13 October 2016

We've been here before

Getting ready to vote.
When Judy buys a book for her Kindle, a "household" copy shows up on mine. That's how David M. Kennedy's Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (The Oxford History of the United States), showed up on my electronic shelf and began insinuating itself into my every free minute.

Last week, I reached the mid-1930's, a time when people like Charles Coughlin, Francis Townsend, and Huey Long were inciting huge radio audiences against the establishment politicians and moneyed interests of their time. Here's a bit of what Kennedy says about the populism of that period:
Populism contrasted the virtues of "the people" to the vices of shadowy elites whose greedy manipulations oppressed the poor and perverted democracy. It was always a language of resentment, of raw class antagonism, edged with envy and grudge. In the charged atmosphere of the 1930s, it could easily become a language of reprisal.
Kennedy also writes about the effect of broadcasting:
Radio assaulted the insularity of local communities. It also, not incidentally, catalyzed the homogenization of American popular culture. And it promised to revolutionize politics. Scholars later employed the term "disintermediation" to describe the potential political effects of radio (and, eventually, of course, television). Radio provided a means to concentrate and exercise power from the top, to bypass and shrink the influence of leaders and institutions that had previously mediated between individuals and local communities on the one side and the national political parties and the national government on the other.
Shortly after I read Kennedy's chapters on Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the revival of populism, the second Clinton-Trump debate took place. The next day I listened to a combined Trumpcast-Political Gabfest podcast reviewing the debate. After panelists catalogued some of the debate's outrageous moments, there was this exchange:
Jacob Weisberg: ... We have a candidate running for president and a candidate running for dictator. And there's a way in which we don't want to recognize that -- that's not the American democracy we've lived with. And of course Trump is running in a democratic election. But you have to recognize that dictators who try to come to power use democratic process if democratic process is helpful to them to get started before starting to behave like dictators once they have power. There's a resistance to recognizing that we have a would-be dictator in our midst this far from the presidency and it's something different than we have ever dealt with in our lifetimes.

Emily Bazelon: That's right, and yet, our normal process makes this seem ... you know, in some ways he still has the trappings of the Republican regular old nominee and we kind of keep going back and forth between those things in a way that's giving me, at least, cognitive dissonance.
There are so many points of contact between Trump and the American populists of the 1930's. The undertones of authoritarianism and violence extend the connections, as several commentators have noted, with the Axis fascists. (And see the latest comments from Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose similarities to Donald Trump are also fascinating. "...If they vote for Hillary it's war.") Comparisons of Trump with the European dictators of three generations ago are nothing new, but there was a bracing bluntness in Weisberg's warning: "We have a candidate running for president and a candidate running for dictator. ... There's a resistance to recognizing that we have a would-be dictator in our midst...."

Maybe it's time to borrow a phrase from Trump himself and take the shackles off our political thinking. In arguing against Trump, we are not simply advocating a choice among several normal candidates. We are making a choice against authoritarianism and we should say so clearly.

I'm not advocating scare tactics. It's possible that "it can't happen here," to adopt the rose-colored title of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, given our vaunted system of checks and balances, but the very process of coping with the commands, whims, and misdeeds of a rogue president could plunge our country into constitutional crises on a weekly basis, and thereby prolong our legislative paralysis at the very point we're also destabilizing our ties with the rest of the world.

The Democratic punching bag against which Trump seems to believe he is running bears little resemblance to the actual candidate, Hillary Clinton. Nor are his dire warnings about the IS taking over the USA after her victory, or any number of other totally over-the-top charges and warnings, at all linked with reality. Two possibilities, and only two: He's either making this stuff up and amplifying it on the fly, perhaps intoxicated by the encouragement of adoring crowds, or he really believes it all, thus demonstrating how weak his ties are with objective reality. But, in any case, the abusive and resentful tone is consistent with classical populism.

Clinton is an example of another well-known model of politician: an experienced Democratic centrist who has a record of caring about domestic policies and how they affect people. Her foreign and defense policies, however, seem trapped within the conventional wisdom of American empire. A Clinton victory this November 8 means the peace movement simply must wake up and get engaged again. Maybe one of their first priorities could be to identify which of Trump's supporters are also genuinely concerned about imperial over-reach and the dangerous lack of accountability of our national security system. These dangers seem to me to be a potential point of common cause among liberals and conservatives alike.

A few years back I commented on our presidential choices in light of Barack Obama's performance:
As a Christian citizen of the USA, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have an enthusiastic and consistent evangelical man or woman serving as president, committed to nonviolence, social justice, acceptance of immigrants, and environmental stewardship. I think the powers that be would arrange an impeachment on about day two. Realistically, in most of our presidential elections, we're probably trying simply to discern who has the combination of broad empathy and executive competence that might help us get through the next four years. Competence is, of course, an ethically mixed blessing: in Obama's case, he helped save our economy, and on the other hand, he pursues al-Qaeda with a refined, extraterritorial ruthlessness that puts Cheney to shame.
"Broad empathy and executive competence" are not the heady stuff of inspiring vision, and they do not serve the beguiling goal of wholesale "change in Washington." But they certainly beat dictatorship.

At least some Liberty University students have had enough of their president's association with Donald Trump.

Bob Dylan's "Hype" links.

Looking back at the notorious Princeton report of two years ago ... is any presidential candidate ever going to face our "economic élite domination"?

Walls: Which side will you be on? And growing up German under the Russians.

Lazy Lester with Eve Monsees:

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