January 29, 2020
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The Difference

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

(For ten months the Journal of the Coronavirus has been my only lead, usually accompanied by the Rags and Bones column. Since the Pandemic has become normal and normalized, just everyday life, I am experimenting with relegating the Journal to a secondary or supporting position, and re-instituting a separate lead. This is my first.)

We are all vastly, drearily familiar with the Nazi comparison, and with the snarky Thingumabob's Law that all Internet conversations eventually degrade to references, invocations and accusations of Naziness.

In the five years of Trump Universe which seemed to last a thousand (I include the campaign with the Presidency), it was impossible not to think about the parallels, almost all the time. In my Trump coverage, a quick search of this site indicates I made the comparison in Donald Trump as Kitsch, Donald Trump and the Prisoner's Dilemma , Evil Hour, Post-Cliff and President Trump, among others. In that last article, which I published in July 2016, four months before the election, I wrote of "the parallels to Germany in 1932" citing William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: "The conservatives 'were sure they had lassoed the Nazis for their own ends'; Papen thought that the Vice Chancellorship and an understanding with Hindenberg 'would enable him to put a brake on the radical Nazi leader'. 'But this frivolous, conniving politician did not know Hitler-- no one really knew Hitler--nor did he comprehend the strength of the forces which had spewed him up. Nor did Papen, or anyone else except Hitler, quite realize the unexplicable weakness, that now bordered on paralysis,of existing institutions--the Army, the churches, the trade union, the political parties--or of the vast non-Nazi middle class and the highly organized proletariat all of which, as Papen mournfully observed much later, would "give up without a fight"'".

Someone once observed that Thingumabob's Law can stand as a barrier to thought, embarassing us so that we deflect away from investigating the similarities. This is true. The Trump years revealed the hollowing out of our institutions, the rise of mendacity and violent fanaticism, and, front and center, the destruction of language which is a precondition of the subversion of a democracy. The parallels to Weimar are quite clear, and not the mere rhetoric Thingumabob thought he was satirizing.

Last month, I reviewed the predictions I made in a piece I wrote soon after the 2016 election, and acknowledged that almost none had come true: Hillary Clinton had not been indicted, HUAC had not been reinstituted, etc. etc. The uncomfortable takeaway was that Trump had wanted to do all these things, but had been too incompetent, confused and indecisive to carry them off. The danger will be from the more intelligent and focused, more Hitler-like successor in a year or seven, possibly someone we haven't heard of yet ( the nerdy Josh Hawley is just one of several wannabes).

About two weeks after I posted the piece, Trump incited a mob to invade the Capitol, creating the lurid visuals (cops being beaten and crushed in doors, a barechested man in Viking horns rubbing shoulders with a camouflaged, goggled figure bearing zipties) that I had imagined in 4 a.m. moments of despairing insomnia. Certainly he proved that he aspired to be everything I feared, and also provided pungent material for an essay to be written someday on "The Semiotics of Law and Order". I often think of the title of a lead essay first and then put the content around it; originally this originating piece for 2021 and the Post-Trump world was to be called "President Cop-Killer".

But, despite everything--and the signs and portents and Weimar-parallels never stop-- I am starting the new year and the Biden administration feeling some optimism. And that radiates from the places where the Weimar comparison breaks down. The Germans never impeached Hitler (let alone twice). They never marshalled their forces to defeat him in an election. Aside from Socialists who fought Nazis in street battles and lost, there were never mass demonstrations against him. Courts didn't rule against him in droves. I sense, despite a lifetime of spirals of disillusionment in reading and experiencing American history, that there remains in American life a core of Enlightenment and democratic principles, of compassion and ethics and self confidence and belief in self and others, of community and shared values, and of course of commitment to law, which did not evaporate in front of Donald Trump, and which (contrary to many moments of despair these last thousand years, not only at four in the morning but at four in the afternoon) defeated him and sent him back to Mar-a-Lago to sulk. The times remain terrifying but I intend to enjoy just as much as I can, for as long as I can, the delightful, intense relief, which I feel to my bones, of Trump's absence from the Presidency.