Printed: 2020-08-06

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Those were the days… When was America ‘great’? And who has Steve Bannon reincarnated?

David Brin

Contrary Brin

April 22, 2017

Have you heard of “Godwin’s Law?” It asserts that: “If an online discussion (regardless of topic) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will invoke Hitler.” In practice, it is used to shame or chastise those who make any sort of comparison to the fascist hellscape of the mid-20th Century.*  To be sure, an overused, hyperbolic cliché can be tiresome.**

Mike Godwin must be going crazy, right now, amid the tsunami of post-election comparisons. For the record, I do not think Donald Trump wants to, or will, become a Hitler. Parallels with Mussolini are creepy though, starting with Il Duce’s fervid rallies and relentless slogans, calling on Italians to rebuild classical glories and — translated literally— “make Rome great again.” 

Sure, I’ve made my own parallels with 1933 Germany, and they remain apt. Just as the Prussian barons, or Junkers aristocrats, fostered the racist-populist brown shirts as a counterweight to socialists and communists, so Fox News, Breitbart-Limbaugh-Jones and the Kochs deliberately whipped non-college white male boomers into a froth… exacerbated by their grouchiness over getting old and seeing the world change around them.
As those so-clever 1930s lords did then, today’s oligarchs stare in disbelief that a gifted shaman leaped aboard their carefully-trained beast, threw off the intended jockeys and grabbed the reins for himself.*** Back eight decades ago, at least a few of the Junkers had enough honesty to proclaim:“Mein Gott, what haf we done?” Alas, do not expect any such honor or decency from Rupert Murdoch, or the Worst Man in America, George F. Will.
Yet, I take solace from history. Back in the 1930s, as today all over the planet, common folk were mesmerized by new communications technologies. Back then it was radio and loudspeakers, that amplified the hypnotic voices of gifted, polemical svengalis, who took over almost everywhere, plunging humanity toward an abyss.
But not in the English speaking world.  Our parents and grandparents werecaptivated by gifted orators, too. But here, and in Britain, those gifted speakers were on our side, urging us — as Pericles did in Athens — to make the most of our democracy. Which brings us to a question that blue Americans really need to ask their red neighbors:
When do you envision that America had its “great” golden age?  “Make America Great Again” implies a clear notion of a time. So when was that?
It would seem that generally folks are referring to the era of the Greatest Generation – the boomers’ parents -- who overcame the Depression and Hitler, contained communism, built a booming market economy and got us into space, while too-gradually, but deliberately, taking on so many longstanding prejudices and injustices they inherited from their parents and a thousand other generations. 

Oh, but a funny thing about those folks in the World War II generation. They voted high taxes on the rich, which the rich patriotically paid. And they admired labor unions.
Above all, that clade of Americans had one favorite living human, a man adored by his people, his fellow citizens.
No wonder the New Lords have spent hundreds of millions and decades portraying Franklin Delano Roosevelt as Satan, incarnate.  All while invoking nostalgia for the “great” American era of the 1940s and 1950s, sweeping aside one fact -- that every notable aspect of that period was Rooseveltean. A time - I must reiterate - when unions thrived, the rich paid taxes, science was admired, and moving forward was in our blood. 
Oh, you sour boomers, don’t you dare to invoke the Greatest Generation!  They were union men, democrats mostly, held no truck with foppish billionaires, preferred facts over assertions, built giant projects, gave the world its first general peace and… oh, yes, can I say it again? Their favorite living human was FDR. And do you know who followed Roosevelt in that slot? Who was the most-admired American during the 1950s? A fellow named Jonas Salk.
Oh, they were far from perfect, my parents and their friends. Their faults were monumental! But they emulated the American Founders, and the soldiers of a righteous, abolitionist blue Union, and others who pushed our fine Experiment forward, not wallowing in nostalgia.  (See how I answer right wing adoration of the 1950s.) Moreover, we are not lesser beings than the Greatest Generation. We benefit by living in the great civilization they built. But they raised us to launch from their shoulders. And yes, we have mightily amplified all of their accomplishments with creativity, science and compassion. 
(BTW, the next generation – millennials, especially – are so much better than us boomers that there’s no comparison. Calmer by far. Generally wiser, nicer, smarter. As a parent I’ll take some credit. The best thing we boomers ever did! And we so owe the kids an apology, right now. We need to get out of their way.)
== They built ‘great’ America. FDR merely summoned their wills. ==
No, fanatics, you don’t get the Greatest Generation, who would be appalled by your quiver-lipped wrath and shrill, drama-queen wails. No. You must fleefarther back from their Rooseveltean era, in search of your earlier “great” time!
Here’s a candidate period for you -- one admired by the alt-right and Fox – lauded in a song you might recall:
“Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.
Didn’t need no Welfare State.
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days.”
Is it 1929 then, that alt-right and the folks at Trump rallies yearn for? Surely the oligarch-junker lords financing the movement would be pleased to crank-back before FDR.  And yet, we all know that’s not it. 
Forget 1929.
It’s 1861, they yearn for. Only this time a confederacy that’s victorious. Plantation lords and their fervid vassals finally overcoming the blue forces of science, facts and progress. (And let us admit that this round of the civil war,with help from the Czar, the Confederacy has taken Washington.)
Alas, stupidly, they ignore real history and where this can only lead.
Their conspiracy will carry us to Paris, 1789.
== Back to Godwin ==
Okay, we’ve drifted. Yes, it is vital to nail the Trumpists by demanding they saywhen they think America was Grrrrreat! ****  
Still, circling back to the beginning, we started with Godwin’s Law. Recall that I dismissed the likelihood that Donald Trump wants anything Hitlerian. So don’t exaggerate! It just harms your credibility. I doubt he’s personally very racist, while cynically egging on those who are. Though parallels with Mussolini seem apt.
No, I’ve taken you on this journey in order to convey a chilling moment of realization that I had today, when looking at Donald Trump’s White House appointments. A shiver of recognition that can only have come from watching way too much History Channel (before they became the Bigfoot Channel.)  Specifically…
…I looked at the epically prototypical brownshirt who is Donald Trump’s chief aid and ‘strategist’ —Steve Bannon, whose silver-spoon life and cushy parasitism at Goldman Sachs then subsidized aplunge into manipulative populist cant, raging against the civilization that benefited him for decades. (Forecast; no bills will be introduced to actually change Wall St. parasitism.)
I know him, you see. Not directly, but every howl against modernity. Every appeal to Cyclical History (the central incantatory touchstone of the reactionary right.) His contempt-drenched ragings against science and every other knowledge caste. I know the cult of neo-feudalists who aim for a return to the standard human condition of 6000 years, and his raves are identical to their calls for a return to kingship, to dominance by Aryan males, to Church and hierarchy and empire, stirring mobs to crush citizenship. 

Using populism to wreck government by-the-people.
Moreover, in all traits he seems eerily reminiscent of (may Godwin forgive me) a certain historical figure whose arc and ambitions and face strike chilling parallels. A fellow named --
The chief aid, factotum, ear-whisperer, private secretary and ‘strategist’ who controlled the flow of information and access to you-know-who. The Grima Wormtongue of humanity’s darkest time.
A stretch? Then photoshop-modify the hair. Ditch the peach fuzz. Hell, drawl the name

Now guess which of them said: ““Darkness is good… That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”
Okay, that was Bannon. Here’s the full paragraph“Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”

And now some of you are mumbling: "Brin are you insane?  Bannon will surely see this! It will stand out and get you on a list." To which I answer, well... ******
I do have to ask: has any member of this generation actually read Mein Kampf? Anyone? At all? Read it! Or at least skim -- look past the screeching racism and rage at the deeper threads of romanticism and the incantations of cyclical history. The calls for not improvement or progress, but restoration of a spectacular purity and glory that never, ever existed in the past.

Then note while flipping through those pages, it isn’t Donald Trump whose voice you can hear, speaking the lines. (Trump is more like Huey Long or Father Coughlin or yes, Il Duce.) But Bannon is there. His voice.
Oh my Godwin.
== Best friends ==
Do I exaggerate?



* I was a participant in a long-ago, early-primitive message group, when attorney Mike Godwin coined his famous ‘law.”

** Speaking of clichés, it can be apt to swap the phrase “Godwin’s Law” into Godwin’s Law: “If an online discussion (regardless of topic) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will invoke Godwin's Law.” 

*** As DT eagerly toes the line of Koch orthodoxy, I have to wonder if he experienced recently a moment like that in the film NETWORK, when Howard Beale meets Ned Beatty's wonderful mogul, Arthur Jensen. Watch it. Watch Network, including the classic "Mad as Hell!" scene... and then my response to it.

**** Tony the Trumpeter Tiger?

******  Will I be put on lists? Oh, sillies, of course I'm already on lists. And other lists of people whose 'accidents' would be probed. I do have some courage and sense of duty to a civilization, planet and species that I love, and so willingly take some risk. But probably foremost is the fact... that I wrote the character Nathan Holn, in The Postman. And there are some tough hombres out there who don't care that I portrayed Holn as a villain. They adore him, anyway. And me as Holn's 'creator. And hence, I've been offered shelter in places where... let's just say it would take an army. Martin Bormann would have envied these 'redoubts.'  Of this I have little doubt.

******* Oh! Late breaking development. I'm not the first to notice the resemblance!  Aw shucks.  And also... relief. 

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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