The Curtain Opens on the GOP (Guest Post by William Hausdorff)

{Editor's Note: For this 4th of July, we have a guest post from William Hausdorff, who received his PhD in Biology from the Johns Hopkins University/National Institutes of Health and conducted post-doctoral research in biochemistry at Duke University.  For the past 25 years he has worked and published widely in the field of international public health, initially with the US Centers for Disease Control/US Agency for International Development in Washington DC and Cairo, Egypt, and more recently within the vaccine development divisions of two pharmaceutical companies.  At present he is a freelance consultant based in Brussels, Belgium. He has closely followed presidential politics since the days of McGovern/Nixon.  His special interest is in the intersection of science and society, dating from his undergraduate thesis on the health effects of Agent Orange.}

The Curtain Opens

I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect that I would be given a series of real life lessons, here in the US, regarding my longstanding questions about the Nazis.

This is not a comparison of Trump with Hitler.  There is no organized army of jackbooted Trump supporters “waiting in the wings”, committing organized acts of violence, and directly threatening US democracy.  But I believe I now understand better how the highly educated, civilized political establishment and German people were willing to allow Hitler and the brutal fascist regime to come to power.

As an adolescent and young adult I had eagerly devoured multiple accounts, books, and films about the Nazi era, trying to wrap my mind around the enormity of the evil.  Relatively early on, my interest became more focused on trying to understand what intelligent, thinking people knew and when they knew it.  Or more specifically, if I had been an adult in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when would I have recognized that my society and country was heading down an irreversible path to unbelievable institutional violence and evil?

To better understand this, I turned to first person contemporaneous accounts of the era.  Most meaningful for me was William Shirer’s Berlin Diaries.  Stationed in Berlin in the early 30s as a CBS news correspondent, Shirer served as an approximation of the world-savvy, intelligent, and sensitive observer that I imagined myself to be.  I became convinced that early on he had accurately sized up Hitler’s character and intentions, especially the underpinnings of violence and lies that made up the Nazi program—and that the economic and political convulsions German society was undergoing could inexorably lead to their seizure of power.  That paradoxically gave me hope that it would be possible for critical observers, in the future, to “see it coming.”

Still, that was distant history, in a foreign culture.  Another small epiphany—maybe more accurately an “epiphanette”—occurred when I had the opportunity to spend a week in General Pinochet’s Chile guest teaching a graduate seminar in laboratory techniques at one of the universities.  That was in 1984, a mere 11 years after the coup d’etat, when Chile was going through an economically difficult period, due among other things to plunging copper prices.  Chile had been famous in Latin America for its century-long history of democracy, including the free election of the socialist Salvador Allende in 1970, and the military coup of 1973 thus represented a painful example of the ephemeral nature of democratic traditions.  I was surprised at how open people—taxi drivers, students, physicians—were in discussing not only the deficiencies of the current regime but also the violent events that had transpired only a decade earlier.  I had been familiar with accounts of how the US government had worked with reactionary elements in the Chilean military, helping to destabilize the government, and culminating in the coup.  As an American, I expected to hear righteous condemnations of the US involvement.

Instead, I repeatedly heard—from several nice, smart, upper-middle-class people — how “chaotic” the economy had been in 1973, including a major trucking strike—and that some solution to the chaos was needed.  And vague fears that Allende wanted to turn Chile into Cuba.  They seemed only dimly aware, if at all, of the US role in stirring up ferment.  Most strikingly, I heard that it was good that Pinochet stepped in to restore order, but what wasn’t good was that he didn’t subsequently “return” the country to democracy.  And of course the violence had gotten a bit out of hand.

These conversations shook me up, making me think that, regardless of the source, the pre-coup economic and societal atmosphere in 1973 must have been more unpleasant and frightful than I had gathered from my readings.  And that, in that environment, intelligent, democratic people could entertain and even support the overturn of freely elected governments along with the [necessary] accompanying violence.

Again, however, this was in the past and in a different society.  It only came closer to home in the days and weeks after 9/11, when I was living in upstate New York with my wife and our two young children.  As our neighborhood came together in a spontaneous moment of community, one could also feel the fear and incomprehension.  It seemed impossible, during that period, to have a real conversation with neighbors and co-workers as to “Why did they do this?” that went beyond the simplistic platitudes of an existential war of civilizations.  It seemed that nowhere in the media was there any discussion of the possibility that specific world events, actions, US policies—that anything in the real world--might have also played a motivating role behind the despicable, horrific attacks by Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

The Bush administration response to attack the Al Qaeda base and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan at the time seemed to make sense.  But watching how much of the media and the government were able, despite all evidence to the contrary, to conflate Bin Laden with (the equally despicable) Saddam Hussein, was striking.  The “weapons of mass destruction” fraud was, in my perspective, just the icing on the cake, as the table was already set.  The fact that most of the political elite (and perhaps American society) openly supported a full-scale military invasion of a country that had not attacked or even directly threatened us—and when most of our allies were against it--said to me that when people are afraid, they are willing to suspend critical thinking and will entertain and even support violent, obviously illegal behavior by their government—including torture.

To return to my questions about the rise of fascism in Germany: the above experiences helped me to explain how people, acting out fear, can behave badly.  But what I hadn’t really understood or experienced, up to this point, was how that portion of the media and political elite that “knows better” could have supported the rise of the Nazis. Unfortunately, I feel like I’m getting a clear glimpse of it now, in the acquiescence and active support of the Republican establishment for Trump.

In retrospect, the clearest omen was when Senate majority leader McConnell had infamously declared in 2010 that his primary purpose was not to help the American people, rebuild the American economy, or even to “make America great”, but rather to prevent the re-election of President Obama. This made it very clear that political goals, rather than—dare I say it—patriotism—was a top priority. Still, I was surprised that, after recognizing the overt racism and attempt at judicial intimidation by Trump, McConnell nonetheless reaffirmed his support.

I confess to actually being stunned to hear Paul Ryan, the “intellectual” center of the Party, accurately characterize Trump’s statements as “textbook example of racism,” and in the same sentence, reaffirm his support because a Trump administration would help achieve his party’s goals.  Clearly, combating racism cannot be very high among Ryan’s priorities and values.  What if Mexicans and Muslims were being subject to violent attacks by Trump supporters—would that change anything in Ryan’s strategic calculations?

I remain uneasy with the comparison of the Republican Party with the German cultural, political, and economic elite of the 1930s who “went along” or even supported Hitler’s rise—it sounds histrionic. But I’m sure the German elite recognized that the country needed strong leadership to pull it out of the economic depression it was in, and that some of Hitler’s program, however vague it might be, “made sense” in their minds.  I have no doubt that for some of them, that “other stuff” in the Nazi rhetoric was either “unlikely to happen” or “just a sideshow.”

Trump also wants to make his country “great again,” without offering any real specifics.  Where he gets more specific is in his oft repeated plans to suspend press freedoms by “expanding” libel laws, and in his personal attacks on the ethnic background of the Federal judge presiding over the Trump “University” trial.  He even ominously threatens some kind of “investigation” or “retribution” against the judge. He extends his attacks in characterizing all Latinos as inherently biased against America and Muslims as essentially traitors.  He openly proclaims his plan to discriminate against Americans on the basis of their religion.  He talks about torturing relatives and children of “terrorists.” This, when coupled with his active encouragement of violence during his political rallies, in the context of the superheated conspiracy-filled political environment that is US politics, is especially frightening to me. Most recently he has strongly implied that President Obama supports or is behind the mass killing in Orlando.

None of this is subtle.

So where are the Republican statesmen and women? I have always assumed that the Republican establishment, however much I may disagree with them politically, genuinely shares most of the same defining American values I do--that the government will not persecute anybody based on their religious beliefs; that there must be an independent press and judiciary; and that America, must remain a safe haven for refugees from religious and political oppression elsewhere in the world.

How is it that he retains the continuous (if grudging) support of almost all of the Republican leadership, even the few “moderates” left?  Almost none of them are saying anything against it, just “laying low.”  This is a serious question:  what are the American values that these Republican politicians truly believe in?

So this is how it happens.  I didn’t expect this.