We know Trump’s a lost cause – but the clever ones around him really should know better.
Posted on October 9, 2020
There’s a useful maxim about making comparisons to the Nazis on social media posts. The moment such a correspondence is drawn, you can be pretty certain that whoever has made it has lost the argument. So, before I even approach such swampy territory, I’ll go back to a schoolboy memory – and one that has stuck with me stubbornly throughout life.
When I first learnt about the horrors of the Holocaust, I could scarcely comprehend the extent of human cruelty I was discovering. There is no hierarchy of horror, but one chilling element of the Nazis’ behaviour still haunts me. Once the notion of a final solution became government policy, the issue of how to arrange killing on an industrialised scale needed to be addressed. To put this into practice, the contribution of a range of experts was required.
The complicity of such people is alarming. Architects designed death camps. Engineers and accomplished administrators drew up unerringly accurate transport plans. Doctors devised means of mass murder and were complicit in unthinkable scientific and medical experimentation. Highly educated people, probably at the peak of their professional and academic powers, used their knowledge, experience and expertise to enable acts of unspeakable inhumanity. How could they have lived with the knowledge of what they were doing?
In some respects, the answer is straightforward. By the time the Nazi regime was fully installed, its apparatus had ensured that even for society’s comfortable professionals, membership of the party or, at the very least, unwavering acquiescence to its diktats, were matters of life and death. The exercising of professional judgement, never mind compliance with ethical or moral codes of practice, were no longer in the hands of individuals or their representative bodies. Whether or not the architect who had just drawn up plans for a gas chamber went home, slumped in his chair and put his head in his hands, or simply shrugged and told himself he was just doing his job, is immaterial. His choices in his newly normalised society had been eradicated.
Intelligent, well-read and highly qualified people, probably with refined and sophisticated tastes – but serving the needs of a monster and a monstrous system. Living with themselves must have been excruciating. Mustn’t it?
The shocking truth was that they were living in a society experiencing the strangulation of democracy. It didn’t happen overnight, but by the time it was a fact of life, it was too late to do much about it. In his poem about what fascism looks like, Michael Rosen warns that it won’t come in grotesque Nazi dress, it will ‘restore your honour/make you feel proud…..clean up the neighbourhood/remind you of how great you once were.’ It doesn’t start off by talking about curtailing liberties, generating disinformation and imprisoning people.
But that’s exactly what we face as we cringe behind our sofas and watch the villains facilitating the slow death of American democracy. There is a famous quotation from the 1930s, often attributed to Sinclair Lewis but actually the words of James Waterman Wise, suggesting that ‘when fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.’ With Trump failing to confirm that he will honour the outcome of the forthcoming election, casting doubt on the validity of postal voting and, most disturbingly, failing to condemn the para-military groups already gearing up for election-day vigilantism, the alarm bells should be ringing.
Trump’s conduct during his period of illness has only confirmed that if there were a test for basic human decency, he would be an abject failure. But we knew that anyway. He is demonstrably a man incapable of dealing with anything but the simplest of ideas – and then only doing so one at a time. American immunologist Anthony Fauci recently spoke of the President’s attention span being ‘like a minus number.’ Our expectations of him simply could not be any lower. But around him are intelligent, accomplished individuals who must know better but whose tongues remain resolutely bitten.
There’s Dr Sean Conley. Decorated military veteran educated at the University of Notre Dame and then at a prestigious Philadelphia medical college. He clearly believes the spluttering president is ready to reinfect his adoring public and his increasingly nervous staff. There is New York University graduate Maria Bartiromo rantingly batting for the president when even Fox News wasn’t so sure he was doing the right thing. Of most concern, though, is Kayleigh McEnany, his press adviser. Harvard educated but incapable of admitting that her boss ever downplayed the importance of Covid 19, despite clear video evidence of his words playing in front of her eyes. ‘The President,’ she assures us, ‘has never lied to the American public on Covid.’
At the end of the day, does she kick off her shoes, pour a glass of something and congratulate herself on a job well done? Or does she fret, even for a moment, about her abdication of responsibility to the people her boss is supposed to serve? Another disputed quotation warns us that for evil to triumph, all that is required is for good people to do nothing. Both here in the UK and in the United States, there are people using their talent and ability to allow evil to flourish – to encourage it, even. If we stay silent and fail to call them out – and fail to support those who exercise their right to do so – we will have been complicit in disaster. The buffoons and clowns might hold the highest offices, but it’s those who have put their consciences to bed who need to shoulder the blame.