Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election. He not only lost, he lost bigly, at least in terms of the popular vote, despite record numbers of voters turning out for him, wishing for four more years. Trump’s response has been entirely predictable. Like the proverbial spoilt child in the sandbox, he has been ranting and raving, shaking his fist at the injustice of it all, plotting his revenge on detractors and former allies alike and, particularly, on the ungrateful American people who so bitterly snubbed him, forgetting all the wonderful things he has done for them during his presidential stint.
America Is No Longer One Nation
This brings me to another self-declared genius and self-appointed savior of his nation, Adolf Hitler. In an earlier article, I have maintained that associating Trumpism with fascism is pure nonsense. Equating Trump with Hitler is indeed utter nonsense, except for one not-so-minor detail.
Some 40 years ago, the German-British journalist and historian Sebastian Haffner wrote a remarkable book on Hitler with a rather unpretentious title, “Anmerkungen zu Hitler” (“Notes on Hitler”). In less than 200 pages, Haffner discusses the most significant aspects of the Hitler phenomenon, his “achievements” and “successes,” his errors, mistakes and crimes. None of these aspects is relevant for the point of this piece, even if they would make an excellent blueprint for any future notes on Trump. What is relevant here is Haffner’s final note: “treason.” Once Hitler realized, Haffner argues, that all was lost, he turned on his own people. Since he had failed to destroy the enemies of the Third Reich, and here above all the Soviets, he could at least destroy his own people.
As Golo Mann, one of Germany’s most eminent postwar historians, noted in his review of Hassner’s book in Der Spiegel, in Hitler’s eyes, the potential demise of the German people was, “in and itself no loss” — as long as it guaranteed that the trains continued to roll toward Auschwitz and the gas chambers and crematoria to run smoothly.
Hitler’s betrayal of the German people was the quasi-logical consequence of his personality and self-projection. On a mission from the almighty (proof: Hitler survived the July 1944 attempt on his life largely unharmed), he promoted himself as the “chosen one” selected to do “the work of the Lord.” And Hitler was hardly alone in considering himself chosen. In 1938, after the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich, a Catholic paper stated that Austria’s “return to the Reich” was a clear sign that “the Almighty God has blessed the work of the Führer.”
After the attack on Poland in 1939, the official organ of the Protestant Church of the Free City of Danzig wrote that God had sent Hitler to liberate Germany from the shackles of Versailles and redeemed the German people from the danger of Polish violence. Successes such as these affirmed Hitler’s belief that he was special, infallible, even almighty — a belief daily reaffirmed by his entourage of mediocre sycophants and yes-men scared to death of his choleric tantrums, perfectly portrayed by Bruno Ganz in “Downfall.”
At this point, in films, you usually get a disclaimer that “any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” I don’t know whether this also applies to opinion pieces. In any case, the disclaimer does not apply here. Any associations evoked in the reader’s mind are fully intended. This does not mean to suggest that Trump and Hitler are in the same league. Quite the contrary.
Hitler was evil personified, a mass murderer who drew great satisfaction from human suffering. Compared to Hitler, Trump is a petty impersonator, a “man without qualities” and substance, full of himself. And yet. As Aninda Dey has recently put it in The Times of India, Trump’s behavior following his defeat in the presidential election is reminiscent of Hitler’s last days in his bunker in Berlin. “Ensconced in the White House ‘bubble bunker,’” Trump “uncorked a similar deluge of rants, delusions, a fake narrative, alternate reality and invincibility as witnessed by Hitler’s Generals and staff in his end days.”
Add to that the clownish public appearances of the likes of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has finally managed to live up to his own Borat-type caricature, and the picture is complete. Like Hitler in 1945, Trump in November 2020 lives in an alternate reality. This is a reality where he has won bigly, where the American people cannot wait to see all the wonderful things he has in store for them, like a big, beautiful wall, really beautiful new industrial parks and coal-fired power plants — where he will finally have the opportunity to make America great again.
Delusion, even self-delusion, however, goes only that far. Reality hits when even Trump’s faithful toadies like Tucker Carlson, over at Fox News, take their distance — if cautiously, like treading on eggshells — and strong-arm methods no longer prove effective. It is in this situation that delusion turns into bitterness, and bitterness into a strong urge for revenge. This might be the point where we are now, the point where Trump turns on his own people, dishing out punishment for having failed him. Unfortunately enough, this is a real possibility, given he is going to be in office for another two months. And as the pandemic has taught us, two months are quite a long time.
The signs are there, for all to see, starting with COVID-19. Over the past several weeks, the situation has reached catastrophic proportions, particularly in the predominantly rural states such as the Dakotas. The statistics are public knowledge, daily displayed on the front page of The New York Times. By now, even some of the most reluctant Republican governors, such as North Dakota’s Doug Burgum, have caved in and mandated wearing masks in their state after being overwhelmed by the pandemic. In the meantime, Trump completely checked out, despite a skyrocketing rate of new infections. In line with his earlier shrug of shoulders, “It is what it is,” the administration has largely gone AWOL.
As Time magazine recently noted, in a situation where the United States and its people are confronted with a health crisis of terrifying proportions, Trump has “pulled a ‘disappearing act.’” But then, why should he care. He cared little before, when he was still the president. Now, he soon won’t be. It is what it is. Let them fend for themselves. Serves them right if they die from the “China virus.”
In the meantime, Trump has done what he has done best — corrode America’s political institutions and weaken, sabotage and subvert the democratic system. The United States used to be a liberal democracy, all its serious faults and shortcomings notwithstanding. To be sure, the Founding Fathers of the republic were not entirely sure whether democracy was such a great idea. James Madison in particular had serious reservations, and it was he who drafted the US Constitution.
This explains the Electoral College, an archaic and arcane institution, which Trump has been trying to manipulate to his advantage. This explains why it took until 1913 that senators were elected by the people rather than being appointed by state legislatures. Madison had little trust in the wisdom of ordinary citizens. In view of the current situation, he might have been right. Be it as it may, the United States developed into a liberal democracy. Donald Trump has done whatever he could to reverse this development.
His persistent insistence that the result of the election has somehow been rigged, his ludicrous tweets charging that he was cheated of what is rightfully his, together with his so-called legal team headed by Baghdad Bob impersonator, Rudy Giuliani, and the chorus of his sycophants in Congress and the right-wing media who have been toeing the line have done indelible damage to the democratic system. A few days ago, a representative survey found that more than half of Republicans believe that Trump “rightfully won” the election; more than two-thirds believe that the election was rigged. Before the election, more than 50% of Republicans expressed confidence about the electoral process; after the election, a bit more than 20%. In fact, a substantial majority of Republicans said they were “not at all confident” that the election had been fair and that the results were accurate.
What is at heart here goes far beyond the belief in various conspiracies involving ballot tampering and other forms of fraud, but a fundamental belief that the whole system is rigged. As Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have recently put it in Foreign Policy, elections, “Trump’s most fervid supporters feel, are rigged by open borders and low hurdles to the naturalization of people who have entered the country illegally and by making it easier for African-Americans to register and vote, policies introduced by Democrats who are thereby seeking to lock in their future preeminence by reshaping the electorate to their advantage.” As a result, they fear that for them, “there may never be another election.”
The whole thing would make for a jolly good Monty Pythonesque farce if it were not so pathetic and, unfortunately, bloody serious. As Tho Bishop from the Mises Institute has recently noted, “regardless of the legal outcome, America is about to find itself with a president that will be viewed as illegitimate by a large portion of the population — and perhaps even the majority of some states. There is no institution left that has the credibility to push back against the gut feeling of millions of people who have spent the last few months organizing car parades and Trumptillas that their democracy has been hijacked by a political party that despises them.” They should know, given that they voted for a president and a political party that for four years showed nothing but contempt for large swaths of the American public.
Betrayal of the American People
The American president is supposed to be the president of all Americans. With Trump, this has never been the case. He has foremost been, in descending order, the president of himself, the president of the rich, of the Fox News MAGA crowd, and the white portion of the US population of European descent. His presidency has been largely consumed by the mission to safeguard and protect the privileged position of these groups. Take, for instance, the census whose data form the basis for the reapportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. In July, Trump made it known that he intended “to remove unauthorized immigrants from the count for the first time in history, leaving an older and whiter population as the basis for divvying up House seats, a shift that would be likely to increase the number of House seats held by Republicans over the next decade.”
What all this amounts to is a large-scale, multi-pronged operation designed to add fuel to existing resentments, exacerbate the already high disaffection with politics, further undermine trust in political institutions and the democratic processes and, ultimately, pit Americans against Americans. In ancient times, they called this strategy divide et impera — divide and conquer. It is a core point in the playbook of every serious authoritarian and wannabe dictator, from Putin to Erdogan, from Orban to Maduro. In the United States, it is nothing short of a fundamental betrayal of the ideals that once upon a time, far, far away in history, informed the American republic, its founding documents and constitution. It has further eroded America’s standing as the defender and promoter of democracy across the globe, leaving its image further sullied.
What this operation amounts to, in turn, is a fundamental betrayal of the American people. The architects of American democracy, above all James Madison, firmly believed that elected political leaders, “who held their office as a public trust, were not merely to act as a mouthpiece of the citizenry but to see farther than ordinary citizens: ‘to refine and enlarge the public views,’ to have the wisdom to ‘discern the true interest of their country,’ and to do so against ‘temporary or partial considerations.’” It fell onto the country’s political institutions and civic associations — political parties, the media, churches and schools — to cultivate the citizens’ minds and shape “a democratic people.”
Over the past few years, the opposite has happened. As Larry Bartels, one of America’s most respected political scientists, has recently put it, under Trump, the Republican Party’s commitment to democracy has been eroded by “ethnic antagonism.” He cites the results of a recent survey that found that, among Republican identifiers and independents leaning toward the GOP, more than half agreed with the statement, “The traditional way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Four out of 10 agreed that “A time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”
Under the circumstances, recent alarm over the specter of a coup staged by Trump in connivance with Republican officials in Congress and the states might not be all that crazy. In fact, they reflect to what degree four years of Trump have debased the spirit of American democracy, and to what extent the United States under Trump have progressed on the way to becoming a banana republic.
It is fitting that by now, there are serious concerns that Trump’s attempts to create as much havoc as possible might even extend to the economy. As Claudia Sahm recently asked in the pages of The New York Times, “Is Trump Trying to Take the Economy Down With Him?” Trump already caused significant damage to the US economy with his protectionist policies aimed at China and the European Union — damage acknowledged even by Trump’s economic advisers. In the twilight of his presidency, nothing is more tempting than leaving his successor with an economic train wreck, particularly if it causes maximum damage to cities, such as Detroit and Atlanta, and states, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, that killed his chances of reelection.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s recent decision to defund several Federal Reserve COVID-19 lending programs, sharply criticized by both the Federal Reserve and the Biden transition team, is a preview of things to come. As Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, put it, Mnuchin’s move was a clear sign “that the Trump administration and their congressional toadies are actively trying to tank the U.S economy.”
It is to be hoped, for the sake of the American people, first, and for the whole international community, second, that the worst is not going to come to pass. Trump’s continued non-response to the catastrophic trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, his protracted insistence that the outcome of the election was not only unfair but illegitimate, and his administration’s recent decisions directly impacting America’s economy suggest that a worst-case scenario is not out of the realm of the possible. On the contrary, it is quite likely.
If it should come to that, it would represent an act of treason against the American people, which should be treated as such — and prosecuted, at least in the court of public opinion. Adolf Hitler betrayed the German people, starting in 1944. He was never held accountable for his betrayal, taking the easy way out by committing suicide. The German people, however, learned a lesson that for a long time immunized them to the siren songs of a politics based on the appeal to the baser sides of human nature. It is to be hoped that coming to terms with the extent to which four years of Trump have inflicted damage on American democracy will immunize the American people against a repeat of 2016. I, for myself, would not count on it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.