My American reflections on the news from Belarus

Yesterday morning whole driving across the state I listened to BBC news on Michigan Radio. The report that I heard contained essentially the same information that you can read online today at the BBC website or in the BBC app. If you’re not up on events in Belarus, I encourage you to click that link and get yourself a bit caught up.

On the one hand, it was good to listen to some news coverage from a non-US source about a non-US nation. This is one of the things that makes English-language services like BBC and CBC so valuable to US folk, if we can only tear ourselves away from our own drama long enough to focus for a bit on what it happening in Mali or Belarus or one of the roughly two hundred nations other than our own that, contrary to our usual operating assumptions here, exist. It would be even better if more of us knew another language well enough to listen to or read news reports, analysis, and opinion in non-English sources; but many major news organizations from non-English-speaking nations provide English-language feeds. We should probably pay more attention to them.

On the other hand, it was impossible for me to listen to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s efforts to hang onto his office without thinking, at nearly every point, of our own nation.

Here, then, are my thoughts:

1. Throughout my entire life prior to 2016, when hearing reports of this sort from other countries, I have always felt comfortable in the assurance that in our country, for all its divisions, disagreements, and troubles, was nevertheless far from having to worry that something like this could happen here.

2. More specifically, when I listen to the things that Lukashenko is saying and doing, I always felt quite sure that Nixon (I’ll start with Nixon, though I was born during the Eisenhower administration and have memories of the Kennedy and Johnson years), Ford, Carter, Reagan, the elder Bush, Clinton, the younger Bush, Obama would not say and do such things. I still think I was justified in thinking that. Richard Nixon perhaps came the closest of any of these to having the Machiavellian consciousness and morals that might make a president take that course, but even he, I think, would not have gone anywhere near as far down the road to tyranny as Lukashenko has been willing to go. Even if he had been willing, other leading members of his party were not, which is why the moment came when a delegation of them walked into the White House and told him it was time to go, and he did. It was not because Democrats complained about his misdeeds that he departed. It was because the Republican leadership listened, looked, came to the same conclusion as the Democrats, and did the right thing.

3. Today, to the contrary, when I listen to each lie, each manipulation, each abuse of power to stomp down opposition that Lukashenko undertakes, and ask myself: would the current president of the United States do that? the answer I find myself giving immediately is: Yes, Donald Trump would absolutely do that and is already well down the road of doing that. One has to be mindful, for example, of Trump’s very clear warnings that if he loses the upcoming election, he will make an all-out assault on the legitimacy of the election.

4. Democrats are criticizing and opposing him, but the Republican leadership has not done so and still is not doing so, and their capitulation is what makes his own will-to-power, his will-to-tyranny, dangerous. Without their active and passive support, he would be nothing. He would not have been nominated, if nominated he would not have been elected, if elected he would have been impeached and removed from office. From the worst (McConnell) to the best (people like Ben Sasse), they have either actively aided and abetted his progressive corruption of American politics and polity, or what may be even more craven and damnable, simply shaken their heads, thrown up their hands, and said nothing, or else said a few weak things and done nothing.

5. Thus, although Donald Trump has not (yet) given definite signs that he will become as lethal as a Stalin or a Hitler, so that at this point it should still be considered unfair and even a bit hysterical to speak of him as though he were a Stalin or a Hitler, he has given every sign that he would like to be a Putin, and there is no sure grounds in either Putin’s character or in Trump’s that given the right conditions they would not be willing to enact every atrocity that people like Hitler and Stalin enacted.

6. From that thought, I think it is perfectly valid and wise to take the next step, which is to consider seriously why this phrase keeps recurring to my consciousness—a phrase that is for me the most haunting title of a book that I have not yet read: Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Goldhagen. I have not read the book, but I have heard its argument discussed any number of times since its publication in 1996 and the present, and here is what I am thinking. There is a massive difference in scale between what Hitler did (the systematic murder of 6 million Jews (plus Roma folk, plus LGBTQ folk, and others) and the atrocities that Trump has perpetrated (most notably, perhaps, in the grossly sub-humane treatment of refugee families at our southern border), but there is no difference in essential moral valence. There is therefore no essential difference in moral valence between the attitude and actions of the German population that enabled Hitler and the American population’s enablement of Donald Trump. Like Hitler (and now Putin), Trump is fully engaged in a campaign to obliterate the ability and willingness of his nation’s people to know the difference between truth and falsehood, and like Hitler (and Putin) he is fully engaged in a campaign to suborn the vehemently held but incompletely and faultily apprehended religions commitments of his nation’s Christian population. And as in the German and Russian situations, so also today in the American situation, both leaders and followers of Trump’s own party are simultaneously in full denial regarding, and fully cooperating with, these efforts of his to obliterate truth in general and to corrupt Christian truth in particular. It is not yet entirely clear what role Trump has in mind for himself. I do not think he wants to be an executioner, at least not on a Hitlerian scale, so his followers are not, I hope, en route to becoming Trump’s willing executioners. But whatever ultimate mischief Trump has in mind, the leaders and followers of the Republican Party, in its current debased condition, are Trump’s willing agents.

This is a world-shattering realization, or sequence of realizations. We resist the shattering of our worlds. Not everyone will agree with this assessment of Donald Trump’s character and aims. His followers will not agree with this assessment of the moral quality of their own discipleship to him. It is hard to let altered realities effect such a paradigm shift in your thinking about your homeland. I have moved from thinking “It cannot happen here” to “It certainly could happen here and in fact appears to be happening here now.” Meanwhile, many seem still be be stuck in “It cannot happen here. Therefore it is not happening here.”

My assessment of the people who were never really Trump fans, but voted for him anyway and are considering voting for him again, or are considering not voting for Joe Biden (which amounts to casting at least half a vote for Donald Trump), is that they simply have not yet realized that this upcoming election is not an election like other elections. The question before us this year is not a political question. It is not about how we should negotiate, compromise, and come up with a common way forward. It is about whether or not we should keep trying to do that. It is a contest between the survival of politics—the normal give-and-take regarding questions of how best to live together within a constitutional system aimed at promoting the common good—and the replacement of politics with fantasy, altered reality, and perhaps ultimately a totalitarian dystopia.

There are numerous reasons to hope that the United States may not fall into such a totalitarian dystopia even if Donald Trump is elected to a second term. I don’t think that we should become hysterical—yet. It is not yet time to push that panic button. For one thing, Trump may simply be too stupid to pull off a complete Putin act, or even a Lukashenko act. And some Republican leaders and followers may yet snap out of their bewitched or stupefied or paralyzed state. One can hope.

But the most likely way to lubricate our slide into such a dystopia, if, God forbid, that is where we are headed, is to continue to refuse to see who and what Donald Trump is. My word to my friends who are not yet seeing Donald Trump as a malignant force that absolutely must be rejected and deposed is this: you are still fooling yourselves, and in so doing, you are putting us all at risk. We are ultimately responsible for our own delusions.

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