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23 October 2017 22:39 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

America’s stark new reality

  • Jeff Kelly Lowenstein
    Kelly-Lowenstein.jpg
    Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

    Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is an investigative journalist, author of four books and a visiting professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. In 1995 he was a Fulbright Teacher at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat, South Africa, and in 2016 he taught an investigative journalism course at Wits University. His work has earned national and international recognition.

To many, Trump’s first days echo the first week of Hitler’s rule in 1933. I still believe that our democratic traditions are far more entrenched than those of Weimar Germany. But the speed, manner and substance of how Trump has governed during his first week in office has heralded a new and markedly different era.

Before Hitler came to power, anti-semitism had always been a part of German life, my great uncle Ernie Lowenstein told me in the summer of 1992.

But the difference was noticeable as soon as Hitler came to power.

You could tell right away, he said.

I was visiting Ernie in the retirement facility in Indiana where he had moved after a lengthy and distinguished career as a small-town doctor in Mt. Carmel, Illinois.

Ernie had moved to the United States from Essen, Germany, the community where our family had lived for more than 150 years, in the 1930s.

A recently minted doctor, he left after the Nazi government’s decree that Jews could not practice medicine meant that he could not earn a living.

I thought of Ernie’s words this past week, the first in Donald Trump’s presidency. My brother Jon, a highly decorated photographer, and I attended and covered the inaugural ceremony during which Trump delivered a fiery address.

Hearing what he had to say that day left me with the conclusion that everything is on the table.

By that I don’t just mean the systematic demolition of nearly everything former President Barack Obama accomplished during his two terms in power.

I am talking about a commitment to combat the ill effects of climate change and America’s role as an engaged leader in the world community.

And, according to some, the democratic fabric and character of our society itself is at stake.

A week later, that sense I carried from the inauguration is stronger. I want to be clear that I am not saying that Trump is Hitler or that we are in the early days of Nazi Germany. Our democratic traditions are far more entrenched than those of Weimar Germany.

While containing many elements of hatred, Trump’s ideology is not based on a stated goal of the elimination of an entire people from public life as a first step towards their eventual extermination. (The degree to which Hitler originally held this as a goal for Jews remains a point of historical debate.)

But I am saying that the speed, manner and substance of how Trump has governed during his first week in office has heralded a new and markedly different era.

Let me be specific.

Thus far, Trump has largely governed by executive memo and orders, signing a record 14 in his first week.

The decrees he’s issued have covered everything from starting to build a 1,000-mile wall on the US/Mexico border and stripping “sanctuary cities” of federal funding to instituting a ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States.

A Texas mosque was set on fire hours after Trump signed the executive order.

Trump’s actions are noteworthy not just because of their number, but because of their impact. Whereas previous presidents often have signed symbolic measures among their initial orders, Trump has waded into some of the most controversial issues facing the American nation.

His stances must be viewed in the context of his running war with the media.

In an interview with The New York Times, White House Counsellor Steve Bannon labelled media as the opposition party, saying that it should “keep its mouth shut up and just listen for a while”.

On Saturday Trump gave Bannon, the former manager of Breitbart News, a regular seat on the National Security Council that advises the president on national security and foreign affairs.

Trump and Bannon’s statements come after Trump called the National Park Service’s director for retweeting side-by-side photos of the crowd that attended his inauguration and that of the first Obama presidential inauguration eight years earlier.

They come after Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted in the face of much countervailing evidence that the president’s assertion that his inauguration crowd was the largest in American history.

They come after he said torture “works” during an interview with ABC News’ David Muir.

And they come after Trump’s promise of a “major investigation” into what he has said was massive voter fraud that cost him the popular vote against Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the November election.

Republican leaders said they did not find evidence to back Trump’s statements.

But the same leaders who routinely criticised Obama as an “emperor” were silent about saying that Trump had committed executive overreach.

Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan said they would find funding for the wall, which they estimated to cost between $12-billion and $15-billion. Others have put the cost higher.

Taken together, these actions represent an assault on many of the collective values that have been an integral part of our nation’s history, an attack on truth and a staunch challenge to the First Amendment that is a core element of an open, free and democratic society.

Americans of various political stripes will make different sense of these developments.

Trump’s supporters probably see them as a welcome change from the dark years of the Obama administration and the beginning of a fresh, take-charge approach.

His opponents are likely to interpret the last week as our nation’s rapid move in an ominous direction.

For my part, I’m thinking about the words my ageing uncle shared with me in the apartment where he lived the final years of his contributory life.

And I’m agreeing with his point of the importance of recognising that, just like German citizens in early 1933, we are living in a starkly different reality than we were a mere nine days ago. DM

  • Jeff Kelly Lowenstein
    Kelly-Lowenstein.jpg
    Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

    Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is an investigative journalist, author of four books and a visiting professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. In 1995 he was a Fulbright Teacher at the Uthongathi School in Tongaat, South Africa, and in 2016 he taught an investigative journalism course at Wits University. His work has earned national and international recognition.

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