Act as if it were 1934

There are many ways to think about what has just happened to our country. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker has just offered the best way I can think of:
By Adam Gopnik January 13, 2017

One of the pleasures of music-streaming services is that, day after day, they remind you effortlessly of the almost incredible wealth and beauty of American popular music—from the blues and Tin Pan Alley to jazz, R. & B., country, rock and roll, and on to hip hop—and of its strange, snaking unity. The great critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote that, sometime in the nineteen-thirties, the “ ‘serious’ music tradition finally withered, curled up and died,” and what took its place was American song. It became the century’s sublime, achieved sound, and the beat, as the song says, goes on. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s duos bring one back to the jazz duets of Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden, whose choice of familiar tunes then leads one to the great singers of the first songbook of standards, Ella singing Gershwin, and on and on. In this context, Bob Dylan’s award for the Nobel Prize in Literature must seem, even to doubters, earned, especially if it’s seen, so to speak, as an award to Frank Loesser and Duke Ellington, as well—as a tribute to the entirety of those American words and music.

This music was often made in protest, and frequently made best by the most oppressed among us. And so politics and our political life have always wrapped and unwrapped around that music, left and right and in between. Back in the sixties, Dylan seemed to state the times they were a-changin’, and Merle Haggard sang out for the Okies from Muskogee—and then Dylan ended up learning more from Merle than Merle did from him. The intertwining of country music with the George W. Bush years—“Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” for example—was as credible and deeply felt as any of the enwrappings by, say, Springsteen of Obama.

And so the inability, so far, of Donald Trump to get any significant musicians from any of those traditions, rock or country or blues or Broadway, to sing at his Inauguration is not a small comic detail but a significant reflection of this moment in history. It reminds us of just how aberrant Trump and Trumpism is. When the Rockettes have to be coerced to appear at your show—or you’re left to boast of the military bands, directly under your orders, who are playing—one is witnessing not just some snobbish hostility on the part of “Hollywood” entertainers but a deeper abyss between the man about to assume power and the shared traditions of the country he represents. There is no music in this man.

Of course, it’s no secret—it is one of the strangest aspects of this strangest of all American stories—that the divide between Trump’s manners and those of his most feverish supporters has always been unusually large: a rich man who lives with his third wife among gold-plated fixtures in a New York tower becoming the tribune for the evangelicals in the South and the dispossessed in the Rust Belt. But the space, we sense now, is still larger. Many liberal opponents of Trump want to insist that he is the natural heir to the past twenty years of increasing ideological insularity within the Republican Party, and in the sense that that insularity helped produce the radicalism and polarization that made Trump possible, this may be true. But, at a deeper level, this is a libel on the countless Republicans and conservatives who, however much one may disagree with them on gun control or women’s reproductive freedom or the rest, seemed still to be—indeed undoubtedly were—every bit as devoted to the principles of constitutional republicanism, so beautifully articulated by President Obama the other night in Chicago, as any American liberal.

American conservatism has as many clear, resolute devotees of constitutional democracy as any other stream of ideology—or it once seemed to. For, in truth, those of us Cassandras who predicted a slow collapse of “respectable” Republicans in the face of Trump’s ascension turned out to be, well, too conservative. The collapse has been almost total, and shockingly uncritical. A few resisters aside—in the press, the names Jennifer Rubin, Max Boot, and David Frum come to mind—even those who know better, or did, have allowed the ancient habits of hatred to overwhelm their normal sense of right and wrong. Republican legislators who, a year ago, would have been aghast at any politician who praised the brutal dictator Vladimir Putin now have little trouble swallowing their tongues when Trump insists that Putin’s good opinion, however earned, is “an asset.” Those who made a fuss about pursuing any possible conflict of interest among Obama’s appointees now meekly allow the most conflict-ridden and least “vetted” of candidates for high office to walk through largely unmolested. And the insistence of the leader that he has no obligation to release any record of his financial entanglements, with the bold repeated lie that an “audit”—whose existence can’t be confirmed and wouldn’t matter anyway—prevents him from doing so, is simply and mutely accepted. The collapse—motivated for some by opportunism, for others by the intimidation of the mob—is complete.

No, the collapse is total. And at that terrifying first press conference of Trump’s, on Wednesday, we saw the looming face of pure authoritarianism. Rewards are promised to the obedient: those good states that voted the right way, the “responsible” press. Punishments are threatened to the bad: “They’re going to suffer the consequences!” Intimidation is the greeting to any critic. And look! There’s a claque alongside to cheer the big boss and deride his doubters. This is what was once called Bonapartism: I won and I can now do anything I choose. Victory, however narrow, is license for all. Autocracy, after all, has always been compatible with plebiscitary endorsement. The point of constitutional government is to make even the victors subject to the rules.

Trump is so unusual and scary a figure that he lends himself to over-, or overly narrow, interpretation. As John F. Kennedy was said to represent the ascent of the movie star and Reagan of the TV host, Trump, we’re told, represents the triumph of the reality-television star. There’s truth in that, no doubt. But the trouble with this kind of analysis is that the same country and the same culture that produced Trump as President also twice, very recently, produced Barack Obama, his diametric opposite in tone, style, and persona. It is Trump who is the improbable outlier, not our democracy. (And Hillary Clinton, who, it cannot be said too often, won more votes, was not of that new kind either.) In any case, there is nothing in the least “postmodern” about Trump. The machinery of demagogic authoritarianism may shift from decade to decade and century to century, taking us from the scroll to the newsreel to the tweet, but its content is always the same. Nero gave dictates; Idi Amin was mercurial. Instruments of communication may change; demagogic instincts don’t.

What is to be done? In such a moment of continued emergency, the most important task may be to distinguish as rigorously as possible between new policies and programs that, however awful, are a reflection of the normal oscillation of power, natural in a mature democracy, and those that are not. To borrow from Woody Allen’s distinction between the miserable (something we all are) and the horrible (fortunately suffered by only a few), we must now distinguish resolutely between the sickening and the terrifying. Many programs and policies with which progressive-minded people passionately disagree will be put forward over the next few years. However much or strongly one opposes them, they are, like it or not, the actual agreed-on platform of a dominant national party. On the issue of gun control alone, we’ll get a Supreme Court that won’t reverse the bad decision of Heller, a legislature that will only further diminish sane controls on military weapons in private hands, likely an increase in open-carry laws, and all the murderous rest. All of this will cost kids’ lives and bring much misery.

One may oppose these things—and one should, passionately and permanently—but they are in no sense illegitimate. They are just wrong. They are also reversible by the same laws and rules and norms and judicial and, perhaps most of all, electoral processes that created them. If we want gun control, we need to get more people caring about it and more people in more places voting for it; we cannot complain because people who don’t want gun control don’t give it to us.

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.

So we need to stiffen our spines and broaden our embrace, grasp tightly but reach out far. The conservatives who see Trump for what he is and are shocked by it—and there are many, though not as many as there should be—should be welcomed. We can postpone arguing about the true meaning of the Second Amendment while we band together to fight for the Constitution that precedes it.

Trump, in a tweet and then again in his press conference, actually compared the practice of leaking information about him to, of all things, the horrors of Nazi Germany. We are told, rightly, again and again, that such comparisons should never be made. The experience of Germany in 1934, and of that unspeakable ascent to power, is one that we ought to put aside as too enormous, too different, too blasphemous to even mention in our own crisis. But it is possible to be of the view that we ought always to keep that spectre in front of our eyes, not because our political opponents are “like Nazis,” but exactly because we too readily forget how easily the very worst can happen, and by what quick complicity we accede to the unacceptable, more often from our exhausted longing for decent normalcy (and normal decency) than from ideological conversion.

There’s no point in studying history if we do not take some lesson from it. The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. We must learn and relearn that age’s necessary lessons: that meek submission is the most short-sighted of policies; that waiting for the other, more vulnerable group to protest first will only increase the isolation of us all. We must refuse to think that if we play nice and don’t make trouble, our group won’t be harmed. Calm but consistent opposition shared by a broad front of committed and constitutionally-minded protesters—it’s easy to say, fiendishly hard to do, and necessary to accomplish if we are to save the beautiful music of American democracy.

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986.

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