I’m reading articles from The Intercept, the online site co-establisheds by Glenn Greenwald, formerly of the UK paper The Guardian. He’s the one who first published Edward Snowden’s revelations about massive NSA spying on American citizens. Scrolling down Intercept news and opinion, I come across an article by Peter Maass, who covered (among others) the 1990s war in the Balkans. Here, in his Feb. 7 Intercept story, Maass describes how President Donald Trump’s tactic of lying reminds him of the Serb leaders/war criminals Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić.
DURING HIS INAUGURAL address, Donald Trump deployed rhetoric that was familiar to anyone who spent time in the Balkans in the 1990s. “You will never be ignored again,” Trump thundered, with Congress as his backdrop. He expanded on the idea a few days later, during a visit to the Department of Homeland Security, where he said, “To all of those hurting out there, I repeat to you these words, we hear you, we see you, and you will never, ever be ignored again.
Trump’s message was a variation, directed at his largely white constituency, of the you-shall-not-be-beaten-again rhetoric used with malignant effect by Slobodan Milošević during the collapse of Yugoslavia. Trump is not Milošević and the United States is not Yugoslavia, of course, but the echoes between these paragons of national shamelessness reveal the underlying methods and weaknesses of what Trump is trying to pull off.*
Such words should cause Trump sympathizers to pause and reflect. Journalists (despite what slack-minded alt.rightists say) are loathe to launch such attacks against public officials. After all, they have ways of launching counter-attacks with weapons not available to the news media.
So pause a sec. Reflect. Okay, now breathe.
Maass continues (these are selected excerpts from his article; note to skeptics: they are representative quotes, not in any way taken out of context):
Milošević created his own reality. I have never interviewed Trump but I have an unforgettable memory of what it’s like to sit in a room with a gaslighter-in-chief** and try to pin him down.
Milošević’s first words to Maass in that meeting:
“Why do you write lies about my country?” I now realize these words could just as easily come out of Trump’s mouth, or his Twitter account, when he discusses media organizations he does not like, which is most of them.
In the book he later wrote describing his Balkan War years, Maas offers his gut-level reaction to that meeting:
I would have had better luck trying to land a punch on a hologram. Milošević existed in a different dimension, a twilight zone of lies, and I was mucking about in the dimension of facts. He had spent his entire life in the world of communism, and he had become a master, an absolute master, at fabrication. Of course my verbal punches went right through him. It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milošević what color it was. White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked. He does not shout in anger. He sounds concerned for my eyesight. . . .
While Milošović was “whip smart, disciplined, and he was not a narcissist,” Maass writes, his successor (also a war criminal) was more like Trump:
Trump’s buffoonery was present, however, in another protagonist of the Balkan carnage — Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb leader who got his start as Milošević’s puppet. Karadžić’s fabulism was more brazen than his fellow Serb’s, if only because like Trump he adored the spotlight and talked so much. Karadžić was a night owl, and one evening I attended a press conference that began after midnight in his small-town headquarters outside besieged Sarajevo. The Muslims were bombing themselves, Karadžić said. The media invented the tales of Serb mistreatment of detainees. There was no ethnic cleansing — Muslims left their homes voluntarily.
Karadžić’s performance was Trumpian in its audacious make-believe, and it conveyed a lesson that’s useful to us today. Tyrants don’t care if you believe them, they just want you to succumb to doubt. “His ideas were so grotesque,” I later wrote of Karadžić, “his version of reality so twisted, that I was tempted to conclude he was on drugs, or that I was. I knew Bosnia well, and I knew that the things Karadžić said were lies, and that these lies were being broadcast worldwide, every day, several times a day, and they were being taken seriously. I am not saying that his lies were accepted as the truth, but I sensed they were obscuring the truth, causing outsiders to stay on the sidelines, and this of course was a great triumph for Karadžić. He didn’t need to make outsiders believe his version of events; he just needed to make them doubt the truth and sit on their hands.”
Again, for emphasis: Trump is not the fool he’s sometimes portrayed as. He’s dangerous. Perhaps most dangerous when he seems most sincere. His supporters might take a few minutes to reflect on the fact that Trump’s early attempts to rid the country of “illegal aliens” and return the United States to snow-blizzard whiteness has a legitimate parallel with ethnic cleansing.
Right now, the difference between them is a matter of degree. No one, not even his fans, want to see their president ratchet up the intensity of his xenophobia, nativism, racism, homophobia, trans-phobia, climate denialism, etc. Purges have a life of their own. Often, those who thought they were safe from targeting eventually get caught up in this indiscriminate net.
No one appreciates the principle of purges better than Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who became an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler (oops! There’s that Nazi tie-in the media are so careful to dance around). He’s best remembered today as the author of these lines:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemöller spent the last seven years of the Nazi regime in various concentration camps. He died in 1984.
Here’s a final thought for Trump supporters. Have you considered, really considered, what it is you are supporting? Will the Muslims and Hispanics be leaving their homes “voluntarily”? Is the country better for the broken families? These were working people whose children now may have to go into tax-supported public care. Forget the emotional scars—those you will pay for later.
Will the “White Empire” you inherit as a result leave room for you? Will you be white enough? Pure enough ideologically? Sufficiently filled with Trumpian zeal? And if it turns out that you are, how will you feel about that?
*Intentional Fallacy. This last statement reminds me of that term, used by the Formalist School of literary criticism. Critics of this school believed it was an error to ascribe to a novelist or poet any particular “intention” when critiquing his or her text. This is the “the text speaks for itself” school of thought. The formalistic approach reduces the importance of a text’s historical, biographical, and cultural context. In a way, it applies here. Ask yourself: In the end, will it matter what Trump intended if the results turn out to be what you feared (or hoped for)?
**Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief. [Wikipedia acc. 17 Feb 2017]