BY HARRY T. COOK
The late Barry Goldwater made himself a pariah to many by declaring in his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president in 1964 that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Extremism most certainly is a vice and to be avoided by any democracy worthy of the name.
How could Goldwater not have realized how close he came with that statement to fascism – a political disease that had brought down the nation of Bach, Kant, Schiller and Goethe just 19 years earlier? Fortunately, the American electorate had the good sense to choose Lyndon B. Johnson, who went on to give the nation Medicare and the Voting Rights Act – the former now in the gun sights of House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is eager to help the for-profit insurance tycoons rake in more dollars, the latter already eviscerated by a tone-deaf Supreme Court majority.
I don’t know whether to write here: “This is just a drill” or “This is no drill.”
I ask the readers of this essay to decide for themselves if America is on the brink of a new kind of proto-fascism, given several appointments of President-elect Donald Trump. Do those he has nominated or chosen to hold sensitive government positions – attorney general, national security advisor and chief strategic advisor – seem even just a little like such extremists of the past as, say, Heinrich Himmler, Otto Strasser and Joseph Goebbels? Or is Mr. Trump’s occasional moderating tendency real enough? His Tweets can be brutal, but his behavior at the sit-down with the New York Times publisher, editors, reporters and columnists recently seemed now and then to hover around the normal 98.6 on the thermometer.
So is our country going to have concentration camps for suspect Muslims or not? Are our security forces actually planning to transport three million immigrants back to potentially dangerous countries of origin where they might be at best harassed and at worst executed or not? Is it possible that the extremist Stephen Bannon – he late of the Breitbart “news” agency – doesn’t know that the word “transport” immediately freezes the blood of any Holocaust survivor? Or, worse, maybe he does.
Some number of readers have probably stopped reading this essay because they are not prepared to think that 59 million American voters – 46.3% – could be wrong all at the same time. Let them consider that in Germany’s 1933 election 44% of all ballots were cast for Adolf Hitler. That election was to be its last until the nation had recovered sufficiently from the war to begin a rebuilding of its political life along democratic lines.
Again, I ask readers to weigh the facts now known and to ask themselves the following questions: 1. Can what happened in Germany from 1933 to 1945 happen here? 2. If not, what will have kept it from happening? 3. What would it require of us to keeping it from happening or stopping it if it did begin to happen? 4. Has it already begun?
In fewer than two months from today, Mr. Trump takes the oath of office and, barring sickness, accidents or some now unforeseen political blow-up, will serve until 11:59:59 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2021. He could be elected to a second term, assuming an election would take place in 2020.
Meanwhile, we are largely in the dark about what the Trump administration may or may not attempt to do. We scarcely get a comprehensible sentence from him, much less a paragraph, that would tell us with any clarity what he intends to do under the law and what he might be tempted to do regardless of the law.
His delivery is rugged and anti-syntax. He has a strident side that at least during the campaign got rousing cheers again and again. On and off he seems dogmatic and determined to make happen whatever it was he might have been considering in the moment of his speaking. The press is sometimes of little help as its editors seem often to prefer the sensational story, not allowing the facts – should such rarities actually be obtained by actual reporters – to get in the way of selling their products. That generally leaves popular perceptions and theories, however false and groundless, to carry the day.
At least Der Führer made clear, despite his turbulent rhetoric, that Jews were the scum of the Earth and internal enemies of the Reich. His behavior – verbal and otherwise – made it painfully clear what he wanted to be done about them. The German press of the day dutifully reported that, though it took some time to learn the horrid details of what was done about them.
Now Mr. Trump in clarity otherwise missing in his usual speech pattern has told us clearly that Muslims are enemies of the state. What does that suggest about what a Trump Department of Justice or the Immigration and Naturalization corps may do about them? Moreover, we are told that there may be a national registry with papers to prove that one is a citizen or legal immigrant. A gathering of white supremacists within sight of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial shouts out “Heil victory!” Achtung, Brüder und Schwestern.
There’s a great line at the very end of Mel Brooks’ satirical movie Blazing Saddles. Harvey Korman, who has just completed playing the comic role of Hedley Lamarr, is anxious to get away from a melee on the set that only Mel Brooks could dream up. Korman/Lamarr has hailed a ride and says to the cabbie: “Drive me off this picture.”
FOOTNOTE: During my time as a priest of an inner-city parish many years ago, I found myself involved in a police investigation of a single parent who was accused of deliberate neglect of one of her children. In short, she was accused of attempting to starve the child to death, thinking that doing so over a considerable time would not attract the attention of the authorities.
I was asked into the matter because it was known that I had made a pastoral visit to the home. What I had witnessed there was slovenliness, but it never occurred to me that potential murder was underway. A welfare worker put the necessary two and two together in time to rescue the child and the other children into the bargain.
The woman came to mind the other day as I read the news article about the present attorney general of Oklahoma being President-elect Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency. The man is openly a denier of the scientific consensus that Earth is warming, changing its climate for the worse – the incontrovertible evidence being rapidly melting polar ice fields, rising sea levels and ever more dangerous monster storms.
I cannot say that, like the young mother referenced above, he is surreptitiously laboring to destroy life, and that on a grand scale. I can say that murder by deliberate neglect or willed ignorance surely must be as criminal an act as shooting someone in the face at close range.
Millions of Jews were gassed and incinerated during the Nazi rampage through Europe. In a number of civilized nations, denial of the monumental evidence of that monstrous crime is itself a crime. Should not the denial of proven evidence that the continued burning of fossil fuel is a slow motion gassing of Earth’s population be considered a crime, too?
– Harry T. Cook is a Michigan-based Episcopal priest, journalist and author whose essays appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer.