I recently came upon this worrying description of what happens when an economic downturn lingers on and on. People see that “the waste of unemployment, the inequality, injustices and inefficiencies of laissez-faire capitalism… The brazen indifference of an arrogant ruling elite and the incompetence of an inadequate political class all seem to be connected by the utter failure to organize society better.”
This is not a description of the environment of 2016 that brought us an election polarized between populists right and left in the persons of Trump and Sanders, agreed on nothing but the apparently exhausted and impotent political mainstream. But it might as well be.
In fact, it is from Tony Judt’s massive history, “Postwar,” that describes the recovery and evolution of Europe after the devastation of World War II. This passage refers to the situation before the war that made the cataclysm possible — the rise of fascism, Stalinism, militarism, extremism of all sorts. It was a time when the center did not hold and things fell apart, as W. B. Yeats said in the aftermath of World War I.
And it all seems to be happening again. The evidence is on display in 24/7 cable news shows and internet hate sites and in the seats of power where “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
It is clear that society is not organized to deal with the large changes that are taking place due to technological evolution, demographic shifts, an altered climate, and the growing inequities of a Haves vs. Have-nots economic order. The ruling elite is brazenly indifferent and, in fact, contrives to make matters worse. And the political class is either bought and sold, incompetent, or worst of all faithless to the traditions that protect us from extremism and usurpations of power.
Trumpism is a symptom of this larger disease. In the 1930s, that Auden called “a low, dishonest decade, a few outposts of sanity survived and saved the world from the barbarism of a new dark age. Last week the anniversaries of D-Day, 73 years ago, and the creation of the Marshall Plan, 70 years ago, were marked. The first celebrated an event that began to turn the tide in a desperate battle pitting democratic values against various species of tyranny, and the second an enlightened choice to make common cause in order to allow Europe to rise from the ashes rather than risk a new descent into extremism.
But this American president, who knows little history and cares less, essentially ignored these milestones. Presidents have extolled all that D-Day symbolizes annually, many delivering their finest addresses on the occasion. Trump marked his first D-Day as president by tweeting fewer than 140 characters and appending a photo that was not actually from the day of the landing.
That was bad enough, but he said not a syllable about the creation of the Marshall Plan, possibly through ignorance, more likely due to hostility since he has dedicated himself to the dismantling of the postwar architecture of the Marshall Plan, NATO and the other ties that have bound liberal democracies into a coalition that has repreeted a successful counterweight to tyranny. In fact, he seems to admire tyrants more than democrats.
A novel in the 1930s was entitled “It Can’t Happen Here.” This was ironically intended since it described the rise of a homegrown populist, American fascism, proving that it can happen here, if we are careless about protecting our traditions and safeguards. Americans who hope to retain our democracy need to wake up and smell the smoke before we are forced to fight a mighty fire.
The 1930s demonstrated where extremism can lead. The everyday heroes of D-Day, Anzio, the Bulge, Iwo Jima and on and on show how high the cost is for waiting to object until the worst happens. The Marshall Plan shows, by contrast, what can happen when men of good will collaborate to build a decent world order. Instead of going to extremes, it is time for Americans to meet in a moderate middle, learn to compromise again, and begin to solve problems that will only grow worse if we fail to do our duty to preserve, protect and defend what our forebears built.