This is a remarkable century which opened with the Revolution and ended the Affaire! Perhaps it will be called the century of rubbish.
~Roger Martin Du Gard (1881-1958)
The author of the quote above is not exactly a household name in the United States anymore, but he’s noteworthy nonetheless. He was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1937 when the Great Depression was in full swing, as was the Nazi campaign to demonize, persecute, and mass murder Jews, Roma, Slavs and others they collectively labeled untermenschen (racially or socially inferior; subhuman). I came across the Du Gard quote recently in Hannah Arendt’s brilliant study, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
That chance occurrence led me to review the origins and details of the Dreyfus affair. What I remembered about it was that it was extremely divisive in France and that it involved a virulent anti-Semitism. In other words, racism. Did it have any parallels with what’s been happening in the United States? I wondered. Will the Trump Era turn out to be America’s replay of France’s Dreyfus Affair? Or perhaps worse?
A Frenchman, Du Gard was reflecting on the history of 19th Century France which began with the French Revolution and ended with the Dreyfus Affair (“l’affaire”). A little background is in order. In 1894 a French army captain named Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew from the Alsace region, was accused of handing secret documents to the Imperial German military. He was found guilty of treason in a closed trial, sentenced to life imprisonment, and deported to Devil’s Island. The French political class was overwhelmingly unsympathetic to Dreyfus, despite his family’s steadfast belief in his innocence.
France became increasingly divided over the case, and the issue continued to be hotly debated until the end of the century. Anti-Jewish riots erupted in more than twenty French cities and there were several deaths in Algiers. Sound familiar?
The Dreyfus case dragged on and divided the French nation for more than a decade (the Supreme Court finally absolved him in 1906 and he was reinstated in the army with the rank of major. The case polluted French politics and proved to be toxic for the larger society and public life in all its facets. It gave rise to anti- Semitic demonstrations that infected and corrupted the moral climate not only of France but also Germany, Italy, and Spain, as well as Scandinavian and Slavic countries.
“He is a fantastic man. He wants to make the Post Office great again…”
~Donald Trump, August 15, 2020
Call what’s happening to the U.S. Post Office the DeJoy Affair. It will be remembered one of the darkest hours in American history.
In France, the Dreyfus Affair was a dress rehearsal for the deadly racist pandemic that would eventually plunge Europe into the Second World War within a quarter century and bring the downfall of the Third Republic. Reader may be wonder how the Dreyfus Affair is relevant to what is happening in the U.S. at present? The answer:
Anti-Semitism is a form of racism. Racism has been a major contradiction—indeed, the major contradiction—of American democracy since the founding. Racism is state of mind and moral being. It is not specific to a certain race or ethnic group. Nor is it necessarily confined to matters of skin color. If black lives don’t matter in 2020, there can be no guarantee that Jewish lives or gay lives, or the lives of the disabled or old people will matter in the years to come. Any more than the lives of “foreigners”—long-term residents, asylum seekers or immigrants or the children of immigrants—matter to Donald Trump and his enablers at present.
Authoritarian rule often happens step-by-step. People don’t see it coming. After taking office Trump repeatedly called the U.S. Postal Service “a loser” and relentlessly tweeted a barrage of insults and accusations against his critics in the mainstream media. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of a forthcoming book called Strongmen, notes: Mussolini “used newsreels the way Trump uses Twitter”.
With the help of his chief enablers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Attorney General William Barr, Donald Trump has re-made the Republican party in his own image and transformed the GOP into a malleable monolith. It is no longer the party of Lincoln or Eisenhower or either of two past presidents named George Bush. It is a party that now exists in name only.
With Barr as AG, Trump has politicized the Justice Department. He has delegitimized and demoralized the FBI and CIA, organizations that exist and work tirelessly to keep Americans safe and secure. He has deployed paramilitary forces like storm troopers against peaceful demonstrators in DC and in Portland.
Trump’s recent steps toward authoritarian rule have followed more quickly. In the midst of the nation’s worst public health crisis in a century:
- Deny science and denigrate the doctors you have appointed as your health-policy advisers and the government’s leading medical experts.
- Cavalierly dismiss the danger of COVID-19 spreading or people dying despite clear evidence that people are dying and it is, in fact, spreading.
- Focus on restarting the economy and opening schools. When there are protests, send in heavily armed paramilitary troops with armored vehicles and battlefield weapons.
- Do all of it for selfish reasons having to do with your re-election. When that doesn’t move public opinion and the polls show you losing, attack the election itself. The voting process. The voters. Attack the Post Office. Remove drop boxes. Defend the Postmaster General you have just appointed to carry out this war on the voters.
Since day one, Trump has used his bully pulpit like a mad tyrant, a man possessed with his power. He has unrelentingly attacked the mainstream news media as “fake news.” His lies aren’t lies, they are “alternative facts” and there is an “alternative reality.”
Till one morning the nation wakes up and it’s not only the dawn of a new day but a new reality in which, to quote from Orwell’s chilly 1984:
“War is Peace”
“Freedom is Slavery”
“Ignorance is Strength”
Will it be the end of America as we know it? The end of democracy in America?
Americans of every age, lifestyle, skin color, income bracket, and political persuasion need to understand that the 2020 election is not about competing parties, policies or principles, but about the survival of the kind of republic that allows competition, full stop. Competition in economics and politics, as well as free speech and a free press where the competition of ideas can play out without censorship or state reprisal.
Make no mistake: An attack on voting is an attack on voters. An attack on voters is an attack on elections. Elections are the bedrock of every republic. Trump is waging war on democracy.
The outcome will determine whether the 21 st Century which began with the 9-11 terrorist attacks will end with a world and an America that is still recognizable to people living today or whether, to quote Roger Martin Du Gard, it will be called the century of rubbish. When American dream was cast into the dustbin of history.