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Questions for ‘Adults in the Room’

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 1, 2018

In his book, Fear, about disarray in the White House, Washington Post editor Bob Woodward describes the deal that some have struck to stick it out with President Trump out of their desire to gain goals like tax cuts over their disgust with Trump’s personal style and apparent support for white supremacists, for example.

In the book, for example, Trump chides former economics adviser Gary Cohn not to quit over Cohn’s nausea over Trump’s remarks after the Charlottesville neo-Nazi riot. To Trump, personal loyalty was his top concern for Cohn. “If you leave now, taxes (the tax cut) are over,” Trump was quoted as saying. In balancing it all, Cohn stayed until tax cuts had been adopted.

In a New York Magazine article, columnist Jonathan Chait uses the incident to recall the substance of another recent book, The Death of Democracy, by Benjamin Hett, a Hunter College historian, who wrote about the weirdly similar kind of political balancing that Weimar-era Germany went through during Hitler’s rise to power.

The Hett book “does not mention any contemporary figures, but Trump and his party are all over the pages,” said Chait. “Hett presents Nazism as a backlash directed in large part against globalization, which many Germans say as harmful to their economy, and immigration,” the article said, adding that at one point Joseph Goebbels called for building a protective wall that sounds awfully familiar.

There is “no better symbol for the Republican Party elite in the Trump era than Gary Cohn weighting the morality of opposing Nazism against corporate tax-rate-cuts and choosing the latter. . . Trump is not a Nazi. Nor even is Steve Bannon. They are, however, Nazi-adjacent and actual neo-Nazis are excited about Trump, who has emboldened and empowered white nationalists in a way nobody could have fathomed until now,” Chait argues. He basically suggests that what the article calls the “babysitting fallacy” assumes that “adults in the room” can somehow contain Trump, rather than enabling him.

“The important parallels here are not between Hitler and Trump. While Trump, like Hitler is racist and authoritarian, his racism is not genocidal, his contempt for democracy is instinctive rather than ideological, and he crucially lacks any plan for massive territorial conquest. What makes the history pertinent, rather, are the eerie similarities in the behavior of the right-wing politicians who facilitated both men’s rise to power.”

From reading Hett, Chait concludes that had they known how Hitler would turn out, they would not have made him possible. But, instead, focused on short-term domestic politics, they turned a blind eye towards the excesses of a would-be populist with loud, rural, majority uneducated supporters who badly wanted to slap back at the cultural elite. “Eventually, however, the fear and contempt with which the Establishment right in Germany viewed Hitler gave way to an appreciation for his populist appeal,” Chait summarized.

Wow. It all is cutting pretty close to current events, which, of course, was the point. When we see congressional Republicans sitting on their hands rather than speaking out about the full range of Trump excesses, from separating children from migrant parents, to total disregard for personal ethics or the misuse of the Justice Department for personal and partisan political goals, the silent Establishment are proving enablers.

In the current flap over everything from tariffs to Supreme Court nominations, are the Senate Republicans doing just as the Paul Hindenburg crowd did in Germany those many years ago?

“Obviously, the fact that one erratic racist authoritarian demagogue proved impossible to contain does not prove that every erratic racist authoritarian demagogue is uncontainable. There are good reasons to believe Trump’s presidency will pass without catastrophic damage — chief among them, he may simply be too incompetent to make good on his anti-democratic impulses. It is notable, however, that a year and a half into Hitler’s tenure, his right-wing allies, including Hindenburg, still viewed their alliance with him mostly as a success,” said Chait.

“Americans should know that there are adults in the room,” boasts the now famous anonymous New York Times op-ed. Fear likewise presents Cohn and other adults in the room undertaking heroic feats of babysitting. They endure tantrums, deftly exploit the president’s failure to develop object permanence by swiping from his desk key orders he has demanded to sign, and plot to undermine him,” said Chait, adding, “Some of the adults in the room are surely saving America from untold horrors. Others are merely attempting to conceal the extent of the horror from the country and this creates risks of its own. The sense that Trump has been controlled by the adults in the room is itself a moral hazard.”

Chait warns that should Trump forces prevail in the November elections, he will feel yet more empowered. “The belief that Trump’s power has been curtailed (by adults in the room) has become a rationale to hand him more of it.”


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