Thursday, April 14, 2016

Donald Trump: American Demagogue

A piece in Salon looks at movie that looks at the late Hannah Arendt who has been gone for many years.  What is interesting about the movie is how it demonstrates similarities to Adolph Hitler's fascism and what is being peddled by Donald Trump.  Both play on human ignorance and baser instincts.  It is important to never forget how Hitler came to power and how he played on Germans' sense of victimhood and promised to bring back greatness to the German Reich.  Here are article highlights: 
Arendt’s central obsessions — war, totalitarianism, genocide, mass migration and displacement, and the ambiguous nature of human rights — are at least as relevant as ever. In the dismal and farcical age of Donald Trump, we badly need something like the scathing, cleansing force of Arendt’s intellect. There are moments in “Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt,” an urgent and often startling documentary from Israeli director Ada Ushpiz, where I could feel her trying to reach across the decades and talk to us.
Arendt didn’t have a high opinion of human nature or human group behavior, and given her life experience that’s understandable. She was a woman of extraordinary intellectual gifts at a time when there was essentially no such thing as a female philosopher, or even a female academic. As Ushpiz’s film lays out in detail, Arendt was a child of privilege in pre-war Germany and then a Jewish war refugee and then an increasingly controversial celebrity who became widely viewed as a traitor to her own people. 
In a passage quoted by Ushpiz, which I believe is from the 1951 “Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt proposes that regimes like Nazism or Stalinism thrive by creating narratives that confer imaginary order upon the chaos and randomness of history. Human beings long for coherent stories that explain why bad things happen, Arendt says, even when those stories are delusional and dangerous. When fueled by enduring political or psychological currents like nationalism and racism, such fictional narratives become the justification for war and genocide and other historical crimes. To cite the obvious example from Arendt’s lifetime, if the social chaos and struggling economy of Germany in the 1930s was caused by a predatory Jewish conspiracy that had drained the German people of their life force, then everything made sense and the nation could be united toward a common goal and against a common enemy.
I doubt I need to belabor the point: There is one 2016 presidential candidate who has prospered beyond anyone’s wildest dreams by constructing just that kind of narrative, albeit an especially shapeless and nonsensical one.
Trump’s famous promise to build that wall along the southern border — and somehow make Mexico pay for it — at a time when the population of undocumented immigrants is steadily declining, is more like an infantile fantasy than a policy proposal. His vow to bar Muslims from entering the country, in the face of irrational panic and an exaggerated terrorist threat, is pandering of the worst kind.  . . . those are like plot points in the amorphous Trumpian movie-narrative that whatever went wrong in America is somebody else’s fault, indeed almost anybody else’s. It’s more like a field of generalized suspicion and loathing than a coherent story: America’s innate greatness has been chewed away by the Muslims, the Mexicans, the blacks, the gays, the feminists, the transgender bathroom users, the liberal elite, the intellectual elite, the bipartisan political establishment and damn near everybody else who isn’t Trump or his downscale white audience.
Ushpiz makes a number of bold choices in “Vita Activa” that might not have been possible in an Israeli documentary even 10 years ago. She begins with newsreel footage of the Nazi death camps and the immediate postwar period, much of it from U.S. Army color films I’ve never seen before. . . . In this film we hear Hitler talk, with subtitles — and he sounds a lot more like Donald Trump than I expected.
If you believe the Führer’s legendary oratory was all fervent, strident screeching about the evils of the Jews and the perfidy of the Allied nations, well, it wasn’t. Hate speech is a key ingredient of the fascist dictator’s rhetorical mix, as Arendt might put it, but far from the only one. In a speech Ushpiz shows us, Hitler’s approach is strikingly Trumpian: a few nonspecific references to the enemies who are besieging and undermining the Reich, blended into a glowing portrait of a paradisiacal future of full employment and universal prosperity, dominated by a rising generation of healthy, strong and “peace-loving” young Germans. It was relentlessly upbeat, and strongly resonant of Trump’s vow to “make America great again” without defining what that means or what it might involve, or his promises that his leadership will bring a new era of “winning” after decades of “losing,” if irritating impediments like the constitutional separation of powers can be overcome.
[Trump]  reflects the all-too-human currents of vapidity and weakness that made Hitler possible, and that drove Hannah Arendt nuts.

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