language, politics

The Socialist, the Donald, and the Unmentionable

I am going to say something that, if you don’t read carefully, you will find outrageous and unjustified. Please read carefully.


Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Adolf Hitler share an important trait.


Notice that I did not say that the three are the same, or even alike in general. I am saying that all three share a rhetorical habit. The similarity ends there. Analogy is not identity. But the quality they share is one that can have serious and problematic consequences for a great many people.


What those three people have in common is this: all use a similar rhetorical technique to attract and hold hordes of passionate followers. We can call this technique by any of several names: name-calling, scapegoating, or demonization. Whatever you call it, it is thrilling, unifying, comforting, and dangerous especially when used in high places.


The virtue of this technique is that it’s easy and potent. The flaw is that it’s almost always based on incorrect analysis and proposes easy solutions (if such they are) that don’t work, or work in a horrible way.


The three arise in similar contexts, which in turn gives extra power to their rhetorical practice. All have arisen at a time of insecurity and fear, when a people who had smugly seen themselves as superior to others and effectively omnipotent suddenly find themselves in very different circumstances, politically, socially, and economically. There are two choices: make real, hard, and troublesome changes within yourself and across your community, or promise great changes that hearers don’t have to do anything to effect, except vote correctly, and that – as far as they can tell – won’t make their daily lives more difficult.


The first choice is called, disparagingly, “pragmatic”; the second, approvingly, “exciting.” All three of the speakers named above make the second choice, making all thrilling, indeed charismatic, speakers. All have/had throngs of followers who cheer them on and boo the competition. One rose to the highest position his nation had to offer; one of the others is likely to achieve the same goal.


All offer apocalyptic versions of the current state of affairs; versions in which there is one overarching problem caused by one group of people that needs to be destroyed or severely punished; and if that is done, all will be well again. None offers a clear explanation of cause and effect; none spells out a coherent program that will really improve the situation. The promise is simple and satisfying: The good will be rewarded and the wicked punished, as in your favorite fairy tale. This is childish rhetoric, a “happily ever after” promise with no clues about how that future will come to pass. Just “do what I say,” and “follow the leader,” and “trust me.” It feels good. But is it right? Is it what the country needs?


For Hitler, as we remember too well, the magical word was “Jews.” The Jews (he said) had brought Germany to defeat in World War I; the Jews had destroyed the economy; the Jews had poisoned a proud culture. The link between German society’s very real post-war problems and Hitler’s identified villains was logically worse than weak, but when you are hurting and scared you are in no mood for logic. When the proffered “cure” comes with chants and cheers and dazzling cinematography (think of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”), well, logic, shmogic – the offer is one that you cannot refuse.


Neither Trump nor Sanders is a Nazi, though Trump plays one on TV. But they are playing a game with similar rules. Trump outdoes Hitler in having several magic words, among them “immigrant” and “Obama.” And “Obama” has caused the “immigrant” problem, so things are neatly sewn up. If we just get rid of Obama and everything he did and everyone associated with him, we will (sing along with me): Make…America…Great…Again. There! Doesn’t that feel good? But in fact, while Trump’s demonizations are satisfying, he has no solutions, and only the shakiest grasp of history (as is true of his Republican colleagues as well).


By the way, Trump is no more crazy than was Hitler. “Vulpine” is the word.


So… comfortable so far? In moving on to the third member of this triumvirate, Bernie Sanders, I know I will be making some of you unhappy, because it makes me unhappy too. I have said this before: Sanders reminds me of the politics I grew up with, he is sincere, he is moral, he identifies real problems that demand solutions, and to a degree, he correctly identifies the sources of the problems. But he, too, paints in broad brush-strokes that tend toward identifying problems but not homing in too close to the actuality nor offering hard-nosed solutions. (That would be “pragmatic,” and the enthusiasts hate that.) Sanders’s’ favorite villains are “the establishment,” and identifying someone or something as “the establishment” gives Sanders carte blanche to vilify it or, at best, give it short shrift. The super-rich and the big banks are part of the establishment: no quarrel there. But as is common with scapegoating, this list has grown. Asked about the problems of Planned Parenthood, Sanders shrugs that it is part of “the establishment,” so he has no interest in helping it. Well, ask our Republican friends whether PP is part of “the establishment,” and I bet you’ll get a very different response, probably to the effect that it certainly isn’t, but rather a far-left bunch of baby-killers. I would worry less about Sanders’ lack of enthusiasm for PP if he showed any interest at all in reproductive rights or other not-directly-economic women’s issues, but he has not.


Another “establishment” villains recently identified by Sanders are a group of former White House economists who, a few days ago, expressed grave doubts about the rationality and workability of Sanders’ economic proposals. These are serious people, who align themselves along the left-center line. Along with Paul Krugman’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton, the opinions of these important economists should give Sanders pause, especially since economics is virtually the entire thrust of his campaign. But Sanders brushes them off as “the establishment,” meaning, in Sanders-speak, “we don’t have to pay attention to them.”


So by making use of the smear (yes, that word!) to denigrate his opponents with vague yet ominous characterizations, rather than confronting and answering their arguments, Sanders, regrettably, has to be seen as playing the same deceptive game as other dangerous propagandists.