Listening to Mr Trump, or how to suspend disbelief

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By Warwick McFadyen

Do not be fooled.

After Donald Trump’s address to Congress this week, a sentiment has been circulating that the softer model on show was the real Donald. The man before his country and the world painted himself more moderate in tone and message, less adversarial, than his previous self-portraits. This gentler, caring Donald was really on the side of the angels. He stood for all Americans, and the American ideals of freedom, liberty and justice. He was the even-tempered man; the protector of the dream, the guardian of the future.

Such was his delivery, void of hectoring, that some may allow the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, Donald is not so bad. That this time, we are seeing the real person. Here is the real deal; that Trump is, indeed, presidential. (Reserve a space on Mount Rushmore.)

Do not be fooled.

Trump, a one-time actor, knows how to play an audience. (His performance as himself in Two Weeks Notice, alongside Hugh Grant, is worth watching. No seriously, it’s not. ) He was playing to an audience this week, and he needed to come out on top. He needed to win. It is one of the pillars of his psyche.

One of the chilling extrapolations of this gnawing need is the Dr Strangelove-like scenario that one of the greatest, and easiest, measures of winning, for a leader and a country is winning a war. Such is the hallucinatory feel to this administration, that it no longer feels improbable that Trump would not turn to his generals and vassals and say, “Get me a war! We’ve got plenty of enemies out there. Get me a war, but make sure it’s winnable, cut dry, no loose ends. Not like that damn endless Israeli-Palestine thing. It has to be something I can win and win boldly.”

One doesn’t increase by 10 per cent or $US50 billion, the military budget of the most powerful nation on Earth (by a ratio of 3 to 1) in peace time and then not do anything with it. Trump knows the most potent form of defence is attack. But as 9/11 demonstrated, it only took a dozen fanatics with boxcutters and the will to die to conduct a deadly attack on American soil.

Not that he isn’t already conducting a war; this one, of course, is against the enemy of the people, no not radical Islamic terrorists, but the press. If only they were team players, everyone would be on the same side trying to win. What could he do but tweet:

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes@NBCNews@ABC@CBS@CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”

As is the way in hallucinations, this drew out strange creatures, Republican John McCain reacted thus, telling the NBC’s Chuck Todd: “I hate the press. I hate you especially. But the fact is we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.

“They get started by suppressing free press, in other words, a consolidation of power — when you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

Some commentators have made the leap via demagoguery from Trump to Adolf Hitler. This is not even an analogy worthy of master and the apprentice. But Trump displays similar markings. His language, his demeanour, his aspirations to greatness brook no criticism. He takes no prisoners. Rather he likes to think he takes no prisoners. He lacks the acumen to see beyond his narcissism. And beyond there, lies nothing.

Ninety years ago, Hitler was slowly making his name again after his release from prison for the failed 1923 putsch. His prohibition from public speaking had been lifted.

Volker Ullrich in his magisterial first volume Hitler: Ascent 18189-1939, cites a report from a police observer on attending a Hitler rally:

“In his speech, Hitler used vulgar comparisons, tailor-made to the intellectual capacities of his listeners and he did not shy away from even the cheapest allusions.

“His words and opinions were simply hurled out with dictatorial certainty as if they were unquestionable principles and facts. All this manifests in his language as well, which is like something merely expulsed.”

Thomas Mann, Nobel laureate and German exile, wrote – again from Volker – for his countrymen and women to fight against a “‘gigantic wave of eccentric barbarism and primitive populist fairground barking”. National Socialism was a ‘politics of the grotesque’. To which, Ullrich writes, Goebbels said: “Our people spit on the head of Thomas Mann.”

It is no far stretch to cross the bridge from then to now.

In 1938, Hitler told a rally:

“Despite the really exemplary discipline, strength and restraint which National Socialists preserved in their revolution, we have seen that a certain portion of the foreign press inundated the new Reich with a virtual flood of lies and calumnies.
The best proof for showing up these lies is success. For if we had acted during these five years like the democratic world citizens of Soviet Russia, that is, like those of the Jewish race, we would not have succeeded in making out of a Germany, which was in the deepest material collapse, a country of material order. For this very reason we claim the right to surround our work with that protection which renders it impossible for criminal elements or for the insane to disturb it.

“Whoever disturbs this mission is the enemy of the people.”

He wasn’t the first: from the French Revolution, to Lenin and Stalin, the phrase has been used as justification and war cry. In 1917, Lenin was on his way to Moscow. Hitler, after being wounded, was sent back to front in WWI.

Here is the world, 100 years on. Of course, these are different times. We’ve done more civilisin’ now, as Mark Twain might have said.

The song, and the oratory, however, of the tyrant remains the same.

Do not be fooled.

Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor

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