Teach-In: Fascism in America:
Could It Happen Here?
Is It Happening Here?
What Is the Danger that the Trump/Pence Government Poses?
April 27, 2017
Humanity faces an extreme emergency with Trump’s rise to power. On April 28, this nationally live-streamed Teach-In deeply explored, from different perspectives, the essential nature of the Trump/Pence Government, the relevance of the history of fascism, the threat it poses to humanity and the planet itself, and the dangers of normalization.
There a window in which it’s possible to act. But once that comes down, you’re in a whole other reality and there’s no way out… I hope that all of us do everything in our power to seize this hour…
Rush transcript of George Prochnik’s presentation:
Thanks so much for having this event. I’m going to try to give a little historical lens on the threats that we face. And to begin that, I want to read something, not by Stefan Zweig, but from Primo Levi, who was an Italian chemist and eventually a survivor of Auschwitz. He wrote one of the greatest memoirs that exists about that experience, and he wrote the following: “We must be listened to, above and beyond our personal experiences. We have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen, by anyone. It took place in the teeth of all forecasts. It happened that an entire civilized people followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter. And yet Adolph Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe. It happened, therefor it can happen again. That is the core of what I have to tell you.” I want to come back at some point, I hope someone will ask a question about that idea of the buffoon, because I actually think that’s very important in terms of how Trump has been perceived, and to an extent how he’s been normalized.
But Stefan Zweig, the man that I wrote about, was a person of enormous affluence and influence, an Austrian Jew who was born at the end of the 19th century, and by the late 1920s was the most widely translated author in the world. A huge best seller, his [books] were made into movies, he wrote novels, essays, poetry, libretti, plays; he also grew up in a very wealthy family in Vienna’s most privileged district, the 1st district on the Ring- strasse. This was a person who felt himself absolutely immune to history, to political turbulence. And within a very short period of time, within in fact less than ten years, from the point at which he was the most widely translated author in the world, Stefan Zweig’s books were being burned, and he himself was on the run, from not just Hitler, but the overall resurgence of an intense militant nationalism that came about with the ascendency of fascism. To give just a little background on his exile, because it’s germane to the book that he wrote, the memoir that he wrote that I want to focus on in what I have to say: In 1934, the winter of 1934, there was a brief civil war in Austria. It’s an event that not many people who don’t study the period know much about. It took place over just a period of a few weeks, but it effectively gutted the Austrian— the very powerful and very effective Austrian Socialist Party. It was essentially a battle between the socialist and various reactionary forces allied with the then clerical fascist leader of Austria, someone named Dollfuss, who wasn’t himself at that point aligned with Hitler, who was in fact trying to keep Austria from being annexed by Germany, but had his own homegrown version of fascism and felt sufficient pressure from the more reactionary elements in his party—that he felt he could no longer allow socialism to exist as a viable in Austria.
And once he managed to essentially destroy the party by either arresting people or driving them into various forms of exile, and killing many hundreds, the road was open for Hitler’s annexation of the country in 1938.
Stefan Zweig, when that civil war took place, was based in Salzburg, which is just over the border from Germany. He himself had been working for years at that point to promote humanism—he was one of the best known pacifists in the world. He had a home on a hill, in fact overlooking Salzburg, a very exposed position. Nonetheless, at one point, as the war was winding down, his home was searched by the local police for guns. There was a suspicion that he might be hiding arms for—to be distributed to the socialists. And he knew at that point, that if one of the best known pacifists in the world could be accused of harboring a secret weapons cache, at the same time that he was also in an incredibly exposed position, that he himself was going to be endangered in no short order. And the very next day he got on a train and headed to England, which was the first stop in an exile that careened all over the world eventually. He was first in London, then in Bath, England, then in New York, then in Ossining, New York, then in Rio De Janeiro, and then at last in Petropolis, Brazil—just above Rio, about an hour above Rio in the hills—where he killed himself in February of 1942.
The summer before he killed himself, he was just up the Hudson from where those of us in New York City are today, not very far at all. He lived in fact about a mile uphill from Sing Sing prison, and I’ve often thought what it would have been like for him, going back and forth on the train from New York City and having the sight of that massive fortress as a reminder of what was happening to his people and to all of Europe at that point in time. While he was in Austria—excuse me. Ossining—in that summer of 1942, he wrote at a furious pace the first draft of his autobiography, “The World of Yesterday.” It’s not a typical memoir; it has almost no personal intimate details of his life. Instead, what he was trying to do was to create a kind of message in the bottle to the future, to give indications about what aspects of civilization needed to be watched because they could pivot into something, some kind of heinous form of totalitarianism, and also to give some index of what might be points of hope, what were aspects of the evolution of Europe that he’d lived through, which if they’d been cultivated might have prevented Hitler’s rise. He managed to write literally something like 300 pages in a matter of less than a month; he was writing in this feverish pace—he never left this very small, very grim bungalow that he lived in. It’s amazing to think of this man—who’d been at the center of all sorts of different European movements aimed at promoting humanism—reduced to this very, very contracted existence, almost no social life, in this tiny little house in this town that for him was in the middle of nowhere. But I think it gave him a certain fiery clarity, gave his remarks a real passion that it merits revisiting today. Because he tried to trace what he had missed—it’s a very modest book in many ways. One of the points that he makes right away is that he can’t remember when he first heard Hitler’s name. He doesn’t know where that, the whole movement associated with Hitler, and even proceeding Hitler, in terms of Italian fascism, where it began to be a real issue. One of the points Zweig makes is that in these periods where there is an intense upsurge of nationalist reactionary elements, there are going to be many little figures, any one of whom might be the one who, from some bizarre confluence of circumstances, ends up being the dictator to watch.
And I’ve thought about this for a number of reasons, in terms of what we’re seeing today, partly because, horrific as this administration is, we don’t know that Trump is the person who is going to really take things all the way over the edge. And I think it behooves all of us to be very vigilant about other figures who may seem absolutely marginal today, but who are garnering some kind of support in some little corner, and may ultimately have, if not a charisma, some magnetic message, some way to channel a very dark will amongst the masses.
So what does Zweig tell us to watch out for: One thing he says, and he remarks on this long before Hitler again, was the Chancellor of Germany, but when fascism was gaining power. He writes of seeing the little groups of young conscripts to the National Socialist Movement moving through town in these beautiful limousines, in very, very fancy cars and trucks, in spanking new uniforms, very, very well decked-out; in other words they were well-financed. And I think it’s always good, in the old Marxist adage, to follow the money. So one thing with this administration and its more, more—I don’t know what the right word is—more virulently activist element, is to look at what is being funded. He says the second thing to watch out for, and maybe the most important aspect of what we witnessed in this last election, is the power of propaganda, right. And it’s not just propaganda to spread a lie to ignite a frenzy among the core followers; it’s also propaganda that can serve to distract and cover-up the actions that the administration, that the party is focused on really managing to bring through to fruition. I thought a lot about this issue of distraction in this last campaign, even apart from the message of hate. I think if the planet survives another 100 years, survives this man and his like-minded cohorts, I suspect that people will look back on the 2016 election as a real watershed in the distraction of the electorate . Partly technologically induced ADD [attention deficit disorder]—I mean there can’t have been any campaign before where there could be one outrage after another which would just seem to evaporate within days, partly because the mainstream media didn’t continue covering it, but also because people seemed unable to hold in their heads the jumble of the sheer volume of outrages, but also the sheer volume and barrage of different kinds of information that were being fed to them, through this feed we seem all too addicted to. There was a remark that really ran through my head from Supreme Court Judge Louis Brandeis, who noted that when the Constitution was being framed in Independence Hall, the authors of that document had the road in front of Independence Hall covered with straw so that the sound of the coach wheels would be muffled and wouldn’t disturb their debates, their discussion. If we think about that level of attention, and the absolute distraction of our minds today, I think we all have to do everything we can to spend time off all devices, and really try to think as hard as we can, to just think about what is going on in the most concentrated way possible.
Along with propaganda, the money, and the charismatic leader, that in some sense we have to acknowledge that Trump is, Zweig makes the point that the Nazi Party was able to introduce its measures as effectively as it did because it took the approach of giving one poison pill at a time. It didn’t try, the Party didn’t try, in other words, to throw everything on at once and just disorient people. There was an effort to see how each new measure would take, and when the European body politic gave sufficient resistance to a measure, they’d back off and wait, and then give another pill. It was one pill at a time until, Zweig writes, people were so inured to the effects of the poison that they were willing to, essentially, embrace the apocalypse.
Finally on the issue of Trump’s character and the idea, which I think resonates very profoundly with what we’ve seen of the buffoon. I can’t tell you how many writers, activists, thinkers of the 1930s wrote about their experience of Hitler initially having been
experience of such a fool that they could not believe that this man should be taken seriously. The son of Thomas Mann, Klaus Mann, who was himself an important writer and progressive thinker described an experience where he was sitting in a Bavarian teahouse at one point, and he realized Hitler was at another table with a few of his henchmen. And he was there consuming these little cakes in this unbelievably boorish manner, stuffing his face. And Mann says that he looked at this man, at this petite bourgeoisie figure, this embodiment of a kind of vile piggishness, and said there’s nothing to worry about, he can’t possibly cause us a problem. Zweig writes about how when Hitler’s writings began to be circulated, his sheer inarticulateness, his inability to make an effective argument, to say anything with force made the intellectuals just dismiss him, in exactly the same way. I worry that all of the ways that Trump has shown himself willing to play the fool, to be a clown, to display his intellectual mediocrity has allowed sometimes for a kind of snarkiness to overtake a real analysis of what he’s doing, of all of the little measure on top of the big threats that he makes. However intentionally or not, it doesn’t matter, it’s been an incredibly effective smoke screen. Everyone has so much to mock, that the fact that he does exactly what he says he does, that he has to be taken both seriously and literally, gets lost.
In Zweig’s memoirs, he goes through a whole slew of different stages that darkens the canvas in Europe, and he says, finally, that one thing was still missing—this is after Hitler’s ascendance. He said even when Hitler became Chancellor, people still—and he counts himself among the people—had no notion, no notion whatsoever of what was coming, not a clue. For all that they were aware that they, that Germany had put into power, incredibly dangerous, unpredictable person, with incredibly vicious rhetoric, there was not a hint of what was to come.
So what was the moment for Zweig that really tipped events into some irretrievable disastrous abyss. That was the Reichstag fire, the burning of the German Parliament building. It happened less than 30 days after Hitler became Chancellor. This was a fire that there was speculation that may have even been ignited by Nazis, the Nazis themselves. No lives were lost. It was the destruction of a symbolic edifice, but it became the excuse for Hitler to suspend all pretense of due legal process. Everything from that point on became an emergency measure. Of course it seems to me that we already see signs of Trump looking for that act of terror, either false or actual, exaggerated or not. It gives him the excuse to suspend any kind of judicial responsibility. I worry profoundly about that and it’s one of the reasons that I think so far from ever allowing this administration to be normalized, it has to be resisted at every single step, every single executive order has to be protested. The minute that an agenda that we know has such an enormous tide of hatred behind it is in any way allowed to become business as usual, I think that the opportunity for bursting out with some massive atrocity that changes the ballgame overnight is huge. People are still making a lot of money while this administration is in power. That’s one of the reasons the GOP has shown itself so spineless. Until the economics are disrupted, I think it’s going to be very, very hard to really get at him. But if people boycott goods, if they block roads, if the people who make Trump possible start feeling this is not working out so well economically, maybe we can avoid that catastrophic last moment. Zweig teaches us that there is in fact a window in which it’s possible to act. But once that comes down, you’re in a whole other reality and there’s no way out, and I hope that all of us do everything in our power to seize this hour now. We still do have the power to act. Things aren’t yet set in stone, and it’s all of our responsibility to do everything we can to fight—thank you.