The most frightening book I’ve read in the past ten years is not a novel by Stephen King, but a childhood memoir by the German historian Joachim Fest.
Not I describes Fest’s childhood and adolescence in a deeply conservative family in Berlin. Johannes Fest, Joachim’s father, was a Roman Catholic with ordinary conservative political aspirations. A politically engaged German patriot, he was an educated man with republican values. He was also a passionate and principled anti-Nazi, and his family paid significantly — if less dearly than they sometimes feared — for his refusal to join the Party. At the beginning, though, the Fests didn’t worry too much, because they were, as we might usefully say, German Exceptionalists: they shared the common view that their civilization — the land of Schiller, Lessing, Mozart, and Goethe — was the last place in the world capable of surrendering itself to a gang of criminal authoritarians.
The heart of Joachim Fest’s chilling tale is, of course, that they were completely wrong. The total destruction of German civilization required nothing more than some hard times, a sense of grievance, and a single rhetorical genius with tempting lies to tell about whose fault it all was and how easily Germany could be made great again:
At first, the countless violations of the law by our new rulers still caused a degree of disquiet. But among the incomprehensible features of those months, my father later recalled, was the fact that soon life went on as if such crimes were the most natural thing in the world …. …. [T]he question still being asked is how these idea were capable of driving such an old and civilized nation out of its mind. How was it possible that the National Socialist movement were able to overcome the constitutional safeguards with so little resistance? And, furthermore, how was so much disregard of the law possible in an order-loving country?
Back to 2016. It seems to me beyond rational dispute that Donald Trump is the most morally repugnant human being ever to stand for the highest office in this country. But if you truly disagree, or say that that’s irrelevant, I say: fine. Let’s leave his extreme personal vileness aside, because we need to focus on something else. And that something else is not policy, either, in the ordinary sense of ideas and proposals on taxation, climate change, or the Second Amendment: after all, anyone who thinks they know what Mr. Trump’s policies on these issues would actually be, once in office, is politically naïve beyond repair.
No. The choice we face in this election has to do with something much more fundamental. On the one hand, we can choose the certain continuity of the American Republic in essentially its current form, under a boring wonk with poor judgment, whose tragedy is that she never will understand why people so viscerally dislike her brand of patrician social-climber condescension. On the other hand, we have the real possibility that the Republic, and all its honored and allegedly fail-safe institutions, are about to be dismantled by people who are — literally and straightforwardly: I present this word to you not as a casual term of abuse, but as a precise descriptive from the lexicon of political history — fascists.
The essential thing to understand about Donald Trump is that he is not a conservative, or a Republican, any more than he was once a Democrat, or a liberal. He has never been any of these things, because being any of them requires you to feel allegiance to a set of ideas about what is good for the nation. Given what the man himself says, it is sheer obtuseness to think Trump has ever cared a whit about such things.
Of course, yes, he talks about the good of the nation—he’s going to make it great again. Fascists have always use this rhetorical tactic. It was being honed by Mussolini a decade before his more famous German student perfected it. The trick is to appeal to a wholly contentless, sentimental yearning for a past that never was, while hinting darkly and deniably (later, ‘deniably’ won’t be necessary) at the people our current shame can be blamed on.
Fascist politics — the correct name for the ‘alt-right’ movement of which Donald Trump is now the de facto head — has several features that should sound all too familiar by now, and each one of them is the antithesis of conservatism. A revolutionary desire to sweep away existing norms and institutions. Worship of power for the sake of power, especially when it is embodied in unrestrained authority figures. Contempt for the ‘weakness’ of democracy, contempt for civil liberties, contempt for objective truth, and contempt for mutual respect, civility, and the rule of law. A fascination with insane theories about blood and purity and race, leading always to the conclusion that one ethnic type — the gullible white male with acne and a low IQ — is inherently superior to all others. And a taste for the physical intimidation: not for nothing does the Roman symbol of the fascis explicitly offer you the choice of sticks, with which to beat your opponents, or an axe, with which to execute them.
You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you? Getting a bit over-wrought? Then do your homework on the so-called alt-right. Ruin your sleep by getting up to speed on the almost-but-not-quite comically repugnant Richard Spencer, or the sad, ignorant louts whose “militias” will come to his side when the time is right.
But this is still the fringe, for now, and extreme nausea can be had much closer to home. What are we to make of Trump’s marquee supporters and enablers, men (I use the term loosely) such as Christie, Rubio, Ryan, Giuliani, and McConnell? They both need Trump and loathe him, because he is so obviously so much better at politics than they are. One thinks of Brutus describing Caesar: He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonourable graves. Surely ‘dishonourable’ is right. These are people, already in positions of great influence, who either actively support the “Republican” (ha ha) candidate or have refused to renounce, oppose, and actively fight him — even in the face of his most unforgiveable pronouncements on race, religion, war, women, and the sacrifices of military families. Why have they not acted against him? Because they can calculate, if nothing else, and nothing in the wide world is more important to them than their own political necks. Nothing, nothing, nothing — including the safety and well-being of their own country. Thus they have revealed to us what they are, truly, in their hearts: vile, despicable, worthless, self-serving, pseudo-patriotic cowards. In a just world, not one of them would ever again be elected to run a bake sale. In a just world, actually, these ranting shills would be despised and hated, to the end of their sorry days, by everyone who has the misfortune to know them. Their have burned their sacred honor and thrown away the ashes.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s suppose all this evil, on the fringes and at the center, has brought us only a 5% chance that a Trump Presidency rings down the curtain on American democracy and brings true fascism in its wake. A one-in-twenty chance: but just suppose. And suppose that, after we have all danced merrily around a bonfire of the Constitution, a fifty-year Mitteleuropäische nightmare ensues.
First, Mr. Trump’s friends will come for the most vulnerable of us all: dark-skinned people who speak poor English. Next, they’ll target the remainder of the N — . (Oh, yes, be sure of it: freed from the awful tyranny of political correctness, we will hear that word abroad in the land again.) When that work is done, and even light-brown people who might perhaps be Muslim are being publicly humiliated or worse in Times Square, perhaps it will be the turn of the Jews, again. (Or maybe not. Maybe they’ll pass over the Jews this time, and go straight for the socialists — lists of Bernie supporters supplied by an ever-pliant FBI, no doubt. And what decent American cares about socialists, anyway?)
Well, well, how depressing this all is. So let’s throw some wholesome American good luck into the sanguinary tale. Let’s help ourselves to the large assumption that ushering a creepy, unstable, staggeringly ignorant egomaniac into the White House will not result in World War III, aka “a billion innocent people burned alive.” Let’s assume that only America’s soul gets burned away.
Now, then, tell me again: when you are talking to your grandchildren, during the first glimmerings of a restored democracy in 2066, what exactly is it that you plan to say to them about the email server thing? And the grave threat to freedom represented by Obamacare? And how, although you never liked Trump personally, you felt compelled to stand bravely by your Conservative principles?
But please don’t answer before you considerer this: a generation of Italian and German grandchildren have already been there, and they didn’t want to hear about it. On the contrary. They spent their whole lives clambering out of the deep pit of national shame that their elders had dug for them — and their thanks was, they abhorred the very surnames that were their inheritance.
The title of Joachim Fest’s memoir comes from the motto he was taught by his father. It’s from the Gospel of Matthew, and it encapsulates very beautifully what a brave Christian like Fest— or a brave Jew or Muslim or atheist, for that matter — ought to think, when surrounded on all sides by evil. “Etiam si omnes, ego non — Even if all the others do it, not I.”
The United States likes to tell the rest of the world that it is the best and greatest democracy, the land of the free, and blessed above all with institutions that make it uniquely well-protected against tyranny. On Tuesday — how bracing! — we get to test these ideas again, in circumstances that are truly unique. What to do? The correct answer will be hard to swallow, for many voters. Yet it is perfectly clear. Throw up your hands in general disgust, and refuse to vote? Sorry, no, that doesn’t pass the smell test this time. If you fail to vote, you risk going down in the history books as having cast half that vote for violence and revolution. However painful it may be, however surreal, the plain surprising truth of this election lies hidden and waiting in the very etymology of a word: actually voting, and voting for Hillary Clinton, is the one genuinely conservative thing you can do.
Home of the brave? I truly hope so.
Land of the free? Fingers crossed.
God save America.