Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Adolf Trump?

There was what I thought a very good article in yesterday’s Times, “The West’s Weimar Moment” by Jochen Bittner, one of the editors of the German weekly Der Zeit.  I agreed with many of his main points, though that is of little importance.  What I found most impressive in the piece was its sensible use of analogy, a self-imposed discipline conspicuously lacking in so much of the political commentary currently written by American political pundits.  Bittner wants to point out some general parallels in the current political psyche of America and Western Europe with the general mood of the 1930s.  The very general analogies he draws are enlightening and mainly convincing, and all the more so because he takes pains to show that he knows what an analogy is: a comparison between things that are in some ways alike and in some ways not alike.  “…[I]t goes without saying,” he writes in his first paragraph, “that Donald J. Trump and Austria’s Norbert Hofer are not Adolf Hitler."

That may go without saying to someone who knows something about Hitler and is well versed in the political history of the 1930s, but it apparently is big news to a wide spectrum of the American punditocracy.  I will not compile an anthology from the liberal eminences who have opined that Trump is a virtual Hitler, as the undertaking would far exceed my word limit.  But I note that deployment of the “Hitler analogy” is usually a kind of intellectual ejaculatio praecox.  That is why half a century ago, when I was a student at Oxford, there was already a rule among debaters that the team that first invoked the Hitler analogy automatically lost.

There is an irony in the fact that Mr. Trump, who is often accused of stoking a fear of  “the Other” among unsophisticates, is himself “otherized” by so many intellectuals.  Within the broad spectrum of American political aspirants and office holders, past and present, Mr. Trump is chiefly remarkable for his extraordinary celebrity, most of which is the product of the increasingly frantic insistence of his adversaries that he is unworthy of the office to which he aspires.  That he is in several ways an “outlier” I will readily grant.  For example, his genius for publicity, and for manipulating a generally hostile press to advertise him and amplify his “message”, is indeed awesome.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me”—said it, that is, in the same way that Shakespeare said “To be or not to be—that is the question”.  I mean he wrote it in a work of fiction.  Unfortunately, Ernest Hemingway did not actually offer the riposte, “Yes.  They have more money”.  I wish he had, for he then would have defined the principal “otherness” of Mr. Trump.  Other otherness is hard to find.  From the political point of view what I see in Trump is not an alarming otherness but a depressing familiarity: an air of entitlement sometimes disguised as unconventionality, a grossly exaggerated rhetoric wed to a childish command of the English language, an ego-driven affect.  It is apparently hard for our press to see through all this to the fact that Trump is, in the context of the starting cohort of Republican presidential candidates, a rather pragmatic fellow, a moderate figure who advocates a progressive income tax, opposes no-holds-barred free trade, and, while advocating a large role for the government at odds with conservative fiscal asceticism does suggest a comparatively modest role for American military power.

None of my friends or neighbors knows anybody who supports Donald Trump.  Certainly none of their relatives are enthusiastic Trump advocates.  That’s because I live in Princeton, New Jersey.  But limited cultural horizons are not identical with sophistication, let alone virtue.  I at least have a dim racial memory of my youth in places west of the Delaware River where people ride around on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, hunt and kill rabbits, ducks, and deer with twenty-twos and shotguns and then actually eat the gristly meat with enthusiasm.  Other amusements may include cattle auctions, stock car races, or tractor-pulls.  They shop at Walmarts, and they lamented the demise of Western Auto.  They frequent chain restaurants on the Interstate.  They drink California red wine that comes in gallon jugs.  Most of them have never been in a taxi cab in their lives, but not a few have attended Bible study on Wednesday nights.   They hang out at the VFW.  They make a living by doing hard things like driving trucks and working on oil rigs.  Ours is a vast, continental nation; and it is just possible that our categories of appreciated “diversity” may be in need of expansion.

            I once read a very frank letter of evaluation from a British academic whom we had asked to make a confidential comparison of two possible candidates for appointment.  He wrote thus in summary: “Of Candidate A it can at least be said that—as compared with B--he is a dry blanket.”  We had to interpret that as but qualified enthusiasm.  When the best thing you can say about a presidential candidate is that he is not Adolf Hitler you have perhaps not said very much.  But that you feel compelled to say it at all suggests, perhaps, that Mr. Trump has not been alone in his irresponsible rhetoric.