Ullrich has strong feelings about the way Hitler came to power in January 1933, enthroned by a ‘sinister plot’ of stupid elite politicians just at the moment when the Nazis were at last losing strength. It didn’t have to happen. He constantly reminds his readers that Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. ‘We engaged him for our ends,’ said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck.
Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books, June 2nd 2016
“What protects us in this country against big mistakes being made is the structure, the Constitution, the institutions,” McConnell told CBS News last month. “No matter how unusual a personality may be who gets elected to office, there are constraints in this country. You don’t get to do anything you want to.”
Neal Ascherson, the Scottish travel writer, wrote The Black Sea, which is my favorite kind of history book. It shows the long scope, how areas change slowly (and then very quickly) through migration, demographics, and the slow glacial push of cultural shifts becoming norms, and of violent revolutions mutating slowly into evolutions. It’s the long view of history, the kind that understands there aren’t black lines dividing epochs and periods, much in the same way that Masters of Empire explores how native culture didn’t hit a quick reboot when the Europeans arrived, and that understands (as we’ve argued) that the misery of Syria is part of the long night of Ottoman dissolution.
We tend, in this country at least, to see history as buried, and something that doesn’t impact us. It’s sort of the national myth, and it relies heavily on cognitive dissonance, since it is clear that our major issues still spring from the legacy of slavery and the historical memory and political divide of the Civil War. But we admire amnesia, and always look forward. This was accelerated by the 24-hr news cycle, and made manifest in the 24-second news cycle. When discussing yesterday’s tweets marks bloggers such as this one as hopelessly behind the times, understanding how we got to this point is an exercise in futility.
This isn’t just a little rant either; a lack of historical knowledge of American political trends has helped lead to the rise of the first openly white nationalist campaign we’ve seen in modern times. The elite media, and most of the non-elite, failed to understand how 40 years of Reaganite nonsense, 60 years of conservative takeover, and 150 years of post-Civil War resentment could factor into today’s election, and help facilitate the rise of Donald Trump. We live in the immediate present, which is where a man as completely removed from the truth as Trump thrives, and why he has, until the last week, managed to get away with whatever he wanted. It’s in this eternal present that it was believed that a man like Donald Trump couldn’t win simply because he was a man like Donald Trump. This is an ahistoric tautology, in the literal sense, because it ignores the factors that enabled his victory. It was obvious in August that he was appealing to the most violent lizard part of a broken party, one torn apart by geographic and demographic pressures. But he was still treated like a joke.
Now, as he shatters all norms, threatening to “look into” judges and to jail his likely opponent should he win (a statement that should be breathtaking, but barely makes noise), we wonder how we got here, and how we should react. It’s why it is interesting that Buzzfeed, who has generally symbolized the memory-free nonsense of the internet, has broken ties with the RNC over Trump’s nomination. (It should be noted that over the last 5 years BuzzFeed has created some excellent journalism, but its reputation is still that of the constant present, a man seeing the sunrise every morning and wondering what he could possibly be seeing.)
BuzzFeed, which accepts ads from GOP and Democratic candidates, had a $1.3 million ad deal with the RNC, but cancelled it, because Trump is beyond the pale. In a statement, BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti said:
The tone and substance of his campaign are unique in the history of modern US politics. Trump advocates banning Muslims from traveling to the United States, he’s threatened to limit the free press, and made offensive statements toward women, immigrants, descendants of immigrants, and foreign nationals.
We don’t need to and do not expect to agree with the positions or values of all our advertisers. And as you know, there is a wall between our business and editorial operations. This decision to cancel this ad buy will have no influence on our continuing coverage of the campaign.
We certainly don’t like to turn away revenue that funds all the important work we do across the company. However, in some cases we must make business exceptions: we don’t run cigarette ads because they are hazardous to our health, and we won’t accept Trump ads for the exact same reason.
This is a big deal. This is exactly how the media should be covering Trump. We’ve never had anything like this in our modern history, and he shouldn’t be treated as just another nominee, albeit a flamboyant one. We’re at a hinge in our country’s history. It could go either way.
I began this piece with a few quotes, one from a book review about how Hitler’s rise to power was facilitated by old-guard politicians who assumed they could let him ride popular anger into office but then control him for their ends, and one by Mitch McConnell, who represents Republicans who think the same thing about Trump. The thrust of the TPM article is that the old guard’s main pledge is that sure, Trump might be an authoritarian monster, but once he’s in office we’ll be able to control him.
This isn’t to say that Trump is Hitler. This isn’t Germany in 1933. It’s the United States in 2016, a country that isn’t sure of itself, feels like its best days are behind, and is sliding along a weird trail of economic dislocation and historical amnesia. That’s bad enough, and it can get much worse. That we have even gotten to this point shows how much worse it can get. Not understanding how we got here, and ignoring everything except tomorrow’s news, creates the possibility to slip past the point of no return.