Published on Tuesday, June 14, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
In the American Bunker
by David Michael Green
|I saw a movie last night that was excellent. It was also awful.
The film was "The Downfall", the reputedly historically accurate depiction of the end of the Third Reich, showing Hitler and his crew holed up in their Berlin bunker, awaiting their appointment with the Russian Army.
It was excellent in that it portrayed this scene so vividly, and it was awful because of the scene it so vividly portrayed.
In the film, we see what happened when Germany allowed an emotionally ravenous psychopath to sate the voracious demands of his personal insecurities upon the world's stage. Fifty million deaths later, here is this frustrated painter, delusional and embittered, putting the final touches on his masterpiece with a revolver and cyanide.
The German people, including the children now sent out to defend the Reich literally down to the last block, are worthy only of the contempt of Hitler and the equally sick Goebbels, at his side till the end. Since they did not bring him victory and thus glory, these expendable cannon fodder who followed him into Hell, after first themselves creating it, are transformed into cowards and traitors in the warped visage of the physically and mentally deteriorating Fuhrer.
The most chilling portrayal within the film is that of a handful of Kool-Aid besotted true believers, exemplified by Mrs. Goebbels, who can neither imagine nor bear the concept of life without Hitler and national socialism. She falls to her knees at Hitler's feet, sobs, and begs him not to take his own life. Not much later, of course, she murders her six children before committing suicide with her husband, so traumatized is she at the thought of a world without Nazism.
As I returned from the theater I was thinking, as I often do, about what it is that inspires such mindless suspension of critical faculties, of logic and empirical analysis, and ultimately of the very self, which is entailed in nationalist fervor. What is it that compels people, by the millions, to doggedly follow those often shallowest and neediest of humans who don the mantle of leadership and take them over the cliffs of hatred and militarism, crashing into great piles of mass carnage on the beach below?
In my studies of this topic, the most compelling answer I've found is that nationalism addresses a profound existential fear that many people seem to feel in the face of the seemingly meaningless and insignificant lives they lead within a vast and indifferent universe. Like religion, though less challenged during the period of modernity by contradictory scientific findings, nationalism allows its subscribers to feel that they are part of a larger and more significant story, one with a grand historical arc leading to a rendezvous with destiny, and one which brings to their lives otherwise absent meaning and purpose.
All this, of course, inevitably had me thinking of America in 2005. Comparisons to Hitler and the Third Reich are nearly always - almost by definition - hyperbolic. With the partial exception of some of the exploits of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Nixon, nothing since 1945 has even come close. Such comparisons are - also, therefore, by definition - overused, as a hysterical Rick Santorum most recently demonstrated by equating Democratic attempts to retain judicial filibuster rights to Hitler's occupation of Paris.
For precisely these reasons, I have resisted the use of the f-word these last years, despite believing that America has crept far more precipitously close to the edge of fascism under George Bush than the vast bulk of Americans realize. We forget that Hitler was originally brought to power by means of democratic institutions, before he then proceeded to dismantle them. We assume that a bid for fascism in American, should it come, would be delivered in one large, recognizable package, which we could all rise up to collectively defeat, rather than an incessant series of a thousand cuts, most justified by the threat of internal and external enemies and a permanent 'war on terrorism'. But the parallels are powerful, and they became all the more compelling returning from "The Downfall" to find a reprint of an amazing article (which somehow escaped me and most of the rest of America in the original) posted on the AfterDowningStreet.org website. As the Downing Street Memo's evidence of wholesale lies finally starts gaining traction in an America finally beginning to sour on the Iraq war, another piece of the puzzle is (re-)fitted into place with Russ Baker's jaw-dropping account of conversations journalist Mickey Herskowitz had with candidate Bush in 1999.
I have felt from the beginnings of the Bush administration that his presidency is best understood at the level of psychology, not policy or ideology, and that the insecurities of the president himself (and, I think, to a large degree his supporters) were as palpable as they are crucial to animating his policy choices, his public persona, and his demeanor.
Of course, Bush's life story gives us the initial clues and probable cause for assessing his psyche and behavior. The grandson of a US senator, the son of one of the most accomplished (to the extent cumulated titles count, at least) figures in post-war American political history, he is himself a screw-up underachiever, who drifts from clown, to cheerleader, to drunkard, to business failure, to Rove-the-ventriloquist's dummy-politician. It would be harder to imagine that young Bush would not be massively insecure under these conditions than that he would, particularly with a younger brother long seen as the rising star, and George the Bush clan failure.
But you could also see it in his presidency, in some of the characteristics and occasional revealing insights unintentionally glimpsed within this tightest and most successful propaganda machine in American history. Bush's deep insecurities are there in the swagger and the macho language. They're there in the choice of sycophant advisors, in the off-message information never allowed to reach the president (he doesn't read newspapers, and he only allows pre-screened supporters at public appearances), and in the rigid, Manichean definitions of a world in which there exists only black and white, good and evil. And these insecurities are there in the language used, particularly Bush's preference for the self-reaffirming "I" he favors instead of "we", or "my administration" instead of "this administration". This represents a substantial deviation from the more humble style employed by every president in my lifetime.
Another revealing example of such unintended linguistic insights can be found in the self-centered construction Bush uses to announce the invasion of Afghanistan: "Good afternoon. On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan." Then the same again, when he launches the Iraq war: "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war."
But my personal favorite among unwitting revelations of the president's powerful insecurities was always this snippet from Bob Woodward's Bush At War: "I'm the commander - see, I don't need to explain. I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation." To my mind, this one small and inadvertent window on Bush's psyche speaks volumes as to his precarious self-esteem, and requires little further elaboration.
On top of these insights, plus those from the Paul O'Neill (Suskind) and Richard Clarke books, and from the Downing Street Memo, now comes the startling (re)revelations Herskowitz captures from his interviews for the book which would become (but only after Herskowitz, a Bush family friend before and after, was replaced by Karen Hughes because his drafts weren't flattering enough) Bush's silly and inflated autobiography, "A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House".
The Baker article confirms the inferiority complex which drives this president's policies: In it, Bush admits to Herskowitz that he never fulfilled his National Guard duties during the Vietnam era, and that his business ventures were "floundering". More importantly, "Herskowitz said that Bush expressed frustration at a lifetime as an underachiever in the shadow of an accomplished father. In aggressive military action, he saw the opportunity to emerge from his father's shadow".
It confirms that Bush had planned to invade Iraq well before 9/11, and indeed before his presidency even began: "'He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,' said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. 'It was on his mind. He said to me: "One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief." And he said, "My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it." He said, "If I have a chance to invade..if I had that much capital, I'm not going to waste it. I'm going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I'm going to have a successful presidency."'"
This is, in retrospect, horrific stuff. But then it gets worse. Herskowitz tells Baker "Bush and his advisers were sold on the idea that it was difficult for a president to accomplish an electoral agenda without the record-high approval numbers that accompany successful if modest wars.
"According to Herskowitz, George W. Bush's beliefs on Iraq were based in part on a notion dating back to the Reagan White House - ascribed in part to now-vice president Dick Cheney, Chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee under Reagan. 'Start a small war. Pick a country where there is justification you can jump on, go ahead and invade.'
"Bush's circle of pre-election advisers had a fixation on the political capital that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher collected from the Falklands War. Said Herskowitz: 'They were just absolutely blown away, just enthralled by the scenes of the troops coming back, of the boats, people throwing flowers at [Thatcher] and her getting these standing ovations in Parliament and making these magnificent speeches.'
"Republicans, Herskowitz said, felt that Jimmy Carter's political downfall could be attributed largely to his failure to wage a war. He noted that President Reagan and President Bush's father himself had (besides the narrowly-focused Gulf War I) successfully waged limited wars against tiny opponents - Grenada and Panama - and gained politically."
Oh, and one other thing we might note. "He told me that as a leader, you can never admit to a mistake," Herskowitz said. "That was one of the keys to being a leader." At the end of "The Downfall", the real-life, now-elderly Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary upon whose recollections the film is based, talks of her horror at learning after the war about the Holocaust and Germany's other crimes, and concludes that 'We [the German people] could have known about these things and stopped them, but we didn't'.
What of Americans? Are we to be the Nazis of the 21st century? The imperialist power which invades Iraq - instead of Poland - on flimsy pretexts? The purveyors of "the gulag of our time"? Or have we learned about these things and stopped them, as Junge wishes she had in her day?
There are reasons for both hope and despair. Hope, because 'only' two some years into Bush's Iraq adventure, the American public is now showing clear signs of disdain for both the war and its architects. This despite the absence of a draft, war taxes, civil unrest at home, or serious coverage of the war bringing even a hint of its real human consequences into people's living rooms. And this before the Downing Street Memo and like revelations have begun to gain traction in America's political discourse about the war, showing the lies behind it.
But despair, also, because this is a war which transparently should never have occurred. Hitler said "What good fortune for those in power that the people do not think". Americans, despite believing they long ago understood the dangers of totalitarianism, and despite the more recent scar of Vietnam to remind them of the consequences of leaders lying them into war, still have taken far too long to get to where they now barely are in opposing the war. And, what is worse, it seems clear that any real mass public distaste for the war reflects neither morality nor concern for others. Indeed, had the war been the cakewalk the White House evidently expected, Bush would likely be a hero amongst Americans today, emboldened to launch another 'small war', not the bum to which he is instead coming to be seen.
Despair, also, because we have so little excuse, in a historically relative sense. At least Germans were hurting bad at the time of Hitler's rise to power, and can legitimately account for some of their monumental folly by reference to the desperation of their times, driven by the toxic cocktail of WWI humiliation, onerous war reparations, political chaos under the stability-averse Weimar Republic, and crushing economic depression. We Americans? We're the richest country in the world, the unchallenged superpower, and - 9/11 notwithstanding - highly secure from any real military threat on our shores. How will we answer history when it asks what was our excuse?
In his New York Times review of "The Downfall", A.O. Scott writes "But of course, millions of Germans - most of them ordinary and, in their own minds, decent people - loved Hitler, and it is that fact that most urgently needs to be understood, and that most challenges our own complacency."
Indeed it does. I have been shocked and awed in recent years by the desperate rigidity of many of the president's supporters in clinging to their conclusions about national and international affairs, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. I have had multiple conversations with such individuals which were abruptly truncated when solid evidence was placed on the table, as if they were simply psychologically unprepared to go where such facts inevitably led.
In my judgment, these Americans have entered into a post-empirical era of policy 'analysis' and political 'discussion', a time in which politics has become for them a faith-based enterprise. They believe what they believe, and there is neither need, nor desire, nor tolerance of dissenting information or opinion.
Polling data suggests to me that there is a very large core of perhaps 40 percent of the American public who fall into this category, including - most surprisingly - people like those described in Thomas Frank's "What's The Matter With Kansas?", for whom Bush's economic policies are particularly and personally ruinous. Whatever antidote it will take to shake this very large contingent of Americans from their Bush-induced and Limbaugh-nourished hallucinations has evidently not yet been discovered. v And, at the end of the day, there may be no such item or even catalog of items, just as there was not for Magda Goebbels. So far, at least, neither the pre-9/11 security failures of the Bush administration, the tragedy of the Iraq quagmire, the drunken-sailor spending binge of the national treasury, the wholesale exportation of jobs, the thrashing of international law, alliances, treaties and morality, nor the disgust and anger of the rest of the world at American behavior abroad appears to be sufficient.
Rather, put more accurately, it is likely that the awareness of the very existence of such maladies is only dimly perceived by the bulk of these Americans. For the Bush team has well understood the central lesson of Magda's husband, the 20th century's master propagandist: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State."
But there is more to the story than the diabolically clever and largely successful efforts of the Bush team, and the movement of regressive politics they lead, to stifle, intimidate, ignore, end-run and replace a free press, as well as the constitutionally guaranteed rights to meaningful free assembly or redress of government.
We must ask what, at a psychological level, drives the nationalist and religious imperatives - both needs, along with a passion to be led, requited in spades by the Bush presidency - haunting so much of middle America in a time of general peace and prosperity.
I don't pretend to have the answer to this question. Indeed, I would be skeptical that there even exists a single answer to the question.
But if I had to hazard a guess, my intuition suggests to me that we may now be paying the price for the human commodification and atomization that has been a product of the hyper-capitalism which has proliferated here in recent decades.
During this period, the incredibly rich have gotten incredibly richer, while the basic web of economic security which once provided a safety net to middle-class Americans is being systematically dismantled from every angle, whether that takes the form of good jobs being automated or leaving the country, college tuition becoming prohibitive in cost, private healthcare and pension plans retracting or disappearing, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs under assault and retrenching, tightening of the bankruptcy noose, the decaying of organized labor's bargaining power, and/or stagnant wages matched by rising costs and skyrocketing personal debt.
Anyway you slice it, the message of the cosmos is quite clear to those spiritually underprivileged bipeds inhabiting this bit of planet Earth at the rise of the third millennium: "You're on your own, pal!". If there's a better recipe for existential angst, I'm hard pressed to imagine it. And if there's a better way to drive people, during a time of relative peace and prosperity, into a feverishly-maintained, logically-unsustainable, but nevertheless emotionally-satisfying politics, I can't think of that either.
Is this too simple a solution to the puzzle of what lurks in the American heart, circa 2005? Probably.
But this much I think we can say, for sure. Progressivism will never again succeed in America until we begin to understand Americans at the level of their psychological functions, and start addressing not just their rational, material and moral needs, but their deeper emotional requisites, as well.
Bush, and his movement of the American bunker, understand this well. Indeed, they must, for they cannot deliver at any other level, and they can only pretend to even deliver at the emotional level by creating conditions of heightened fear and focused rage which barely cover their myriad policy failures. Troubled by your slipping standard of living? Forget that. Homosexuals now want to legally marry each other! But Bush is more than a successful politician able to be skillfully marketed, like so many detergent flakes, by the evil Dr. Rove. He is certainly all that, but he is also, regrettably, a mirror reflecting the troubled psyche of the American superpower, and a window into its anxious, selfish and fearful soul. Progressives must find ways to speak this same language of emotion and soul, but not falsely, and not for ill, but instead to better our country and our world. It can be done.
Finally, a program note.
Somewhere in America, on the highest perches of a tall mountain, a small rock has begun its descent, bringing others down with it. This rock was loosed by the release of a secret memo far across the Atlantic, but its path has been prepared by years of political deceit, arrogance, and aggression at home and abroad. The avalanche it has precipitated is at this moment gaining mass and velocity at a fast-growing rate. Its ultimate destination is Pennsylvania Avenue, in the American capital, though it remains unclear whether it possesses sufficient energy to carry that far.
While the vast bulk of Americans haven't yet a clue of what lurks on the horizon (because their media persists in not telling them), there is in fact more than a whiff of regime change in the air as a potential Washington Spring of our time gains momentum.
Consider. On Memorial Day, a major metropolitan newspaper called the US president a liar who has abused his most sacred trust as commander in chief. No, it wasn't Le Monde or The Guardian. It was the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, crying out from the American Heartland. Then, yesterday, from next door in Wisconsin, came passage of a resolution at the state Democratic Party convention, calling on Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings against America's president, vice-president and secretary of defense. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of major newspapers across the country are editorializing angrily on the Downing Street Memo, even while their front pages so far remain bizarrely and unaccountably (in both senses of the word) silent.
Before the war, Bush once dropped in on Condoleezza Rice's office and said to three startled senators visiting there, "Fuck Saddam. We're taking him out." But it now appears at least as likely that the opposite will be true. Saddam may well be returning the favor. It is no longer inconceivable or even broadly improbable that the Bush junta will fall, and that America and the world will breathe free once again. This may be particularly likely after a new Congress is seated in January 2007, with quite possibly a substantially different complexion from the current one, and also quite possibly Nancy Pelosi, rather than Dennis Hastert, as third in line of presidential succession.
All of which makes the hearts of progressives leap with a joy they've not felt for a very long time. But, given what has been discussed above, we would do well to also consider the dangers inherent in our looming possible success. If nothing else, the last decade has taught us that the regressive right will do anything to obtain and retain power, whether that means stealing elections, judicial coups, impeachment for minor personal offenses, rewriting centuries-old Senate rules, or smearing war heroes like Max Cleland or the Johns, Kerry and McCain.
Given such a pattern, this also makes it not unlikely that a congressionally unseated Bush and Cheney might simply decide not to go, plunging the republic into the second worst constitutional crisis in its history. Meanwhile, egged on by the Fox/Limbaugh/et al. propaganda circuit, the forty percent of Americans described above might line-up behind the president-cum-dictator accordingly, no doubt convinced that impeachment was illegitimate partisan revenge for Clinton.
Now is not yet the moment to get too explicitly engrossed in the details of what may yet turn out to be a far-flung and wildly improbable scenario. And yet, which part of the formulation so far seems patently ridiculous? The chicken-hawk Bush (so anxious to send, so careful not to be sent) is caught lying to the American public about the bloodbath into which he's plunged the country's youth, and they therefore angrily demand his scalp? Especially after Congress changes hands because of a landslide anti-Republican vote in 2006?
Or an entrenched, power-obsessed administration, backed by the rude screeches of right-wing media and the enraged forty percent of the American public they've mobilized, refusing to yield the keys to the government?
So, what then? While I wouldn't bet on this scenario (yet), neither does it strike me as wildly improbable. It is therefore not too early to consider how such a political drama might then play out, and what assets each side might bring to the conflict.
Generally, which way the military goes is determinative in civil contests of this sort. And, generally, the American military is certainly not known for its progressive political tendencies. However, the leadership may decide that duty, honor and country require that they place the Constitution over and above ideological commitments. Or, given what we now know about the Air Force Academy, they may not. On the other hand, we may also entertain the hope that increasing numbers of military personnel will recognize that the Vietnam War-avoider Bush has been a complete disaster for America's over-strained volunteer military.
We must, in short, think strategically and long-term if we are to have a hope of rescuing this country from its present peril. At a minimum, it would be wise for progressives to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam-era protest in attacking the soldiers who are sometimes every bit as much the victims of this war as are Iraqi civilians. More broadly, if we are to avoid a complete constitutional meltdown, we progressives may wish to start building bridges today to key constituencies which will prove crucial in eventualities like those described above.
Conditions look better in America today than they have for a long and dark time now. Still, there is much work to be done to survive the disaster of the radical right's capture of American government. Not only the nightmare of these last years, but also its unraveling, will prove to be very dangerous waters to navigate.
David Michael Green (email@example.com) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.