Our New Order

Reflections on Week Two

Time for a reality check. Set aside the increasingly ordinary insanity of this past week: Trump’s ranting phone calls with the President of Mexico and the Prime Minister of Australia, Iran’s being put on notice for an attack that never occurred, our fearless leader’s failure to check with his own lawyers before issuing his immigration ban, or his unwillingness to show up in the Situation Room for the failed Yemen raid in which an American serviceman was killed. Forget the fact that he lifted sanctions against the FSB (the KGB 2.0), or that his team decided to turn off the tape recorder for his chat with Vladimir Putin, or that his spokesperson imagined a massacre by Iraqi radicals in Bowling Green, or . . .

Just set it all aside. Mute the circus. There’s a bigger picture.

In a 1990 profile of Donald Trump, Vanity Fair reported that Ivana Trump had told her lawyers that Trump kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches, My New Order, next to his bed. This alone meant nothing: In a free country, we read what we want. And there was always the possibility that Ivana Trump, in the middle of a messy divorce, was simply making it up.

It was the report of how Trump responded when Tim Murphy of Mother Jones asked him about the book that quickly tilted the anecdote toward the significant — and the chilling. Here’s the transcript from Mother Jones:

“Did your cousin John give you the Hitler speeches?” I asked Trump.
Trump hesitated. “Who told you that?”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“Actually, it was my friend Marty Davis from Paramount who gave me a copy of Mein Kampf, and he’s a Jew.” (“I did give him a book about Hitler,” Marty Davis said. “But it was My New Order, Hitler’s speeches, not Mein Kampf. I thought he would find it interesting. I am his friend, but not Jewish.”
Later, Trump returned to this subject. “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them.”

Take a moment to consider the weirdness (and worse) of this response. Instead of simply saying, “Yeah, I was interested,” because there’s nothing wrong with reading Hitler’s speeches, or any other book, Trump answers, “Who told you that?” then feels compelled to inoculate himself against a charge that hasn’t been made by adding that it was his friend, Marty Davis of Paramount, a Jew, who gave him a copy of Mein Kampf. Never mind that Davis isn’t, in fact, Jewish — that’s just Trump making shit up, as is his want. It’s not important. What’s important is that the logic here, in its crudity, in its absurd attempt to hide behind ‘the Jewish friend’ because, after all, Jews are all alike, and a Jew giving you Mein Kampf means you’re okay, is something you’d expect to hear from the accused at Nurenberg: “I knew a Jew once, your Honor, and treated him well.”

Having concocted this mad response he then drags it into the realm of the absurd: “If I had these speeches, and I’m not saying that I do, I would never read them.” To which any sane person would have to ask, “Why not?”

But let’s just stop. Donald Trump wasn’t reading My New Order because he was interested in the rise of fascism. He was reading the book because Hitler was a master propagandist and he wanted to see how, precisely, the man had gone about his business.

How do I know this? I know it because Trump is on record, over and again, as admiring “strong” leaders who know how to consolidate power and, when they feel the urge to flex, bring the boot down. Saddam Hussein was a “really bad guy,” Trump admitted during a campaign event in Raleigh, as though Hussein had been a purse-snatcher. “But do you know what he did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good.” That ‘terrorists’ are whoever the Great Leader says they are (including innocent civilians), or that killing them ‘so good’ might involve using chemical weapons, are only concerns for liberals, journalists, humanitarians, ie. the weak: “Hussein throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy. ‘Oh, he’s using gas!”

Geneva Conventions? Please. So sad.

It keeps going: Putin’s a “strong” leader, “unlike what we have in this country,” because of the control he has over his people. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un? “You’ve got to give him credit . . . . He goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible.” The Chinese government’s brutal massacre of students in Tiananmen Square? It “shows you the power of strength.”

So here’s the question: How long before we start hearing what the man’s saying? How long before we see what’s right in front of our faces and admit that we have a psychologically unbalanced leader in the White House, a cruel, seventy-year old child who proceeds from rage and feeds on grievance, who can’t let anything go, from the size of his hands to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ratings, who has no decency, no sense of honor, no compassion; who has a heart-shaped cavity in his chest and thinks that that makes him a man and who, not least, is absolutely, most definitely marching us to war?

There’s no easy way to put this: There’s a nearly cartoon-like vindictiveness here, an urge to humiliate, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 30’s; a hunger not so much for power per se, but for dominance. For this child-man, power can never be silent, never held in reserve: It has to be flaunted, used, it has to be inflicting pain on whoever the enemy is today, otherwise what good is it? And he wants us to watch.

Not surprisingly, this junkie-itch for power, this capacity for cruelty (“Torture works, and even if it doesn’t, they deserve it”), has attracted other crackpots into its orbit, a toxic mixture of borderline psychotics, shameless propagandists, white supremacists, anti-Semites and the usual enablers/liars/spokespeople with no soul to risk. “Darkness is good,” declares Steve Bannon, like some twelve year old who’s spent way too long in his mother’s basement. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” Is he tweaking the ‘liberal press,’ which is easy to tweak? Don’t count on it. The man is a member of the Vigilant Patriots’ Facebook group, which referred to Obama as a f — — — n — — -, and featured posts calling for his violent overthrow and execution.

Which could be written off (another right-wing nut scrawling a swastika on the virtual wall), were it not for the inconvenient fact that Darth Vader is also on the “principals committee” of the National Security Council, that he’s on record as saying that, like Lenin, he wants “to bring everything crashing down, and destroy today’s establishment” (to be replaced by what, he doesn’t say), and that he has “no doubt” that the United States and China will fight a war within the next ten years over islands in the South China Sea. He also believes that we’ll be at war with Islam. “You have an expansionist Islam and you have an expansionist China. Right? They are motivated. They’re arrogant. They’re on the march.”

The real threat is already here. If you’re in doubt, consider Bannon’s statement that if the Trump administration succeeds in raising prosperity for the middle class, “we’ll govern for fifty years,” a number a bit short of the thousand-year Reich, but then again, well past the customary Presidential term limit.

The war-mongering, the wild-eyed pronouncements, the paranoid vision of the world, the ‘I am Satan’ looniness and the ideological backsprings would all be darkly amusing were it not for the fact that out behind the big tent things are quietly unfolding. The undermining of the free press as “the opposition party” is well underway. The demonizing of the judiciary as corrupt and/or disloyal is proceeding. And now, closing out the week, we get word of an Executive order yanked straight out of the Nazi playbook, an order to publish a constantly updated list of crimes committed (Proven? Assumed? Overheard?) by immigrants, because crimes committed by immigrants (just like crimes ‘committed’ by Jews in the 1930’s) are inherently different from crimes committed by others, and because, well, there’s work to be done if we’re to learn who to hate:

“Executive Order: Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States. (b) To better inform the public regarding the public safety threats associated with sanctuary jurisdictions, the Secretary shall utilize the Declined Detainer Outcome Report or its equivalent and, on a weekly basis, make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens.

Are immigrants the “new Jews?” To get an approximate answer, don’t look at where we are today, but get out your ruler and extend the pronouncements, the actions, the general direction of this administration another two or three years down the line. What do you see?

In 1941, my mother found herself on a crowded tram in Brno, Czechoslovakia, watching, helplessly, as an old man crawled around on all fours in the square, trying to grab at the boots of the soldiers stomping him into unconsciousness. The lesson she took away from that particular horror, the lesson she repeated to me over the decades, was simple enough: It doesn’t begin on the tram. By the time you find yourself there, or sitting in class watching your teacher’s face flinch every time he’s interrupted by volleys from the execution yard, a whole lot of water has passed under the bridge.

Distilled to its essence, the lesson came down to this: in any democracy, even an institutionally weakened one, tyranny takes time. It’s a slow, incremental process; there are antibodies to overcome. So you start with small lies, relatively harmless exaggerations, and escalate; you numb the forces that would resist you, you tire them out. You probe and retreat, dissemble and qualify, you clown and entertain. You’re not the aggressor, you’re the victim; you’re not lying, they are; you’re not inciting hatred, you’re just thinking out loud.

And all the while you’re probing for advantage. Wherever you sense weakness, you move ahead aggressively; wherever you encounter resistance, you deny, you ridicule, you whine that you’re being attacked. You contradict yourself as necessary. Unhindered by ridiculous notions of honor, or truth, you’re free to maneuver. When the resistance slackens, you take up the territory.

If they were alive today, I think my parents would tell me this: To get a sense of where things may lead, don’t look to the final stages of the disease, but to the moment of contagion. Is Donald Trump Adolf Hitler? Of course not! But Adolf Hitler wasn’t Adolf Hitler either in, say, 1920, when he was just an insecure and vindictive Austrian neurotic surrounded by enemies and burning to show them all.

It is what it is. To deny what’s happening would be to willfully deny our leaders’ words as well as their actions. This is the Big Grab, people, and the only way to stop it (if we are to stop it) is to begin now, to take whatever legal measures are necessary, to disrupt the order, to be relentless. To raise the volume and keep on raising it because this is not Germany in 1937 but the United States in 2017 and the habit of freedom, which we’ve taken for granted, may prove harder to break than our leaders think.

There are at least a hundred million of us, perhaps many more. That should count for something.