• Hitler’s Playbook

    No one can now doubt that Donald Trump is making a determined and sustained attempt to overturn the result of a democratic election and to defy the will of the people. He is clearly determined to hold on to power, whatever the verdict delivered by the ballot box – even to the extent of subverting, if necessary, the electoral college process.

    Donald Trump may or may not have read Mein Kampf, and may or may not be familiar with the history of the Third Reich, but he is – knowingly or otherwise – following Hitler’s playbook quite faithfully.

    Hitler, in the Germany of the 1930s, chose to blame an “enemy within” for the continuing hardships of the German people after their First World War defeat; if, he argued, the power and influence of German Jews could be eliminated, Germany could return to its former glory.

    On the basis of this extreme appeal to nationalism, and a readiness to target “others” as scapegoats, he and his Nazi party were able in 1933 to win a democratic election – but he rapidly turned his back on the democratic process that had brought him to power; he demonstrated his contempt for democracy by burning down the Reichstag, the building that housed the German parliament, and made it clear that his continuing power was to be maintained by non-democratic means.

    He continued to foment a nationalistic fervour and a “Germany first” ideology by encouraging attacks on Jews, gypsies, “communists”, homosexuals and other supposedly “non-German” influences, and built the image of an all-conquering Germany by launching unprovoked military attacks on neighbouring (and weaker) states.

    He held huge rallies of his supporters and used extravagant displays of lights, flags and pageantry to build up their enthusiasm and state of excitement. He made it clear that there was no role for a free press or any other form of potential criticism, and that adherence to the Nazi Party was the pre-condition of promotion across the whole public service. Nazis were appointed to all the top jobs, including judgeships. The Christian church, too, was recruited to the cause.

    Does any of this seem familiar? Can anyone doubt that Donald Trump, whatever his other shortcomings, is first and foremost a fascist in the making, and that his refusal to accept the presidential election result is his version of burning down the Reichstag?

    Was not Trump’s threatened post-election attack on Iran his version of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia? Does he not share with Hitler a readiness to target racially defined scapegoats – both at home and abroad – as being to blame for the country’s ills?

    For friends of the US, the most worrying aspect of this descent into totalitarianism is not just the parallel that can be drawn between Trump and Hitler, but the fact that there is, apparently, in large parts of American society, an appetite – even a welcome – for this kind of politics.

    In both Nazi Germany and now in today’s America, large numbers who could be in little doubt as to where their leaders wish to take them were ready to abandon their principles at the behest of leaders whose personalities were so extreme and laughable as to be almost buffoon-like.

    Sadly, both the Germans – and, now, the Americans – were able to close their eyes to what was staring them in the face. They preferred to indulge and inflame their own prejudices, and to target scapegoats, rather than adhere to the principles of the rule of law, civil rights and democracy. Those who should have been able to protect them went along with what they must have known was wrong.

    Following the Second World War and the defeat of Nazi Germany, most people felt that we would never again see the rise of such a malevolent ideology, let alone another major state under its sway.

    The post-election US crisis shows us, though, that “the price of freedom” is not only “eternal vigilance” but also the strength of character to recognise the threat to freedom when it appears and to fight it by summoning up every sinew.

    Do the American people (and especially Republican leaders) have that strength? On the evidence so far, we must have our doubts.

    Bryan Gould
    24 November 2020

  • A School in Good Heart

    A year ago, my wife and I attended the Senior Academic Prizegiving at my old school, Tauranga Boys College.

    I recall writing at that time a piece in which I registered how impressed we were at the evidence provided by the ceremony of a school in good heart, excellently led, and serving its pupils so that they achieved to the very best of their considerable abilities.

    This year, we again attended the annual Prizegiving and were again impressed by what it showed us of the school’s excellent spirit and high level of achievement.

    But this year, we had two additional reasons for being impressed. The first of these was intensely personal in nature. We were able to see our grandson, Benjamin Adams, awarded the distinction of becoming Dux of the school.

    His accolade was a proper recognition, not only of his academic prowess, but also of his commitment and application to his studies, and the effort he had put in to achieve his success. It was greeted by a standing ovation from all of those present – a salute to his exceptional abilities in which my wife and I were delighted to participate.

    When it came to the second reason for being impressed, we were able to be a little more dispassionate. It is the tradition at the school that the Head Boy, at the conclusion of his year of service in that capacity, addresses those present with his thoughts on what the year as Head Boy has meant to him and – perhaps even more importantly – what it has taught him.

    On this occasion, the task fell to a young man called Logan Green. It was a task – speaking to the large numbers present – that would have daunted most of us. He discharged it with great aplomb and confidence – but it was not just his manner and assurance that impressed us.

    It was the content of what he had to say that bespoke a young man who had thought deeply and carefully about what he might say. He took as his theme the role and concept of leadership and what constituted its true meaning – a topic that might rightly preoccupy many of us in view of events both at home and overseas, including what is currently happening in the US.

    He described a mode of leadership which he labelled “everyday” leadership, by which he meant leadership that did not depend on grand gestures and flamboyant posturing, but consisted instead in innumerable small, daily interactions, on a basis of common interests and mutual regard, between the leaders and the led.

    He rightly identified such an approach as building confidence between leaders and led, and drawing out the best from both. It is a concept of leadership that rests less on the self-importance of the leaders and more on the service they can render to the cause which they cherish in common with those they serve.

    We were greatly impressed by this thoughtful treatment of a complex subject – all the more remarkable when found in someone who seemed (at least to those – like my wife and me – of advanced years) just about to set off on life’s journey.

    We left the ceremony, not only in high spirits in light of our grandson’s success, but also marvelling at the school’s achievement in producing and developing a young man like Logan Green. The school is clearly doing some – or perhaps many – things right.

    Any school would be proud of exceptional alumni like Logan Green and Benjamin Adams. What was even more worthy of congratulation was the evidence provided by the ceremony that the school was enhancing the life chances of all its pupils by ensuring that, whatever level or range of ability they enjoyed, whatever their background and ethnicity, they were able to take the chances offered them by a school that cared about all its pupils.

    Well done, Tauranga Boys College.

    Bryan Gould
    17 November 2020

  • A Slow-Motion Coup

    We all know what a coup looks like – we have seen them often enough in benighted counties around the world.

    They usually begin with the appearance of armed troops in the street, with people being arrested and taken away, with radio and television studios and newspaper offices being closed, with opposition leaders being imprisoned and put on trial, with the newly dominant leader making speeches to proclaim his victory.

    We are less used to, and therefore less likely to recognise for what it is, a coup that takes place in slow motion – one that takes place in small stages and is brought about by inertia rather than aggression, contempt for the law rather than violence – yet that is what we may be witnessing in the US.

    How else are we to characterise the attempts by Donald Trump to maintain himself in power by refusing to accept the result of a democratic election? What is surely clear is that he is asserting his right to exercise power, even though that flies in the face of the people’s choice.

    He is refusing to comply with the rules and precedents established by the US constitution, and he is doing so by sitting tight and defying others to remove him. He continues to assert that he won the election and to rely on the unwillingness of his Republican colleagues to gainsay him.

    He is preparing for an eventual showdown by removing (from the Pentagon, for example,) those unlikely to support his claims and replacing them with others who will be more compliant. He is exploiting the interest of other Republicans in hanging on to power, and their fear of losing his support.

    What more do we need to convince us that we are seeing a coup that is unfolding in slow motion and that depends for its success, not on decisive action, but on craven inaction? As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

    Trump’s Republicans may or may not be good men (or women), but they are – sure as hell – quite happy to do nothing.

  • A Future President

    The welcome given to Joe Biden’s election as President-elect is understandable. He seems to be a decent and thoughtful man, in stark contrast to his predecessor, and seems well-equipped to take on the considerable challenges that now face him.

    But for many of us, the high point of the acceptance speeches from the successful Democrat candidates was the speech by Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris. For those of us who knew little of her, her acceptance speech was a revelation.

    We knew that she was of mixed-race (African and Indian) descent, that she was (of course) a woman and was relatively young – and that, for all these reasons, she was someone who was in the course of breaking new ground. We were not, perhaps, prepared to encounter someone of such ability and passion, someone (she is a lawyer) so thoughtful and competent.

    In the light of her acceptance speech, and as we review the tumultuous events of the last few days, I think we can perhaps make a re-assessment of what has happened. The role of a vice-presidential candidate is usually seen as ancillary to the main business, the decision as to who is to be President.

    But, having seen and heard Kamala Harris speak, we might reflect a little further. In such a close-fought contest, the contribution of a woman of such considerable ability as a potential Vice-President may well have made a crucial difference.

    This is not just because of the factors that, as her speech made clear, marked out her candidature as ground-breaking. She is of course a standard-bearer for women and for people of colour and, as she herself pointed out, where she has gone, others will be encouraged to follow. And the fact that Joe Biden chose her surely reflected well on him, as again, she registered, and will have helped his own chances.

    But the further significance of her rise to her new eminence is that, in addition to her obvious ability to appeal to an important sector of the electorate, she is a relatively young Vice- President. And that is given added significance by Biden’s advanced years – he is the oldest person ever elected to the presidency.

    It is not being too pessimistic or macabre to recognise the possibility that Biden may not be able to see out his term; if that proved to be the case, Kamala Harris would be required to step up. It must be a comfort to the Democrats, and to American democrats more generally, to have the assurance that a competent and proven potential replacement is standing by.

    Nor should a misfortune for Joe Biden be seen as the only circumstance in which Kamala Harris might be required, or offered the opportunity, to step up. It is not unrealistic to foresee that Biden, at his age, might not, having completed a full term, seek a second term.

    It would then be a highly desirable situation for the Democrats (particularly if Donald Trump were still around and wanting another crack at election) to have a ready-made candidate available. They could by-pass all the hassle and distractions of primary elections and proceed immediately to select a new candidate and, without delay, launch their new (but well-established and well-known) champion into the electoral arena.

    What we saw a couple of days ago, in other words, might well turn out to have been our introduction to, in the fullness of time, not one, but two new presidents. But we should not get ahead of ourselves.

    Having endured the past four years, the Americans are entitled to enjoy – in Joe Biden – the prospect of a gentler, kinder and more thoughtful President. But we can also recognise that part of his appeal has been – as Kamala Harris herself said – his “audacity” in choosing her as his running mate, and the care he seems to have taken to ensure a trouble-free succession.

    What price President Harris in 2024?

    Bryan Gould 11 November 2020

  • He’s Gone

    So, despite false claims of voter fraud and rigged elections (a strategy for which he had prepared the ground before the polls opened); despite repeated recourse to the courts; despite his refusal to concede; and, despite his incitement of his supporters to violence, Donald Trump has joined the ranks of those whom he has in the past contemptuously disparaged as “suckers and losers”.

    The American people have at last come to their senses, and pulled their country back from the brink – back from becoming a “failed state”. A malignancy has been cut out of their body politic; it is now Joe Biden’s task to restore it to full health.

    But Trump’s defeat still leaves the question as to how so many Americans supported such a dangerous charlatan and would-be autocrat. The answer is perhaps easier to discern than it may seem.

    One of the weaknesses of democracies is that voters can too easily see party politics as akin to a team sport, and see themselves as players in and supporters of their team, so that they close their eyes to any malfeasance by “their” man. Republicans – as long as Trump bore the label “Republican” – were unwilling to disown him, however insupportable his words and actions.

    And, he had the support of an openly partisan, Rupert Murdoch-owned media, who took his side, no matter what. For Fox News viewers, the nation-wide celebrations at Trump’s defeat would have come as surprising evidence of the unsuspected depth of his unpopularity.

    And, voters in democracies are susceptible to “personality” politics – and no society is more susceptible in this regard than the American. Their culture is one that has grown up with, and derives its values from, what they see on their television screens. They are accustomed to watching supermen, heroes and celebrities – and Donald Trump offered them an instantly recognisable and even exciting image and a larger-than-life personality.

    And Trump had a further advantage – he had originally introduced himself to the American public as a television personality, through hosting the television show “The Apprentice”. He had already entered their homes as a familiar and friendly face, apparently authoritative and successful, long before he became a politician.

    The USA is, of course, not the only country to experience “personality” politics. Boris Johnson in the UK was, arguably, a beneficiary of the same syndrome – and we might, at a stretch, regard our own election in a similar light. Jacinda Ardern is of course a far more estimable personality than Trump or Johnson, but who can doubt that her landslide victory owed much to her “star” quality?

    No other world leader, though, can match Trump for sheer vanity and narcissism. Who can forget the pleasure he showed when he recently declared that he was the most famous person in the world, conceding only that he might have to accept second place behind Jesus Christ.

    The irony is that Trump seems not to realise that the platform afforded to him as President has not enhanced his standing and reputation. Quite the reverse – it has instead simply ensured that his failings and weaknesses have been given global publicity. He has been reviled and scorned in every corner of the globe.

    If he had not entered politics, he might still be regarded as just another (supposedly) successful businessman and entertaining television personality. He would have avoided the spotlight which has revealed – to the world’s horrified scrutiny – all his reprehensible qualities and inadequacies.

    The question now is how much influence he and his acolytes will wield in the post-Trump era. His self-image, after all, demands that he convinces his “base” that he was not legitimately defeated, whatever the election outcome, so that they still believe whatever he tells them. Will he set out to encourage them to frustrate Joe Biden’s task of rebuilding and uniting American society?

    The rejection of Trump (the right description of an election when Trump was the only issue) at least offers some hope. The margin may have been a slim one, but a significant majority of Americans rejected the politics of division and prejudice.

    History will judge Trump harshly. Let us hope that we won’t hear from him again. Long live democracy!

    Bryan Gould
    10 November 2020