Resist barbarism in the White House

Members of the Jewish group IfNotNow and their allies protest Breitbart News and Stephen Bannon in Beverly Hills, Calif., Dec. 4, 2016. The protesters demanded that President-elect Donald Trump fire Bannon from his appointment as chief strategist for the White House. (Newscom/Sipa USA photo/Ronen Tivony)

In his encyclical "The Gospel of Life," St. John Paul II warns, "Freedom negates and destroys itself and becomes a factor leading to the destruction of others, when it no longer respects or recognizes its essential link with the truth."

Given the so-called post-fact, post-truth world exemplified by the new U.S. president who openly disdains objective truth, we live in a new dark age where the essential link between truth and freedom is at risk.

When a society routinely "shuts out even the most obvious evidence of objective and universal truth, which is the foundation of personal and social life," explains John Paul, then society is left to only to individual "subjective and changeable opinion" and "selfish interest and whim."

A critical question for the legitimacy of the republic is to what extent, if any, Republican House and Senate leaders will have the courage to govern through truth, justice and the U.S. Constitution.

Immediate tests of their commitment to the Constitution would include holding transparent hearings on the role of Russian hacking in the U.S. election and requiring the president to dissolve his business interests that directly violate Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8. Prior to the inauguration, top ethics advisers to former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama explained that Trump would be in violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause if he did not sell all of his business or place it in a blind trust.

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A major problem of many popular media before and after the election concerns the shallow discussion of Trump's appeal to white nationalism. The general assumption that only individual bigotry constitutes racism misses how Trump exploited cultural fears, like Islamophobia, as well as deeply held cultural biases of white innocence and black criminality, for political gain.

As the historian Nell Irvin Painter observes, Trump is the first candidate since the Jim Crow era who explicitly and successfully campaigned for revival of white nationalism.

White supremacy is not only about the Ku Klux Klan. Good people daily support white supremacy through our acceptance of segregated housing, education and worship, to name only the most basic foundations of a white racist society.

The deeper problem is not merely that Trump repeatedly asserts false claims, but that these false claims are part and parcel of a propaganda regime that advances the narrow interests of the most powerful at the expense the republic itself. More disturbingly, perhaps, vast swaths of citizens and the media feed upon the agitprop like fools starving for attention.

As the philosopher Jason Stanley explains in his recent book How Propaganda Works, people "become deceived about their goals" and "how best to achieve them" through three key means of propaganda. These time-tested means — successfully employed in Nazi Germany and other totalitarian regimes — include:

 Appealing to the emotions in a way that subverts rational debate;

 Promoting an insider-vs.-outsider dynamic that preys upon stereotypes and marginalizes disfavored groups;

 Eroding communal standards of reasonableness that depend upon "norms of mutual respect and mutual accountability."

In a piece for The Seattle Times, Holocaust survivor Franz Wassermann warns how Trump has utilized these tools: "I was born in Munich, Germany, in 1920. I lived there during the rise of the Nazi Party and left for the U.S.A. in 1938. The elements of the Nazi regime were the suppression of dissent, the purging of dissenters and undesirables, the persecution of communists, Jews and homosexuals, and the ideal of the Arians as the master race. These policies started immediately after Hitler came to power at first out of sight. Meanwhile most Germans were lulled into complacency by all sorts of wonderful projects and benefits."

Wassermann continues to draw explicit connections between the historical rise to power of the German Nazism and Trump's actions. He notices both how white supremacist groups have gained prominent recognition in the press and how Trump's rhetoric denigrates society's most vulnerable members. Proposals for a Muslim registry and mass deportations suggest historical policy parallels.

However, Wassermann is most alarmed by the appointment of Steve Bannon as the president's chief strategist and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as the national security adviser. Both men "advocate the political and cultural superiority of the white race."

Bannon has distorted Catholic theology to legitimize white supremacy. At the same time, Trump attacks dissent at every turn and attempts to control the press. That combination of ideology and control of dissent threatens freedom and truth.

The entire Nazi ideology is in place, in Wassermann's view. Wassermann only wonders how far the Trump administration will take it. He concludes: "We can hope that our government of checks and balances will be more resistant than the Weimar Republic was. Don't count on it."

The time is now for people of faith and justice to prayerfully and humbly take up Pope Francis' call to practice active nonviolent witness to the Gospel. Truth and the freedom of all people stand in the balance.

[Alex Mikulich is co-author of The Scandal of White Complicity in U.S. Hyper-Incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance.]

This story appeared in the Jan 27-Feb 9, 2017 print issue under the headline: Resist barbarism in the White House .

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