The outrages of the Trump administration have provoked a lot of blunt, even profane, language. But there is a difference between name-calling and labeling things for what they are, between succumbing to irrationality and identifying it in the public sphere and in the government that represents us.
Two books about Nazi Germany — one old, one new — have provided the strongest models I can imagine for how we might talk about America under Trump. Of course, people will argue, “This is not Nazi Germany, and Trump is not Hitler.” Hunter College history professor Benjamin Hett would agree. At least about the Hitler of 1945. But the Hitler of 1933? That’s a different story. Without once mentioning Trump, Hett’s new “The Death of Democracy,” builds the parallel by enumerating what brought Nazis to power: a country facing its reduced place in the world; a rural population ready to blame immigrants for their problems and disgusted by what they saw as the breakdown of tradition and morality in the big cities; conservative politicians who believed they could control the oaf who sought power and that they could use him to implement their agenda.
It’s easy to spot the irrationality described by Hett not only in Trump himself but also in his supporters, who have shown contempt not just for facts, but also for learning, for expertise, for the founding principles of democracy itself. But what Hett does, via a calm, persistent accumulation of fact, making a rational case for how irrationality took over, is precisely what is anathema to so many reasonable people. Reasonable people are ever ready to insist there has to be a reason, whether they are talking about religious terrorism or their fellow citizens acceding to white nationalism. In her new book “Fascism,” former secretary of state Madeline Albright quotes one of her Georgetown students saying that fascism could absolutely take hold in America “because we’re so sure it can’t.” The student, Albright writes, believes we put so much faith in democratic institutions that we are blind to their erosion.
That faith has powered much of the media, which have been hellbent on scouring every coffee shop from Dogpatch to Greater Hooterville in order to provide a voice to people who want to tell us how they are looked down on by elites and no longer recognize their own country. The latter, as one comic recently said, usually means that they were recently sold a six pack by a guy wearing a turban. The former claim, about ordinary people deprived of power, persists even though Trump supporters managed to elect a president who lost the popular vote by millions because of an antiquated system that gives more weight to votes in rural and populous areas than from urban areas.
The claim of elitism is one that liberals have been particularly susceptible to. They have proved ever ready to flagellate themselves with the belief that they have somehow “looked down on” (i.e., supported different values than) the simple folk. But even if liberals and city dwellers and elites had looked down on the minions of Trumpland, the question that no one seems willing to ask is, why shouldn’t they be looked down on?
German writer Friedrich Reck, in his Nazi-era “Diary of a Man in Despair,” certainly looked down on the rubes and apologists for fascists. Reck kept his “Diary” from 1936 to the fall of 1944 and was sent to Dachau in January 1945, five months before the war in Europe ended. He did not survive. The book is a sustained articulation of disgust for Hitler’s anti-Semitism, for the general air of brutality, and disgust at the contempt for decency and honor, expressed in sometimes unnervingly blunt language.
Reck doesn’t play the game of assuming there is something worth understanding in the Nazis. He sees the bigotry and ignorance and barely disguised thrill at brutality that motivated Hitler’s supporters, whether the rural ones Benjamin Hett talks about or the ones whom Nazism has raised into new social standing, and the word that crops up again and again is “canaille.” The “de facto dirty little bourgeoisie,” Reck calls them, “who cannot rid themselves of the feel of the dog collars they wore only yesterday, and who — the candles burned low and the food partly eaten — have seated themselves at the tables of their evicted lords.”
You can object to the class hatred in those lines. Or you can understand that for Reck, to capture the essence of the Nazis it is necessary to capture the utter lowness of spirit it took to support them. Those bent on understanding Trump supporters — as if there is something deep to understand — wonder how his working-class acolytes can vote against their own economic interests. What they refuse to see is that all Trump supporters, from the working class to the upper class, have voted their chief interest: maintaining American identity as white, Christian, and heterosexual.
Just as naming irrationality is sometimes the only rational choice, sometimes embracing elitism is necessary for the defense of democracy. And both require language beyond the polite confines of acceptable liberal discourse.Charles Taylor is the author of “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You.”