For many years we had wonderful older neighbors in the house beside us. They could always be counted on for help. They kept an eye on our house during our many absences. They had a key to our front door and would bring in our mail when we were away. We spent many enjoyable afternoons in their kitchen where we would have a drink or two or three and talk about a wide variety of subjects. They were always well informed about the events in the US and the world and would have insightful comments to share.
Our two friends had left Germany after the Second World War and migrated to California under the sponsorship the Lutheran Church. They provided an interesting window into what life was like before, during and after the war. Through them I gained insight into how a political movement could take control of a whole nation, first by promising to make it great again, then by vilifying whole segments of the population, blaming them for all the woes afflicting the Germanic world.
I came to understand how power could be concentrated into one person’s hands by those who supported an ideology of anger, divisiveness, vengeance and hate. One person cannot control a nation. It takes willing supporters and the silence of many to allow this to happen. It’s easy, in hind sight, to blame an evil dictator for the crimes of a nation. It’s much more difficult and uncomfortable to comprehend the how and the why of the support a despot is given by his fellow citizens.
In my 2016 Christmas letter to family and friends, I bemoaned the outcome of the presidential election and spoke of my dismay that there were vastly more qualified candidates in both parties. I expressed a wish for the president to succeed because I wanted America to thrive. However, in my heart of hearts, I feared that the next four years would be disastrous for our nation. I described the newly elected president as a narcissistic, mendacious, venal demagogue. If this view seemed sadly clear to me four years ago, it has been fully validated since the election this past November.
I probably should have included the adjective bully to my list of descriptors. Demagogues are bullies who rely on intimidation to stay in power. They are unable to listen to anyone or anything that questions their beliefs. We have seen this over and over in the past four years. The person the president once lauded as a “great guy” is quickly denigrated at any hint of disagreement. Bullies require complete fealty. Any questioning of their authority is a threat to their power. Once a person has been pulled into the sphere of a bully, there is no getting out except at great cost. In gangs, the only way out is in a coffin. In cults, the price is ostracization. You no longer have an identity or a community. We have seen the President consistently threaten one-time political allies with retribution, to have them “primaried”* for not carrying out his wishes. Most recently was his invective against the Vice President, the Governor and Secretary of State of Georgia, and Republican senators who wouldn’t contest the election results.
Bullies have only two modes of operation. One is to be on the attack, to be aggressive and domineering. The other is to be a victim. They claim they are the object of a witch hunt, or a “deep state” dedicated to undermining their authority. They lack the ability to question themselves, to look at their own motivations and accept their deficiencies. Only strong leaders can do that. Weak leaders are always either lashing out or crying foul. They lack the ego strength to moderate between truth and lie.
There has been a great deal of speculation about why so many people have stayed supporters of the President. I have read that it is because they feel so disenfranchised by the “elites”. They feel abandoned by the Democrats. They fear America is becoming too liberal. They fear immigrants have taken their jobs and their future. They fear. Then along comes a swaggering tough guy who makes promises that America will be great again. They buy into that idea just as Germans did in 1929. For me though, that is just part of the story. The longer version is that once you buy into any narrative that demands complete loyalty, it is nearly impossible to admit that you were wrong. Such an admission would put you at odds not just with your leader but the people who have become your community, your friends, your fellow believers. Bullies, cults, gangs and even political parties can make you so afraid of ostracization that you stay. You rationalize away the defects, the inconsistencies, the crimes in order to not be alone. My German friends said that if you made any critical comment about the government, you were labeled as not being a good German. Its like in the movie, “Westside Story”** when the Jets sing about becoming a member of their gang,”You’re a Jet from your first cigarette to your last dying day”. It takes an immensely principled person to act on their conscience and leave the group.***
The government officials and cabinet members who are now miraculously discovering just how self-serving and destructive the President is and are resigning from his cabinet are not heroes or people of conscience. They are, in my view, rats scurrying from a sinking ship. They hope to avoid the fallout of a spectacular presidential meltdown and not have to demonstrate real integrity if the Twenty-fifth Amendment**** is invoked. They would have to publicly say yea or nay to a president they have slavishly served for the past four years.
In the Senate we are seeing Republicans finally condemning recent actions by the President. To me this is too little, far too late. It looks more like a run for some political cover as the truth about this presidency descends upon them. This is the same Senate that acquitted an impeached president after refusing to hear any evidence regarding his alleged crimes. Some of its members now appear to be trying to claim some form of moral high ground. This reminds me of an old joke, probably originating after the Second World War as Nazi officials were being rounded up. The joke goes that when interrogated by the Allies they first would say, “Nein, nein, I’m Swiss, I’m neutral.”
On September 9, 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in her frustration, spoke of her opponent’s supporters as, “a basket of deplorables”. She spoke of them as, “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic”. For this she was roundly criticized by the Republican campaign. They used it as proof that candidate Clinton held Americans in contempt. In her 2017 book, “What Happened”, she admitted that it was one of the factors in her loss. I wonder how she feels about those comments now after watching her opponent use those very issues to divide the country and make himself look good to his “base” for the past four years.?
After the election in 2016, questions swirled as to how we could have gotten a president with such a tawdry background, strewn with allegations of sexual misconduct, shady business practices and absolutely no political experience. Much attention was focused on the desire for a strong guy who would “drain the swamp” in Washington. Many Americans felt the professional political class, the “swamp”, as the President-elect derisively called it, was the source of their problems and the wrong direction the country was heading. There was also considerable discussion about the country’s distrust of the Clintons and of how President Clinton’s “sins” with women dragged down Hillary’s chances. Russian interference was also a hot topic, one which the President-elect vehemently denied in spite of the US intelligence community’s assertions that there had indeed been a concerted effort to surreptitiously support a Republican victory.
Even though Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, she lost through the anomalies of an Electoral College in the US election system. Many of my female friends and colleagues, including my wife, believe she lost because there is a deep seated belief in a large portion of the electorate that, “anybody but a woman”, should be President. Thus we chose a deeply flawed, corrupt, narcissistic, inexperienced, misogynistic President who has led the country to a constitutional crisis over patently false claims of voter fraud.
With a President-elect who is nearly eighty and a relatively young woman Vice President, 2024 may be the year to test this theory about the electability of women. Meanwhile, the US has to get on with installing a new President and deciding what to do with the outgoing President. January 20 may be a turning point in American politics. Maybe.
I am reminded of what my dear German friends said during one of conversations. I asked how a person like Adolf Hitler could have gotten such a grip on Germany. Their response was, “By the time we knew what was going on it was too late.” This sounded like a convenient excuse but felt this was not the time, place or people to debate this with. I did say, “But Hitler was obviously crazy”, to which my friends said, “Ja, ja, towards the end”.
* To “primary” an elected official means to eliminate that person from the next general election by voting him/her out in the first round of elections where each party chooses their respective candidates.
** “Westside Story” was an immensely popular movie released in 1961 by United Artists. It won ten Academy Awards
*** Two notable exceptions to Republican complicity are Senator Mitt Romney and the late John McCain
**** The Twenty-fifth Amendment to the US Constitution provides for, among other things, a process for removing a President from the duties of his/her office due to some form of serious physical health or mental health impairment.