"To live in the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, 'regretted.'"
-- A German professor, speaking to American author Milton Mayer for his landmark 1951 book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1939-45.
I've been trying to notice all the "inconsequential" things in America, lately, during this so-called "time of transition" into Donald J. Trump's unprecedented (and not "unpresidented") presidency that begins in just over two weeks. By that, I mean all the news items which -- viewed in isolation -- seem a little weird or even "off," but not necessarily earth-shattering. Until you start adding them up and doing the math.
Item: Trump continues to rely on his occasionally over-the-top private security force at rallies and events since his November 8 election, and is bringing at least some of that into the White House. Just today, he announced that Keith Schiller, a former door-battering NYPD detective who's headed Trump's security since the turn of the millennium, is having a plum White House job created for him, Director of Oval Office Operations. This for a man best known for manhandling journalist Jorge Ramos, pummeling a Latino demonstrator, and running a force that Politico noted has triggered lawsuits amid allegations of "alleged racial profiling, undue force or aggression."Other members of Trump's private security team may join Schiller in the White House.
Item: The president-elect took to Twitter this week to bemoan Chicago's rising murder rate -- so far, so good...everyone should be alarmed at murder rates that are too high in major cities, including Philadelphia -- but then hinted that his administration might be forced to get involved. "If Mayor can't do it he must ask for Federal help!" Trump wrote. It's not clear what he meant; a powerful American tradition has been to oppose the idea of federal policing, at least on the street-crime level. But Trump has made "law-and-order" a centerpiece of his political rise, endorsing the discredited policy of "stop-and-frisk" and remarking last summer that Chicago could solve its crime problem if cops were "very much tougher." (Despite that department's unfortunate history of brutality.) No wonder that Trump begins his presidency with support-bordering-on-adolation from the nation's largest police union.
Item: You may have heard that Trump is having trouble attracting well-known celebrities to perform at the Jan. 20 inauguration. Shocking, isn't it, that folks in creative fields built around free expression would oppose such a man?...but there it is. We still have the inaugural parade and the line-up which will -- stop me if you've heard this one before --"spotlight military and police units," according to the Washington Post. (At least there won't be Pershing missiles rolling down the street...at least I hope not.) OK, you're probably saying a little more militarism around Trump's inauguration is nothing to get worked up about, and maybe you're right. But what about?...
Item: Trump -- who once pompously stated during the campaign that he "knows more than the generals" -- has pulled "a 180" since his November election and named an unprecedented number of recently retired generals to his administration. That includes possibly his scariest pick -- former Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, who won't have to face a confirmation hearing to defend his bizarre conspiracy tweeting or his recent hookup with Vladimir Putin -- and the more down-to-earth former Marine Gen. John Kelly to run Homeland Security.
Then there's the curious case of the man that Trump has tapped to run the Defense Department, recently retired General James Mattis. I say "curious" because Mattis is arguably Trump's best cabinet selection -- a fierce warrior but with mature, sensible positions on hot-button issues like torture and the Iran nuclear deal -- yet also one of the most troublesome. Troublesome, because the post-war architects of the modern Pentagon were determined to see civilian control of the military, following in the founding tradition established by George Washington when he resigned his military commission to become the first president.
The job of defense secretary was created with a restriction that appointees must be out of the military for at least 10 years, later knocked down to seven. The only way Mattis can get the job is for Congress to pass a waiver (which happened once previously), and the 48 Democrats technically have the votes to filibuster and force Trump to name a true civilian. That probably won't happen; Mattis is popular with Democrats, who even asked him to address their convention before he spoke at Trump's RNC instead.
Mattis should be defeated, however. The growing presence of military men running key civilian agencies, the influence of shadowy security men inside the coming Trump White House, the idea that we'll get used to seeing more soldiers and more cops around, whether in the streets of Chicago or at something as innocuous as the inaugural parade...each of these, alone, isn't a seismic shift. But the slow militarization of American society here in "the homeland" is a creeping danger that should alarm all of us.
And to be clear, I'm focusing on a few of the more "inconsequential" aspects of a very #NotNormal Trump transition. I haven't dwelled on some of the bigger violations of long-standing norms, like the president-elect's unwillingness to address his massive business-related conflicts of interests, and the likely enrichment of his children in schemes that reek of central Asian dictatorships (or "the -stans," as Paul Krugman wrote this week.) Or his desire to use Twitter for daily agitprop while restricting an actual free press. Or his naming of Big Oil or Wall Street execs to positions that were created to act in the name of citizens, not corporations.
But these constant, seemingly small alterations in the American body politic also matter, a lot. They have all the hallmarks of a slow creep toward....what? Fascism? Some critics insist it's both wrong and counterproductive to label Trump's brave new world as "fascism" and thus beg inevitable comparisons to Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, that what we're seeing here is just a radical and sometimes troubling form of American "populism." I don't know. I read this long piece from Vox on how Trumpism is not fascism and it listed tenets of fascism -- embraces of violence and fervent nationalism and a strong military -- and almost all of it rang a bell.
But fine -- don't call it "fascism" if that bothers or distracts you. When a new leader offers us a vision of a more militaristic America, centered on a cult of personality, intensely nationalistic and xenophobic, and a kleptocracy to boot, it shouldn't need a fancy name or a label to scare the living bejeezus out of us. And force us to act.
Easier said than done. That's what author Milton Mayer found when he interviewed everyday Germans roughly five years after the fall of Hitler and Nazism. Here's a longer excerpt of how that college professor explained the slow and gradual acceptance of authoritarianism:
"What happened was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to be governed by surprise, to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believe that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if people could understand it, it could not be released because of national security."
The anonymous German prof went on to say:
"Each act, each occasion is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next, and the next. You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.
"Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing) ... You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair."
It's easy to not sweat the small stuff with Trump -- until you realize that none of it is small stuff. Because when the tipping point comes for American democracy, you may not even feel it -- until it is, as our professor friend lamented, "too late." That's why the moment for resistance is right now -- when we know we are free.