GELFAND’S WORLD--A large number of intelligent, knowledgeable people have been pointing out the parallels between Trumpism and the development of Fascism and Naziism in 1930s Europe. The parallels are, indeed striking. The Trumpist arguments are taken right from the totalitarian playbook -- that we are in dire straights, that only one man is capable of bringing us to safety, and that the process requires total loyalty lest we suffer further international humiliation. Our CityWatch colleague Doug Epperhart referred to the sum total of Trump's message as a witch's brew, a not unreasonable description of a poisonous mixture.
If nothing else, Trump's propensity to lie is unique in the annals of the American presidency. This leads to the next question which has a few of the deep thinkers staying awake at nights: Does Trump actually believe the statements he makes with such surety? Does he believe deep down that the crowd at his inauguration was larger than Obama's or that millions of illegal votes were cast in the presidential election?
The difference is between that of a pompous ass vs. somebody with some form of mental illness. Is it bluster or is it delusional thinking? One respected political writer, Andrew Sullivan, argues that it is the latter. Sullivan's piece is worth reading in the entirety. He invites us to imagine a neighbor whose newly painted living room is blue, yet continues to describe it as red. (I know, it seems a bit simplistic, but it fits the inauguration argument perfectly.) Here's how Sullivan sums up:
"If the next time you dropped by, he was still raving about his gorgeous new red walls, what would you think? Here’s what I’d think: This man is off his rocker. He’s deranged; he’s bizarrely living in an alternative universe; he’s delusional. If he kept this up, at some point you’d excuse yourself and edge slowly out of the room and the house and never return."
Whether Trump is merely a liar's liar and a bully's bully or whether he is already at the point of delusion is, I think, yet to be determined. Only those extremely close to him might possibly know, and their behavior since before the Republican convention tells us that whichever way it is, they are in on the scam.
So the question we have before us might be summed up as follows: Is this 1933 all over again, or is it merely 1968? Is it the beginning of fascism in America -- and the consequent loss of some of our liberties -- or are we just going through a phase in which the prevailing political power in the executive and legislative branches is not to our liking? Is it to be a horrid disaster or just a political setback?
In assaying the prediction I am about to make, I understand full well that I will be disappointing a number of friends and colleagues who live in other countries or came here from elsewhere. They recognize the parallels all too well, particularly those who lived at one time or another under dictatorships. They chuckle (a little contemptuously) at what they see as my naivety. But my response is that in some ways we are seriously different from Europe in 1933, or Asia or South America at other times. There are two main reasons.
The first: If anything can save us, it is an independent judiciary serving under a written Constitution. The defense against dictatorial conduct will depend on what Trump referred to as a "so-called judge" and a few hundred of his colleagues. We can also put some small hope in members of congress who went to law school and practiced law before going into politics.
Why do these things matter? The comparison comes down to the relationship between the European and his sovereign prior to the twentieth century. Admittedly there are nuances, but the concept of individual rights, particularly of minorities among the majority, is more entrenched in American thought going all the way back to 1788 than existed in 1933 Germany or Italy.
To put it more simply, any attempt by Trump to muzzle the New York Times or CNN shouldn't last very long in the federal courts, certainly not at the lower level. We should also be able to expect of higher courts including the Supreme Court that they will find within themselves the duty to uphold the most fundamental rights of Americans. Freedom of speech, religion, and the right to assemble (ie: to join demonstrations on public streets) will be upheld by the courts. We have the right to expect this from our judges.
And yes, I would be the first to agree that there have been a lot of bad decisions made by the Supreme Court over the years, just as there have been many bad laws introduced in state legislatures. But good decision or bad, each has been made under the basic fundamental fact that the Constitution exists and that it is the supreme law of the land. It's been a long time now that our Constitution has been in effect, approaching two and a half centuries. We're coming up on half the age of the Roman empire, even if we still think of ourselves as a young country.
So any federal judge faced with the latest lawsuit over a Trump executive order has that tradition at his back. It's in our blood and bones.
The difference between Americans and our foreign-born colleagues is that we Americans expect our institutions, including the armed forces and governmental agencies, to obey the lawful orders of the courts. We expect the courts to follow the Constitution. We've seen worrisome tendencies such as the secret powers conferred by the Patriot Act, but we have the right to expect that our fellow Americans will not give up all our liberties for an emotional security blanket. Trump is wrong to think that he is the one necessity in order that we be saved from a hideous menace. Rather, he is the menace, and it's the sum total of our Constitution, our fealty to its principles, and the agencies we have developed in their defense that we should depend on.
The second reason to argue that this is just 1968 and not 1933 is that we've been through the Second World War, we've seen communism and dictatorships, and we've learned from them.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)