The Trump effect

by Virginia Larson / 15 February, 2017
Editorial: If you’re following the Trump presidency with even a smidgeon of horror and fascination, you really can’t afford to go media-free for more than a day or two.

Miss 48 hours of news, and you’ll find Trump has signed another stack of executive orders, from reviving the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines, to de-funding international family-planning organisations that provide any abortion-related services or counselling.

I abandoned my POTUS-watch in late January. Ignored my smartphone for four days. Drove north to friends’ shared bach on the Tutukaka coast, where we grappled with knotty problems like how best to position the beanbags on the deck for dappled sun, and whether to opt for the 50m dash across hot sand or flip-flop to the tide-line in jandals.

We walked before breakfast, then let the days roll out in a blissful routine of swims, snacks, books and sundowner cocktails. Had we been marooned in paradise, we’d have exhausted the stonefruit and drinks supply long before we ran out of books. My two friends, who were staying on for an extra week, had both maxed out their library-card allowances with a giant pile of fiction; there were crime novels on a Kindle, and a selection of review paperbacks from my work.

It was one of those office books that ended my holiday boycott on thinking about President Trump. Before I left for Tutukaka, North & South art director Jenny Nicholls had thrust into my hands The Holocaust: A New History.

What could I say? “Thanks, Jenny, but I planned on going troppo with a bit of magical realism and chick-lit… The Holocaust? Not exactly beach reading.”

Still, I felt obliged to at least flick through the photographic plates before returning to Alice Hoffman. That led me to the prologue and from there, I was hooked into Rees’ compelling, chilling explanation – woven with eyewitness testimony – of how and why the Holocaust happened.

What I didn’t know, in my news-free zone, was I’d launched into the book on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated six million Jews, 250,000 disabled people, 200,000 Romani people and 9000 homosexual men at the hands of the Nazi regime and its collaborators. I also missed the first days of chaos and outrage caused by Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries – a ban curiously exempting Saudi Arabia, chief source of funding for al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups.

My holiday expired before I finished the book. But even as I write this, there are passages from The Holocaust that still ping around my brain every time another Trump story hits the news feeds.

I know it’s unfair and alarmist to compare Trump to Hitler, but there are some unsettling parallels between the man in the Oval Office and the patriot who wanted to make Germany great again, including a description from one of Rees’ pre-war, “Reich building” chapters.

In the early weeks of 1938, the Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was strongly encouraged by the German ambassador to Vienna to meet with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, in order to correct any “misunderstandings” between the two countries. Rees writes: “Like many of Hitler’s political opponents, Schuschnigg [who succeeded Engelbert Dollfuss, assassinated by Austrian Nazis in 1934] was something of an intellectual – a graduate in law who after the war became a professor of political science. For people like this, Hitler was an almost impossible adversary. He would pile false charge after false charge in such quick succession that they could not be answered. Schuschnigg was one of the first foreign statesmen to be thrown off balance by this tactic – and he would not be the last. He did not seem to understand that Hitler did not respond to intellectual argument. The German leader was not a ‘normal’ statesman. He did not want to come to a mutually agreeable compromise and it did not matter to him that his ‘facts’ were wrong.”

Rees would have been researching and writing well before Trump became a credible candidate, let alone president. He must be watching American politics now with trepidation.

Our election year will surely be sane and civil in comparison. And eight months of Trump-watching before election day might also encourage more New Zealanders to handle our little democracy with care. Voting is a right and a privilege – when your “orange man” ballot papers turn up in the mail, treasure them.         


This is from the March 2017 issue of North & South, on sale now.
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