by Roger CohenOpinion ColumnistApril 13, 2018
We are tethered to a buffoon. He rages and veers, spreading ugliness, like an oil slick smothering everything in its viscous mantle. He’s about to bomb Syria. He’s not about to bomb Syria. His attention span is nonexistent. He attacks the foundations of our Republic: an independent judiciary, a free press, truth itself. His cabinet looks terrorized, the way Saddam Hussein’s once did.
President Donald Trump is dangerous. The main things mitigating the danger are his incompetence and cowardice. We live in a time that teaches how outrage can turn to a shrug, how the unthinkable repeated over and over can induce moral numbness, how a madman’s manic certainties can overwhelm reason. He is very busy; people resist; he opens another front; people shake their heads. It’s hard to remember on Friday what happened on Monday. Trump’s is the unbearable lightness of the charlatan.
Disorientation spreads. Trump’s main war, beyond all the military bluster, is on truth. This reflects his instinct for the jugular: Once the distinction between truth and falsehood disappears, anything is possible. There are plenty of examples these days, from Moscow to Budapest, of how “democracies” can be manipulated to the point where they can yield only one result. This is Trump’s objective, and for it he needs a weakened Justice Department, a weakened press and an American public that will believe anything. He has had setbacks but is stubborn.
In the mid-1930s, when the world was hurtling toward disaster, Robert Musil, the Austrian author of “The Man Without Qualities,” wrote this on the nature of civilization: “That which we call culture presumably does not directly have the concept of truth as a criterion, but no culture can rest on a crooked relationship to truth.”
This passage is cited by Olaf Peters, the curator of a wonderful exhibition called “Before the Fall: German and Austrian Art of the 1930’s” at New York’s Neue Galerie. Peters writes of Hitler and the Nazis that they “ultimately came to power above all because they were against something and wanted to make Germany great again at the expense of others; they were against liberal democracy, against cultural modernism,” and hated both Marxism and Judaism, which they blamed for German humiliation.
So, Hitler wanted to make Germany great again. Sure worked out. Trump, of course, also hates “cultural modernism.” He is about a Restoration he equates with restored greatness. Once upon a time the United States won wars, white men ruled, a factory worker in Michigan could afford a couple of quad bikes, and marriage was between a man and a woman. President Trump is about resisting economic, cultural, technological, gender and demographic change. He can’t think, read or reflect; he compensates with urges.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as tweet. No, the United States is not Weimar, but then Weimar was not the Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1914, nor the French monarchy of 1789. It is not quite true that, as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa observed, if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Sometimes one gunshot ushers in the obliteration of empire and sumptuous palaces are left to attend to memories.
In the best case, it will take a long time to recover from Trump. America’s word is near worthless today. It’s on America’s word that global security has rested since 1945.
All the dumb noise Trump makes should not mask the fact that he is a symptom, not a cause. He reflects, and reinforces, a global counterrevolutionary moment, a reaction to the cry of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany that she was “alternativlos”— without alternative.
The resurgent nationalists and nativists insist there are alternatives — alternatives to openness, to mass migration, to free trade, to secularism, to Europe’s ever closer union, to the legalization of same-sex marriage, to gender as a spectrum, to diversity, to human rights. They seek the homogeneous, a quest that exacted a terrible 20th century price.
This is no time for bystanders. “Before the Fall” reminds us to be vigilant. On April 11, 1939, the future historian Fritz Stern, then age 13, wrote to Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York, who had been outspoken in denouncing Hitler:
“When I heard a few minutes ago over the radio that you, Honorable Mayor, don’t want to run once more as Mayor, I was deeply depressed. Although I am a refugee, coming from Germany only months ago, and only a schoolboy, I beseech you to run again. I am quite sure that 80% of all New Yorkers will elect you (and this without concentration camps and Gestapo!). You must stay in City Hall for the sake of this wonderful city and country. If you are no longer Mayor that ‘international gangster in the brown shirt’ will be all too glad.”
I am grateful to Elisabeth Sifton, the editor and publisher, for passing along her late husband’s letter. The indignant voices of 13-year-olds are needed today on Trump. Stern would go on to write: “The fragility of freedom is the simplest and deepest lesson of my life and work.”