The Spanish Civil War, fought between 1936 and 1939, was one of the defining conflicts of the 20th century. It pitted those loyal to the democratically elected government of the Republic against anti-democratic nationalists, led by Generalissimo Francisco Franco. As an ideological dress-rehearsal for the visible-on-the-horizon Second World War, the conflict attracted international attention. The fascists — Hitler’s Germany and Italy under Mussolini — provided crucial support for the nationalists. The Western democracies, divided and queasy about the role of communists among the loyalists, kept their distance. This did not stop many of their citizens of conscience from rallying to the loyalist cause. George Orwell was shot through the neck for his efforts, which he recounted in Homage to Catalonia. Virginia Woolf’s nephew, Julian Bell, lost his life as a volunteer ambulance driver.
It did not end well. With the West looking the other way, the remnants of the idealistic left had little hope (a metaphor for the lost cause: Orson Welles met with Ernest Hemingway to provide the voice-over narration for a pro-loyalist documentary, and the two men promptly got into a fistfight). The nationalists won the war, and Franco’s brutal, bloody, proto-fascist dictatorship gripped Spain for the following four decades. If you want to take the measure of a mid-century man (or a woman — here’s to you, Violet Bonham Carter, among others), find out where they stood on the Spanish Civil War.
We face such a moment again. I refer not to the resort to arms — and I will pause here to make that unambiguously clear — but rather to the moral weight of the current crisis confronting the future of the American Republic. The stakes here are not about partisan politics — Republicans now love him, but other than his plutocratic bona-fides, Trump is barely a Republican — rather, they are about what we are, and what we may become. The Trump Presidency is not normal, and it is dangerous to our democracy.
Think twice before you shake your head in disagreement. There is an overwhelming urge to normalize this still-unfolding catastrophe (and luckily so far still untested-by-crisis administration), but that self-soothing instinct is naïve at best. We are in the hands of an ignorant narcissistic nativist with deeply rooted authoritarian instincts, one who thinks nothing of undermining the free press or an independent judiciary if it will buy him ten minutes of political advantage. Trump, who lords over the executive branch as if it was a banana-republic-style family business — complete with a coterie of pampered princelings – has done a hundred things that would have once brought utter ruin to any reputable political figure. (It is impossible to keep up with these transgressions, which come along like streetcars, but let’s use “good people” among the neo-Nazis as a generic place holder.) These characteristics, all of them, are deeply, disturbingly, and fundamentally anti-American. When there is a bull in the china shop, one is not inclined to take note of each plate shattered. But they are, one by one, the norms that had guided our civilization.
People of good conscience must stand up to this. To do otherwise, as a wise young man once put it, is to turn your head, and pretend that you just don’t see. It is necessary not to fall prey to the normalizing temptation, and to say plainly “this is not right” — even if, in the end, we lose. And we very well might lose. The Trump coalition is strong; its opposition is divided. With regard to the former, consider the pattern observable since before the election: Trump does something repugnant. His polling numbers drift downwards, and then slowly rebound, to a relatively low but still firm base. Although Trump’s approval numbers are at precedent-setting lows for a first year presidency, in a larger sense they are mind-bogglingly high. And it is that latter point which matters.
The robust Trump coalition is composed of three powerful single-issue cohorts, and Trump is assiduously serving their interests — and he will continue to do so. They are:
The Look-the-Other-Way Wealthy. There is a large group of wealthy Republican voters who care about one thing and one thing only: they want to pay less taxes. (They also enjoy eliminating any government regulations, wise or unwise, when this might boost business profits.) Trump cut their taxes. They are very pleased. For them, nothing else matters, and they will tolerate and rationalize the embarrassing mess that comes with it. This is a bad way to run a country. It is important to understand that Trump is not Hitler — and that it is unproductive to engage in such cavalier name-calling. (That said, it is impossible not to notice his similarities with Mussolini: the lack of rooted commitment to any political principles other than self-aggrandizement, the insecure obsession with the superficial trappings of power, the boasting and general buffoonery.) But one characteristic we share today with Germany in the early ’30s is that wealthy conservatives then were willing to put up with much of what they saw as Hitler’s absurdities, nonsense, and excesses in order to get what they wanted — and convinced themselves they would be able to use and control him (and were catastrophically wrong on both counts). Here the parallels are indeed chilling. It is likely, and I mean this, that Trump really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and Wall Street would look the other way at what Fox News would describe as the “hotly contested mid-town controversy” as long as taxes remained low.
The Hypocritical God Squad. Trump has spent his adult life as a decadent hedonist, and, aside from the dark ribbon of racism that threads its way through his past, as a liberal on social issues, especially regarding sex questions (too liberal, his wives and the wives of his friends might mutter). But Trump will appoint conservative judges. Lots and lots of them. Because he could not care less (a new medievalism will not affect him personally), and the politics are obvious. For some, everything simply boils down to abortion. Others seem much more obsessed with homosexuality. This is bizarre. Yes, the Old Testament makes clear that such things are not allowed — but its prohibitions against it, and a litany of sexual practices, are buried in the text. Now consider some of The Ten Commandments, which presumably are the most important laws to follow for one to be in the good graces of the lord. They include: “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,” no lying, no stealing, no coveting . . . read the whole list, Trump bats at best .200 — this is the guy who is going to do god’s work for you? There is no point in trying to untangle the logic here, but be certain of this: Trump will continue to appoint conservative judges, and these people will never leave him.
The Disaffected White Working Class. Racists and white nationalists love Donald Trump, and for good reason. But the attention-getting ugliness of these cretins obscures a much larger group whose political sensitivities are more complex. It has been a difficult few decades for the working class, especially but not exclusively the unskilled, who have been disadvantaged by technological change, aspects of globalization, and an increasingly business-friendly legal and regulatory environment, trends which were exacerbated by the deep recession that followed the global financial crisis — ground zero for the rise of American populism. On top of all this, members of the white working class tend to view the rhetoric of ascendant identity politics with resentment and alarm. Struggling to stay afloat and facing declining prospects for themselves and their children, they may enjoy aspects of white privilege — but it sure doesn’t seem like it to them. They don’t feel personally responsible for everything that’s bad in the world, and don’t enjoy being told that they are. And not surprisingly, many have concluded that if we now live in a world defined by confrontational tribalism and identity politics, they need to get in the game. Who speaks for them? Donald Trump. It matters little that in bread-and-butter terms he will provide them with nothing, and likely less than that. They still sleep better at night thinking that the President of the United States is “one of us” — and will look out for us, rather than them.
In sum, Trump has a stable and powerful base of support, which was enough to win — and could be enough to win again. Because we are back again at the Spanish Civil War – not simply because this is the existential, character-defining, right-versus-wrong epochal struggle of our time – but because the anti-Trump coalition is riven with profound divisions. The never-Trump conservatives, whose fortitude in standing by their principles is to be applauded, are too few and too marginalized to save us. This struggle, if it is to be won, will be won by the left.
But the American left, like the Spanish Loyalists, are at each other’s throats — over issues that are not easily resolved. Three overlapping themes define these profound fissures.
Largely drawn along generational lines, there is the new illiberal left versus the old guard. These cohorts hold dearly perspectives that are fundamentally incompatible. The millennial progressive is too easily caricatured, but many such young people today favor prohibitions against forbidden speech, are quick to presume guilt-by-accusation or association, emphasize group identity over individual responsibility, and can be intolerant of opposing perspectives, even when proffered in the form of thoughtful civil discourse. These attributes are, of course, the very opposite of the prizes that most ’60s leftists fought pitched battles to win: the revolution against censorship, the right to explore unflinchingly previously taboo subjects, exaltation of the inalienable rights of every individual, and the discipline and wisdom to consider every case individually on its merits. For this group, Lenny Bruce died for their freedom; nowadays young progressives would ban his performances from their campuses.
A second division is over priorities: some on the left place a priority on cultural issues, others on economic concerns. There is no right and wrong here – both protecting vulnerable populations and confronting the contemporary crisis of inequality and unequal opportunity are noble endeavors. My hunch is that it is savvier politics to place economics first, both because it most easily crosses political lines, and because there are real questions as to whether radical, self-perpetrating wealth disparities are compatible with a functioning democracy. A case can be made for either approach, but the danger is that disagreements over priorities (especially within a now less-tolerant-of-deviations-from-the-party-line left) will lead to conflicts that undermine the prospects for achieving shared objectives. There is discomforting precedent for this — the progress of the women’s movement in the 1970s was hampered by exactly such a rift, at times bitter, between factions that favored a cultural or economic emphasis.
Finally, there are the liberal civilizationalists and the radical disrupters. The latter group includes that most bizarre category of people — and apparently they exist — who voted for wide-eyed socialist Bernie Sanders in the primaries and then cast a ballot for the rapacious robber-baron Trump in the general election — which is sort of like voting first for matter and then for anti-matter. But this heartbreaking manifestation of dissociative disorder illustrates the attitude of the radical disrupters on the left: that “anything is better than this.” Liberal civilizationalists know that things could actually be worse – much, much worse – and are inherently wary of breaking things apart first and asking questions later, in the hopes that what follows might be better (that sort of thinking, one would be wise to remember, is what brought us the Iraq War and all that followed). This is not to suggest that leftist insurgents did not have much to protest with regard to the establishment elites of the Democratic Party, personified by its flawed Presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who, with her cohort, became ensconced in the magical bubble of the ruling class. It is not a small thing to fail to understand that one who aspires to be President of the United States should not rake in over 20 million dollars in “speaking fees” in the two years before the election. Or that although it is perfectly reasonable for a Secretary of State to seek the advice of one of her experienced predecessors, it is a very different thing to boast of enjoying the celebrity company of the odious Henry Kissinger in social settings.
Still. At the moment of the general election, it was a choice between a deeply flawed but capable candidate, and an unqualified, noxious know-nothing, who paraded his gleeful disregard for everything America claimed to stand for in its finest moments. Yet he won, and he could win again, if all good people don’t recognize the depths of the danger we face, set aside every other concern, and dedicate themselves to his political defeat — ideally a crushing political defeat, that we might rout this disease from our system. After that, feel free to return to politics as usual. But as long as Trump is in office, and Trumpism has legitimacy, this is the Spanish Civil War. History is watching.