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Trump: Still Better Than Hitler … For the Most Part

Shortly after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, George W. Bush told a Joint Session of Congress that “they” did it because “they hate our freedom.”  Everybody knew who “they” were.

Even so, in those halcyon days, when it was still not acceptable for an American president to level ethnic or religious slurs against Muslims except by indirection, that morsel of idiocy drew justifiable derision.

There were, of course, many outraged citizens who took Bush’s words seriously.  Before long, though, the level of hysteria diminished and their numbers declined.

From Day One, everybody whose head was screwed on right knew that blowback from Western, especially American, machinations in the historically Muslim world better explained why “they” did it.  As time went on, ever larger numbers of people came the same realization.

Even so, the hysteria never quite went away.  Thanks to the uses our political class and our media made of it, 9/11 marked a turning point.

Since then, “our freedom” has fared poorly.  For that, “they” don’t deserve all the blame; not by any means.  Most of the damage has been self-inflicted.

Whatever there is in patriotism that is admirable or even tolerable also took a hit after 9/11.  When Bush spoke his drivel and for some time thereafter, displays of the stars and stripes were ubiquitous from sea to shining sea.  The flag-waving had a chauvinistic component, but there were also whiffs of rational defiance and communal solidarity.  Those didn’t last long.

Samuel Johnson famously called patriotism “the last refuge of scoundrels.”  That is what it became again, unequivocally, around the time that the Bush-Cheney wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began to founder; in other words, from the moment that the second worst president in modern American history and his éminence grisegot them up and running.

“Make America Great Again” twaddle makes the situation worse – it makes everything worse – but Donald Trump cannot be blamed for all the stench in today’s patriotic fervor.  For one thing, bad stuff, fit only for scoundrels, has been there all along.  For another, it is the permanent war regime we live under, more than Trump and the Islamophobes around him, that caused the level of animosity towards Muslims and other serviceable scapegoats to rise.

This is hardly the only respect in which America’s trajectory has been careening downward since 9/11.

It should not be forgotten, though, that, along the way, there have been obstacles and detours that seemed to stall or even reverse the general trend.

The way down, all the way to where Trump is, passed through a miasma of “hope” and “change.”

It was an illusion in the Freudian sense, an unconscious expression of a wish, and it only flourished for a year or two, around 2008.  Confronted by reality, it fell into terminal decline.  By the 2010 midterm elections, it was gone, melted into the air.

And so, the downward trajectory continued – with President Drone, the Deporter-in-Chief in the White House, and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Her first and always her main project was to promote “humanitarian” imperialism.  But as it became clear to her that Russia could no longer be bossed around, as in the days when her husband was president, she also devoted her energies to laying the groundwork for a new Cold War.

Inertia kept her influence alive throughout Obama’s second term.  From Honduras to Libya to Syria and beyond, she had already done a lot of harm – too much to be turned around without great effort.  Obama made no effort at all; he and John Kerry, her successor at State, were more thoughtful and capable than she, but the three of them, and nearly all the subordinates they brought on board, were cut from the same cloth.

Even so, in post-2016 retrospect, the Obama years seem like a Golden Age.

I do not in the least regret that, for nearly the whole time Obama was in the White House, I had almost nothing good to say about him.  I posted countless denunciations of Obamaphilia on this site and elsewhere; and, when that phenomenon expired, as it did after a year or so of Obama in office, I was relentless in going after his Clintonite (neoliberal, liberal imperialist, corporate friendly) politics.

However, even then, I fully expected to miss him dearly when his presidency expired.  Along with nearly everyone else, I was sure that Clinton would succeed him, and it was as clear as could be that, in all the ways that he was bad news, Clinton would be worse.

Along with nearly everyone else, I also gave Clinton and the Democrats more credit than they deserved. With Trump for an opponent, it never even occurred to me there was more than a theoretical possibility that Hillary would lose the 2016 election, taking other Democrats down with her.  Then she did.

A Clinton victory would have been tantamount to a third Obama term — worse than the first and second by most measures, but essentially the same.  It was an unappealing, but not particularly alarming, prospect.

I was especially not looking forward to seeing Bill Clinton back in the White House and, since personnel is policy, I was dreading having to think about all the self-righteous harpies and “crooked” cronies the Clintons would bring along with them.  Worst of all, was the thought of Bill and Hillary’s punimsin the news 24/7.

How much better, though, that would have been than the ever-worsening nightmare we ended up with instead!

***

Trump’s political education began in the Queens of his landlord father Fred, a KKK sympathizer and no friend of the working stiff.  It was completed under the mentorship of Roy Cohn, Joe McCarthy’s attack dog, sleazeball fixer, and red-baiter extraordinaire.

How extraordinary, therefore, even for the United States of Amnesia, as Gore Vidal called it, that he would now be mouthing off about how much he is looking forward to a “red wave” this November.

What he means is a Republican landslide.  The cable and broadcast networks have been using the color red in on-screen graphics to indicate the GOP since the Gore-Bush fiasco eighteen years ago. Inasmuch as part of their job is to obliterate historical memory and dumb the public down, this is entirely fitting.

It also makes a kind of sense.  Whether by design or out of ignorance and incompetence, “the Trump agenda,” as commentators have taken to calling Trump’s policy proposals, does bear a superficial resemblance to Lenin’s call to “smash the state.”

Back when he was still in favor at the Donald’s court, enough not to have to lead from behind, as he seems to be doing now, Steve Bannon did liken his and therefore Trump’s thinking to Lenin’s.

Bannon said that his aim was to “deconstruct” the state.  Along with Robert and Rebekah Mercer, two particularly noxious donors, he got Team Trump on board with that.

In truth, however, Bannon’s thinking has little to do with what Lenin was calling for; the Trump agenda has even less.

Lenin’s idea was that, for a proletarian revolution to succeed, the working class must do more than “seize” state power.  It must also dismantle (“smash”) the coercive and ideological state institutions through which “the old regime” maintained itself, replacing them with institutional arrangements designed to move the social order closer to the end in view: a regime of uncoerced cooperation in which “the condition for the free development of each is the free development of all.”

How odd that Bannon would call attention to purported affinities with Bolshevik theory and practice, and how odd too that he would us the word “deconstruction” at all.

The problem is the politics associated with the word.  In today’s world, “deconstruction” is inextricably connected with the work of the recently deceased French philosopher, Jacques Derrida.

In the English-speaking world, and throughout most of Europe (even France) nowadays, most professional philosophers regard Derrida with derision.  He is, however, held in high regard by the very people whom one would expect know-nothing Trumpian “populists” to rail against most vociferously: devotees of “theory” (theories of what is never exactly clear) in literature and cultural studies departments at elite universities and liberal arts colleges.

Bannon may not know it, but the “deconstruction” they do involves more than merely tearing down. But he could hardly fail to know that they claim that their work is political, and that the politics inherent in it is leftwing.

Outside their ambit, the consensus view – left, right, and center – is that this is nonsense; that Derrida’s followers, and perhaps Derrida himself, are charlatans who only seem profound, and that what they call “theory” amounts to little more than truisms translated into gobbledygook.

Could Bannon have anything like that in mind?  I wouldn’t count on it.  What he has is a word that he likes the sound of, a word that like Lenin’s call to smash the state, has a nihilistic tinge.

That is seemingly enough for him; all he wants is to undo the old regime.

Bannon and Trump were drawn together by their passion for destruction.  Nothing drives Trump’s nihilism except cupidity and a pathological need for self-aggrandizement.  Who knows or cares what drives Bannon’s.  Perhaps a nihilistic temperament is enough.

This is a long way from Lenin or indeed from any thoughtful revolutionary leader intent on “building a new world on the ashes of the old.”  Only a Trump soul mate, a bona fide fool, could think otherwise.

***

It would not be wrong to blame the Clintons and their co-thinkers in the Democratic Party for the Trumpian turn.  By purging their party’s feeble leftwing, they left its dead center free to court corporate America and run riot over the party’s working class base.  They set Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi loose upon the world.

Even someone as dense as Trump could hardly have failed to notice the opportunities this afforded rightwing demagogues.  As a conman who knows how to work a crowd, Trump realized instinctively that, by playing the “populist” card in a nativist, white supremacist way, he could do all kinds of good for himself.

He almost certainly never thought that he would actually win.  He was confident, though, that he would give himself and his brand a boost.  That was good enough; it was what running for president was all about.

Then he did win.  That brought on a world of trouble – for Trump and everyone else.  But the Donald was too egotistical to notice, much less to do anything about it.  And so, with the world itself hanging by a thread, here we are.  The Clintons and the others have a lot to answer for.

However, in the final analysis, they are just symptoms of a larger problem, a problem not confined to the United States alone.  It is a worldwide misfortune that, to cut to the quick, nearly all traces of a politically significant Left have gone missing.

So far from liberating progressive impulses from the shackles of the Soviet model, as many genuine leftists had hoped, the demise of the Soviet Union led, in short order, to the disappearance of Left politics everywhere; Communist, anarchist, Social Democratic, even left liberal political parties and movements have all gone into hibernation or become extinct.

This didn’t happen because peoples’ attitudes suddenly took a turn for the worse.  The people are there, as much as they ever were.  The problem is that the old ways of expressing popular wants and needs no longer register politically; the super-rich call all the shots.

One way or another, this is bound to change; the will to resist – not just in the milquetoast way mainstream Democrats speak of, but radically and militantly — is too strong and too urgent to be permanently suppressed.

There is a lot of talk nowadays about the role women will play in the 2018 elections.  Outraged by Trump’s misogyny and moral depravity, and by his lack of basic humanity, so glaringly evident now along the Mexican border, it is plain that the Donald has energized previously quiescent women not just to vote against Republican (=Trumpian) candidates, but also to run for office themselves.

No doubt, many of those recruits to electoral politics were Clinton supporters two years ago.  Even so, they are likely to be less corporate friendly and militantly imperialist than she. Their appearance on the scene is not likely to make the Democratic Party a positive force for good.  For that to happen, the party would have to be transformed beyond recognition.  But they very likely will make the less odious duopoly party somewhat less odious than it currently is.

The best hope for doing better than that lies with people of all genders, colors and religious (or irreligious) convictions who have come of age politically since 9/11,people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

With the historical Left effectively defunct, familiar points of reference, some of them in place since the French Revolution, are, for all practical purposes, gone.  Valuable knowledge has also been lost; in some respects, it has become necessary to reinvent the wheel.  Militants of Ocasio-Cortez’s generation have their work cut out for them.

But it is doable.  For this, ironically, Trump deserves more credit than Clinton.

Shared understandings have fallen down into the memory hole too.  For many decades after the Second World War, Germany meant repression; America was the Land of the Free.   Now, the tables are turned.  The rule of law and respect for human dignity is, and is widely perceived to be, greater where Nazis once ruled than in Trump’s America.  ICE is the new Gestapo.

One thing has not changed, however.  By almost universal assent, Hitler is still the very incarnation of evil; nobody is or can be worse than him.

***

“Evil” can and should mean “very bad.”  But the word has come to be loaded with super-natural, even theological, connotations. This is probably unavoidable inasmuch as the great bads it denotes often seem set apart from others – not in magnitude only, but in quality as well.

It is therefore natural to seek explanations for these evils that transcend the bounds of ordinary secular history and indeed of nature itself.

This is the problem with the word “holocaust.”  The Biblical term suggests that the crimes perpetrated against European Jewry in the early 1940s cannot be accounted for without invoking extra-natural causes that remove those events from the normal course of human history.

That this is unnecessary and unwise is why historian Arno Mayer proposed replacing the word “holocaust” with “judeocide” — an excellent idea, but a lost cause.

However that may be, evils, bads awful enough to seem uncanny if not preternatural, cannot be compared by any metric that measures better or worse.  They are radically incommensurable.

The Nazi Judeocide was what it was.  So was New World slavery, the cultural and physical extermination of indigenous peoples in the Western hemisphere and Australasia, and countless other evils in other times and places.  They are all sui generis, unique unto themselves.  Calling one better or worse than another may serve some political purpose; ultimately, however, it makes no sense.

But however pointless it may be to rank evils, investigating their respective natures, individually or in comparison with others, makes eminently good sense.

What makes the Nazi Judeocide stand out, what gives it an almost Biblical cast, is its scale and its rationality.

We don’t recoil in the same way to pillaging or wanton slaughter – or, though, closer to the mark, to pogroms driven by ethnic or religious hatred.   History is full of evils, great bads, like these.  But unlike the Nazi Judeocide, they seem to fall within the bounds of comprehension.

On the other hand, what people call the “holocaust’ is, to use one of Trump’s words, “special.”

Perhaps it was special because it was systematic; because the Final Solution was an industrial process. This strikes close to the texture of modern life – in ways that offend what Marx called our “species being,” our essential humanity.

Still, it is odd.  After all, most of us get our daily meat through similar processes – and hardly anyone, including vegetarians, finds this horrifying enough to invoke Biblical explanations.  Why is it different with human beings?

For that matter, why is mass killing in gas chambers so much worse than, say, good old American carpet-bombing of civilian populations or Obama-style “targeted assassinations?” Why is it natural to feel that there is a qualitative difference?

One sure thing is that the difference is susceptible to political manipulation.

The state of Israel has been working along those lines since even before its founding.  It has derived – and then gone on to squander – seemingly inexhaustible moral capital from those gas chambers, notwithstanding the fact that, at the time they were in operation, it did not even exist.

Surely enough time has passed by now to remove the Nazi Judeocide from the realm of sacred history, the better to make sense of it in the context of the larger historical narratives that structure understandings of secular history.  These would include the history of capitalism and its bastard offsprings  — nationalism, fascism and, yes, Nazism too.

For Americans, the time is more than past due to desist from invocations of Hitler that serve to diminish the horrors of what our white settler nation has done and continues to do. The last thing we need is an ahistorical archetype in comparison with which all the great bads for which we are mainly responsible necessarily pale.

To that end, we need to overcome deeply entrenched inhibitions about comparing what we do with what Hitler did; we need to stop assuming that any and all such comparisons are automatically over the top.

Trump’s malevolence has been a cause of great pain to many people; and the likelihood is that, in the future, Trump-induced suffering will get worse, perhaps much worse.

But even if, for example, his – and his Attorney General’s – policy of tearing babies away from their mothers and keeping them apart is better (less bad), in some qualitatively meaningful way, than Hitler’s gas chambers, it is far from obvious that, compared to Hitler, Trump always comes out on top.

Just the opposite is often the case.  But even when this is painfully obvious, no one mentions it or even thinks about it. The time to break that taboo was long ago, but it is still not too late.

Hitler’s gas chambers and the rest were the fruit of total war, a context in which, throughout human history, moral constraints lose their force.  This happens to “good guys” too.  Witness the contemporaneous carpet-bombing of Dresden or the nuclear “holocaust” unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It could come to that again, if Trump lets Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israel lobby dictate American policy on Iran, or if he and Little Rocketman split up, or if the neocons and liberal imperialists’ Cold War with Russia turns hot.  The likelihood that any or all of this will happen is far from vanishingly small.

Now is therefore a good time to point out that with his limited vocabulary and risible delivery style, and inasmuch as he has an attention span too limited for most of his thoughts to be captured in coherent tweets, Hitler was by far the better orator and expositor of nefarious views.

And although intellectual frauds like Bannon and the terminally creepy Steven Miller are always at the ready, should the Donald find himself in need of “ideas,” Trump is not, like Hitler, a serious (albeit flawed) strategic or ideological thinker.

He is not even competent in the ways that Hitler and the people around him were.  They were capable of setting up a system that led, with industrial efficiency, to the slaughter of six million men, women and children.  Compare that with the continuing chaos Trump set off when he started turning away asylum seekers from Central America, and splitting families apart.  It would be hard to find a clearer example of what commentators have taken to calling “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus said: “one cannot step into the same river twice.”  This is because rivers never stay the same; they are always changing.  Heraclitus thought that everything is like that; that all is flux.  The same goes, much less contentiously, for the conscious mind of our Commander-in-Chief.

Hitler’s mind was less flighty and, in his own demented way, he was a deeper thinker.

Of course, Hitler is still more responsible for more and greater evils than Trump is.  But does that really matter?

What matters is that Trump and all his minions and enablers be stopped in their tracks.

If they are not, expect that, before long, the evils he causes or is otherwise responsible for will reach a point where comparisons with Hitler won’t strike anyone with a moral sense as over the top at all.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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