Hope Against Hope

This article is part of the Review’s series on the 2020 US elections.

I’m a pessimistic person, so I spend a good deal of time these days trying to envision a Trump victory. Trump himself has always been like a man hopping from ice floe to ice floe. He has no master plan for anything, including a second term. Yet one can make some guesses. Certainly there will be more golf, more tweets, and more rallies. Also more looting, more environmental damage, more Covid deaths, less and less restraint by the courts. Trump himself may remain at the helm for years. Or his evident mental and physical decline may worsen, leaving us with a de facto regent: Jared Kushner, Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, or (worst of all) William Barr. We might wind up with a soft authoritarianism such as Hungary or Turkey now enjoy. We might also experience still darker things. The government’s cruelty toward immigrants will shift into an even higher gear. Crackdowns on dissent will increase in frequency and violence. In Portland, Oregon, and other cities we have already seen collaboration among ICE, CBP, local police departments, and right-wing militias. That will surely continue and deepen.

Lately I’ve been reading memoirs of totalitarianism—searching, perhaps, for pictures of how to live and behave in such times. One is the German scholar Victor Klemperer’s diary of the Nazi period, I Will Bear Witness. A Jew in a mixed marriage, Klemperer records the steady tightening of the noose, week by week, month by month. In the end it was only the firebombing of Dresden that saved him from the camps. Yet he remained throughout an acute and curious observer, not least of the deformations of language in the Third Reich (the Nazis’ love of the word “total,” Goebbels’s addiction to boxing imagery). He records much casual cruelty, but also many small acts of decency or solidarity from ordinary Germans.

Also on my sofa are the two volumes of memoirs by Nadezhda Mandelstam, who lived through the Stalinist Terror in which her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, perished. In Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned she writes with a wry wonder at the Alice-like madness of the period. She pays tribute to those who behaved well, and skewers in brief sketches the toadies, careerists, and self-deceivers—“respectful assistants to the executioners”—who kept the system running. Like Klemperer she stresses the importance of bearing witness. As she says of her husband’s fatal poem on Stalin: “I believe he did not want to die before stating in unambiguous terms what he thought about the things going on around us.”

Their world need not be ours. Let’s suppose that Biden wins the election (and is allowed to take office), with control of the Senate. He and his advisers will need to work fast. Initially that means controlling the pandemic and passing an emergency economic package. But to get that (or anything) done, Democrats will have to unlearn old habits. Trump may be gone, but his party will remain, swelled now by the organized insanity of the QAnon movement. Democrats must accept—finally—that there are no moderate Republicans to negotiate with. They must kill the filibuster and give up the self-defeating obsession with deficits that marked the Clinton and Obama years. They must relinquish their love of small-bore legislation (the opportunity zones, the incentives for creating tax-deferred savings accounts) and pass real bills. For a generation, both parties have sought to run the government like a business—in Trump’s case, like his own corrupt empire. It’s time to run it like a government. I have no confidence that Democratic leaders are up to the task, but I had better be wrong.

In the executive branch there will have to be a thorough housecleaning, starting with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. A special challenge is posed by ICE and CBP, with their private archipelago of camps, jails, and repurposed motels. These agencies are rotten to the core. The full truth of their activities, when it comes out, will sicken and shame us. The people responsible, at all levels, will have to be prosecuted. “Look forward, not backward” did not serve us well under Obama and won’t now. A new attorney general will also need to move swiftly to protect voting rights and to investigate police departments, many of which now view the badge as a license to hunt African Americans for sport. Many other agencies will need de-Trumpifying, from the Food and Drug Administration to the Postal Service. The Supreme Court—and other courts—will need to be expanded.

I worry about still bleaker scenarios. Along with Klemperer and Mandelstam I’ve been reading books by Philip Gourevitch and Jean Hatzfeld on the Rwandan genocide. The US, to be sure, is not Rwanda. But Rwanda reminds us what horrors a committed elite can unleash with the aid of willing followers and a dedicated propaganda outlet. All it would take is a precipitating event—a disputed election, say—and things could turn unimaginably bad. In that case kindness and decency will not save us.


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