The Ghostly Hands of the 1930s

In the parlous year of 1938, German littérateur Thomas Mann left his homeland in order to save it. He emigrated to the United States and, using his unique verbal gifts, attempted to persuade our political leaders to drop their neutrality and assist the European allies in resisting Hitler and, more broadly, combat the obverse ideologies of fascism and socialism. 

“Even America feels today that democracy is not an assured possession, that it has enemies, that it is threatened from within and from without, that it has once more become a problem,” Mann cautioned in a lecture series broadcast nationwide. His own country had succumbed to Nazism and jingoistic irredentism. America, Mann urged, must force democracy to “take stock of itself” and lead a “renewal” of its spirit in “thought and feeling.”

Mann’s warning proved prescient, with the Anschluss unfolding just as his words reached American ears. In just a year, “waves of anger and fear” would, to quote Auden, “circulate over the bright/and darkened lands of the earth.”

I bring up Mann’s address because of its absence from the first dispatch in a new series from The New Yorker about the struggles of Western democracy in the era of Trump. In “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died,” Jill Lepore surveys the current scene, comparing it with -- when else? -- the 1930s. 

“In the nineteen-thirties, you could count on the Yankees winning the World Series, dust storms plaguing the prairies, evangelicals preaching on the radio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt residing in the White House, people lining up for blocks to get scraps of food, and democracies dying, from the Andes to the Urals and the Alps,” she writes, in the briefest of history lessons that wouldn’t even meet Wikipedia editorial standards. But she gets the last part right: democracy -- a catchall for western liberalism -- was indeed faltering. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Metaxas, Stalin, and others personified the sublimation of illiberal, humanity-quashing tyranny.

Lepore now sees dead despots clutching the reins of today’s democracies; meaning that she envisions the ghostly forms of the Führer and Il Duce pulling countries like Hungary, Brazil, Russia, and the United States back to the old oppression that was supposed to have been civilly smothered at Potsdam (the Soviet Union notwithstanding).

Quoting period intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann, Arnold Toynbee, and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Lepore composes a medley of dirges to democracy. But, as history illustrated, liberal democracy was more resilient, more flinty in the face of adversarial authoritarianism, than its defenders supposed.

Lepore overestimates the threat to democracy posed by present-day leaders. The current year isn’t 1939; democracy isn’t under armed assault from the twinned doctrines of Nazism and Stalinism. At least in the United States, democracy, by Lepore’s lights, is thriving despite her baseless fears of President Trump.

Democracy as a concept isn’t easy to define. True, its base precepts are straightforward: one person, one vote, equal access to the ballot box, government of, by, and for the people. But, in function, in the messy process of practicing civic responsibility, democracy reverts to a nebulous aspiration.

Lepore settles on a pat definition of democracy: a society is democratic if it argues about the proper limits of democracy. She writes, “It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent.” Democracy is democracy when it’s autogenous -- it perpetuates participation within itself.

If the health of democracy is measured by how many citizens are arguing about whether or not their country is democratic enough, I’d wager democracy in the U.S. has never been so hale and hearty. The proof is in the vitriolic, epithet-filled pudding we loosely call the internet comment section. It’s in the interminable Facebook screeds that populate the social-media channel deep into the night. It’s even in the noxious cut and thrust of Twitter, even with its vindictive mobbing.

Pace Lepore, the Trump presidency has seen, if anything, an increase in democratic disagreement. The near-entirety of the celebrity-media-art-industrial complex speaks out against the administration, all while pocketing the disposable income of its easily impressed patrons. Case in point: Taylor Swift. The mega-popular songstress only recently started speaking out about politics, in predictable left-wing patter.

Donald Trump’s adversaries are hardly being deprived of their democratic voice. If anything, the converse is occurring. Trump critics are loud, outspoken, pugnacious, emotionally incontinent, rude, even murderous. They aren’t timid Falun Gong members being crunched under the heel of the all-powerful Sino-state.

More so, congressional Democrats are embroiled in the most partisan gambit allowed by the Constitution: impeaching the President. House Democrats, led by a failed screenwriter with a flair for melodrama, are questioning the very validity of the Trump administration. 

Lepore repines that democracy “meant something once,” and that “it still does” amidst our acrimonious times. That Democrats are free to pursue the path of deposition proves that reports of democracy’s demise are well overstated. 

Mann’s definition of democracy resembled Lepore’s: “Democracy is thought; but it is thought related to life and action.” We’re living through a democratic upheaval, no doubt, with much thought and plenty of action happening over the future of a country that puts behind its helm a man with no previous political experience. “I feel that the hopes of all those who cherish democratic sentiments in the sense in which I have defined them, must be concentrated in this country,” Mann concluded in his encomium to American democracy.

The doomsayers of our day aren’t contending with the evil Mann fought in his. In the name of democracy, they’re remonstrating against one of its core canons: the elevation of a common man to high office. And in doing so, they’re proving America’s democratic essence is unflagging.

In the parlous year of 1938, German littérateur Thomas Mann left his homeland in order to save it. He emigrated to the United States and, using his unique verbal gifts, attempted to persuade our political leaders to drop their neutrality and assist the European allies in resisting Hitler and, more broadly, combat the obverse ideologies of fascism and socialism. 

“Even America feels today that democracy is not an assured possession, that it has enemies, that it is threatened from within and from without, that it has once more become a problem,” Mann cautioned in a lecture series broadcast nationwide. His own country had succumbed to Nazism and jingoistic irredentism. America, Mann urged, must force democracy to “take stock of itself” and lead a “renewal” of its spirit in “thought and feeling.”

Mann’s warning proved prescient, with the Anschluss unfolding just as his words reached American ears. In just a year, “waves of anger and fear” would, to quote Auden, “circulate over the bright/and darkened lands of the earth.”

I bring up Mann’s address because of its absence from the first dispatch in a new series from The New Yorker about the struggles of Western democracy in the era of Trump. In “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died,” Jill Lepore surveys the current scene, comparing it with -- when else? -- the 1930s. 

“In the nineteen-thirties, you could count on the Yankees winning the World Series, dust storms plaguing the prairies, evangelicals preaching on the radio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt residing in the White House, people lining up for blocks to get scraps of food, and democracies dying, from the Andes to the Urals and the Alps,” she writes, in the briefest of history lessons that wouldn’t even meet Wikipedia editorial standards. But she gets the last part right: democracy -- a catchall for western liberalism -- was indeed faltering. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Metaxas, Stalin, and others personified the sublimation of illiberal, humanity-quashing tyranny.

Lepore now sees dead despots clutching the reins of today’s democracies; meaning that she envisions the ghostly forms of the Führer and Il Duce pulling countries like Hungary, Brazil, Russia, and the United States back to the old oppression that was supposed to have been civilly smothered at Potsdam (the Soviet Union notwithstanding).

Quoting period intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann, Arnold Toynbee, and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Lepore composes a medley of dirges to democracy. But, as history illustrated, liberal democracy was more resilient, more flinty in the face of adversarial authoritarianism, than its defenders supposed.

Lepore overestimates the threat to democracy posed by present-day leaders. The current year isn’t 1939; democracy isn’t under armed assault from the twinned doctrines of Nazism and Stalinism. At least in the United States, democracy, by Lepore’s lights, is thriving despite her baseless fears of President Trump.

Democracy as a concept isn’t easy to define. True, its base precepts are straightforward: one person, one vote, equal access to the ballot box, government of, by, and for the people. But, in function, in the messy process of practicing civic responsibility, democracy reverts to a nebulous aspiration.

Lepore settles on a pat definition of democracy: a society is democratic if it argues about the proper limits of democracy. She writes, “It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent.” Democracy is democracy when it’s autogenous -- it perpetuates participation within itself.

If the health of democracy is measured by how many citizens are arguing about whether or not their country is democratic enough, I’d wager democracy in the U.S. has never been so hale and hearty. The proof is in the vitriolic, epithet-filled pudding we loosely call the internet comment section. It’s in the interminable Facebook screeds that populate the social-media channel deep into the night. It’s even in the noxious cut and thrust of Twitter, even with its vindictive mobbing.

Pace Lepore, the Trump presidency has seen, if anything, an increase in democratic disagreement. The near-entirety of the celebrity-media-art-industrial complex speaks out against the administration, all while pocketing the disposable income of its easily impressed patrons. Case in point: Taylor Swift. The mega-popular songstress only recently started speaking out about politics, in predictable left-wing patter.

Donald Trump’s adversaries are hardly being deprived of their democratic voice. If anything, the converse is occurring. Trump critics are loud, outspoken, pugnacious, emotionally incontinent, rude, even murderous. They aren’t timid Falun Gong members being crunched under the heel of the all-powerful Sino-state.

More so, congressional Democrats are embroiled in the most partisan gambit allowed by the Constitution: impeaching the President. House Democrats, led by a failed screenwriter with a flair for melodrama, are questioning the very validity of the Trump administration. 

Lepore repines that democracy “meant something once,” and that “it still does” amidst our acrimonious times. That Democrats are free to pursue the path of deposition proves that reports of democracy’s demise are well overstated. 

Mann’s definition of democracy resembled Lepore’s: “Democracy is thought; but it is thought related to life and action.” We’re living through a democratic upheaval, no doubt, with much thought and plenty of action happening over the future of a country that puts behind its helm a man with no previous political experience. “I feel that the hopes of all those who cherish democratic sentiments in the sense in which I have defined them, must be concentrated in this country,” Mann concluded in his encomium to American democracy.

The doomsayers of our day aren’t contending with the evil Mann fought in his. In the name of democracy, they’re remonstrating against one of its core canons: the elevation of a common man to high office. And in doing so, they’re proving America’s democratic essence is unflagging.