“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
I quote this hackneyed aphorism only to tear it down. The problem, I would tell Santayana if we were to hash things out over a Starbucks coffee, is that the past never repeats itself in recognizable form.
True, if a little man in a brown shirt were today denouncing Jews in a Munich beer hall and we didn’t do something about it, we’d get what we deserved. But history, though its underlying DNA may be the same, arrives in different forms. Not only that, it loves to confound the pundits.
Consider how literary pundits over the years, from Sinclair Lewis to Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, foresaw the decline and fall of American democracy.
Lewis, in his novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” projected the rise of an American dictator, Berzelius Windrip, a rural populist patterned after Louisiana’s Huey Long. Knebel and Bailey, in “Seven Days in May,” foresaw the coming American dictator as a military hero, a strongman in uniform like General Douglas MacArthur.
But who, other than a Mel Brooks-style satirist, until six months ago would ever have sketched a scenario featuring as a would-be American dictator a Manhattan real estate-casino hustler — anything but a rural populist — whose military record consists of draft deferments equal to those of Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney?
Only in America. But not the 20th century America of Huey Long and Douglas MacArthur. No, the Twitter-brained, selfie-loving America of Donald Trump.
Yet, wait. Before we determine whether Vladimir Putin’s preferred presidential candidate is a bizarre reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, let’s check whether he passes the first test of Munich beer hall animadversion: Is Trump anti-Jewish? (I use the term anti-Jewish to be specific, since his anti-Semitism — Arabs being Semites — is well established.)
At first take the answer would seem to be, “Of course not. His son-in-law is Jewish and his daughter’s a convert.” But then we come to the puzzling business of his refusal to fully repudiate the backing of neo-Nazi supporters like David Duke and his furious defense of an anti-Clinton tweet featuring a Star of David backed by dollar bills.
So what’s the answer? For my part I call on a story once told by Louisiana Congressman Hale Boggs who, while running for governor, was “defended” by Governor Earl Long, after being accused of having been a Communist during his college days.
“Hale can’t be a Communist,” Long told a crowd in north Louisiana. “He’s not only a Catholic but a close friend of the archbishop.” Long said this, as Boggs pointed out, knowing that his audience of hard-shell Baptists would sooner vote for a Communist than “a close friend” of a Catholic archbishop.
“So I called Long the next morning,” as Boggs told the story, “and said I didn’t appreciate his injecting religion into the campaign. He said, ‘Hale, you know I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body.’ And I said, ‘I know you don’t, Governor, but you know that other people do, and you know how to use it.’”
Jewish son-in-law? Convert daughter? Donald Trump obviously doesn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body. But he knows that other people do, and ….
Sound bite to remember
“God has a special providence for fools, drunks and the United States of America.”
–Otto von Bismarck, proclaiming what was true in 1870 and, we may hope, in November 2016
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