By DAVID MOATS
President Donald Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit may have yielded the usual hash of pro-Russian, anti-American statements we are accustomed to hearing from Trump.
But it did more than that. It also made clear the extent to which the Trump presidency represents a repudiation of 80 years of history.
For that reason, his campaign and presidency have provoked an unprecedented wave of warnings from historians, policymakers and others about the rise of authoritarian movements comparable to those that produced the central catastrophe of the 20th century: World War II.
One of those historians is Mark Stoler, professor emeritus of history at the University of Vermont, who like others of the baby boom generation, grew up in World War II’s shadow. He is a leading authority on the military and diplomatic history of the period, and in his view, Trump’s presidency threatens the entire democratic order secured in the post-war years by the Marshall Plan, the Atlantic alliance and the European Union.
Yale historian Timothy Snyder is another expert on the period who is alarmed by the Trump presidency. He has warned that Americans today possess no special wisdom to distinguish them from the Europeans who allowed democracy to succumb to fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. His short book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” describes the danger signs of fascism on the rise, and he warns against the kind of “intellectual coma” that would allow authoritarian movements to gain power.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright knows about fascism: Her family fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia when she was a girl. Now she has written a book called “Fascism: A Warning.”
“When we awaken each morning,” Albright writes, “we see around the globe what appear to be Fascism’s early stirrings: the discrediting of mainstream politicians, the emergence of leaders who seek to divide rather than to unite, the pursuit of political victory at all costs, and the invocation of national greatness by people who seem to possess only a warped concept of what greatness means.”
The memory of World War II and its aftermath has always served as an inoculation against fascism. For the baby boom generation those memories are not of the war itself but of those who fought in it or suffered from it. “What did your father do in the war?” was the question we all asked. A neighbor of mine in California was a haunted veteran of the Bataan Death March.
Another neighbor had commanded a ship at D-Day, and my father had been a naval officer in the Pacific. It was all around us.
Stoler is the author of a biography of George C. Marshall and editor of the Marshall Papers. Marshall was Army chief of staff during the war and architect of the Marshall Plan when he was secretary of state for President Harry Truman. The Marshall Plan for the recovery of Europe was the opposite of “America First” and the kind of belligerent nationalism that Trump now directs at our allies.
Marshall and others of the post-war generation showed that serving the interests of others could also serve the interests of the United States. For Marshall, the Marshall Plan was not about economic gain, but about freedom and democracy. “Its purpose shall be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist,” he said.
Steps taken to recover from the war and to secure the peace established the institutions that have allowed the West to flourish. Recent shocks to the system have caused faith in those institutions to waver, and so, with the passing of the generations, the inoculation of memory appears to be wearing off. How else to explain the brazen behavior of torch-bearing marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, or the rise of authoritarian movements in Hungary, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere? How else to explain the willingness of Americans to put up with the authoritarian tendencies of Trump? And how else can we understand Trump’s insistence that Europe is our “foe.”
“Never again” was the phrase intoned like a prayer to ward off a recurrence of the Holocaust. Yet a recent study found that two-thirds of American millennials surveyed did not know what Auschwitz was and 22 percent had not heard of the Holocaust or were unsure whether they had heard of it. For those who remember, it is a shocking turn of events.
One of the lessons that the baby boom generation took from World War II was the danger of becoming a “good German.” The “good German” was the one who loyally followed orders, even so far as to carry out genocide and the destruction of Europe. Young Americans who rejected the Vietnam War did not want to follow their example. Those alarmed today by the cult of Trump are afraid Americans are making the mistake of those who succumbed to authoritarian movements of the past.
The world leader most intent on undermining the democratic values that the Atlantic alliance was forged to defend is Vladimir Putin. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have described his government’s efforts to corrupt elections, murder opponents and sow mayhem within the democratic alliance. Trump’s embrace of Putin is a repudiation of what our fathers and grandfathers fought for and built during and after World War II. One hopes the bipartisan revulsion sparked by Trump’s behavior in Brussels, London and Helsinki means that memory of democracy’s finest hour has not faded entirely.
David Moats, an author and journalist who lives in Salisbury, is a regular columnist for VTDigger. He is editorial page editor emeritus of the Rutland Herald, where he won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials on Vermont’s civil union law.