Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Führer For Our Time

A question often served up in middle-brow documentaries and popular history books is to wonder how Germany, one of the most advanced and civilized countries in Europe, could have sunk into Nazi savagery. How did the nation of Goethe and Beethoven produce Hitler, Goebbles and the Holocaust?* Future historians, assuming there will be any, won’t face any such troubling questions about America’s lapse into right wing authoritarianism. Their task will be much simpler. They won’t have to ask how it happened, they’ll simply scratch their heads and wonder what the hell took it so long.

They’ll note that the country had a trial run between 2001-2004, when a virulently right wing administration assumed unconstitutional police powers and effortlessly lied the country into war. They’ll remark how easily the population was cowed by phantom dangers, and how readily they sold out their vaunted principles of freedom and constitutional government in exchange for security. The USA was kidnapping people and throwing them into torture chambers overseas, and its people cheered (or, more typically, yawned). The White House spokesman at the time, Ari Fleischer, warned Americans that they needed to “watch what they say, watch what they do,” and announcing that you were opposed to the invasion of Iraq invited suspicious glances from good solid middle class Americans who regarded such an opinion as seditious. In fact, were it not for the staggering hubris and ineptitude of the Bush administration, the USA might well have expedited its date with fascism by a good twelve or thirteen years.

As it happened, America was granted a reprieve, but not because of the virtues of its people, which our future historians will find lacking. They’ll note that a majority of Americans never traveled outside of the country, didn’t read books, and knew almost nothing of their own history. They acquired their knowledge of the world exclusively through commercial television, talk radio, pop culture entertainments and bogus social media memes. This produced a dangerously ignorant population that was peculiarly vulnerable to demagogic manipulation. They proudly didn’t do nuance and it showed: They confused crude nationalism with genuine patriotism. They regarded unrestrained consumerism as a god given American right — indeed, a patriotic virtue — and they demonstrated on more than one occasion that they were willing to bomb and kill others for it. They were easily and pathetically frightened by foreign dangers, whether real or imagined, about which they knew little and understood less.

All that was needed, it turned out, was a Dear Leader who truly reflected their hopes, fears and aspirations, however stupid or irrational. I always imagined a telegenic social conservative, a Bible thumping, flag waving, gun totin’, free market luvin’ Midwesterner who was more Texan than Texas and more Christian than Christ; a slick hyper-patriot with one foot planted in the revival tent and the other planted firmly in Wall Street cash; a grinning, back-slapping reptile with the down home charm of Andy Griffith and the soul of Ted Cruz.

Donald Trump just didn’t fit that bill. A thrice married billionaire Manhattanite with zero charisma and bad hair just didn’t cut it. He might bamboozle Wrestlmania fans and a few racist malcontents, but there was no way he could win over enough demographics to pull down 270 electoral votes.

But I misjudged the tenor of the times. Now, looking back, of course it had to be Trump. Who else embodies the zeitgeist of America more perfectly than he? Who better to lead us than a greedy, boorish, transparently phony con artist whose only unqualified success in life has been as a reality TV star? This is nation that invented the Ponzi scheme, sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps, the prosperity gospel, Enron, trickle-down economics, the War on Terror, Mormonism, Scientology, cheese filled pizza crusts, deep fried Twinkies, Kim Kardashian and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? Our culture is based on nothing but greed, fraud, deception, stupidity, tacky celebrity and meaningless junk. It’s what we are. It’s all we are. Trump’s not an aberration. He’s the entirely organic creation of a thoroughly trashy and decadent culture. He’s the apotheosis of the modern American soul. He’s the leader we deserve.

(*To which the answer is, the same country that produced Bismarck, the Kulturkampf, Kaiser Willhelm II, unrestricted submarine warfare and mustard gas attacks.)

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