Friday, July 7, 2017

Trump's will to power

James Fallows has a perceptive take on Trump's speech yesterday in Poland.
Trump gave grace-note nods to goals of liberty and free expression. Mainly, though, he spoke not about an expanded us but instead about us and them. He spoke repeatedly about our “heritage,” our “blood,” our “civilization,” our “ancestors” and “families,” our “will” and “way of life.” Every one of these of course has perfectly noble connotations. But combined and in practice, they amount to the way the Japanese nationalists of the early 20th century onward spoke, about the purity of “we Japanese” and the need to stick together as a tribe. They were the way Mussolini spoke, glorifying the Roman heritage—but again in a tribal sense, to elevate 20th century Italians as a group, rather than in John F. Kennedy’s allusion to a system of rules that could include outsiders as civis romanus as well. They are the way French nationalists supporting Marine LePen speak now, and Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., and “alt-right” activists in the United States, and of course the Breitbart empire under presidential counselor Steve Bannon. They rest on basic distinctions between us and them as peoples—that is, as tribes—rather than as the contending ideas and systems that presidents from our first to our 44th had emphasized.
Fallows gives particular attention to these passages:
We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. (Applause.)
If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.
But just as our adversaries and enemies of the past learned here in Poland, we know that these forces, too, are doomed to fail if we want them to fail. And we do, indeed, want them to fail. (Applause.)
We have to remember that our defense is not just a commitment of money, it is a commitment of will. Because as the Polish experience reminds us, the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful and get what you have to have.
The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?
And, the closing words of the speech:
Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.
Fallows muses:
Has Donald Trump ever heard of Leni Riefenstahl? Would he recognize an allusion to Triumph of the Will? It’s possible—when Errol Morris interviewed him 15 years ago, Trump seemed familiar with details of Citizen Kane, even though he had an idiosyncratic view of the film’s meaning.
But there is no doubt that Steve Bannon has heard of Reifenstahl, and I’d imagine Steve Miller too. And they cannot fail to have foreseen how it would sound, in a Europe that also remembers connotations of national “will,” to have an American president say this, with emphasis as delivered:
Let's cut to the chase: the cult of the will to power has taken up residence in the White House, and we American taxpayers are paying the salaries of these fascists. Whether Bannon or Miller was channeling Riefenstahl, or Mein Kampf, or Nietzsche, or some alt-right reddit agglomeration of all three, Fallows' unease is on target. This is not the speech of an American president. This is the speech of a fuhrer wannabe.

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