-grandfather, a leader of the Bialystok Judenrat, (Jewish councils set up by the Nazis to administer the ghettos). Ultimately, Gessen's antecedent was forced into the task of compiling 'liquidation lists'. He complied, believing that by choosing the sick and dying, he could at least save some and fearing that the alternative was mass slaughter. Gessen concludes,

'We cannot know what political strategy, if any, can be effective in containing, rather than abetting, the threat that a Trump administration now poses to some of our most fundamental democratic principles. But we can know what is right. What separates Americans in 2016 from Europeans in the 1940s and 1950s is a little bit of historical time but a whole lot of historical knowledge. We know what my great-grandfather did not know: that the people who wanted to keep the people fed ended up compiling lists of their neighbors to be killed. That they had a rationale for doing so. And also, that one of the greatest thinkers of their age [Hannah Arendt] judged their actions as harshly as they could be judged.

As Trump torpedoes into the presidency, we need to shift from realist to moral reasoning. That would mean, at minimum, thinking about the right thing to do, now and in the imaginable future. It is also a good idea to have a trusted friend capable of reminding you when you are about to lose your sense of right and wrong.'

I'm a great believer in protest and peaceful non-cooperation. In those heady, happy days before political correctness finally went mad and someone apparently took it out back and shot it, some of us found it quite pleasant that people weren't constantly calling us names based on the accidental circumstances of our birth or upbringing. And all of it took struggle. I'd prefer it if we didn't go back to clubbing each other over the head to get what we want. Now is not the time for passive acceptance of what we presume is the will of the people. The will of the people can be wrong. Has been very wrong. Democracy is corruptible. It takes work to keep it honest. Eternal vigilance and all that. Better to be awake and overcautious than screwed whilst asleep.

There are times when I despair of our version of dithering Democracy here in Australia. In moments of frustration, I often fantasise about a monster descending on Parliament and giving them all a good slap. And then I remember that thing Churchill said about Democracy being the least shittiest of all possible ways of organising a society. Just a note on the passing of Fidel Castro - wouldn't it be nice if it were possible to believe in excellent education and healthcare and not be a brutal dictator? Sorry, dreaming.

I have been a fan of President Barack Obama. One thinks of how much worse the last eight years could have been and how much deeper in the shit we would most certainly be now if not for his calm, reasoned presence in the White House, and in the world at large. Ditto Angela Merkel, easily the most effective politician in Europe for a generation. Imagine my consternation when I read the laughably lame op-ed piece they jointly penned on the future of Transatlantic relations in the German Daily Wirtschaftswoche. The full text in English can be found here. This snippet gives a sense of the tone of the piece,

'Germans make pilgrimages to Silicon Valley, where people practice and think about the future of the digital economy more than anywhere else. Americans thrive in Germany’s many world-class manufacturing and engineering companies, small and large. Americans and Germans learn from each other’s labor systems and study how each benefits their citizens: Americans study Germany’s remarkable labor apprenticeship system and Germans learn from how American companies benefit from the United States’ spectacular diversity.'

What is that? A pantomime horse called Chamberlain? No, no, no. This will not do. President Obama - have you not heard the joke doing the rounds of the rust belt,

Used to be they made cars in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico. Now they make cars in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint.

It's time for the stalwarts of Democracy to stand up. And that means you. Your work is not done. You don't solve this kind of crisis by exchanging research scientists. President Obama - you have a new job. The movement to save and rejuvenate Democracy needs a leader. You're it. Pants says. You and Michelle job-share it. Tag-team it. However you want to do it, just get it done. The Nelson Mandela mantle falls upon you. Oh, and Angela, I'm very glad that you're seeking a fourth term and good luck with that, but should you find yourself with spare time next Autumn, feel free to join in. I have a feeling the war won't be over by then.

Postscript: I've been making an American flag out of plastic tabs for years. I now have almost enough to complete the mission thanks to the kind donations of people who eat more bread and potatoes than I do. It will be completed in the New Year.