EAST GREENWICH, Rhode Island U.S.A.
There are times when only German will suffice in articulating complexity, especially of infuriating nature. For instance, consider the current White House tenant, an orange-faced Manhattan braggart and tabloid newspaper oddity whom New Yorkers have loathed for the past three decades. Among this man’s latest dubious accomplishments, he has inspired certain government investigators—those not yet dismissed for probing his probable traitorous ties to Russian spies—to give the city of Washington a new moniker: Kremlin on the Potomac.
How to describe him?
“The beauty of German is that you can create all sorts of unique compound words,” explains the distinguished American linguist Rachel Hildebrandt, founding publisher of Weyward Sister Books and an English translator for authors of the Deutscher Sprecher persuasion. “We may have more words [in our vocabulary],” she says of her first language, but in contrast to the tongue of her immigrant grandparents from the German state of Saxony, “not that kind of flexibility.”
A wondrous such lingual flex is the word fremdschämen, formed of the conjoined nouns fremd (foreign) and schämen (to feel embarrassment), Ms. Hilbrandt tells me. The connotative meaning: to be chagrined or flat-out ashamed on behalf of someone outside oneself, to cringe at the actions or speech of another person entirely.
Especially someone too stupid and sleazy, creepy and crude, malignant and mendacious, fascistic and fraudulent, boastful and bigoted, nasty and narcissistic, ignorant and intimidating to feel chagrined or ashamed all by himself—and thus unable to acknowledge his offensive conduct; namely, You Know Who.
Colleagues across the sea further inform me that fremdschämen is the (ahem!) charitable view of leadership in the United States during this bizarre chapter of my country’s story. All the more so in light of the recent presidential election in France, which seems to herald (at last!) a rise of political sanity, at the expense of nationalist bigotry on the European continent—to wit:
- On the seventh of May, Emmanuel Macron crushed his opponent, the extreme right-wing Marine LePen, in an existential French struggle of democracy versus fascism.
- December’s presidential election in Austria saw the handy defeat of the fascist Norbert Hofer.
- In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ fascist Party for Freedom was easily defeated in March parliamentary elections.
- With Germany set for federal elections this September, surveys indicate that fascination with the fascist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is on the wane. At the same time, the fortunes of Angela Merkel, the center-right chancellor since 2005, seem to be on an upswing—despite her liberal refugee admission policy, the target of far-right domestic criticism and denunciations from abroad led by You Know Who and fellow xenophobes of his Republican Party.
According to a February poll by Germany’s Allensbach Institute and the journal Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, public approval of the AfD stands at 8.5 percent—the first time the Muslim-hating, anti-Semitic, anti-refugee party has fallen below double digits since last July. In April, the Berlin-based Forsa Institute set the number at 8 percent. Manfred Güllner, who established Forsa in 1984, told Hamburg-based Stern magazine, “At the moment, the AfD can barely gain any points with [its] strategy to capture voters through the refugee crisis. Furthermore, the chaotic administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which [stalwarts of the AfD] celebrated at first, is now causing concern.”
Notwithstanding the vile presence of Victor Orban and Nigel Farage—respectively, the Islamophobic prime minister of Hungary and fascist London pol who led Great Britain’s bolt from the European Union—the world sees light at the end of a toxic tunnel. The damply noxious place from which Donald J. Trump and his European counterparts crawled forth is now ablaze in mazda light. We do not like the sight.
Just as economics are now global, so too are politics. Not long ago, it was possible for the United States to exercise muscular sway throughout the world. Today, the interests of a global community have greatly tempered and reduced that American impact.
Increasingly, for example, my countrymen recognize that the U.S. is not at this time the beacon of western democracy, a position of honor we once reasonably believed was our due. Increasingly, we see Chancellor Merkel and now President-elect Macron as having earned that honor. I suspect that rather soon, perhaps as soon as August, powerful forces in Washington will see to it that Mr. Trump’s imperious rule, worthy of the Russian House of Romanov, will end—one way or another. (Here in America, we dream of a righteous coup d’état.)
According to Daniel Fried, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Mr. Trump’s popularity and international influence has crumbled—or is, at best, rapidly crumbling. Credit the thrilling triumph of French voters in rejecting in fascistic nationalism, a pan-European movement that seemed only last year to have the forward energy of a jackbooted army allied with the pugnacious right-wing populism of Donald Trump.
In conversation with the New York Times, Mr. Fried said the Macron-Merkel tandem of liberal democracy tradition creates an “implicit challenge and perhaps an explicit challenge to the Trump ideology.”
Mark Leonard, the British political scientist and director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, amplified that conclusion, with emphasis on Mr. Macron. He said the newly elected French president, a 39-year-old intellectual, is as refreshing on the world scene as President Barack Obama was in 2008.
Referencing the new French leader, Mr. Leonard added to the Times conversation, “He’s sort of the welcome antithesis of Donald Trump. I don’t think they could be any further from each other in terms of their ideas, their philosophy.”
Assuming that Mr. Leonard is correct, President-elect Macron would never think to do the two incredibly infuriating things that Mr. Trump did in the space of four days —
- May 4: Mr. Trump’s Republican bootlicks rammed bill through the lower house of Congress that would eviscerate America’s feeble footsteps toward universal medical insurance, the Affordable Care Act.
Under what is commonly known as Obamacare, some forty million Americans were insured against medical catastrophe for the first time in their lives. Under the proposed “Trumpcare” legislation, some twenty-four million of the previously uninsured would become so all over again. Those benefitting from Trumpcare would be the one percent of Americans of the billionaire and multi-millionaire class, freed of tax surcharges that substantially funded Obamacare.
Howling commenced immediately, and has yet to stop. Many of the loudest complaints come from the people most adversely affected should Trumpcare become final law—the mouth-breathing segment of 63 million American suckers who voted for an orange-faced Manhattan braggart and tabloid newspaper oddity.
- May 8: Mr. Trump abruptly fired Federal Bureau of Investigation chief James Comeyl. During a hearing in Congress only a month ago, Mr. Comey confirmed Washington scuttlebutt: “The F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election…[including] investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coördination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
As I write, my country is in the midst of a Constitutional crisis. Mr. Comey suspected Mr. Trump of colluding with a hostile foreign power that each and every American intelligence agency found to have interfered with the U.S. elections last November—in the cause of promoting a Trump presidency. Thus, the benefactor of shady Russian assistance sent Mr. Comey packing.
Prior to dismissing Mr. Comey, the panicked president—in office now for only four months—canned two others deemed pesky:
- Sally Q. Yates. In private counsel, the former acting U.S. attorney general warned Mr. Trump that his national security adviser, the now disgraced General Michael T. Flynn, was compromised by financial relationships with the governments of Russia and Turkey—in violation of statutory law prohibiting retired U.S. Army officers from such entanglements.
- Preet Bharara. As a top federal prosecutor in New York City, Mr. Bharara had opened an investigation into Mr. Trump’s numerous business relationships with Russian mobsters.
At a minimum, Mr. Trump seems to have obstructed justice—an impeachable offense; in fact, obstruction was the Number One charge in Articles of Impeachment adopted by Congress during the 1970s presidency of Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994). As an asterisk, Mr. Trump seems to have upended emotional normalcy in the White House; heretofore in contemporary presidential lore, only Mr. Nixon had accomplished that.
In March, when Mr. Trump made the absurd allegation that his home and office skyscraper on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue had been wiretapped by former President Barack Obama—never mind that wiretapping is an obsolescent technology—Mr. Comey was summoned to the Oval Office where he was commanded to get to the bottom of Obama’s supposed snoopery. According to a New York Times report, Mr. Comey described the president’s behavior as “outside the realm of normal,” even “crazy.”
When Mr. Trump disappeared Mr. Comey, a political tsunami swept through Washington such as has not been seen since the Nixon reign—the last straw being President Nixon’s purging a flock of government officials investigating crimes committed in the name of his administration, eponymously known as the “Watergate scandal” after the office and residential complex.
In that scandal, the late Mr. Nixon demonstrated the consequence of testing a sacred American notion: No one is above the law. This despite Mr. Nixon having once famously remarked, “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
The behavior parallels between an addled Mr. Nixon and a “crazy” Mr. Trump are obvious. Mr. Nixon kept an “enemies list” and roamed the White House corridors at night, drunkenly speaking to portraits of his predecessors. Mr. Trump likewise has a list of enemies, in the Congress and the media, and roams the White House corridors at night tweeting an endless stream of insults and lies.
Mr. Nixon’s central crime was to have personally directed a break-in and burglary at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at the Watergate complex. What Mr. Trump likely did in the likely story that likely prompted his decision to disappear Mr. Comey is far, far more serious than anything the late Richard Nixon ever dreamt of doing in his most devious of dreams.
When Mr. Comey told the American public that Donald Trump and his sycophants were suspected of working with Russian intelligence officers and Kremlin cyber warriors to thwart the chances of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during last year’s bitter election campaign, historian Douglas Brinkley declared, “There’s a smell of treason in the air.” Maxine Waters of California tweeted, “Get ready for impeachment.”
Mr. Comey’s disclosure was not a surprise, nor was Russia’s interference with foreign elections a surprise; Kremlin-backed hackers have invaded the computer systems of many democratic countries, and, according to the U.S. intelligence community, are invading as I write. America and the world have long known of Mr. Trump’s affection for and admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a fellow autocrat and kleptocrat well connected with oligarchs of his country who have allegedly bankrolled Trump business ventures.
Further, it has long been known that a trio of high-level Trump associates were variously on the Kremlin payroll in 2016 and into this year—Paul Manafort, an early campaign director; Carter Page, a campaign foreign policy advisor; and the aforementioned General Flynn, whom Mr. Trump disappeared in February.
The volume of Washington whispers suggesting the Nixon resignation of August 1974 as a harbinger of Mr. Trump’s own escape from the mishegas of his own making increases on a daily basis. Most prominently, Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein of California hints that she may know more than she’s allowed to acknowledge as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, thereby privy to the most sensitive top-secret matters of governmental investigation.
“We have a lot of people looking into [the Russian connection],” Ms. Feinstein said in an interview London’s national newspaper, The Independent. Suggesting that the slippery Mr. Trump, who in private life has eluded devastating litigation on many occasions, would opt for resignation over ouster, she added, “I think he’s going to get himself out.”
Should Mr. Trump resign—perhaps in August, per estimation by Professor Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington—it should come as great relief to the hundreds of Republican grandees and office holders who lambasted him in the early stages of last year’s campaign but who have fallen silent this year.
There is always the possibility of a palace coup, so to speak, whereby Vice President Mike Pence could take over the top job by initiating Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, allowing for removal of the boss in the event of a president becoming “unable to discharge the powers and duties of office.” Perhaps a president of monumental ineptitude; perhaps a certifiably “crazy” president. The broadly written provision has never been employed in normal times, which these are not, as Mr. Comey knows all too well.
But I prefer the vintage 1974 delegation of elders approach. And I know just the five-man, bipartisan delegation that could pull off a Trump resignation. Each man is revered by his party, Republican and Democratic; each one has relevant Washington experience; each one possesses the temperament and politesse required for high-stakes intervention. They are the five living ex-presidents: Republicans George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush; and Democrats Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama:
A few days ago, while in my usual New York City residence, I stopped by the tonsorial parlor I have patronized for a quarter century, during which time I have molted from thickly black hair to thinning silver. Astor Place Barbers the joint is called, one floor below the streets of Greenwich Village and chock full of amusing political badinage. That day, the talk was funny, in a grim way.
“Think of the situation nowadays,” said one of the barbers, who shall remain nameless due to the fact that his immigration status is sketchy. “We could be on the brink a really bad crisis. I mean, the president needs something to unite the country behind his sorry ass.”
“Crisis? Like in war crisis?” I asked.
“Sure. Why not?”
“Like a war with that fat guy in North Korea?”
“Yeah. Kim Jong-what’s-his face.”
“It would mean World War III.”
“Yeah—a big war run by two psychopaths with bad haircuts.”
Funny material for a room full of barbers in a New York basement. But because it’s plausible, a grim prospect for a fraught world.
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag