It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, but yesterday I received an email from my old friend Barry N. Malzberg that I wanted to share.
Awoke as usual with a useless insight: there are very few around now who were present as adults or even adolescents to observe and/or live through the Holocaust, the rise of Hitler, the Third Reich. Any surviving witnesses who were even in early adolescence then would be in their 80’s and 90’s. That’s one of the reasons Trump, his sycophants, exploiters and troops have been so successful; the parallel and foreshadowing is trapped in largely unread, unknown material. (The two Riefenstafhl films, OLYMPIAD and TRIUMPH OF THE WILL had a vogue decades ago and their creator lived to 102 and maintained a presence but they are the property of scholars now.) Trump is right out of the Goebbels playbook but how relevant or forceful is that comparison? Who knows Goebbels?
Joe McCarthy got stopped (not soon enough) because he emerged only a couple of years after the liberation of the camps and the Nuremberg trials and the parallels were so obvious that after a brief stalking run he was undone on national television by Joseph Welch with one question…”Have you at last no shame, Senator?” to which the majority of the adult population could relate. Parallels like Huey Long, McCarthy, Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, etc., etc. evoke nothing. Right-wing radio today (which drives the bus) is Father Coughlin redux but how many under 80 recognize that name?
I agree with Barry that Americans of the Trumpist persuasion are stunningly ignorant or indifferent to history. But their aim isn’t to erase it. Just as Hitler successfully reframed Germany’s decades of humiliation, failure, and collapse as the consequence of a stab in the back from a Fifth Column led by Jews, Trumpism, like all conspiracism, gives its true believers a cast of villains–angry blacks, smug over-educated under-sexed feminists, greedy Jews, snobbish Europeans, wild-eyed pro-Biden anarchists–and a new historical framework, in which white middle America is not facing a moral reckoning but is their innocent victim. One really big difference today is that a big swath of the right and a smaller fringe of the far left look to Russia as a model of what the US should be rather than its ideological and military adversary. Back in the McCarthy era, having a sense of decency meant that you understood that it was wrong to baselessly accuse your fellow citizens of treason. Today, as anyone who is paying attention to the J6 hearings knows, sedition is passing itself off as patriotism.