Weimar America

The saddest, the most desolate, part is the end of argument. We all stopped really arguing long ago and have been only shouting and exhorting and deriding for years now. Some of us moved to places we thought were more exciting and interesting, found friends who reminded us of ourselves. Some of us discovered social media and got in touch with people we’d forgotten about. We all discovered key fobs, smart phones, online shopping, streaming entertainment, search engines, instant results. There’s less pushback the way we live now. Practically, and also in the things we think. We don’t have to wait for things, and we don’t live around so many people who disagree with us anymore. That’s why we moved to the city or moved to the country or stayed right where we were—to avoid all the aggravation. I mean, there are still aggravating people around, but they’re more likely to be your alcoholic sister-in-law, your racist uncle, the ditsy guy selling crystals and geodes next to the Indian restaurant. They’re people who for one reason or another couldn’t get into their proper circle, they’re the leftovers. And with these people you don’t have conversations so much as you just have encounters. The arguments, when they happen, are stupid. If you start arguing with someone like that, it’s not really arguing, because the person you’re talking to is more or less deranged. If I still lived in rural Michigan (which we moved away from when I was eight), I would be regarded as the pathetic lone liberal . . . who was using politics to make up for some rather obvious personal inadequacy. What I’m saying is, whether we live in Los Angeles or Duluth, a lot of us don’t have a friend or even an acquaintance anymore with whom we disagree who is not also somehow dysfunctional, or whom we at least think of as dysfunctional.

I think that’s how we’ve gotten to the point that we no longer even know what it means to argue. You say something, the other person disagrees, you tell them why it’s so, they tell you what’s wrong with what you’re saying. We don’t argue this way anymore. Now someone says something, you tell them they’re just repeating something they heard on TV. Which isn’t arguing with them, it’s just dealing with them. As the racist or alcoholic or old hippie they are.

This is how societies go to war or become failed states. People wake up one morning and realize there is nothing, absolutely nothing, they have to say to those who disagree with them.

When was the last time you changed your mind? About something, I mean, other than whether to order the fries or the salad? When was the last time you thought something, and decided, after talking about it with a friend and then thinking it over some more, that you might not have been quite right about it? Nobody changes their mind anymore.

You change your mind, you’re a pussy. This is where we are now.

Maybe we never did change our mind much about things that mattered to us, actually. They matter to us, of course, because they matter. Our mind isn’t going to change easily about something that matters to us. But something, something, is different. Because it used to be that if someone voted different from us, we’d think they were wrong, but we wouldn’t think they were the enemy. We’d still have them over for the summer barbecue. If someone didn’t go to the same church, or even if they didn’t go to church, we’d still . . . wave.

We can’t wave to each other because we don’t live next to each other anymore.

Whose fault is this? I don’t know. I moved to San Francisco because I thought it was a cool place, and I don’t plan on moving back to rural Michigan, where I spent my early childhood, any time soon. I’d just be some kind of missionary to conservatives. I’d be the nutcase.

Our lives are so different—so utterly, utterly, utterly different—that there’s hardly a word we can say anymore that the other person will follow. It’s like one of us is speaking Polish and the other’s speaking Urdu. We don’t have the most basic basics on which to agree.

Part of it’s because we’re living in a time where the difference between entertainment and information is hopelessly muddied. It’s always been a problem, of course—I mean, a big part of politics is just the art of confusing those two things—but we’re at a point now where there really appears to be no way out. Here’s a long example . . .

In 1972, Richard Nixon resigned the Presidency in order not to be impeached. He’d been caught lying about a plan to play some dirty tricks on the Democrats. No one had been impeached since 1868. Impeachment was such a big deal, that it was somehow less humiliating to resign than to go to trial.

24 years later, Bill Clinton was impeached. He’d lied about an affair he had with an intern. It was very hard to stomach for Democrats, given the number of affairs people knew were going on in Congress in any given year. In fact, Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House who was leading the impeachment, was having an affair. (So was Dennis Hastert, the next Speaker, only with boys). Clinton didn’t resign, though. He decided it would be worth it for the country to judge the Republicans’ hypocrisy, and he turned out to be right. After impeaching him, the Republicans lost control of the House in 1998. People liked Bill Clinton, thought he was running the country just fine. It didn’t matter to them—much—that he wasn’t a model husband. The Republicans were hypocrites.

This is where entertainment comes in. First of all, though I agree the Republicans were calculating hypocrites, I don’t know in hindsight how I feel about Bill Clinton’s refusal to resign. He was right to point out the hypocrisy. But he established a depressing precedent: no longer would a marital affair be a deal breaker for a politician. And that’s kind of depressing. Because there’s a difference between a moral failing being common, and it not being shameful.

I don’t know what was worse—Newt Gingrich playing hardball politics, which politicians have done all the way through this country’s history—or Bill Clinton calling his bluff and taking no political heat for it. They were both master entertainers.

What we have now is closer to what I’d call a monster entertainer. He’s easily the most corrupt President in U.S. history. He tried to get a foreign country to take out his political opponent. And then, after almost a quarter million people had died in a pandemic he seemed to do everything he could to ignore, with the economy predictably in shambles, he was almost re-elected. Almost half the electorate still voted for him! Why did that almost happen?

The pandemic is horrific. But this election is what’s keeping me awake at night. That almost half the nation had had four years of this guy, and then thought . . . yeah, but he’s a Republican.

I have had periods of depression over the years, which I’ve been patiently coaxed out of by the occasional competent therapist. With the help of a little medication, the best of them will convince me that the world is not the bleak place which, in the night’s darkest hours, I’ve imagined it to be. That it’s possible that midnight despair is not some kind of “looking through the veil” at the true nature of the world. But . . .

Almost half the country voted for a fascist. Again.

Does this mean that every other person I meet in America is either stupid or immoral? This is the crap that races through my head at two in the morning. And I ask myself, how did a depressive liberal feel in—don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we’re living in Nazi Germany—but . . . in Nazi Germany? How did Germany become Nazi Germany? Well, I’ll tell you one thing that had to be true: every other person you’d meet on the street those days had no problem with the Nazis. You’d have to be constantly questioning yourself about basic human nature. Midnight would be the worst.

I keep being haunted by this idea that suddenly you can’t prove anything to someone. I know everyone’s saying this, that facts don’t matter anymore, etc., but it’s true . . . you can’t point to the sun and get a Republican to agree that it’s daytime. It’s hilarious or annoying when it’s your drunk uncle. It’s terrifying when it’s half the country. If you’re reading this right now, and you voted for Trump, how do I prove to you that he lost the election fair and square? Is there anything that would prove this? Because even Fox News says he lost. But instead of taking the word of this right wing entertainment news channel that’s been their go-to gospel for 25 years, there are people deciding instead that obviously Fox News has gone soft! Fox News is pointing to the sun, and people are moving to One America.

This isn’t how a party or an ideology behaves. This is how a cult behaves.

Who am I writing this to, anyway? Family? Friends? Is it just a journal entry? Am I trying to change someone’s mind? Ask myself questions? I don’t know. I think I’m in mourning. Because the Biden election notwithstanding, the U.S. is very unwell, and it’s not just COVID.

There are reasons countries elect authoritarians. It isn’t like the guy just waves a magic wand and hypnotizes everybody. Countries get susceptible. Things start changing that people aren’t used to. Lots of people lose their jobs. There’s a big gap between haves and have-nots. Competitive nations start to prosper. There’s always (always always) some influx of foreigners that explains everything. Things start to churn.

Remember “the marketplace of ideas”? This is where everyone says whatever they want, there’s lots of argument, and through all that bickering, the best ideas—i.e., the truth—rises to the top. Lies will always be exposed eventually, and rot away. This is the basic defense of free speech and the First Amendment. I’ve been a big free speech fan my whole life. I’ve always believed that there is no better way to keep the truth in people’s faces.

The last few years have changed my perspective a little. I’m reluctant. I still believe in free speech. But I’m observing the sun. Donald Trump, to begin with, has never heard of a “marketplace of ideas.” He’s never had an idea in his head. To be honest, though, a lot of us—maybe most of us?—don’t have a lot of ideas in our heads. And mostly, the ones we have we don’t examine very closely, because we’re too busy with life, which is nothing to be ashamed of, frankly. We don’t go around with our friends debating the merits of a parliamentary versus a presidential democracy, or a federalist versus a unitary government, or how evil can exist in a world created by a loving God. This is because we, unlike John Stuart Mill, are not geeks. We argue about sports and cars and bread recipes, like all free peoples. The occasional time we wander into the weeds of abstract argument, it’s like that Onionarticle, “Man Who Understands 8% of Obamacare Vigorously Defends It from Man Who Understands 5%.”

This is where I fall on free speech at the moment . . . People should not be condemned for thinking what they think. And they shouldn’t be condemned for saying what they think. But the loudest people—the politicians, the news shows, the columnists and radio hosts—need to be held to account for lying. You spread rumor as fact and you—not the country—ought to suffer the consequences.

I’m not optimistic. I don’t see this happening any time soon. 80% of Republicans saying they believe the vote was illegitimate? No. I still see the country burning down. There’s a great detective show on Netflix called Babylon Berlin. It’s like the movie Cabaret, but on steroids. The last days of the Weimar Republic, and this gumshoe with an opioid habit is tracking down a murder in the movie industry. Amazing series. And depressing as hell. Because you know what’s coming. Hitler is coming.

Countries don’t just whimsically give authoritarians power. They have to need a Savior first. Then, once they’re desperate enough, facts suddenly are not as important as solutions. In Germany, a popular “fact” after World War I was the stab-in-the-back myth. It was Germany’s version of Stop the Steal. The story went that the country wasn’t really losing the war, but a bunch of Jews and Socialists took over and got them to surrender anyway. Gave away the store. It was a myth, and logically disprovable, but for a humiliated people who were in a lot of economic pain, it was a powerful story. The problem with lies is that disproving them isn’t enough. They stick around like a fart in church. You can’t ignore them. And if you live in a small town that’s losing jobs, and you’ve lost yours, and every day you’re seeing people rioting in the big cities, you’re hearing women refer to their “wives,” you’re seeing city councils voting to abolish the police(!), men in dresses being elected to Congress . . . It doesn’t matter why these things are really happening, or whether they’re bad or good, or what other news you are not seeing. What you remember is that Donald Trump, the only politician who ever talked just like you, said they would steal the election, and now Biden is President.

Like a fart in church.

I’m not optimistic, as I said. Because the best solution, people who think differently talking to each other every day, is not going to happen. Not any time soon. I’m not moving back to Michigan, or to Idaho or Alabama. You’re not moving to San Franciso or New York City or Philadelphia. Without me moving there or you moving here, we’re not going to see each other often enough to take each other seriously and to treat each other with respect.

But it’s more complicated. Because that makes it sound like there would be two sides from which people can find some common ground. Which is true and not. If I lived around more Walmart greeters and furloughed factory workers and people who rode ATVs, I’d have their lives in front of me and be more understanding. I’d learn things. That would do me good. I’d probably understand a little better why some new things are hard to get used to; that some ideas that really are good and necessary may still have an immediate downside for a neighbor of mine. I’d probably be a little less quick to judge a person’s not-woke-enough vocabulary.

That’s all stuff a liberal moving to a small town would have to learn. But the small town would still be largely Republican, which is to say, largely people who voted for Trump, and believed the election was stolen. And what do you do about that? Because politically, there’s no longer a way to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans. There really is nothing any legitimate political party can find in common with a cult. Until some rational chunk of Republicans breaks off to form a legimate conservative movement, whatever that would look like, we are dealing right now with this: the Democratic Party, and a personality cult. To the degree there are any principles other than devotion to the Savior, they are 1)White people are persecuted, 2) Christians are persecuted, 3) large numbers of immigrants are dangerous, 4) racial minorities don’t know how good they’ve got it, and 5) power given to the Democratic Party is never legitimate.

This is pretty much exactly where Germany was just before Hitler showed up.

And this, frankly, is why I have so little hope right now.