A Nation in Despair

There are precedents
President Donald Trump is seen on stage during a campaign event at the Central Wisconsin Airport in Mosinee, Wis., Sept. 17, 2020. (CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters)

My wife and I live in an upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood. Donald Trump likes to call them the “beautiful” suburbs, and warns that Joe Biden is determined to destroy the “American dream” by desecrating the suburbs with “low-income housing.” In an effort to win over suburban women, Trump has rolled back Obama-era regulations designed to integrate these largely de facto segregated communities.

Given the cost of real estate and the fact that my neighbors are with two exceptions white, I assume most vote Republican. So far, the battle of lawn signs in this election has been muted. Banners proclaiming “Trump 2020/Make America Great Again” and “Women for Trump,” as well as an American flag, have been hung from the second-floor windows of one house. Across the street, another house features an “Any Functioning Adult” banner. I’ve come across one “Biden/Harris” lawn sign in our subdivision of about forty single-family homes. We ourselves have an “Any Functioning Adult” bumper sticker on our car. When it comes to lawn signs more generally, “Keep Christ in Christmas” is popular during the holiday season with at least two of our nearby neighbors. In the past, both have also had signs supporting local Republican candidates.

I recently read Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, his brilliant book about postwar Chicago. I was surprised and amused to learn that the campaign to put Christ back into Christmas actually began in the early 1950s. It was initiated by the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce, better known as the Jaycees. The organization was worried that postwar affluence, suburbanization, and a creeping secularization were undermining the moral character of the young. As Ehrenhalt reminds us, the 1950s saw an almost feverish sort of civic engagement in suburbia. It was an effort, largely futile, to replace the more organic sense of community found in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. In today’s suburbs, civic disengagement is the norm.

It has been my experience that our neighbors tend to avoid talking about politics if they sense disagreement is likely. That seems a sensible and neighborly approach, especially in these volatile and polarized times. Whether competing lawn signs will begin to multiply the closer we get to this “rigged” election is unclear. New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall, like many pundits, has been tracking the paranoia and increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric on both sides of the political divide. Fears are mounting that a close election will bring chaos, even violence.

Trump and his followers aren’t above suggesting that the police or the military may be needed to suppress those who would try to overturn a Trump victory. Some on the Left have wrongly tried to excuse looting and violence against police. Asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose the election, Trump demurred, citing his oft-repeated canard that mail-in ballots are ripe for fraud. He wants Amy Coney Barrett, his Supreme Court nominee, to be seated before the election, so that she will be able to rule on disputed election results.

Fears are mounting that a close election will bring chaos and even violence.

Trump lies and says inflammatory things all the time. At this late hour, the list of political norms he has violated is mind-numbing and designed to paralyze. His effort to pretend the pandemic is a minor annoyance that will soon “disappear” is sociopathic. His demand that political opponents and so-called agents of the “deep state” be criminally prosecuted will almost certainly bring on a constitutional crisis should he be re-elected. Yet his followers remain devoted, many willing to risk illness or even death from COVID-19 by boisterously cheering him on at campaign rallies. Few wear masks or practice social distancing. “If I die, I die” announced one gleeful Trump supporter at a recent rally. Another confidently proclaimed the pandemic a hoax.

What explains such attitudes? Some Trump supporters boast that they, unlike liberal snowflakes, are not afraid of the virus. Is this really a question of who lives courageously in the face of possible death or who cowers? That would appear to be the rationale of many Trump supporters—it is certainly the attitude of those who mock or shout down those wearing masks.

 

I first read Diary of a Man in Despair perhaps forty years ago. In my study the other day, a tall stack of books toppled over onto the floor. That happens all the time. This time, my dog-eared copy of Diary ended up on top. Since I’ve become somewhat despairing of our current political and cultural situation, I sat down to read it again. In December 1938, the author writes of his perplexity over the willingness of his fellow countrymen to so blithely court their own demise. “There was also a temptation,” he writes, “to admire this present generation for its disdain of death.” On further reflection, however, he comes to a different conclusion.

But here a man would be wrong. What appears here to be courage in the face of death is merely mass-man apathy. What appears to be stoicism is merely the expression of the condition of mass man: neither good nor bad, but basically and with a certain satisfaction at being so, nothing. I really do not know how to characterize the spiritual condition of my dreary contemporaries better than that.

The author of those chilling words was Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen, a Prussian-born aristocrat, conservative, and monarchist. His diary, which he hid in the woods of his Bavarian estate, begins in May 1936. He converted to Catholicism in middle age, and possessed a familiar conservative Catholic skepticism about the modern world. His hatred of the “political crimes” and “gangsterism” of Hitler and the Nazis was visceral as well as philosophical. No fan of parliamentary democracy, he still knew that patriotism was a stalking horse for a host of sins. Since he was politically engaged and moved in exalted circles, he encountered Hitler on a number of occasions. “At first glance, the tightly clenched insecurity seemed to be gone—which allowed him to launch at once into one of his tirades,” he writes of one encounter. “I had poured out over me every one of the political platitudes in his book. I know you will appreciate my sparing you, future reader, all the dogma. It was the little-man Machiavellianism by which German foreign policy became a series of legalized burglaries, and the activity of its leader a succession of embezzlements, forgeries, and treaty breaches...a fabulous fellow, a real political Genghis Khan.” Reck-Malleczewen was arrested on the last day of 1944 and sent to Dachau, where he died, probably of typhus, the following February.

Needless to say, parallels between Trump and Hitler are easily overdrawn. Trump has not started a war or succeeded in putting his political rivals in jail, let alone concentration camps. Illegal immigrants, of course, get rougher treatment. But we have learned that he nearly started a nuclear war with North Korea, and his response to the pandemic has increased the death toll, not reduced it. Uncontained, the virus may yet destabilize the nation and destroy the economy. If he gets the Supreme Court to overturn the Affordable Care Act, millions more Americans will suffer needlessly. If the justices he has placed on the court hand him a disputed presidential election, we will be firmly on the road to despotism.

Trump calls himself a nationalist, but he is first and foremost a fervent social Darwinist. He believes only the strongest deserve to survive, whether in business, politics, or illness. “Losers” deserve what they get. The coronavirus death toll “is what it is”; economic oligarchy and political disenfranchisement are what they are. If Trump is to be stopped, Americans will have to abandon what is now a widespread sense of apathy about the fate of democracy and the need for principle and virtue in politics. The indifference of his fellow Germans to such moral concerns was something Reck-Malleczewen knew all too well. And he knew vulgarity, corruption, and evil when he saw it parading as “Germany first.”

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

Also by this author
Agent Hanssen

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections