Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

The bell tolls for us



"Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here."

"Yes, we will have to fight."

"But are there not many fascists in your country?"

"There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes."

"But you cannot destroy them until they rebel?"

"No," Robert Jordan said. "We cannot destroy them. But we can educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it as it appears and combat it."

The immortal words of Ernest Hemmingway, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemmingway saw fascism in its grotesque full bloom, violently ascending to overtake the Spanish political system, and he understood the potential for fascism in even a stable regime like the United States.

Hemmingway's literature foreshadowed the emergence of what political scientist Samuel Huntington would later describe as "unstable personalistic leaders ... blatent corruption ... arbitrary infringement of the rights and liberties of citizens, declining standards of bureaucratic efficiency and performance, the pervasive alienation of urban political groups, the loss of authority by legislatures and courts, and the fragmentation ... of broadly based political parties."

Well, here we are. The bell now tolls for us. Our time has come. We are faced with a president who, in his first six months, has ruthlessly attacked the free press and the courts, seeking to undermine their authority, all the while emphasizing and exaggerating his own abilities and power as a leader, and the absolute importance of loyalty and subordination to his will.

And just as Huntington foresaw, President Trump has "little use or need for ordered knowledge and practical, empirical realism." This is a crucially important point to understand if Americans dedicated to democracy and the rule of law are to take the high ground, place opposition in control in Congress, and use popular resistance and legal restraints to bring President Trump to heel.

In my final column for the New Times, before I commit full time to research and advocacy on voting rights and public education in election science in Washington, D.C., I want to reflect on this point about the role of "empirical realism" in government and what we owe one another as Americans in the battle for democracy ahead.

It is absolutely necessary that you are an active voter. It is absolutely necessary that you commit to action, including getting into the streets when necessary, to respond to constitutional crises, if and when they arise. If, for example, President Trump pushes out Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaces him with someone who then fires special investigator Robert Mueller, only public outrage across the country can force a GOP Congress to assert its authority over such violations of constitutional norms.

But even more important, in my view, is the necessity for average citizens like yourself to speak honestly and openly with your family, friends, and colleagues who voted for President Trump. You owe it to one another, and you owe it to your country, to "educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it." Hemmingway is talking to you.

I'm not encouraging you to simply attack the lack of "empirical realism" expressed by Trump and his supporters. Indeed, outrage at Trump's outrageous claims misses the point. His supporters understand that facts are not particularly useful, that Trump is "no angel," and that lying and deception are basically part of business negotiations. Rather, Trump speaks the "emotional truth" of what people fear, who they identify with on a cultural, even tribal level, and the truth of who they feel they are.

Trump supporters, and most voters, are not mobilized by the empirical realities of American politics, but what our moral course is. If we are to set the nation back on course, we must break the spell of authoritarian zeal. That requires addressing not merely Trump's immorality as a liar, but the immorality of his entire life course, what he stands for and what he has always stood for: being a parasite, a huckster, a con-man who has selfishly enriched himself and his family by hurting other people. From Trump University to his well-documented treatment of sub-contractors, Trump's actions today are the continuation of a clear amoral path, a path that most Americans would reject using their own ethical standards. Even many ardent supporters will not defend this behavior.

And there is the punch. Facing the dissonance between one's own morality and the actions of President Trump, most people will be open to other options. But it will take work. We have to be, in the possible parting words of Sen. John McCain, paraphrasing Lincoln, "the servants of a great nation, a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." We must be dedicated to the moral realism of America, the hope of realizing our moral potential. Δ

Michael Latner is moving to Washington, D.C., to do some research and advocacy. We wish him the best of luck! Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or write a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.

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