When I began this column on Friday, the three biggest stories of the past couple of weeks were the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the northward march of a migrant caravan of destitute Central Americans and the mailing of pipe bombs to high-profile political, cultural and media people and institutions who have aroused Trump’s wrath.
By the time I finished writing, the biggest story was the Saturday morning bloodbath in a Pittsburgh synagogue perpetrated by a suspect with apparent Nazi sympathies.
Regarding the Khashoggi killing, President Donald Trump has bent over backwards to defend Saudi leaders. He first repeated their denials that Khashoggi had been murdered and then supported their explanation of “rogue killers.” And when, faced with global skepticism, the Saudi regime ludicrously claimed that his death had actually been the accidental result of a fist fight, Trump wasted no time in proclaiming that explanation plausible, too.
Even now, faced with overwhelming evidence of a cover-up of an assassination ordered by the kingdom’s rulers, Trump’s condemnation has been half-hearted at best. He doesn’t like what happened and calls it the “worst ever” cover-up (and he should know about cover-ups), but at the same time he doesn’t intend to halt arms sales to the Saudis.
Trump’s unwillingness to take a morally meaningful stand against a journalist’s murder should surprise no one. This is a man who considers the media “the enemy of the people,” and who positively glowed with enthusiasm at a recent rally in Montana when he imitated a local congressman beating up a reporter. This is a man who has the gall to blame the media for stirring up trouble when pipe bombs are sent to ex-presidents and news outlets.
Trump knows, as did the founding fathers, that a vibrant press and an informed citizenry are essential for reining in the ambitions of dictators. Conversely, he knows that a neutered and distrusted press is essential to dismantle democracy and replace it with a strongman kleptocracy.
His totalitarian strategy is working. A poll this summer found that 44 percent of GOP voters believe Trump should have the power to shut down media organizations, while roughly half believe the media are indeed the enemy of the people. Pro-Trump trolls regard it as sport to email threats and insults to journalists.
After my last column, for example, one critic sent me a Facebook Message: “F--k you f---got. Nobody even reads your stupid s--t. Red wave motherf--ker.”
That’s not a statement of political disagreement; that’s simply poorly punctuated hoodlum-speak.
Over the past year, many other correspondents have emailed vicious anti-Semitic diatribes my way. Anti-Semitism has always been the go-to place for malcontents and ultra-nationalists. This is a particularly lethal strain of hatred, as shown by the awful events at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a man who believed Jews were sabotaging the race purity of the United States by bringing in caravan-loads of refugees and asylum-seekers is charged with killing 11 worshipers.
All of this is occurring against the backdrop of Trump’s explicit embrace of “nationalism” and his opportunistic, pre-election hyping of a nonexistent “national emergency” around immigration. In the past few days he has ordered troops to the Mexico border, and, in contravention of international and arguably domestic law, will likely announce plans just days before the Nov. 6 election to close the border to all Central Americans.
His militarist rhetoric and sneering contempt for “globalists,” his race-baiting and his attacks on the media all are straight out of the blood-and-soil fascist playbook. This is the might-is-right language of the Proud Boys and other nascent white supremacist militias. It is also the perverted nationalism of past globe-wreckers.
In 1935, for example, addressing the Reichstag, Adolf Hitler noted that “National Socialism is a doctrine that has reference exclusively to the German people… We National Socialists believe a man can, in the long run, be happy only among his own people.”
For the first years of his Führership, Hitler presided over economic growth and low unemployment. If you were a part of the Aryan, Christian, and heterosexual majority in Germany, the mid-1930s looked pretty good – which is why so many good Germans turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities and remained passionately loyal to their Führer.
But if you weren’t part of that majority, of course, your citizenship was challenged and your access to jobs and social benefits denied. You faced the wrath of paramilitaries and increasingly violent law enforcement, your children were often taken and you were denied legal recourse. At the end of the road, the concentration camp awaited you.
Selling your soul to dictators or would-be dictators is always a bad bet. It leaves you morally bankrupted, and when times turn bad as they always eventually do under strongman rulers, when they pick one fight too many, gamble once too often on reckless trade policies and cross one moral Rubicon too far, it ultimately leaves you alone.