Donald Trump has been to the very end true to form, unrelentingly pursuing his self -interest and his inventive version of political reality, disregarding the principles of democracy. The “Reality TV President,” the grifter, the corrupt New York real estate developer has transgressed democratic norms and challenged democratic institutions, with ever increasing intensity, culminating with his refusal to accept clear and verified election results. Narcissist that he is, he won’t accept the fact that he is a loser, a status he most dreads. He has successfully brought along Republican voters in his denial of factual truth. And with a few noteworthy exceptions, Republican leaders have steadfastly supported him as he has attempted to overturn the election results, turning the Republican Party into an anti-democracy (small “d”) movement. Democracy in America is under attack, hanging by a thread, and the whole world is watching.
I am astonished that it has come to this.
I have long understood that the American political system is flawed. White supremacy is knitted into its fabric. The electoral college is a monster that has undermined majority rule and is now being used by Trump and his supporters in their quest to guarantee minority rule. The Senate is structured to disempower city dwellers. Our Constitution and system of government were revolutionary in the 18th century in comparison to the polities of those times, but they are now antique, desperately in need of reform.
Nonetheless, I also thought I understood that this flawed democracy was resilient. That “it” (modern tyranny) cannot happen here. Now, I am sure it can.
I am torn between what I took to be a reassuring past (the U.S. with strong democratic institutions and culture), and frightening future, (the U.S. in which a President has attempted to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power). What I thought I knew from political experience has been undermined, and what I expect in the future has become dark. Deeply troubling historical comparisons now press upon us.
Thus the symposium the Democracy Seminar organized on child separation considering experiences during the Third Reich in the 1930s and ‘40s, and now in North America and beyond. Organizer Marci Shore gives an eloquent account why she thinks comparisons are difficult, but imperative and why they should be made working against political and ideological clichés. She invited a group of artists and writers to watch the documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them , and to give their thoughts about how the experiences of the past illuminate our present.
Slavenka Drakulić reflects upon a photo of an anonymous child who perished in a Croatian death camp, almost saved by Diana Budisavljevic, “perhaps the greatest humanitarian in this part of German-occupied Europe.” Daniella Doron reflects on the good and bad revealed in humanitarian action, while Eneken Laanes seeks to find the universal in the particular. Brett Wanke thinks about separation as he confronted it in New Orleans and as his high school student, thinking of becoming a border agent, told him about his own witness of his mother’s death on the Mexican – U.S. border, while an anonymous middle school teacher reports on how students growing up on the margins in Baltimore begin to understand, empathize and inquire about the child separations on the European killing fields, about which they know very little. Sebastian Ward explores the psychological possibilities for empathy after trauma. Arielle Rubenstein shows how torn ties are psychologically mended and remembered, and Erica Johnson Debeliak considers how unspeakable horror is confronted. Elaine Lingyuan Wang compares her embodied connection with her “cousin-sister” of the Chinese one child policy with the memories of Sylvia and Frances, two surviving sisters depicted in The Last Time I Saw Them, while Rahul Pandita reflects on murder, beauty and horror depicted in the film and in his memories as a Kashmir Valley exile. Radu Vancu offers his “documentary poem reacting to a film about the separation of children from their parents in Nazi camps,” and Rabbi Jason Rubenstein reports on “Judaism’s view of – and response to – family separation as theological crisis.”
Along with the symposium, we organized a free wheeling conversation among a historian, a curator-writer, a singer, a composer-playwright, a theater artist-foundation head, and a sociologist (me) about the film, “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparison for life,” and our ongoing deliberations about the resemblance of the dark times of the twentieth century and our times.
Hans Ulirch Gumbrecht contextualizes our explorations as post-historical confrontations with the past in which the remembrance of a different distinctive past is receding and a hopeful future eludes us. His reflections reminded me of my greatest theoretical blunder. I thought immediately after the great transformations of 1989 that a global lesson had been learned. I thought that, as I put it then, “ideology ends again,” that with the defeat of Soviet Marxism, the 20th century totalitarian temptations would end. In my misplaced exuberance, I thought that we had come to an understanding of the meaning of the tragedies of ideologically mandated and justified horrors, such as childhood separations, and that these would not be repeated. I wasn’t anticipating the 21st century terrors of Islamism or anti-terrorism, or the dangers of revived right and left-wing populism or market fundamentalism. I mistakenly thought that some things would not repeat themselves.
Yet, they are repeating themselves, not only in distant places, in Brazil, Hungary, India, Poland, and Turkey, but to my shock, also close to home in the good old U.S.A. Torture on our border with Mexico, but also complicity in Trump’s attacks on democracy in Washington D.C. and from coast to coast—attacks in which most Republican political leaders have been complicit.
Trump is who he is. I am profoundly puzzled and disappointed that so many of my fellow citizens don’t see this, or choose to ignore it, or even support his authoritarianism, racism, sexism, homophobia, narcissism, and his profound hostility to democracy and the rule of law. Trump’s manipulation of his supporters is reprehensible, as is their support of him, as is the media configuration that enables this, what I have called here, bifurcated mediated public spheres. Yet, the Republican Party leaders certainly know better. They once denounced him, but then praised him: Senators Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, et al, who continue to enable him, who dare not speak the truth about his attack on America constitutional order. They most infuriate me, and suggest a necessary comparison that requires an active response.
I’ve been reading for years that senior Republican officials know and discuss privately among themselves, and off the record with journalists, that there is something fundamentally problematic about Donald Trump as a president and political leader. These officials know Trump has threatened American democracy, but they have been silent. One month after the election of Biden, only twenty seven Congressional Republicans have recognized his victory. There are conservatives and Republicans who have publicly expressed principled criticisms of Trump, so-called “never Trumpers,” journalists, scholars and former politicians. But top Republican officials have ignored their articles in high quality publications and in their major outlet The Bulwark. Since Trump’s nomination in 2016, these officials have acted as if he were a normal political leader. When he called the press the enemies of the people, trusted the words of Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence officials, helped create, disregarded and escalated the suffering of asylum seekers on our southern borders, publicly denigrated women, and replaced dog whistle racism with a bullhorn, Republican leaders have remained silent. They have calculated that if they did so they would get the tax cuts they sought and the courts packed with politically correct conservatives, reviewed and validated by The Federalist Society. They have normalized his authoritarian and abusive ways.
And even as Trump escalates his attacks on the peaceful and constitutional transfer of power, Republican officials, particularly the most prominent Senators and Governors, remain silent. They calculate that to do otherwise would alienate the base of his supporters, weakening themselves and the party, making them vulnerable to a primary challenge and less likely to prevail in an election if they survive a primary. These calculations are all normal, in fact banal, revealing the fundamental truth of Hannah Arendt’s most controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. He was a committed anti-Semite, not a banal modern everyman, doing his job. But such ordinary monsters were significant then and now, a comparison I think we must make.
Germans and other Europeans who acted normally in the face of radical evil, who helped the trains run on time, even when the trains transported human cargo destined for death camps, who just did their jobs in the usual fashion, made the Shoah possible. They were key actors in separating the children of The Last Time I Saw Them. They fulfilled their obligations as if all was normal, just as agents on the U.S. – Mexican border do today.
And in a similar way, Republican political leaders have been contributing to Trump’s subversion of democracy in America. They made it possible for him to be a candidate, when they did not unite against him and accepted his nomination. They made him the President of the United States, when they supported him as their party’s candidate. They made him the anti-democratic force that he became, when they didn’t oppose and denounce his authoritarian tweets and policies, and when they acquitted him in a justified impeachment trial. And now when Trump directly is trying to undermine the election results, they are further empowering him. They have turned their party into an authoritarian force as they have proceeded as normal politicians, with banal considerations about personal interest, without taking responsibility for their actions.
A welcomed basis for hope: There is a gap between past and future, which opens up space not only for heroic action (the prejudice of Arendt), but also for banal action on behalf of decency and integrity. Many Republican elected and appointed officials and judges have revealed this in the past few days, as they have exercised their responsibilities as public servants, certifying election results, turning back Trump’s wild evidence-free legal claims of a rigged election.
The pressing political challenges as I see them: American democracy needs to be mended and defended by democrats of the left, right and center, while at the same time the deep problems of social injustice must be addressed. I hope this theme will be pursued by our seminar in the future. I will contribute by offering an intensive writing workshop on these challenges in June. More about this soon.
This post was initially published in the Democracy Seminar’s newsletter of December 3, 2020.
Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families in the documentary film (Fortunoff Video Archive).
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar.