Trump, Hitler, Clinton, Progressive Social Policy and the Economy Stupid
Recently, I have seen various references to the suggestion that Godwin’s Law had been suspended for the duration of the 2016 political cycle, including this one from Daily Kos http://goo.gl/KxUde5
I like talking about Hitler with people who are also interested in talking about Hitler.
Just to be clear. I am not interested in talking about the Lucifer, Galactus, Voldemort, mythological creature of Evil that takes the place of the human being Adolph Hitler was in the common psyche. If I ever wondered how human beings morph from man to legend to God I have only to look at the example of Hitler in my lifetime.
Okay, actually I’m not all that interested in Hitler, per se. I’ve never read a single biography of just Hitler. Sure, he’s interesting, but Rohm, Hess, Ribbentrop, Keitel, Goering, Goebbels — whom you’ve probably heard of are actually just as interesting. They built as much of the mythological “Hitler Monster” as Hitler did, maybe more. I’m even more interested in some figures like Martin Bormann and Wilhelm Frick, who a lot of people haven’t heard of.
I’m particularly fascinated by Hans Lammers, Chief of the Reich Chancellery who got twenty years at Nuremberg. He was one of the inventors of the idea of “Heil Hitler” as a greeting, and he was President of the Reich Cabinet when Hitler was absent, which as the war wore on was increasingly frequent. He and Martin Bormann more or less controlled access to Hitler. That means that he is the man who shaped the reality Hitler perceived, and he clearly knew how to use that to advantage. He chose what Hitler did and didn’t know about, and by shaping what Hitler knew in many ways created the mythological image that we were left with. I’m fascinated by the way the Nazi Party interacted with and subsumed elements of the military, and I’m particularly interested in the operation of the Reich Chancellery and how its insulation perpetuated Hitler’s power while creating a siloed climate in which bad decisionmaking was amplified.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that Hitler was an innocent dupe. As I once said to a friend “I presume we are starting with the understanding there is a general agreement that Hitler was not a nice man.” But a lot of people who are mean to the core, and like no-one never get much further than fights in rough bars, which is how Hitler’s political career started. They don’t burn down Europe. Conversely lot of other successful men who are not nice people and don’t really care how much blood they have on their hands die happily in bed, satisfied with their creations. Josef Stalin died of complications after a stroke at 74, exacerbated by heavy smoking and a hedonistic lifestyle. Francisco Franco smiled as head of state for years before dying at 82 of complications from Parkinson’s. Both left lasting legacies, which is arguably why they are better thought of than Hitler. Enver Pasha, one of the principle architects of the Armenian Genocide at least had the grace to be gunned down by the Red Army.
I’ve gotten various reactions from friends when talking about Hitler. Some have marveled that I know what the Reich Chancellery is, or that I have any political understanding of the German Government, as they have never been told anything about it. I find that remarkable. Most educated people I know understand the Parliament of Britain and in the eighties understood the Politburo of the USSR. Yet of the government of Nazi Germany, theoretically the most dangerous rogue power of our century, they could tell you nearly nothing.
Most reactions have been negative.
In some cases I have been subject to the secular equivalent of a religious tirade, similar to what one might expect from casually announcing within the precincts of Liberty Bible College that one worships Satan. This tirade uses the following logical illogic. To compare Hitler to other men…particularly to men as unremarkable as Enver Pasha, is to deny the special nature of Hitler’s evil. Which is to deny his evil. If I deny that Hitler is evil, then I am, perforce, very nearly his adherent or disciple.
In other cases I have been subject to political argument of the sort that revolves around battles and whether or not Pickett’s Charge was a good idea. Hitler was more evil than anyone else because of the scope of his devastation, etc. To suggest that he was not, personally and pivotally, responsible for the genocide of Jews in Europe, and so forth, is to shift blame. Occasionally I have been granted that Josef Stalin was at least “just about” as bad.
Certainly the Nazi genocide was particularly efficient and resulted in higher numbers than say that of the Khmer Rouge, or the Turks against the Armenians. Realistically Hitler had a good set of tools, including IBM Hollerith census machines, a large number of potential victims, and a large amount of soil. If you compare what the Manchu Emperor accomplished in 1755–58 with pre-industrial technology, I think you must agree that he was just as motivated. And it was the Nazi genocide. It wasn’t accomplished by one man. But the supernatural thinking about Hitler suggests that is merely a nicety, an afterthought. Hitler made the genocide as sure as the Devil made the witches in Salem.
Killing is abhorrent, and mass killing, whether you accomplish it with phalanxes of strategic bombers or gas chambers is especially abhorrent. That said, most of us intrinsically get how it could become easy to annihilate remote people you don’t know and don’t see out of a dark sky. Genocide of the type the Nazis carried out is fascinating and scary because it involves killing people you used to live next door to, that you might have bought bread from, whose children may have known yours. Certainly Jews weren’t completely integrated into German society, but some were, and moreover, the Nazis killed a lot of other people. The ability to kill our close neighbors reveals an ugly truth that we poorly understand, and like to avoid. The supernatural nature of Hitler, where he mind controls and possesses faceless minions to go and seize people and cart them off to gas chambers keeps us from having to deal with this truth.
Hitler also brought unparalleled ruin on his own state. Dramatically more of Berlin was leveled by bombing than London. Hamburg, Dresden and other cities were effectively incinerated.
At least after Hitler fell, we’d like to think that everyone waved their flags and smilingly ate chocolate bars with American soldiers, but Daily Mail writer Dominic Sandbrook tells us a different story http://goo.gl/7T0WeH of anarchy, rape, expulsion. Absent Hitler, people managed to Hitler for themselves pretty effectively.
Hitler did not personally murder seven million people. He did not get up and say “I will bring a ruinous war on my country.”
Hitler did not do those things. Chains of PEOPLE starting with Hitler, or more often people loosely motivated by Hitler, did those things. I am interested in Hitler only to the extent that it is interesting to know why he was both so successful in the outset and how he fucked up so colossally. I have theories on that, but they aren’t today’s point.
Today’s point is the people in those chains. A few years ago a friend lent me Christopher R. Browning’s “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.” It details how a bunch of middle aged men became epic genocidalists. They’re people much like myself.
Godwin’s Law and Trump
Let us now talk about Godwin’s Law and Trump.
Trump is a demagogue. Whether he’s Hitler or Franco or Stalin or Huey Long doesn’t matter. Even Hitler was only Hitler by accident of history. If we’re lucky Trump is more Antonio Salazar than Franco, but the lottery on demagogues is rigged in favor of the house.
That said, I don’t care. Trump isn’t important to me, and he shouldn’t be important to me.
We have to believe one of two things. Either we have to believe in the SPECIAL NATURE of evil demagogues (over the top Victorian capitals mine), or that ordinary people are capable of being the violators, the evil ones, the heavies, the baddies. If not us, then many people we know.
The supernatural story of Hitler imparts supernatural powers to his followers. They aren’t really guilty because they were possessed by Hitler, but neither do we owe them any mercy. They are Zombies, infected with Hitler or Trump virus, and we may shoot them without conscience, knowing we are doing them a favor.
People and their demagogues
The problem is that people who follow Hitler or Trump or any other demagogue are, in fact, people. Most of them quite decent, no worse than you, or me, or anybody who has been wronged by race or the law.
Let’s talk first about the “bad apples.”
I’ve met a lot of people you might call “bad.” They looked for situations to justify hurting other people, wanted a situation in which they could righteously feel good about hurting others. Most of them were on the side of law-and-order. One reason that cops are a problem is that while all cops are not that sort of person, that sort of person is disproportionately attracted to being a cop, and the lower your jurisdiction is on the cop totem-pole the more likelihood you’ll have some of these people. They are the ones who are just looking for an excuse to bust a couple of heads and go home to say they fought the good fight.
Most of them have been hurt, in some way or another. Despite the noble Hollywood mythology that people rebel against unfairness or unfreedom, in fact people pass misery downstream to people they see as less fortunate than themselves.
Most of us have been hurt, and most of us, if we admit it, have that quality. How privileged we are has some impact on how much we keep it under control. How educated we are has a lot to do with how much we are repelled by it. It also has a lot to do with whether or not we return physical hurt with physical hurt, or whether we intellectualize.
To classify someone as subhuman, beneath dignity, beneath redemption, not fit to draw breath, that is intellectual hurt. Some hurt people do that to ethnic minorities based on the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. If we are educated, our ethnicity is the educated and our ethnic minority is the ignorant, whom we damn because they do not understand our progressive ideals or are uncosmopolitan. And our classification of those peoples as “subhuman” is as complete and damning. Our disinterest in helping them is just as sincere. “They deserve it.” “They brought it on themselves.” “They are arrogant.” The Hutu said those things about the Tutsi.
We do those things as intellectuals. Even when we don’t want to pass it along we may. We may be socially virtuous but have insufferable personalities. They may be socially virtuous but be happy to push rules and laws that make the stupid and ignorant stand in the corner with a dunce cap on their head, feeling all the shame we did in school. The theory of microagression has gotten a lot of traction lately, but how many of us are constantly and above all, righteously, microagressive at those we perceive to be ignorant.
I’m not drawing a false equivalence. There are differences. Because educated people understand systems, they are less likely to engage in hatred that creates truly disastrous results. They are more able to check themselves and create a balance, agree to put rules in place so that their tendencies to harm don’t rage out of control. I’m not saying my friends are the same as Trump supporters. I am saying that if they look into themselves, honestly, they may be able to understand precisely what motivates Trump’s supporters and what it feels like, because they are not immune to the same siren’s song.
A Hitler is an enabler. He becomes supernatural because he intends to be. I’ve always felt that to treat Hitler as an (effectively) supernatural evil is to allow him the victory. Like every other man who finds hurting people in trouble and offers to solve their problems if they will only make him their God, Hitler found people sufficiently “other” to be the “enemy” and created a mythology about them which bore no relation to reality. In doing so, the very trick of mind necessary to embrace that mythology by definition mythologized Hitler. This is not hard for people who lack agency, because they can imagine that someone who seems to have agency is all powerful, and they find it easy to imagine their enemies have much greater agency than they do.
Some apples are worse than other, which is to say that some people are more primed to deal hurt to others, more desperately seeking a way for it to be acceptable and good. Once we understand what drives hurting others, we realize it is only a matter of degree. Of course it is those who have the most need to hurt who seek demagogues first.
Eventually others follow. I remember a television special some years back which investigated how individual Germans were informed on and ended up in death camps. They went through old Reich records and looked at the files of individual arrests. One thing they concluded is that in most cases it was not a Nazi coming from on high and dragging people off. In most cases it was a neighbor informing. As the path to hurting became easier, it was easier to take that path.
George Orwell, whose understandings of these politics were honed by his real-life experiences in the Spanish Civil War, understood that quite well. He understood that Hitler, Trump, don’t matter. Nobody even knew if Big Brother was a real person. It is the individuals within the system who drive its activities.
Trump’s supporters do not take part in some supernatural evil. They are driven by the fact they have been or are being hurt, and they want, desperately to hit back. They will cheer for the guy who tells them they can do this. They will cheer for the guy who tells them who to hit. They understand hitting.
What do we do about the followers of demagogues?
First, we could sit in our liberal intellectual ivory towers and believe they just need to learn a better way. We can believe they need to learn about racial tolerance, respect for women and other minorities, and the reality that their own handgun is probably more of a threat to them, statistically, than Al Qaeda. We can wring our hands that they do not, and solemnly agree that they shall be disenfranchised from the national dialog, from the world of political discourse, until they have wised up. We can HOPE that we have enough strength to make that determination stick, because the cost if we are wrong is to be first up against the wall. Even if this happens we can hold up our clean hands and enjoy the self satisfaction of knowing we were the good guys.
Second we could aggressively hate them. We can go on the attack, can in our own way find the equivalent of their dialog their rhetoric. In other words we can reach into that place in us where we were hurt and channel that to fight back at them, using our superior truths, knowledge and clothed in the same halo of righteousness that they themselves have. We can become the angels to their demons. In doing so we adopt the same supernatural view of the universe, and we accept that reality and balance may become a casualty of the need to struggle against the tide of evil. But at least we can go to sleep at night knowing we fight the good fight…just like they do.
Or, finally we can look at the world and determine that as a rule, people who have been hurt tend to hurt other people. That people who are in pain are less sensitive to the pain of others. And we can look at ways to help stop the pain for everyone.
We can look at ways to stop the hurt.
The problem with Trump’s supporters is that, clearly, they are RIGHT. Their lives are shit. I might not have had a decent raise in ten years, but their lives are free falling into chaos where hard work and trying to play by the rules are starting to fail at buying subsistence. They have little time. And if they do, their friends don’t their relatives don’t and they are scared witless.
You can tell the white man from Omaha about his “privilege,” but when he has hit the point where all you are going to get is an ironic “obviously not fucking privileged enough” as he deals with bills he can’t pay you are not going to convince.
You can tell him he is better off than African-Americans in Ferguson and you can be right. But I could tell you that the African-Americans in Ferguson are so much better off and richer than the Africans in Sierra Leone that there’s no comparison and you’d call me a heartless bastard who misses the point.
Nor is not fixing things for the poor white man in Omaha going to somehow fix things for the African-Americans in Ferguson, or his wife who is a woman. If he’s doing badly, he’s actually just at the lowest rung of the ladder to have a voice that’s unafraid to shout. The shit that is rolling down on him is rolling downhill and it is engulfing the people who have it worse.
I will admit that I am fed up with dialog from my progressive friends that amounts to advice to supposedly privileged people on how to stop snarling at others fighting for their scraps with no more than a token hand wring over the fact that the scraps are getting smaller. People who are so wrapped up in social justice that they forget that scarcity and fear are the drivers of social injustice. People so focused on treating the symptoms that they consider the disease an afterthought. I think in some cases they themselves have no idea how to cure the disease and focusing on the symptoms is a way of asserting control and feeling powerful.
Obviously, Trump is not the answer. He’s a demagogue selling an enemy. He’s said to the poor and shat on “look at the other people climbing up out of the shit to get your stuff.”
It’s a message that’s caught fire. As Dave Maraniss and Robert Samuels write in the March 17 Washington Post found, quoting a Trump operative, aide to a Michigan State Senator, “[Ken] Matiyow advised that you spend time knocking on doors in Macomb County. The feedback at address after address was the same. All anti-immigration, all the time. ‘Man, does that strike a nerve. It gets an incredible response when you get to talking about illegal immigration. People don’t want them to ever be legal citizens’….On immigration, Matiyow said, there was ‘a massive outpouring of disgust.’” The Post writers described “Gary Hohf, 63, and Bill Manjar, 60… — beefy guys who grew up as Democrats, once belonged to unions (United Auto Workers and ironworkers, felt ‘screwed,’ as they said, by various free-trade agreements, left the Democratic Party and were now all in for Trump.”
The problem is that if you set morality aside…and people are poor with morality when they feel scared and threatened…what Trump suggests is not a particularly bad idea.
Even if you are rational and clear thinking, when you see an Indian or Mexican or other minority worker who will do the work you do for a lower wage, that’s a threat. Perhaps at the very remote edge of reality some billionaire who is holding the leash and making the scraps you fight over smaller is the real enemy. But you can’t get to him. You can stomp the immigrant. When you are in the lifeboat, the far away submarine that shot the torpedo isn’t the enemy. The man you don’t know scrabbling aboard your overloaded boat and threatening to swamp it, or chuck you out, is the enemy. Crusading Quixotically against never defeated billionaires isn’t actually a very sensible suggestion. You have never had much privilege, never had much social agency, so the idea that you could shake the tree and bring them down has never crossed your mind. But hitting your neighbor with a stick. That makes sense and will actually do some short term good. Fighting the one percent isn’t rational. Fighting your immigrant neighbor is rational. It may not be moral, but morals are for people who aren’t staring down ruin. Slam the oar down on their fingers.
I don’t advocate stomping minorities. I’m simply pointing out that it’s not an irrational action. It is an action that most of us would take if we were desperate enough.
What do we do?
We can’t tell people to “just be moral and nice” when they are sliding into ruin. That’s not how people are. A certain number will be, because they have a martyr complex, because they are super lawful-good, or because they believe that they will be rewarded in the next life. But as we’ve cured martyr complexes, blind obedience to law, and belief in the supernatural as a cure for social problems in our society we’ve been left with the fact that people need real answers.
We need to make stomping your neighbor an irrational action. It boils down to this:
Q: Why are people ferociously willing to hurt their poorer neighbor
A: Because they are scared
Q: Why are they scared?
A: Because they or people around them are losing ground economically, in a way that is causing them hardship, and see no way to reverse that
James Carville had it right more than twenty years ago. “It’s the economy stupid.”
We need to fix the fucking economy.
Can the Economy be Fixed?
If not, then it’s basically a fight between people who
A) Believe that the first-class passengers in the lifeboat have had it too good for too long and should gracefully step into the sea to allow the third-class passengers to survive because this is moral and equitable
B) Believe that the first-class passengers should stomp those fingers reaching over the edge of the lifeboat and drop them back into the sea.
Morally and ethically I support (A) but as a gambler I would lay odds that (B) will mostly prevail.
That’s ugly so let’s hope for the possibility that the economy can be fixed.
I understand perfectly that it’s nothing as simple as taking the 1%, throwing them up against a wall, and shaking them down for change. That said, there is reasonable evidence that we’ve wired our economy badly to simply lock up large sums of capital in a way that actually reduces productivity, and that we need to reverse that process. That we’ve let the 1% here and abroad make rules that accelerate globalization at a pace that’s hurtful and results in runaway corporate pillaging that helps nobody, here or abroad. That we need to rethink the great dogma of trickle-down and balance it with the sort of socialism that is keeping life bearable in European countries that actually have a worse GDP than we do.
What does that mean in this election?
Hillary Clinton is not a wise choice. Hillary Clinton is a choice for sticking our head in the sand. She is a social progressive, but her economic policies are bankrupt. She is going to do on the left what Bush did on the right.
She will use progressive social policy as bread-and-circuses for her liberal supporters, while promoting the status quo for the economy. Perhaps she’ll make guns (which kill about 12k people a year) the center of a vast and sweeping social change. Of course researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that poverty, low levels of education, poor social support and other social factors contribute about as many deaths in the U.S. as such familiar causes as heart attacks, strokes and lung cancer, that is to say about 400–600k See more at: https://goo.gl/JvsOGc
It’s the economy stupid…
I don’t doubt that Clinton believes, just as Bush or Romney did that the system is basically sound and that if we only weather a few years without an explosion things will get better. But the math says that the system is not getting better and is not going to get better.
The difference between Clinton and Trump is certainly not negligible and I am not suggesting they are like and like choices. Clinton will try to stomp her foot on the brakes and carefully guide the country through hazards, while Trump will smash the accelerator on a downhill plunge, believing we can just smash through the obstacles. The problem is that both policies are doomed.
That said, I cannot blame the people who will cast a ballot for a third party candidate rather than Clinton. Protest votes, denying a party election because they failed to represent your position, are a legitimate political tool. Nor does the danger of “Trump as Hitler” preclude that.
Politics is a long game, and it is neither impermissible nor socially irresponsible to play the long game. Trump has a lot of potential for mischief, however four years will almost certainly prove his policies a failure, and it is plausibly difficult to entrench yourself as a dictator under the US system. The problem with Clinton is that she may not show that her economic policies are a complete failure in four years, may simply discredit her party, leaving the door open for the next, more powerful, more blatant demagogue.
People in a hundred years could be saying
“Trump would never have risen if left progressives had been willing to support the moderate Hillary Clinton”
But they could just as easily be saying
“The election of moderate Hillary Clinton over the comparatively prosaic populist Trump paved the way for four years of frustration that erupted in the election of Jones, who would become the greatest tyrant in Western History.”
It is arguable that to support four more years of social progressivism without any substantial attempt to change our underlying economic structure is shooting ourselves in the foot. There’s no way to know and nobody without a crystal ball can shame others.
At this point we still have a chance to elect someone who, even if his hands are tied, will plausibly change the national dialog. I’m going to support Sanders through the convention because even if he is not nominated he may force that dialog into the Democratic Platform, his support may convince Clinton (who is an accommodationist) to accommodate it, and create the possibility of change.
But however much you may love social justice, I am going to repeat. “It’s the economy stupid.” And until we begin to seriously look at changing that, nothing is really going to get “better.”