Category Archives: Blog Items

9 The 1934ists: Ron Rosenbaum Edition

Godwin Is Dead: Ron Rosenbaum, one of the great magazine writers of our time, has written a widely-hailed L.A. Review of Books piece that he insists does not argue that “Trump=Hitler.”  He’s explicit on this point!

While Trump’s crusade had at times been malign, as had his vociferous supporters, he and they did not seem bent on genocide. He did not seem bent on anything but hideous, hurtful simplemindedness — a childishly vindictive buffoon trailing racist followers whose existence he had mainstreamed. … [G]enocide is almost by definition beyond comparison with “normal” politics and everyday thuggish behavior, and to compare Trump’s feckless racism and compulsive lying was inevitably to trivialize Hitler’s crime and the victims of genocide.

“I posit similarities and differences, not identity” between Hitler and Trump, Rosenbaum later declared. All very careful and nuanced. And yet, by the end of his piece, Rosenbaum seamlessly deploys the stock 1934ist template when discussing how the media should react to Trump: they should shun “compliance,” condemn “normalization,” emulate the “defiance that was heroic and inspirational” by the anti-Hitler journalists of the Munich Post. Obviously, Rosenbaum thinks the similarities are strong indeed– strong enough, anyway, to justify cranking up the full machinery of the pre-war anti-fascist struggle, strong enough to justify invoking the martyrs of Munich.

How strong, exactly? Rosenbaum says, “Trump and his minions are … attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German.” [Emphasis added]

And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf. [E.A.]

Sounds pretty bad. ** And if Trump really is that much like Hitler — Not identical! Not equal — no sirree! But with bloodthirsty views out of Mein Kampf! — then we really don’t want to normalize him the way so many Germans foolishly normalized Hitler. The trouble is, Rosenbaum’s own piece, with its riveting, punctilious descriptions of Hitler’s rise to power, makes a perhaps-unintended but near-overwhelming case that Trump is really not much like Hitler at all.

I’m talking here of any indications that Trump, like Hitler, will , if “normalized,” pursue an evil, autocratic course of action.  It’s not enough if both men are “mountebanks,”*** con men who don’t believe their cons, whose outrageous acts and contradictory statements distract, lull and befuddle opponents, so that

you can’t take a stand against Trump because you don’t know where Trump is standing. You can’t find him guilty of evil, you can’t find him at all.

What we need is the evidence, amid all the confusion, that Trump actually is driven to autocracy, as Hitler was — not that he, like Hitler, conned and clowned his way into office, but that he’ll use the office so acquired to further some horrifying, megalomaniacal, perhaps “bloodthirsty” anti-democratic scheme. That’s the key question, isn’t it? The Munich Post journalists knew that underneath it all Hitler was Hitler — and he needed to be fought, not normalized. How does the evidence they had compare with the evidence offered by Rosenbaum regarding Trump?

Here’s my crude catalog of HItler’s Hitleresque sins — as known (often uncovered) by Munich Post journalists — compared with Trump’s:

HITLER

— Had attempted to violently overthrow the government (the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923)

— Had “a death squad (“cell G”) that murdered political opponents”

— Sent his private militia (precursor of the SS) to physically ransack the newsroom of the paper that opposed him

Planned a “‘final solution’ for Munich’s Jews.”

TRUMP

— Supported by some racist and anti-Semitic tweeters

— Proposed, and then abandoned, a hold on travel to the US by Muslims.

— Allegedly had a copy of Mein Kampf by his bed

— Once ducked an invitation to “unequivocally condemn” David Duke.

You get the idea. The two lists are orders of magnitude apart. Are there things about Trump — seeds, if you will**** — that make reasonable people worry about future developments? Sure, just as there were with a dozen other national politicians (including Nixon and even FDR). But those are seeds, not the tree, and there are seeds of a lot of things in Trump, including many good things.  Hitler, you had more than seeds.

And don’t say (as Rosenbaum did when we argued on Twitter) that “[H]itler was in office 12 years Trump 2 weeks.” The list above is a list of things Hitler did before he took office in 1933 — the equivalent of Trump before January 20 of this year. Was boycotting the Iowa debate Trump’s Beer Hall Putsch?

Maybe Trump will try to acquire autocratic power. But, in Rosenbaum’s piece, that seems to be more an assumption than a conclusion.

This became clearer after the piece was published,  when Rosenbaum vigorously defended it on Twitter — because a funny thing began to happen. In argument, Rosenbaum tried to supply some of the evidence the piece he was defending lacked — evidence that Trump, if “normalized,” really would try to become an autocrat.  Hadn’t Trump aide Steve Bannon told the “press to ‘shut it’s mouth.'”?  That was “an example of autorratic [autocratic] impulse he shares with many dictators not just AH.”

Rosenbaum’s right: Telling the media to “shut up” [actually, saying it should “be embarrassed” and “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”] does represent an autocratic impulse.***  It’s an impulse shared by half the politicians in America — but if followed blindly to its ultimate conclusion it would be bad news for the First Amendment. So why didn’t Rosenbaum include it in his piece, which cries out for actual examples of the dictatorial drive that only Munich Postische anti-normalist resistance can block?

Answer: Because it would look pathetic. Hitler sent his militia to physically destroy newsrooms.  Trump has an aide who said a hostile press should put attacks on hold! See the paralllel? We do … and we don’t.

Likewise, Rosenbaum, who mentions the “Muslim ban” in passing in his piece, refers on Twitter to Trump ” banning an entire religion.”   When a Twitter adversary notes Trump’s actual executive order affected only 7 out of  “40 or so Muslim countries,” Rosenbaum responds “the order can be extended w/o to all Muslim nations.”  Why yes, it can! But that would be a transformative change, and Trump has been heading in the opposite direction. Normalization works sometimes.

If comparing Politican X to Hitler makes you spend most of your time explaining that you aren’t equating the two, and mainly succeeds in making your legitimate complaints about X seem small in comparison to Hitler’s monstrousness, maybe it’s not such a useful comparison. Godwin had a point! If Trump’s only a 2% Hitler then maybe the media attitude we need is 2% no-business-as-usual anti-normalization–or, in any case, not 100% heroic***** dedicated resistance. All Rosenbaum’s words spent in stirring description of the Munich Post tend to obscure this point. They become a distraction, much as even Trump’s more righteous tweets are often distractions.

Why strain to make the comparison? Why not find an autocrat who better fits the subject? (Berlusconi seems an obvious choice.) [Because then Trump’s opponents couldn’t cloak themselves in the glory of the German resistance?–ed You said that.]

**************

** — The antecedent of “they” — who are “not joking” — seems to be Trump, or maybe “Trump and his minions.” Not merely the minions.

*** –Rosenbaum notes that historian Alan Bullock, proponent of the “mountebank” theory, “would later change his mind” and acknowledge that Hitler was heavily invested in his anti-Semitism.

**** — Attacking judges represents another potentially troubling impulse, a “seed”– one Rosenbaum doesn’t mention in his piece. So far, Trump has engaged in name calling while he obediently complies with judges’ orders.  The author of the “Mein Kampf playbook” went a little further (at one point setting up an alternative court system until the judges “knuckled under”).

*****– Does it take heroism to oppose Trump? Not that I can see. In most places resistance (like resistance to the Vietnam War, or to Nixon) is more likely to get you laid.  Former N.Y. Judge Robert Smith wrote recently that “Not many federal judges travel in circles where being an enemy of Donald Trump is anything but a badge of honor.” Same for journalists.

2

Luckily, in the future there will be no irony:  “There is no walk of life that is not going to require computational understanding,” says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, describing his notion of a future oriented around Artificial Intelligence. But he’s optimistic!

“The most exciting thing to me is beyond what we are doing ourselves, which is to take the same AI capability we have and make it available so everybody can use it,” he says. Take the state I was born in [Andhra Pradesh] and the state I live in [Washington]. Both are using essentially the same machine-learning algorithms to make high school dropout predictions.” [E.A.]

Exciting! But is the algorithm sophisticated enough to realize that, since pretty clearly there’s no role for non-smart people in Nadella’s vision of the future, high school students in both countries may be saying “F*ck it, might as well drop out now”?

1 OK, Back To Immigration …

If President Trump’s speeded-up nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was designed to  “change the subject” away from his controversial executive order on refugees, etc., it seems likely to fail. Why? Gorsuch is too good a choice. He’s qualified. He’s respected. Everyone now assumes he’ll be confirmed. It’s a fight with a known outcome, therefore less dramatic — therefore it gets less coverage and won’t crowd out the overexcited reaction to the immigration order. … If only Gorsuch had some scandal or ethics issue — a nanny problem? post-graduate drug use? murky sex harrassment charges? Trump supporters dream, can’t they?– it would help Trump out, but so far, nothing. … Aggressive Democratic cries about the “stolen seat”  do aid the president in this regard, but it’s hard to believe they’ll succeed in changing the subject for long, absent some fresh dispute about the actual nominee. …

3

The massive Kausfiles Rebuild Project is in theory complete. The unheated Venice warehouse, once filled with surly millennial coders,** lies silent, its floor littered with empty bottles of $12 juice. ….

The purpose of the rebuild is to (again) mix tweets with blog items, a rebellion against the disastrous early Word Press era in which blog posts became discrete, pompous hey-link-to-me declarations. Ben Smith may think this was the golden age of blogging. To me it was the beginning of the end. …

I’m sure I’ll screw things up for a while. There will still be many more tweets than blog items, though a) I’ll try to write more of the latter especially since b) it should now be possible to easily expand tweets into short (or long) blog entries.  Will escaping the 140 character limitation make them better or worse? I actually don’t know. Could be worse! It’s awfully easy to kill a tweet with improvements.

** — The tech work was actually performed by John Keegan of Rackshare. I recommend him. …

56 It’s Not 1934

Wanted: A name for the hypertrophied fear of Trump that’s overcome so many — maybe most — of his opponents.  Do you really need examples? There was the ThinkProgress editor terrified of his plumber:

He was a perfectly nice guy and a consummate professional. But he was also a middle-aged white man with a Southern accent who seemed unperturbed by this weeks news. … I couldn’t stop thinking about whether he had voted for Trump, whether he knew my last name is Jewish … I couldn’t shake the sense of potential danger. I was rattled for some time after he left.

More recently, here’s Adam Gopnik in one of  those New Yorker paragraphs so classily convoluted you don’t notice the embedded hooey:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse. … [**]

The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were.

Of course, you don’t need these examples if you have Democratic Facebook friends.  Just read their posts — alarms about journalists jailed and killed, brownshirts, ethnic cleansing, pervasive surveillance, people living in fear, exterminationist violence, the whole nein yards. They’re scared.

The thing is, they’re not poseurs — they’re sensible citizens. They are, many of them, my friends. They’re in no way ignorant. That’s why the dismissive label “Trump Derangement Syndrome” doesn’t seem an accurate description (in addition to being belittling and ineffective). If they see the seeds of authoritarianism in Trump’s “Hamilton” tweet — or more plausibly in his suggestion that he might pick and choose which reporters can attend briefings … well, sure. Those are seeds. There’ve been seeds before, of course. There were the seeds of authoritarianism in Truman bullying a press critic who panned his daughter’s singing. There were more than seeds in Roosevelt’s NRA, in Nixon’s wiretapping and J. Edgar Hoover’s longrunning COINTELPRO surveillance and harrassment of dissenters.

It’s not deranged to extrapolate from seed to tree, and to worry that the relative handful of alt-righters (50,000 ?) and smaller handful of anti-Semitic trolls (1,600?)  might produce something very bad. You can imagine a world where Jews are attacked by their plumbers. My mother grew up in such a world (Frankfurt, Germany in 1933) and I’m here because her parents had the good sense to flee.

It’s thinking that such development–from seed to tree–is at all likely today that seems … well, wrong. Let’s call it wrong!  We have strong counter-majoritarian institutions (including an independent judiciary) and a culture that supports them. The idea that Trump is going to mobilize some army of thuggish supporters to intimidate the press, the courts, the opposition party and half of his own party seems a fever dream, no less feverish because of its rational basis.

Yet those who adhere to this unnamed tendency — let’s call it ’34ism, unless you can come up with a better name *** –allow the power of their terrifying dream to overwhelm sober consideration of everything Trump does or intends to do, good or bad. We’re supposed to draw up sides — condemning (and ostracizing) those who are “complicit” in Trump’s administration and welcoming those who “stand on the right side of history” — even before we know whether the authoritarian seed will grow or wither, disregarding all the other positively auspicious seeds (reform of trade, control of borders, fewer foreign military adventures,  ending the Republican threat to Social Security and Medicare, etc.) that might flourish instead. In Slate 34ist Yascha Mounk’s head it’s practically Life During Wartime already, with brave Trump critics fired from their jobs, sleeping on the couches of their secret colleagues in the Resistance. Keep the car running.

Suggested alternative: See what happens first! Don’t let the reaction to Trump be dominated by one extremely unlikely bad possibility, at the expense of nurturing the far-more-likely good possibilities.

Coming in next post: How does 1934ism go away? Is it enough that the brownshirts don’t appear? (Spoiler: Maybe not.)

__________

**– The Hooey: Gopnik says authoritarian measures against critics “are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.” This is fatuous on both counts. 1) Even direct assaults on free speech are far from unprecedented –e.g. the Sedition Act of 1798, passed not too long after our nation’s founding, or the imprisonment of Eugene Debs for opposing World War I. 2) They also haven’t been that hard to reverse. The Sedition Act was repealed in Thomas Jefferson’s term expired in 1801 after Jefferson campaigned against it and the House voted down an attempted renewal. It’s highly doubtful that Debs could be imprisoned under current First Amendment law — the opposite of what Gopnik declares “history tells us”.

*** — Better name ideas appreciated — just put them in the comments section below, or tweet them to @kausmickey. Thanks.