Saturday, 12 January 2019 06:00

2017 and 1933: Watching A Nation Crumble

What a somber 4th of July. It is difficult to enjoy what should be a celebration of freedom when the country is pretty clearly falling apart. As crazy as I know it sounds, the more I read and study and research, the more convinced I am that we're facing an unprecedented crisis. I'm fairly certain I'm not the only American who thinks there is a very real possibility that the USA won't make it through the next decade in one piece.

It is difficult to feel proud of something that is in the process of disintegrating. Beyond that, though, this 4th is reminding me the degree to which our collective desire to have pride in our country gets used to justify the terrible acts that our leaders commit, year in and year out. Pride in your nation should be a result of that nation living up to its promises, which, in America's case, I think best boil down to: everyone has a reasonably equal chance to experience a life of liberty and the pursuit of happiness, more or less however they personally define those things. 

So it is very hard to feel like a proud American when more than 50% of our federal income taxes go to the Pentagon to pay for more jets and bombs and nuclear weapons, while our actual national security diminishes as countries that feel threatened by our power build their own power to counter ours (um, classic security dilemma, anyone?).

It is hard to feel like a proud American when the color of your skin is a major factor in someone's risk of being killed by a police officer and even if they survive an encounter unscathed, they are more likely to be charged with a crime, which exposing them to being permanently barred from voting and subject to lifelong discrimination when trying to get a job.

It is hard to feel like a proud American when that ridiculous archaism that is the electoral college has yet again produced a fundamentally non-democratic outcome, when the electoral process itself has been compromised by foreign interference and widespread, racially-motivated domestic voter suppression, or the fact that the creature now occupying the Oval Office (when not on Twitter) was even allowed to stand for election after threatening the integrity of the outcome if it didn't go his way (how can such an act, a direct and unprecedented threat against the integrity of the Constitution, not constitute treason, by the way?).

Look, America, like any country is a land full of myths, something both good and bad. Good, because myths like the American Dream (making it in this country has never been just a matter of working hard enough) bring amazing immigrants who have, generation after generation, have fought to make it a better place. But the myths can go bad, and our collective national inability or unwillingness to hold our political and economic leaders accountable for their abuses has, generation after generation, enabled them to justify killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

From the genocide of the Indian Wars to the brutal occupation of the Philippines and right through the indiscriminate bombing campaigns our leadership waged against Germany (particularly Hamburg and Dresden), Japan (even with nukes), Korea, and Vietnam, to their 'precision' counterparts Iraq, Afghanistan, and wherever else we've started bombing between the time I hit 'publish' and you read this (hm, maybe I should start inscribing my rants on stone tablets? Hard copy, and survivable!). Actions that are as morally dubious as they are military ineffective. The United States has been on a roaring rampage of revenge for more than fifteen years now. We have tried to occupy and/or bomb more than half a dozen countries. Killing tens of thousands of civilians. Innocent women and children mostly caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. People our ideals (and basic human decency) tell us we are morally obligated to protect. And is there an end in sight? At least in World War II the thing had an end. One can almost accept the 'war is hell' argument if there's a definite end point to look forward to. Eventually, the refrain 'collatoral damage' or even 'we killed x more terrorists/insurgents' starts to look like bureaucratic self-justification for continuing to do the same pointless thing year after year after year.

That the United States of America is now seen as one of the greatest threats to world peace even by our allies is largely down to the fact that decade after decade America's military is deployed to annihilate one city or country after another. Our tax money at work, I guess, but I invite you to take a look at your W-2, and divide the amount withheld for federal income taxes by 2. That's your regular share of the 'security' budget. I hope you feel it well-spent! If not, I can tell you exactly how to reduce your tax bill by up to 25%, instantly...

This isn't down to the Trumpists alone, though. This is the result of at least 75 years of a country led by people who govern through manipulation of myths, yet despite their sophistication in that sense for some reason can't seem to get it through their thick skulls that annihilating Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hanoi, Fallujah, and most recently Mosul and Raqqah have in the end served mostly to annihilate the United States' claim to any kind of moral high ground. Every American president since Reagan has promised some variation of 'Morning in America'. Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, Obama, and now 'Drumpf'. All of them. And all of them use that gap between our collectively saying 'alright, the last guy failed, so it's your turn now' and realizing that we've been betrayed yet again, to make their buddies richer and the rest of us poorer, while taking action after action that back in the days of the Nuremburg trials would have probably seen them convicted of War Crimes - hence, perhaps, why the US refuses to join the International Criminal Court.

Trumpism - the perverse ideology (reducing in the end to a cult-of-personality) shared by the 10-20% of Americans who actually believe in Trump, and not just people who voted for him because they feared a(nother) Clinton presidency - is a manifestation of very old, very dangerous currents in American society. A continuation of the old anti-immigration Know Nothings of the late 19th century, the McCarthy and Goldwater outbreaks of the mid 20th, and the pseudo-Libertarian Tea Partiers of the early 21st. A group of people who appear to truly believe that there is a 'correct' way to be 'American', and that some people either can't or don't deserve to be treated equally in society.

It is a poisonous ideology, a rejection of humanity that anyone who has studied early 20th Century European history should be familiar with, deeply informed by social darwinism and a cancerous social growtn that comprised the basic foundation of Nazi ideology. Fortunately, while it is fair to say that every society will harbor some groups who adopt this kind of poisonous ethical position, only rarely do any of these groups get in a position to actually control anything. Even though conservatives like the Bushes and Reagans naturally tapped into this ideology for their purposes, they never let it run anything too important.

Because when they do, things have a tendency to go very bad, very quickly.

The Trump = Hitler comparison has of course been (keeps getting) made, but as is so typical of the American media, it generally uses a completely mythological version of Hitler as touchstone. Seventy years after Adolf met with his well-deserved, sadly belated fate, we remember him as an odd mix of demon and clown. Where in reality he was more a mix of insane clown (that video shows a very accurate depiction of Hitler on one of his breakdowns towards the end of the war) and charismatic, narcisstic sociopath (it is likely that Hitler used his breakdowns strategically, when his usual methods of gaining compliance had failed). A complete opportunist whose actual positions would swing wildly depending on who he was talking to, who surrounded himself with incompetent subordinates and focused their energy on building little bureaucratic empires, using access to him as a means of controlling their power. 

If that sounds eerily familiar to 2017, it should. Because the Trumpists, as a pseudo-revolutionary minority interest, have been forced to follow a similar, particular path in order to gain power. Most people today don't realize that Hitler and the Nazis never won a majority in a free election, and were losing support when Hitler gained power. While they were the individually largest party in 1933 (in a country with several other major parties, almost as large), they were so viscerally hated by the majority of Germans that the leftist parties of the time, had they been able to unite, would have been in a position to launch a series of national strikes that would have crippled Hitler's government - something the Nazis were desperately afraid of. Hence, immediately after Hitler getting formal power, a campaign of repression was unleashed to bias the electoral process, culminating in a rigged election. And subsequently make the legislature vote itself out of any sort of meaningful existence.

That Hitler was given the powerful position of Chancellor - subordinate to the President, until his death in 1934 - was almost entirely down to a series of backroom political deals made between major players in the powerful German conservative parties, who thought they could control him. They completely underestimated his ruthlessness, and in a rapid period of power consolidation the Nazis simply spread into the fabric of the bureaucracy and essentially stole German society. Subsequent elections were rigged, a terrorist attack was used to grant the Chancellor emergency powers, and when the President died of old age a year later Hitler simply merged the offices of Chancellor and President.

We look back at 1933, and we tend to see Hitler's rise as inevitable, a fact of history. When in fact it was an accident, a confluence of different forces, that conspired to give a dedicated opportunist like Adolf a chance to translate that opportunity into power. Which he was able to do, in tragic fashion, by delivering the German people economic recovery via massive military spending, then solidifying his hold over their loyalty by a long bout of 'winning', in other words, achieving victories in foreign policy that let Germans feel like their nation was 'great' again... until the 6th Army died at Stalingrad in 1942, sending the Nazis down their long slide to total defeat.

Most observers thought it would be a short-lived thing, Hitler's Germany. And by all rights it should have been - Nazism didn't offer anything of long-term substance, it offered no realistic path for resolving the long-term geopolitical and economic problem of a powerful united German nation in the middle of Europe, and Hitler was in fact quite nearly overthworn multiple times by the Army, which was painfully aware that another Great War would mean the destruction of Germany. Most observers of the time seem to have expected that the thing would eventually collapse under the weight of its own illogic and dysfunction.

Turned out that Hitler, mad as he was, had a plan. And the capability to carry it forward through a deadly combination of willingness to topple any existing structure or institution that got into his way (there's a narcissistic sociopath for you!) and the rabid support of a minority interest within German society.

Both Trumpism and Nazism stem from the same basic misunderstanding of society: that it is a Darwinian struggle for survival, that only the fittest people (peoples) should lead, or even live if resources get too scarce. The Nazis were able to tap into the deepest fears of many Germans, rooted in their long history of playing host to other people's devastating wars, and merge them into more pressing contemporary fears of economic and political deprivation at the hands of foreigners. Once in formal power, there was nothing to stop them from carrying their ridiculous visions forward.

And much like 1933, while the international intellectual and political left is speaking the language of resistance, while seeming completely incapable of mounting an effective challenge to the threat. Reading the history of the German resistance from 1933-1945 is starkly illustrative: a resistance has to actually do something, actually defeat the ruling regime in some public way that matters - the quicker the better. Else the regime will use its position of power to reshape the terms of the game.

By matters, I mean something more meaningful and impactful than leading yet another protest or rally. Look at the behavior and words of America's leaders on the 'left' since November 2016, and one thing is clear: they have no intention of actually doing anything to stop the Trumpists, unless the 2018 midterm elections somehow go massively their way (but in all reality probably won't, given how badly gerrymandered Congress is), then we have a 'free and fair' presidential election in 2020 (and is that even a guarantee anymore?) where some people are already talking about Joe Biden, of all people, running against Trump. American liberals seem absolutely wedded to this idea that if they hope and believe hard enough, change will magically happen.

But that's all part and parcel of the sham American politics have become. We functionally have about as much 'representation' with respect to our collective taxation as the Founders did in 1776 (for those of us on the West Coast, DC. is about as far away as London, to boot). No matter who is in formal power, the average American loses. The country seems adrift for a reason: all of us bound to a federal system that is almost entirely dedicated to hoovering up tax dollars to benefit the military-industrial and bureaucratic-regulatory complexes. The national economy is in the midst of something akin to a metabolic crisis (was Marx on to something when he wrote about capitalism and metabolic rift?), with the growth in some sectors (like tech) masking the collapse of other sectors (like manufacturing), and if black or native people hold a protest about being murdered by the authorities or their land being poisoned it gets called a riot, but if white people armed with assault rifles hijack a federal wildlife refuge...

As Standing Rock and Ferguson demonstrate, violent political repression is a fact of modern American life, but it thankfully still remains implemented in an ad-hoc fashion. While the federal government has made it abundantly clear that it will do little to nothing to combat the epidemic of violence being directed at non-whites by agents of the state, and that it won't worry too much about their right to vote, still we haven't seen large-scale, organized violence in the mold of pogroms. No secret police units deployed against, to paraphrase that old bit of wisdom, first the communists, then the socialists, then the trade unionists, and so on down the line.

In part, because unlike Germany in 1933, the United States is a far larger, far more diverse, continent-spanning republic. The Trumpists are in power because they exploited our quirky electoral system, and because the powers-that-be in D.C. are so caught up in their own agendas that they are finding it easier to collude than counterattack. The Nazis needed a highly organized industrial society to work under their direction to accomplish their objectives, which was to culminate in Germany colonizing Russia exactly like the United States colonized the Indian Territories - this objective and logic were both explicitly articulated in Nazi ideology. They needed labor to build and power their machine of conquest. But the Trumpists have inherited the world's best-funded and increasingly automated war machine. They don't need our cooperation to build or deploy it. They can simply choose to blow up whatever (real or metaphorical) institutions wherever they wish.

And eventually, to accomplish their nutty objectives, they'll have to. The Trumpists want us to believe that they can roll us back to the mythical good old days of the 1950s when prosperity was the birthright of all hard-working (white, male) Americans. But to think that you can turn back the clock like that is a myth in and of itself.

In the age of the internet and cheap information, where the lies are so much harder to sustain, myths are already crumbling. It is doubtful that myths alone can sustain us through the turbulent decade or two that are ahead of us. The majority of Americans (particularly those of us under the age of 50, because we're the ones living it while trying to make lives for ourselves) are fully aware of how bad things are. And, given the inevitability of the Boomer generation passing on, we will be the ones ultimately be tasked with repairing the damage. But at present we collectively lack the means to engage in the meaningful, national-scale, moral resistance to oppression required to get started doing our part to surmount the challenges ahead. This isn't even a political position, in truth: we're beyond mere 'politics' now that it is empirically so clear that so many lives are at stake, that our leaders' claim to the moral legitimacy that is needed to hold this country together is so pitifully tenous, given what they do with it year after year.

Are we in a full-on redux of the 1930s? Very possibly. Certainly, at home and abroad, it is looking like history is at least rhyming in a very nasty way. If we ever start to see formal organized violence directed at political opposition, that will be a very sign that thing is on an inevitable slide to... who can say, for certain? Revolution, maybe, but revolutions are fraught with the risk of Counter-revolution and The Terror. Full-on Animal Farm style dystopic nonsense.

More likely, I suspect, is that things just drift, and drift, and get more tense, until the world system throws a crisis that an administration 'led' by a Twitter-addicted, 70-something buffon can't handle. Not a good thing, when that someone (plus a buddy) can literally decide to end the world as we know it in any given hour. (obligatory REM reference). Which probably would never happen.....probably. But even short of a nuclear catastrophe, there are many, many ways Trump can - and appears to be trying to - permanently destroy what remains of the United States of America.

Perhaps we'll just muddle through, and things will take a better turn without the regime flailing around until it finally breaks something too big to put back together (Vlad Putin, hi! Can you please remember we on the Pacific Coast didn't agree to any of this when you are targeting your many Mnogo nukes? Kthanx). At the conclusion of the Bush years, it looked like we would, despite how badly things went for America between 2000 and 2008. But the Obama-era promise of hope and change, which won him the support of people then under 40 and so the election (a voting group Clinton failed to turn out in as high of numbers, a big part of her failure in 2016), has run into a brick wall. And the world is roiling under the weight of so many compounding crisis that it seems doubtful that we have four years to watch the democrats screw up their task of resistance yet again - without missing some major opportunities to move forward as a society, even as the rest of the world moves on without us.

Because that is probably the one thing we can be sure about: like the Nazis, the Trumpists live in a world of ideological fantasy, and insist on doubling or tripling-down on already-crumbling national myths in order to justify what boils down to their attempt to take their metaphorical ball and run home - or, in political-economic terms, re-writing the rules of society to benefit their narrow vision of what it should look like. Which, given the fact that they are disproportionately older and white than the average American, will every passing year be more at odds with the vision of society held by the rest of us. The one, which kids from the 80s through the 00s are familiar with, where we all freaking get along. Not waste all our time fighting endless ideological struggles, shouting back at the talking heads on Fox and CNN.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that we're gonna need to recruit a lot of Sim City and Civilization players to figure out how to rebuild things once the nutters are finally gone. The trick is to try and collectively figure out, those of us who care, what we can salvage from the collapse and use to build something better out of the wreckage.

The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945, by Peter Hoffmann

  • Doesn't pay much attention to the more social and refusenik sorts of resistance, but it doesn't claim to be that kind of history. It focuses on documentary evidence and testimony of people who conspired to launch a coup against the Nazi regime, particularly certain cliques in the Naval Intelligence (Abwehr) and Army (Heer) communities, and culminates in a close look at the events surrounding July 20th, 1944, when Hitler was almost killed by a resistance bomb.

Hitler's Thirty Days to Power: January 1933, by Henry Ashby Turner

  • Comprehensive history, sets blame at the feet of those in a position to actually obstruct Hitler and the Nazis, that is, members of the bureaucratic-political elite, in proportion to their power to do so. And demonstrate the tangled knot of intrigue that led to Hitler's actual accession to the Chancellorship, and from there to Fuhrer.

The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945, by Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman

  • Chilling look inside a genocidal regime inspired by a truly warped ideology. A reminder that logic applied without morality is as dangerous as justice applied without mercy.

Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life, by Detlev Peukert (translated by Richard Deveson)

  • A fascinating (to me) insight into life in what must have been a crazy time to be alive. A good reminder at how human these people our grandfathers were sent to fight really were. How distant most of them were from the centers of power, and how many did in fact resist even in small ways. Just because they didn't (couldn't) win by small acts alone, doesn't negate the spirit of their rebellion. They were as much allies in the fight as the slave laborers who sabotaged up to 40% of German military production (in other words, guns that didn't get to be used against our grandfathers).

A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn

  • Classic. And under-read, because it isn't a mythological version of American history.