Below is a paragraph everyone should read. It will seem quite familiar, if slightly out of true, as if from a half forgotten newspaper article. It is in fact from a 35 year old book. Even so, to grasp the full depth of the nightmare that is Trump you need to read it.
“It had really begun. The issues were drawn, false issues; the real issues were post war fear and uncertainty. Around the country he flew, reckless and audacious, stopping long enough to make a new charge, to exhibit a new list, a good newsworthy press conference at the airport, hail fellow well met with the reporters, and then on to the next stop, the emptiness of the charges never catching up with him, the American press exploited in its false sense of objectivity (if a high official said something, then it was news, if not fact, and the role of the reporter was to print it straight without commenting, without assaulting the credibility of the incredulous, that was objectivity). It was like a circus; he was always on the move, his figures varied, his work was erratic and sloppy, he seemed to have no genuine interest in any true nature of security. It sometimes seemed as if he too were surprised by the whole thing, how easy it was, how little resistance he met, and so he hurtled forward to newer, larger charges. But if they did not stick, and they did not, his charges had an equally damaging effect: they poisoned. Where there was smoke, there must be fire. He wouldn’t be saying these things unless there was something to it. And so the contamination remained after the facts, or lack of them, evaporated; long after the specifics had faded into obscurity, the stain remained.”
This is from David Halberstam’s book “The Best and the Brightest”. He is writing about Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarthy led the notorious campaign against alleged communist traitors in The United States at the beginning of the fifties. The populist poison he fomented is as virulent today as it was then.
Indeed it is the same poison. The vicious manipulation of fear and hatred practised by McCarthy then and by Trump today share a lineage. The witchfinder general of McCarthy’s assault on reason was a young lawyer named Roy Cohn. When McCarthy’s campaign imploded from its surfeit of excess the young lawyer withdrew to New York.
There, in the seventies he became a friend and mentor to rising real estate mogul Donald Trump. Cohn was both gay and homophobic – an unusual combination. He had a clear philosophy: always deny, never settle, always countersue. As we see, it has been fully absorbed by his apprentice.
Cohn died of AIDS in 1986. His place as a Trump guru has been taken by Stephen Bannon, now the chief political strategist in the White House. Bannon is reputed to be the intellectual driving force, such as there is, of the Trump Administration. Journalists have taken to reporting the books he reads.
Among them is Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest”; which is how I came to be re-reading it and so discovered the paragraph above. A New York Times journalist spotted him reading it at an airport. “I’m having everyone in the transition read it” said Bannon. Ironically, the book is an 800 page treatise on why fervour and confidence is no substitute for expertise for those in high office.
The Trump we see is the one we are going to get for the next four years. The American people have played a monumental joke on their own history by reincarnating Joe McCarthy as President. Trump will not change. McCarthyism is written into the DNA of his Administration. But like his doppelganger he will fail, drowned by his own excesses.
However, if we permit it, his failure will leave an indelible stain on the world. He has declared a war on reason. It is a war that could last well beyond his years in the White House. Churchill believed that in war “truth must wear a bodyguard of lies”. To win this war on reason we must build a wall of truth, a bodyguard of facts, to contain the toxic vomit of doubt and confusion, nacht und nebel, which is Trump’s preferred weapon.
We can start by being direct about the things he says that are not true. They are deliberate, witting, attempts to divide and mislead. Editors and politicians, priests, professors and the rest of us should not be squeamish about calling them what they are: lies. A war on reason is a war on democracy. It is not one the environment and those who speak for it can afford to lose.