By Roger Bowen
“Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.”
The words are those of Herman Roth, the father of the pre-teen narrator Philip Roth, who recounts the election of Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974), the famous aviator, anti-Semite, promoter of “America First” and admirer of Adolf Hitler, as president in 1940.
Of course, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who won an unprecedented third term as president in 1940 and Lindbergh never held elective office. But if you are one of America’s greatest novelists, as Philip Roth certainly was (he died in May of this year), and you lived through the WWII era, and you are Jewish, then you invoke poetic license and re-imagine your youth as it might have been in a 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America.
To say that Philip Roth was prescient is hardly adequate. His novel, a work of fiction that relies generally on historic truth — all the secondary characters from FDR to Lindbergh to New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to columnist Walter Winchell — are quoted extensively. FDR, for instance, two years after his electoral defeat, speaking at a fictional Madison Square Garden rally of Americans united against Lindbergh’s close ties to Nazi Germany, tells his audience that “The only thing we have to fear is the obsequious yielding to his Nazi friends by Charles A. Lindbergh, the shameless courting by the president of the world’s greatest democracy of a despot responsible for innumerable criminal deeds and acts of savagery, a cruel and barbaric tyrant ….”
Similar words were uttered by many Democrats and a few Republicans about Trump following his recent meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and before about that his Singapore meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. Trump kowtowed to both autocrats. The late American hero and senator, John McCain, called Trump’s performance in Helsinki “disgraceful” and attributed it to Trump’s “naivete, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats.”
Equally factual, following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Lindbergh wrote in his private journal about America’s need “to guard ourselves against … dilution by foreign races … and the infiltration of inferior blood.” In October 1940, Lindbergh told 3,000 people gathered at the America First Committee’s meeting at Yale University that the United States needs to “recognize the new powers [Nazi] in Europe.” And, so, Trump’s racist references to Mexicans and Central Americans crossing America’s southern border, and his repeated salutes to such despots as Putin and Kim in such glowing terms have actual historical antecedents.
Today in America, as in Russia and North Korea, a culture of corruption holds sway, and as in those two nations ruled by autocrats, officials in all three nations do little or nothing to hold their leaders accountable. Complicity is commonplace among all three nations’ ruling party members where Orwellian doublespeak contaminates political discourse. Truth is not truth, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Guilani recently uttered in an unguarded moment. Moral relativity — or the spurning of moral probity — is now the GOP’s modus operandus whenever dealing with inconvenient facts.
Yes, Trump paid hush money to two glamour girls with whom he had sexual relations while married to Melania, according to the courtroom admission by Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, despite repeated denials by Trump. Remember the good old days when President Clinton lied “I did not have sex with that woman [Monica Lewinsky]!” and Republicans came out of the woodwork to accuse the Democrats, who still supported Clinton, of moral relativism? Christian conservatives: Why give Trump a pass? Why not argue as forcefully for Trump’s impeachment as you did for Clinton’s?
And in the background, looming large if you are Donald Trump, is the Steele dossier that alleged Trump entertained prostitutes in two different Moscow hotels during the Miss Universe contest in 2013. Unproven charges, at this time, yet if Trump’s sexual follies in Russia were taped by Russia’s secret service, then knowledge of the existence of this tape might well explain why Trump bends over backward to demonstrate fidelity to the Russian autocrat. Who can explain Trump’s obeisance to Kim?
Every day I ask myself “How can this be happening in America?” And then I recall Marx’s famous line about how all great historical events occur twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Philip Roth’s Lindbergh fictional scenario is truly tragic, and Trump’s slimy behavior and his party leadership’s timidity to criticize Trump is embarrassingly farcical.
Roger Bowen is a political scientist who lives in Prospect Harbor.