A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 141

Posters urging the wearing of face masks are all over New York City.

Thursday, September 3

Back to my reflections on the Nazis and Trump.

Victor Klemperer, the diarist/author of the Third Reich history I Will Bear Witness, pays particular attention to the Nazis’ characteristically hyperbolic language. He’s quite struck by the carnival-barker-like aspect of the rhetoric, often referring to it as P.T. Barnum-like. (At one point he calls Hitler the Barnum of Hell.)

The Nazi rhetoric, which Klemperer calls Lingua Tertii Inperii or LTI, is often very exaggerated, focusing on vast advances in prosperity or alleged military triumphs. Economic developments are “greater than ever.” The victories over the Soviet Union are said to be “without parallel in history.”

Does the hyperbole seem familiar?

One “bulletin from the East” reports that “nine million are facing one another in a battle whose scale surpasses all historical imagination.” Bialystok was recently “the greatest battle of attrition and annihilation in world history.” Armies of millions have been annihilated, reports allege, “our wildest expectations exceeded.”

Our own Führer, Donald Trump, has a similar linguistic urge. “Huge,” of course, has been one of his most commonly used words. (Then there’s “bigly,” which many commentators mocked.) This year, he has said the economy is “soaring to incredible new heights. Perhaps the greatest economy we’ve had in the history of our country.”

People he likes or wishes to flatter are “incredible,” “amazing,” or “tremendous.” He himself is the greatest President ever—greater than Lincoln or Washington.

“Not that many people know this,” he’ll say—emphasizing his unique understanding of something. “Believe me, believe me,” he may add—perhaps anticipating listeners’ skepticism.

Then come the insults. “Stupid.” “Loser.” Nancy Pelosi is a “moron.” The drug-dependent Joe Biden is “somebody who has lost a step.” Women are “fat pigs,” “slobs,” “dogs,” and “disgusting animals.” Perhaps worst of all, is to be “little,” like “little Marco Rubio.”

Increasingly, Trump seems to be courting the conspiracy-minded QAnon crowd. Joe Biden is controlled by “people that you haven’t heard of.” Well, that lets out George Soros, since plenty of people, including the far-right fringe, have certainly heard of that Open Society advocate and philanthropist. 

“You have anarchists and you have the looters and you have the rioters and you have all types, you have agitators,” Trump recently announced in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He told a Fox News correspondent about a planeload of black clad Antifa militants headed for Washington, D.C.—a mob nobody else seems to know about.

Democrats are all far-left wing socialists. “Even a Kennedy isn’t safe in the new radical left Democrat party,” observed the MAGA man after Senator Ed Markey defeated his primary challenger Joe Kennedy.

I guess Trump got this Red Scare stuff from his former lawyer, Roy Cohn, a onetime crony of right-wing bamboozler Senator Joe McCarthy. But with the U.S.S.R. out of business and the A-bomb widely held, does Red-baiting still scare anybody? Does it command any votes?

Dinner: Capriccio salad and corn on the cob.

Entertainment: The Danish political drama Borgen on Netflix.

A Journal of the Plague Year 2020–chapter 138

Trump “salutes” Navajo vets as the genocidal Andrew Jackson looks on. Photo: Associated Press

Sunday, August 30

Is Trump another Hitler? His psychopathic narcissism, over-the-top bombast, unending lies, racism, and scapegoating all remind one of the Führer. And it’s possible to believe that a second Trump term could mean the end of American freedoms and anything like democracy. But take a look at any account of the rise of Hitler, and dramatic differences are visible.

First more on the similarities. In Victor Klemperer’s I Will Bear Witness, the German diarist describes mob-rule murders, zombie-like obedience among much of the public, imprisonment and torture, and a climate of gradually deepening fear among those likely to be victimized.

So yes, such things seem familiar. We are experiencing daily murders of Black citizens by the American police and vigilantes. Yes, the Trump faithful exhibit a slavish subservience to and near worship of MAGA man.  

Yes, we’ve already seen imprisonment and mistreatment of Mexican-border refugees. And one can easily imagine persecution and mass incarceration of numerous groups, with Latinos and Chinese-Americans probably at the top of the list. Weirdly, Trump and his followers also seem to despise Native Americans—just look at how he treated those Navajo visitors to the White House back in 2017, posing them beneath a portrait of the genocidal Andrew Jackson.  

But mass roundups seem unlikely for the widely dispersed Latinos; for the already alienated Blacks, who would fight back; or for Jews, whose ranks include Trump’s son-in-law. 

And just how much fear of Trump and the GOP is there right now? If there were a lot, would the YouTube parodies continue?

Klemperer, a writer and professor of romance languages at Dresden Technical University, kept a daily journal for his whole life. The portion covering the Third Reich years was published in three best-selling volumes beginning in 1995, the first under the title I Will Bear Witness

Here’s a quote describing the atmosphere in Dresden in 1933: “I simply cannot believe that the mood of the masses is really still behind Hitler. Too many signs of the opposite. But everyone, literally everyone cringes with fear. No letter, no telephone conversation, no word on the street is safe anymore. Everyone fears the next person may be an informer.” People relate tales of grotesque punishments of those imprisoned for such infractions as failing to give the Nazi salute.

Klemperer’s circle included those who argued that German fascism couldn’t last. Mussolini’s regime, they said, represented a “southern” phenomenon, something like the reign of the Medici or other Renaissance tyrannies. Such things had never taken place in Germany—and so the Third Reich couldn’t hold on for long, they argued. Young men in uniform sometimes apologized to Klemperer, explaining that they had no choice but to wear swastika armbands.

But by 1940, Klemperer’s own experiences ended any illusions. He and his gentile wife had been forced from their home and rehoused in a Judenhaus with other mixed couples. He had been forced to retire from his academic job and was routinely questioned and brutalized by the Gestapo and Hitler Youth. The fall of France and slanted reports of the German army’s progress made a Nazi victory over the Allies seem inevitable. And such a notion encouraged positive domestic sentiment towards Hitler. Britain would soon surrender and the war would be over.

Then came the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R., Pearl Harbor, and war with the United States. Some say that Nazi defeat was already in the cards by 1941.

I suppose Trump could get us into a war, most likely with China. But it’s a bit hard to imagine. What then would the sentiment be among the Proud Boys or the MAGA crowd? What would Rupert Murdoch say?

Sorry to wax optimistic—it’s not my natural inclination. But once again, that famous quote from Karl Marx seems appropriate: History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. And however worrisome and incendiary, the Trump antics are largely farcical.

Dinner: drop meatballs and spaghetti, broccolini, and sliced cucumber.

Entertainment: Netflix’ Freud, in which the young Viennese neurologist employs hypnotism to get to the bottom of a heinous crime. It’s better than it sounds.