SEBASTIAN GORKA, high-level White House assistant to Donald Trump, wore his Hungarian “bocskai” to the January 20 presidential inauguration balls in Washington. The braided black tunic is popular with modern-day acolytes of Miklós Horthy, the nazi collaborationist leader whose Budapest regime saw the murders of 600,000 Jews. A medal pinned to Mr. Gorka’s tunic (close-up at right) indicates his affection for the “Order of Vitéz,” a chivalric fraternity begun by Horthy in 1920, popular once again with members of Hungary’s ultra-right political movement—the Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom. At the January balls, Mr. Gorka danced the night away with his wife Katherine (to his left), a prominent anti-Muslim activist who served Trump as a campaign policy advisor. Both Gorkas write for the news site Breitbart, platform for white nationalism.
Daylight savings time arrived today, the twelfth of March, and with it a herald of spring. Still, however, winter’s chill is in the air. Which keeps me indoors this morning, in the library of my eighteenth century farmhouse here in the Hudson River Valley of upstate New York.
Ensconced, my favorite things are close at hand: books, coffee, and the fat Sunday edition of newspapers from New York, Washington, and Boston. The radio is softly tuned to a classical music station as I read. I take these pleasantries with extreme gratitude nowadays. They are precious, and may well be fleeting.
Like so many of my countrymen, I wonder how much longer these comfortable Sundays may last: indeed, how much longer the world’s oldest democracy will resemble what we have always known it to be.
Timothy D. Snyder, professor of European history at Yale University, predicts that American democracy will cease to exist by March of next year unless we ordinary citizens resist, powerfully. As he writes in his new book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” the parallels between a drift toward fascism in the United States and what Adolf Hitler imposed on Germany are too numerous to be ignored—beginning with attacks on objective media as untruthful.
At Hitler rallies in the streets of Germany in the 1930s, nazis shouted at reporters, “Lügenpresse!” (lying press). Der Führer was duly charmed. In Italy, where the one-time journalist Benito Mussolini took power in the previous decade, Il Duce established the Ministry of Popular Culture with authority to ban or seize publications that failed to support the fascist cause with “militant journalism.” In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, Joseph Stalin vilified media voices that challenged Moscow diktats as Vrag Naroda.
Hitler and Mussolini picked up on Stalin’s phrase, translating it for their respective societies. In his own campaign to obliterate truth, Donald Trump repeats the phrase today in English: Enemy of the People.
“Post-truth is pre-fascism,” Professor Snyder warns us. “The possibilities are much darker than Americans are used to considering.”
I pour myself another cup of coffee.
This morning’s papers report the variously asinine, uncouth, adolescent, ignorant, false, and dangerous things excreted from the mouth of Donald J. Trump during the preceding week. I am particularly struck by his denunciations of us journalists as “very dishonest people” who peddle “fake news.” The papers tell me of a moody Narcissus who roams the White House corridors, alone in predawn hours, in his bathrobe, armed with a Twitter account by which he rages against observable fact and provable truth.
—Worse: Respected opinion polls reveal that tens of millions of Americans believe, unquestionably, in Donald Trump’s daily cascade of lies. Worse yet: Leading lights of the ruling Republican Party offer reliable, bootlicking ratification of ever-oozing Trumpian mendacity.
I reflect on a previous president’s more favorable view of a professional institution engaged in the pursuit of facts and truths, imperfect as such pursuit may be; an institution guaranteed specific freedoms by the Constitution of the United States, which sees the press as critical to a democratic republic.
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers with a government,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president from 1801-09, “I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.”
But now comes the forty-fifth president, sputtering about the “failing” New York Times—false: readership is gaining substantially—and how the Times publishes nothing but “lies” about him by reporting what appears to be his unlawful conduct. (How dare the Times presage possible felonies?) As Mr. Trump’s minions shouted, whilst jeering at journalists covering last autumn’s Trump campaign rallies—“Lügenpresse!”
Question: Just how did Mr. Trump’s unwashed minions come by that defamatory German phrase? Answer: By way of so-called alt-right media, of which I shall have more to say herein.
As the world should know by now, given its gory history, the most wicked form of lying is the telling of partial truths in order to deceive; in order to affirm prejudices for good or ill, or to support suspicions. Such liars—here I speak of presidential surrogates, spokespersons, Republican hacks and flunkies—are craftsmen of sloganeering and illusion.
As we have learned by way of Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany of 1933-1945, false slogans and staged scenery convince even sophisticates. In the wrong hands, slogans and stagecraft are the lies that seed despotism.
Hark! Do my ears deceive? Do I hear the distant sound of marching boots?
On the final evening of February, Mr. Trump recited a litany of lies that formed his maiden presidential address to Congress. By most press counts, he told fifty-one lies in the hour-long address, nearly a whopper per minute. An example:
- “The vast majority of terrorist attacks [on U.S. soil] came from people who came over our border (sic)”, declared the president. FACT: According to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, law enforcement agencies consider white Christian extremists—not Muslim jihadists, nor any minority religious or ethnic group—to be the nation’s foremost threat of political violence. FACT: In a study conduced by Duke Professors Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, so-called “radical Islamic” terror attacks “accounted for fifty fatalities over the past thirteen and a half years,” whereas “right-wing [homegrown] extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11.”
The highlight of Mr. Trump’s prime-time televised address was a cutaway shot that surely excited the ghost of Herr Goebbels, long resting in Hell. At the appropriate point in the presidential script, TV cameras followed the president’s golden coif and orange face as he turned from his teleprompters and looked upward—to a mezzanine where the widow of Navy commando William “Ryan” Owens was seated. Her late husband was the man Mr. Trump recently sent to his death, at age 36, during an ill-conceived raid in January on an al-Qaeda compound in Yemen.
Cue the cringe-worthy pathos: Carryn Owens rises from her chair, eyes overflowing in tears, uptilted face imploring Heaven to broker a channel of communication with her betrothed partner in life. Cue the craftsman Trump, in split screen image at the podium.
“Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero battling against terrorism, and securing our nation. Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity,” said president to widow. “Thank-you. …[A]s the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
“Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom. We will never forget Ryan.”
Perhaps it was the sustained standing ovation that drowned out certain other portions of the Ryan Owens story, portions that most sophisticated journalists in the room that night, bedazzled by stagecraft, neglected to report:
- Through White House mouthpiece Sean Spicer, Mr. Trump claimed that the raid yielded an “unbelievable amount” of “vital” insight into al-Qaeda plans and operations—“intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Nevertheless, multiple Pentagon sources, requesting anonymity for understandable reasons, told NBC-Television News that they are unaware of any such vital trove.
- In addition to the death of Ryan Owens, twenty-five Yemeni civilians were killed, including nine children under the age of 13. Six American military servicemen were severely wounded.
- Destroyed was an American naval aircraft valued at $70 million (€65.6 million).
And finally: Also minimally reported is the matter of Ryan Owens’ father, Bill—a military veteran and retired police detective—who twice refused to meet with Mr. Trump, or to allow himself to be used as a politician’s TV prop. Owens père refused to go along with the White House explanation of the severely botched Yemen mission—the one Mr. Trump calls a “tremendous success”—or Mr. Spicer’s warning that any challenge to the official line is a rebuke to the heroism of Owens fils.
About the so-called alt-right, a confederation of white nationalists capable of wearing neckties and using the proper dining utensils—championed by the racist online journal Breitbart News.
Stephen K. Bannon’s credentials as Mr. Trump’s “chief strategist” in a White House rife with lies, are logical: former Wall Street grifter; former Hollywood producer (best known for a film documentary extolling the dubious allure of Sarah Palin); former head of the nazi- and Klan-friendly Breitbart News; alleged Florida resident currently under investigation for claiming voter status in the state.
Among Mr. Bannon’s favorite books is “The Camp of the Saints,” in which French author Jean Raspail forecasts the destruction of European Christendom by invading hordes of dark-skinned Muslims from India and the Middle East. Upon the novel’s release in the U.S. in 1975, Kirkus Reviews wrote: “The publishers are presenting [it] as a major event, and it probably is, in much the same sense than ‘Mein Kampf’ was a major event.”
Working under Mr. Bannon are London-born Sebastian Gorka, an Islamophobe and self-proclaimed counter-terrorism expert whom the respected magazine Business Insider says is “widely disdained” by those he claims as peers. The newest addition to Mr. Bannon’s staff is Stephen Miller, no slouch he in authoritarian pugnacity. Mr. Miller recently declared on CBS-Television, “[O]ur opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president…are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
Though he rarely speaks to reporters, Mr. Bannon, recently said, “The media should just shut up and listen”—presumably to the president, and whatever fevered Twitter fantasy he entertains whilst padding around the White House in his bathrobe. Fantasies of late include an evidence-free tweet that former President Barack Obama put a “tapp” (sic) on Mr. Trump’s offices and penthouse in Manhattan, and that Mr. Obama leads a hush-hush “deep state” of secret operatives within the federal government dedicated to discrediting and/or overthrowing the Trump administration.
And, of course, there are millions of pesky Latino immigrants whose non-kosher arrivals must be dealt with. Accordingly, Mr. Trump has called out heavily-armed agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement—working under the cute acronym ICE—to begin wholesale roundups of “illegals,” never mind that they are, by and large, model citizens, as opposed to “murderers and rapists” per the president’s description.
Trumpanoid fantasies alternate with slanders against “so-called” judges who rule against him in his many court encounters. And on Friday, March 9, Mr. Trump fired all forty-six U.S. Attorneys appointed to their prosecutorial positions by ex-President Obama—including Manhattan’s Preet Bharara, thought to be investigating Mr. Trump’s violation of constitutional law in refusing to divest himself of corporate interests that profit from American and foreign business investments.
Like Mr. Bannon, whose post at the aforementioned Klan-friendly news site has described contemporary African American civil rights activists as “bloodthirsty thugs,” Messrs. Gorka and Miller are Breitbart contributors.
And though he reads little, Donald Trump is a devoted consumer of Breitbart “news,” the apparent inspiration for his accusations of nefarious treachery on the part of his predecessor.
In his February 14 column for the Miami Herald, the Pulitzer Prize winning opinion writer Leonard Pitts Jr. served up an anti-Valentine. After patiently explaining the rudiments of U.S. constitutional tradition and democratic governance, he addressed Mr. Trump thusly: “You and other members of the Fourth Reich seem to be having difficulty understanding this.”
Mr. Pitts would not be the last man on the American political scene to speak of a Fourth Reich. Nor will my very own congressman, Jerrold L. Nadler of Manhattan, be the last holder of high public office to apply the term “fascist” to Donald Trump.
Although Messrs. Nadler and Trump were each born in June of 1947, they are as different as chalk and cheese—the former soft-spoken and respectful of views counter to his own; the latter a blustering blowhard with a face that actually resembles a wheel of cheese.
During a February 21 meeting with some three-hundred of his constituents,
Mr. Nadler spoke of younger days when he was involved in the main two righteously liberal causes of the 1960s—civil rights for African Americans, and full-throated opposition to the war in Vietnam.
“I became so weary of my comrades calling the other side ‘fascist,’” said Mr. Nadler. “He’s a fascist, she’s a fascist—it sickened me. I never thought I’d see a real fascist, but now I have. His name is Donald J. Trump.”
Earlier this month, Professor Snyder gave a long interview to the online news site AlterNet, which could not more different than Breitbart. His theme was the onrush of U.S. fascism, how Americans have about one year to resist the old plague, and how Breitbart-style fakery in news reporting is a true enemy of the people. Excerpts from that interview:
[T]hings move fast. Nazi Germany took about a year. Hungary about two and half years. Poland got rid of the top-level judiciary within a year. …[Y]ou therefore have to act now, get started early. …It’s the meta-advice of the past: that things slip out of reach for you, psychologically…and then legally. It’s hard for people to act when they feel others won’t act. It’s hard for people to act when they feel they have to break the law to do so. So it is important to get out in front before people face these…barriers.
I think that the people who inhabit the White House inhabit a different ideological world, in which they would like for the United States not to be the constitutional system it now is.
We think about democracy, and that’s the word that Americans love to use—democracy—and that’s how we characterize our system. But if democracy just means going to vote, it’s pretty meaningless. Russia has democracy in that sense. Most authoritarian regimes have democracy in that sense. Nazi Germany had democracy in that sense. …Democracy only has substance if there’s the rule of law. …And the things we call the rule of law depends upon trust. And that, in turn, depends on the sense of truth. …You get right to the heart of [fascism] if you can convince people that there is no truth.
[One] pulse of politics is emergency. There’s some kind of terrorist attack, and then the leader tries to suspend basic constitutional rights. …That’s how regime changes take place. It’s a classic way since the Reichstag fire, when nazis burned their nation’s capitol building and blamed communist arsonists.
So in terms of what people [should] look out for, some kind of event that the government claims is a terrorist incident, would be something to be prepared for.
…With the Muslims, the resemblance to anti-Semitic policy in Germany in ’33 is that you can pick some group and make them stand in for some international threat, then you can change domestic politics—because [it’s] no longer about compromises and competing interests, domestic politics [becomes] about who [is inside] society and who should be seen as outside society.
With undocumented immigrants…I think the goal might be to get us used to seeing a certain kind of police power. And getting us used to seeing things happening to people in public. …The crucial thing is to get some kind of [political opening] where people go along with or accept stigmatization.
In December, the entertainer and human rights activist Harry Belafonte took to National Public Radio—a medium that Mr. Bannon and company threaten to defund—to speak of his profound worry about America’s future as a constitutional democracy.
“I was talking with a comrade recently,” said Mr. Belafonte, who turned 90 years of age on March 1. “He was a victim of the Third Reich…a victim of the great Holocaust and what happened to the Jewish people during the reign of Hitler. “All my life, I have committed myself to making sure that here, in this country … I and so many others would be forever dedicated to the idea that America will remain an open and a free democratic society. With each cycle, those thoughts become a bit dimmed.”
Mr. Belafonte closed with this:
“If there is a platform on which I will be privileged to stand and speak, my opening remarks will probably be something like, ‘Welcome to the Fourth Reich.’”
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag