When Trump Is President

When fascism comes to America, don’t look to the professors.

Hussain Butt / Flickr

Increasingly, one hears that not only is Donald Trump a fascist but that he will be elected president. Let’s, for the sake of the argument, accept both claims as true. Aren’t we obligated then to ask the question: what will we do when Donald Trump is elected president?

Woody Allen offered one answer in Manhattan.

Whatever one thinks of his answer, I’m struck by the mismatch between the easy avowal, which you see around various precincts of the Internet left, that the future looks bleak and the failure to consider the logical next question: what is to be done?

Some of my befuddlement over the current state of Internet discussion is similar to what Susan Sontag expressed, at a comparable moment of democratic crisis, in a symposium on violence that included Hannah Arendt, Noam Chomsky, and others.

It’s personally hard for me to understand how in December 1967 in New York the discussion has at no point turned actively to the question of whether we, in this room, and the people we know are going to be engaged in violence. Only Mr. Chomsky in one sentence — breathtakingly short — said: Of course, it goes without saying that we in the peace movement in America should not use violent means. That’s the issue I think we ought to be discussing here.

Or maybe I’m just over-reading the discussion because I’m going through one of my periodic late-night reading binges about Nazism and fascism. Right now, it’s Enzo Traverso’s Fire and Blood and Victor Klemperer’s diaries.

The Professors

Klemperer’s voice speaks to me at a very personal level. Born Jewish, Klemperer was a professor in Nazi Germany who, despite the world crumbling around him, remained fixated on a few familiar (to me, at any rate) obsessions: his real-estate woes, his publication woes, and his wife’s love of cats.

Tetchy and depressive, Klemperer had a keen eye for the weakness and cowardice of his academic colleagues, many of whom wound up supporting the Nazis. Klemperer was scathing on the topic. One entry from March 1933 seems representative:

But unfortunately on Tuesday evening we had the Thiemes here. That was dreadful and the end of that. Thieme — of all people — declared himself for the new regime with such fervent conviction and praise. He devoutly repeated all the phrases about unity, upwards etc. Trude was harmless by comparison. Everything had gone wrong, now we had to try this. “Now we just have to join in this song!” He corrected her vigorously. “We do not have to,” the right thing was truly and freely voted for. I shall not forgive him that. He is a poor swine and afraid for his post. So he runs with the pack? . . . We have been mistaken in Thieme’s intellect. He has a partial mathematical gift. Otherwise he is absolutely at the mercy of every influence, every advertisement, everything successful. Eva [Klemperer’s wife] already realised that years ago. She says, “He lacks any sense of judgement.” But that he would go so far . . . I am breaking with him.

So filled with rage and contempt for the professoriate was Klemperer that by August 1936, he would record in his diary:

If one day the situation were reversed and the fate of the vanquished lay in my hands, then I would let all the ordinary folk go and even some of the leaders, who might perhaps after all have had honourable intentions and not known what they were doing. But I would have all the intellectuals strung up, and the professors three feet higher than the rest; they would be left hanging from the lamp posts for as long as was compatible with hygiene.

The Lesser Evil

Lesser evilism is always a trope in an election campaign. In part because it reflects a very real reality: there are candidates who are worse against whom we must mobilize, even to the point of casting a ballot in favor of an only slightly less odious candidate.

But here’s the problem with that argument: human nature being what it is, that argument can also be used on behalf of the truly odious. As Klemperer discovered. Writing in his diary in April 1935:

Frau Wilbrandt told us: in Munich people complain out loud when Hitler or Goebbels appear on film. But even she — economist! close to the Social Democrats! — says: “Will there not be something even worse, if Hitler is overthrown, an even worse Bolshevism?” (That keeps him where he is again and again.)

Even his Jewish friends, Klemperer noted in December 1934, were saying, “Rather Hitler than someone worse!”

The Road to Hell

One of the most jarring elements of reading Klemperer’s diaries today is how often he and his circle ask themselves whether Hitler is some flash in the pan or marks the arrival of a genuinely new and permanent regime. Long after Hitler has assumed power, they’re wondering whether some diplomatic or domestic crisis isn’t going to be Hitler’s last.

From hindsight, it all seems bizarre: we know how the story ends, we know how the story had to end. But at the time of its happening, that was not the case.

You can see why Klemperer and company thought as they did. The Nazi seizure of power and subsequent program was, for them, unprecedented. They could only think in terms of previous coups or crises. Not to mention that they had no choice, some of them, but to hope against hope.

Now we come back to today. We’re all focused and rightly concerned about Trump. We read him through the lens of the past. But in reading this post by Samir Chopra​, I’m reminded of all the bad things that have happened to the US over the past decades.

Yes, we protested them and found them objectionable, but ultimately we lived with them and found a way to go about our business: a presidential election in which the majority of the population voted for the candidate who lost; a catastrophic war that was fought for reasons everyone concedes (and conceded within a fairly short time) were lies and self-deceptions, with absolutely no consequences for the perpetrators; a system of capital punishment in which innocent men and women have been killed; and so on.

Like the rest of us, I have no idea whither we are tending. Reading Klemperer’s diaries, though, I wonder whether we’re properly identifying the paving stones of our descent, and whether, having reached our final destination, we’d even know we were there.

Regardless, of one thing I am fairly certain: when fascism comes to America, don’t look to the professors.