As the President rejects our foundational principles, all we can turn to is our instinct for shared defiance.
By Adam Gopnik / The New Yorker
February 13, 2017
Within two weeks of the Inauguration, the hysterical hyperventilators have come to seem more prescient in their fear of incipient autocratic fanaticism than the reassuring pooh-poohers. There’s a simple reason for this: the hyperventilators often read history.
Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, the couple who did so much to bear witness to the terrible truths of the Second World War, came to town last week to introduce their new memoir to an American audience. In it, there is a photograph that can only be called heartbreaking in its happiness, unbearable in its ordinariness. It shows an eight-year-old Serge with his sister and their Romanian-Jewish parents walking along a promenade in Nice, in 1943, still smiling, still feeling confident, even at that late date, that they are safe in their new French home. Within a few months, the children and their mother were hiding in a false closet, as Gestapo agents took their father to Auschwitz, and his death.
What the photograph teaches is not that every tear in the fabric of civility opens a path to Auschwitz but that civilization is immeasurably fragile, and is easily turned to brutality and barbarism. The human capacity for hatred is terrifying in its volatility. (The same promenade in Nice was the site of the terrorist truck attack last year.) Americans have a hard time internalizing that truth, but the first days of the Trump Administration have helped bring it home.
Within two weeks of the Inauguration, the hysterical hyperventilators have come to seem more prescient in their fear of incipient autocratic fanaticism than the reassuring pooh-poohers. There’s a simple reason for this: the hyperventilators often read history. Regimes with an authoritarian ideology and a boss man on top always bend toward the extreme edge, because their only organizational principle is loyalty to the capo. Since the capo can be placated only by uncritical praise, the most fanatic of his lieutenants end up calling the shots. Loyalty to the boss is demonstrated by hatred directed against his enemies.
Yet what perhaps no one could have entirely predicted was the special cocktail of oafish incompetence and radical anti-Americanism that President Trump’s Administration has brought. This combination has produced a new note in our public life: chaotic cruelty. The immigration crisis may abate, but it has already shown the power of government to act arbitrarily overnight—sundering families, upending long-set expectations, until all those born as outsiders must imagine themselves here only on sufferance of a senior White House counsellor.