These are scary times. A terrible sense of vulnerability has enveloped all of us. Is my son safe at his Jewish preschool? Should I still ride the bus? Continue to refuse to own a gun? Most importantly, trust my neighbors?
Worst of all, in the ramp-up to the Presidential election, can I continue to vote my hopes and ideals, not the base instincts of fear and distrust that Donald Trump evokes so skillfully? Here’s what TV host and former Hill staffer Chris Matthews said about Trump the day that he challenged President Obama’s patriotism.
For those who applauded him today, cheered at his insinuation that the President hides himself as a defender of Islamist terrorism, I can only say this,You should be ashamed. None of us should applaud this 21st century McCarthyism, this cheap insinuation against a fellow American backed up by nothing but hate.”
Matthews described a “21st century McCarthyism;” perhaps there are even stronger parallels with the Germany’s Weimar Republic, which ruled during the desperate years between the end of WWI in 1918 and 1933, when Hitler was elected — and with the legendary film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” released in Germany in 1920.
Considered the “first horror film,” it is the tale of an insane hypnotist who uses a somnambulist to commit murders. Its protagonist, Dr. Caligari, according to Siegfried Kracauer in his remarkable From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film “stands for an unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy its lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values”*. The somnambulist, (sleepwalker) Cesare is meant to be ordinary man, conditioned to kill.
There is much to connect our time with those Weimar years. Some of it is a reach – but some of it is not. The Harvard Film Archive describes the Weimar Republic as “A period of great political and economic instability – of rampant inflation and unemployment.” I remember learning about times when Germans needed a wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread, of hunger and sometimes even starvation, and about a deep resentment that the money that might have eased some this misery went instead to pay reparations to France and other victors.
The impact of this humiliation, along with deep resentment of Germany’s changed role in the world, is considered to have supported the response to Hitler’s message and his subsequent rise. Kracauer late wrote:
Whether intentionally or not, [CALIGARI] exposes the soul wavering between tyranny and chaos, and facing a desperate situation: any escape from tyranny seems to throw it into a state of utter confusion. Quite logically, the film spreads an all-pervading atmosphere of horror. Like the Nazi world, that of CALIGARI overflows with sinister portents, acts of terror and outbursts of panic.
I spent some time Friday with a psychiatrist who listens to people all day. I was ranting about the dangers of feeding fear and anger, encouraging blanket discrimination and even violence. “We need someone to address our better angels, not our untrammeled fears.” said I.
His response: Never, ever had things been like they are in this country at this moment, when no none knows what to do. Every one of his patients, he added, described feeling some sort of real anxiety, if not abject fear.
I responded pretty much as Chris Matthews had. In his limited sample, my friend replied, Trump was the only candidate who felt to patients like a “strong American.” It was that impression that led them to feel such a strong affinity for him.
So here we sit. Certainly not Weimar but unsettled and seeking a “stronger” leader and allowing a man (whose qualifications. — beyond his brilliant ability to read a crowd) are questionable, to suggest that we ban Muslims from our shores.
We need to decide whether we are willing to be sleepwalkers. If we’re not, we’ve got to wake up everybody else.
Donald Trump is important. Maybe he’s channeling Huey Long, maybe Lonesome Rhodes, maybe just “the Donald,” but despite his xenophobia and thinly veiled racist take on immigrants, he has spun a new American dream and captured those who have been without one for a long time.
Despite those excluded, whom Ta-Nehesi Coates describes so well, the belief that the dream exists is a gigantic part of the American story even though, for many, it’s faded from view. Today, in the shadow of the attacks in Paris, I wonder whether his message will thrive or wither in the face of such horror and fear.
With all that in mind, what does Trump have to do with John Valjean? What did the story mean to Jack Kemp (there’s a new biography ) and Teddy Kennedy (there’s a new book about him, too) both of whom, from opposite parties and ideologies, saw Les Miz multiple times? Can what spoke to them teach or maybe comfort us as we recoil from another bloody revolution in the streets of Paris? Tell me that this* is not what they – and we – are feeling today.
This little boy is now a father, but when he was six, we took him, along with his brother, to see Les Miz. At the end, he dissolved in my lap in tears, a wise child who understood, as so many do, especiallu today, what we may have lost and must struggle to recover? Listen and then, you decide.
*When Les Miz opened in New York, both Teddy Kennedy and Jack Kemp saw it multiple times. It might have been about a revolution, but it was everyone’s revolution:
Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!
Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Then join in the fight that will give you
The right to be free!
We were the ones who responded to Allard Lowenstein’s call to”Dump Johnson” by drafting an anti-war candidate, because, as he told us, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody.” We signed on to help to bring down President Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War with the only person willing to run, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. And yeah, that’s me with that same Senator Eugene McCarthy. In 1968, in the middle of the night, in New Hampshire, when we kind of won* the New Hampshire primary.
Now observers of the movements behind both Senator Bernie Sanders and the Donald Trump/Ben Carson Republicans, have compared those campaigns to our efforts, and to some extent, to the rest of the 1960’s anti-war movement. So. What do we think?
In 1968: We were desperate and felt we were losing our country – or at least its soul and moral place in the world. We were doing it in someone else’s country and with cruel tools like napalm and cluster bombs.
2016: These campaigners, too, are desperate, and whether from right or left, feel they are losing their country. Consider Sanders’ outrage and economic populism, calling out an economy he views as not only unjust but un-American; consider the huge response.
Consider the fevered reaction to Trump’s pledges to “Make America Great Again”, not only through his business acumen (and some horrifying immigration changes and racial provocation) but also through economic ideas that even Paul Krugman reluctantly acknowledges aren’t dumb.
1968: Vietnam was a life and death issue; the draft brought it home to every American, especially the young — and their parents and teachers and, gradually, much of the rest of America.
It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all — Phil Ochs, I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore
2016: Today, the life and death issue is the disintegration of the great American middle class that has long built and sustained this country (to say nothing of enabling a consumer economy that sustained growth for decades.) It’s a brutal blow to what Americans see the their birthright. We all know the symptoms – underemployment, disappearing job security and benefits, and this, from a 2014 Pew report:
But after adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today.
1968: We had very little faith in institutions (“the Establishment,”) from the government to the police to political parties, gigantic, impersonal universities, media that covered us with cruel disdain, and of course, the military. With limited experience, we didn’t really understand the complicated issues that faced each of these entities – and our country – and exacerbated both its problems and every tragic mistake. And though we were right about much of what we believed, we were pretty cavalier in the belief we knew how to fix things.
Although I was immunized by my steel town history, shared with kids who would never see a college or a white-collar job, many of my peers saw my classmates and neighbors simply as “hard hats” – lesser beings who needed us to instruct them. Many didn’t consider the gap between our privileged lives and their own.
We also were enormously suspicious of a military governed by law, tradition and accountability to a commander-in-chief influenced not only by the legendary “best and the brightest” but also by a legacy including Soviet power, the “loss” of China to Communism and the fear that it might be replicated – and a political and personal story that was rapidly becoming obsolete. That perceived rigidity and “Dr. Strangelove” stereotypes governed us.
2016: That same distrust of the Establishment informs the Tea Party but it has also touched also many, many other Republicans/Conservatives. As one commentator observed: “They deeply believe that President Obama has ruined America.” Beyond their rage at him come the usual suspects: politicians who care only whether they lost their own jobs, hopelessness, inability to pay for their children’s education, a cynical, uncaring media, the disappearance of decent, well-paying jobs, an emerging multicultural America where it’s hard to find one’s place and a chaotic present from Ferguson to Syria to the Hungarian border.
The Sanders people share a good deal of that distrust, beginning with the economic inequality, frozen wages and dead-end jobs at the heart of his message, but not ending there. Add suspicion of the mainstream media (MSM), the police, college costs and crippling student loans, racism, sexism, union-busting and all the rest.
So yes, there’s plenty of common ground between that turbulent year and today. And it’s hard to underestimate how far we might have gone back then if we’d had the Internet.
Even so, I can’t vote YES on this one. The initial 60’s activists believed in so much more. So many moments have been declared the day “America lost its innocence” and certainly they chipped away at it: Vietnam, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the Chicago Democratic convention, Watergate, Irangate, the Clinton scandals, Oklahoma City, Challenger, the 1980 election and, of course, 9/11. Those who have chosen action since those shattering events are almost a different species – at least those 40 and younger.
These losses also inform Trump and Tea Party voters, I think, as they try to turn back the clock and reconstitute an American that is no more.
As for the left, after years during which unions were decimated, blue-collar wages eviscerated, voting rights emasculated, women’s rights torn away and racial and religious tensions breaking every heart… well, it sounds familiar but it’s so much tougher because what’s happening now has moved our country backward and the left is fighting to hang onto or reclaim lost rights, not win new ones.
It really doesn’t matter anyway. Things look bad right now, and optimism, belief in the possibility of positive change… do you see it anywhere?
*Actually we only got 42% of the vote but that was so high against such a powerful politician and Democratic machine that it really was a “win” and caused him, a month or so later, to declare he would not “seek nor will I accept” the nomination to run for a second term.