I know that for a lot of fellow Brexit resisters, today is the day The New European arrives, and you settle down for a long read of accurate, intelligent writing, most of it from the admitted standpoint that leaving the EU is the biggest disaster of our lifetime.
There are not many newspapers about whom a common complaint is ‘there is sometimes just too much in it to get through …’ But given the paper did not exist until the referendum, and as the staff is tiny, it is one we will take. Indeed, it is in part because the staff is so small that this week, there is no paper! Everyone deserves a holiday now and then, but normal service will be resumed, and for my part I cannot wait to share with you the story of a very important book that someone thrust into my hands as I got off a train the other day. All will be revealed next week, when I will be in Turkey, following the latest leg of Burnley’s European tour. Turkey? You remember – the place Leave liars used so effectively in their law-breaking campaign.
Meanwhile, for those who cannot bear a whole week without reading my views on Brexit, Trump and the other awful changes sweeping our world, below is the text from my last two columns. One follows the other logically enough.
And for those of you who have yet, for some unfathomable reason, failed to become subscribers to this multi-award-winning new paper, click on here and do so!
I was minded to post these two pieces after watching White House press secretary Sarah Sanders pointedly refuse to resile from the view that the US media are ‘the enemy of the people, as Hitler and Goebbels used to call anything to to left of Der Stürmer.
Part One …. from two weeks ago… MAKE NO MISTAKE, THE SEEDS OF FASCISM ARE GROWING
You can read elsewhere in the paper Nick Cohen’s brilliant analysis of the failings of the BBC in the Brexit debate. I won’t add to his criticisms here, but when it was first published in the New York Review of Books, I was struck by the breadth of media voices echoing his concern that there was something rotten, and dangerous, going on inside our State broadcaster, one of the great media global brands in danger of doing irreparable damage to its reputation, and creating for itself an existential crisis.
The only explanation I can imagine is that at the top level, they fear that unless they more or less go along with the government agenda on Brexit, they will be first in line for political retaliation in whatever deregulated, free-for-all, smaller State Britain emerges post-Brexit. This is to misread history, and to misunderstand the mindset of the political right. History shows that when broadcasters get too close to government, the latter is strengthened and the former weakened. And any study of the right down the years confirms one of life’s more general lessons – if you don’t stand up to bullies, they walk all over you.
Which brings me to Donald Trump, and his refusal, in the garden at Chequers, to take a question from CNN on the grounds that they represent ‘fake news.’ Instead, he opted for a question from John Roberts of Fox News, or ‘a proper network’, as Trump put it. CNN is ‘fake news’ because it does not fawn over him, it gives platforms to people who criticise him as well as those who support him, it points out his lies when he tells them. Fox is ‘a proper network’ because it shares his worldview, takes his side in pretty much any argument, denigrates his detractors, and operates as an extension of his own propaganda operation, in constant conversation with the ‘base’ that the Murdoch channel helped to create, and now feeds around the clock.
To be fair to John Roberts, he later criticised Trump on air, defending both CNN and a woman from NBC labelled ‘dishonest’ by Trump for asking him a perfectly reasonable question about his relationship with Vladimir Putin.
However, surely we are reaching a point where the networks and newspapers need to agree to invoke a media equivalent of NATO’s Article 5, in which an attack on one is an attack on all, and act accordingly, with a good old-fashioned walkout.
Trump, as last week’s rambling press conferences in Brussels and Buckinghamshire showed, is never happier than when centre stage, making grandiose claims about his ‘greatness,’ misrepresenting events in which he has been involved, spraying around abuse, spewing out lies which go unchallenged.
It is one thing for a politician to object to a story because it is untrue, and anyone in high level democratic politics has plenty of experience of dealing with those. It is quite another to label an entire network ‘fake news’ because the politician doesn’t like it. Like Nick Cohen, any criticism I have of the BBC comes not out of a desire to damage let alone destroy it, but a fear its leaders are doing that damage themselves. I suspect Trump, on the other hand, would genuinely prefer a US where CNN did not exist and only ‘proper networks’ did.
As the NATO Summit ended, I was doing an interview in CNN’s makeshift tented studio, south of the river opposite Big Ben, when Trump gave his unexpected press conference, in which he made grandiose claims about his greatness – single-handed he had made NATO safer and stronger overnight; misrepresented the discussions that had just taken place – I was getting rebuttal updates from someone who had been in the room; spraying around abuse, to his predecessor as ever, but also to current ‘allies’ within NATO; and lying about issues as varied as Germany’s energy supply system, – he multiplied by a factor of almost ten the share of their gas coming from Russia – NATO spending, and his own election.
CNN’s John Berman, in London for Trump’s UK visit the following day, was anchoring. As the Trump show came to an end, Berman recounted, accurately and without over-editorialising, the highlights of what had been said. Having asked for checks to be made by a researcher, he pointed out that whereas Trump had said the US contributed 90percent of NATO spending, in fact it was 68; also that it was untrue that Trump had been the first Republican to win Wisconsin, as Ronald Reagan had done so too.
In the discussion that followed, he turned to me and to a former senior CIA official joining us down the line from the US. Both of us were highly critical of Trump. Berman, without a Trump-supporting voice to throw to, did a good job of pushing back with what such a voice might have said. It was as far from ‘fake news’ as you could get. Berman, if I may adopt Fox News’ grotesque description of itself, was ‘fair and balanced.’
Madeleine Albright, the Czech-born daughter of a Jewish family which fled Nazism for England in the late 1930s, and later moved to the US where she went on to become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, recently published a superb book called Fascism, A Warning. She had been planning to write it even before Trump was elected, but his occupancy of the White House makes it not just timely, but terrifying.
I read it not long after reading Laurence Rees’ masterpiece,The Holocaust. What is remarkable about his book is less the account of the gas chambers and the deaths of six million Jews, a story most know well; it is the build-up, the normalising of the abnormal, the steady acceptance of what was once deemed unacceptable, not least by foreign governments and domestic media, the little things that Hitler got away with, and so became emboldened to chance his arm for more.
What was it Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller said: ‘First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me.’
Today’s world resonates in every page of Albright’s account of fascism in the past. I never knew that Mussolini was the first to coin the slogan ‘drain the swamp.’ It is today that newspapers are calling judges enemies of the people for daring to uphold the law; Parliamentarians being labelled traitors by fellow Parliamentarians because they speak truth unto power; anyone with a view contrary to the one held by this newspaper or that, this broadcaster or that, this President or that, abused, derided, dismissed, labelled as a liar or an enemy of their own country. Make no mistake, these are the seeds of fascism.
The numbers demonstrating violently for neo-Nazi Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, jailed for contempt of court, may have been dwarfed by the numbers who protested peacefully against Trump. But that anyone wishes to defend as free speech an admitted breach of the rule of law indicates these are perilous times. That peril is multiplied many times over when the so-called leader of the free world has an Ambassador who is fighting the fascist’s corner, lies wilfully about the nature of life in our capital out of his hatred of the fact we have a Muslim Mayor, morally equates the views and actions of Nazis with those of liberals, sings the praises of dictators whilst attacking America’s closest allies, has media figures as varied as Rupert Murdoch, Boris Johnson and Piers Morgan becoming cheerleaders, not least for the access it gives them, and a right-hand man, Steve Bannon, touring the world to stir racial hatred, on the British leg labelling convicted criminal Yaxley-Lennon ‘the backbone’ of our country.
First they came for CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post…
the judges and the investigators are already in the firing line …
and as for immigrants, which as in the 30s is to many simply a codeword for anyone ‘different’ to be ‘othered,’ … the fascist seeds are growing fast.
So the next time Trump labels a reputable media organisation ‘fake news,’ the whole lot of them should stand up and leave, make that the news, make sure the world knows they value free speech and the Constitution, even if the person elected to defend it does not. And if there is a next time he does it with Theresa May standing alongside him, how about, instead of standing there smiling, she says ‘If you don’t mind, Mr President, I will take a question from the gentleman from CNN.’ She might also add, ‘and by the way, I know Boris Johnson better than you do, and believe me, he would be a truly dreadful Prime Minister. Now … CNN?’
Part Two, from last week … ARE WE SO SURE ‘IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE’?
I mentioned last week that I have been reading a fair few books on fascism. I am clearly not alone. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, an avid, cover-to-cover reader of The New European,and as passionate as I am about the damage Brexit is doing to Britain, and Trump is doing to the world, told me on the back of last week’s column that he too has been devouring books of and about the 1930s.
He had just read ‘It Can’t Happen Here,’ a novel by American author Sinclair Lewis, published in 1935. The ‘here’ in the title is the US, because it was over ‘there’ in Europe where fascism was rising, and Americans felt insulated, arrogant even, about the impossibility of such a thing happening to them. But in Lewis’s story, it does.
Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, a charismatic populist with an insatiable hunger for power and attention, defeats Franklin D Roosevelt to become President. His main weapons are fear, and the pledge of big social and economic reforms that will, to coin a phrase, Make America Great Again, not least through a focus on patriotism and traditional American values.
Fast forward a few chapters, and you see Congress neutered, dissent stifled, women’s and minority rights undermined, power handed to Windrip’s wealthy business friends … his supporters love him, and respond with glee to his imposition of order. His critics hate him, but assure themselves and each other, even as it is happening, that ‘It can’t happen here.’ Fast forward a few more chapters, and there are concentration camps for critics, and an SS style force protecting what has essentially become an American Hitler.
The novel had a bit of a revival in Nixon’s time, as liberals sensed a free press under threat, and a President behaving as though above the law; then a mini-revival under George W Bush, when a critic published a book, ‘It Can Happen Here, Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.’
As I discovered on a short trip to Maine last week, Bush is today viewed, even by Democrat friends, as a pinko liberal compared with the current occupant of the White House. And don’t forget the huge credit Dubya poured into the reputational bank when he was overheard saying, as Donald Trump ended his inauguration speech, ‘that was some weird shit.’ In my darker moments, I gain some comfort from thinking one day those words may be Trump’s epitaph.
It is Trump whose election was followed by ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ entering the Amazon bestseller lists in 2016, a full eight decades after Lewis wrote it, and the question ‘Can it happen here?’ being turned into a much commented upon collection of essays about the possibility of authoritarian rule in the US.
Both my former boss, Tony Blair, and my occasional sparring partner Piers Morgan, have separately taken me to task when, interviewing them for GQ magazine, I asked if they shared my concern that there were too many parallels in today’s world with the 1930s, and that Trump had the makings of being today’s Hitler or Stalin. The world emerging from a financial crash. The elites under attack. Populism on the march. Discrimination against minorities. A revival in anti-semitism. International alliances weakening. Now even I, hateful though I find Trump, might answer the question ‘Is Trump a fascist?’, currently at least, in the negative. But I think that both Tony, and, if only he could rid himself of the link between his occasional access to the President and his determination to defend him, Piers, might answer the question ‘does Trump have the makings of a fascist?’ in the positive.
As I said to both, Hitler took a while before going for the judges and the journalists. Trump was there from Day One, and shows no sign of backing down from his view that anyone who criticises is a liar, anyone who asks difficult questions is an enemy of the people, and a fact is whatever he decides it to be at the time. Meanwhile, his right hand man is on a global tour openly campaigning for right-wing extremism aimed at destroying international order.
So let me leave you with a short passage from one of the books I mentioned last week, ‘Fascism, a warning,’ by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and see if anyone, other than the person she is writing about, comes to mind.
‘Hitler’s claim to distinction rested not on the quality of his ideas, but instead on his extraordinary drive to turn warped concepts into reality. Where others hesitated or were constrained by moral scruples, he preferred to act and saw emotional hardness as essential. From early in his career, he was a genius at reading a crowd and modulating his message accordingly. In conversations with advisers, he was frank about this. He said that most people earnestly desired to have faith in something and were not intellectually equipped to quibble over what that object of belief should be. He thought it shrewd, therefore, to reduce issues to terms that were easy to grasp and to lure his audience into thinking that behind the many sources of their problems, there loomed a single adversary…
‘Hitler felt that his countrymen were looking for a man who spoke to their anger, understood their fears, and sought their participation in a stirring and righteous cause. He was delighted, not dismayed, by the outrage his speeches generated abroad. He believed that his followers wanted to see him challenged, because they yearned to hear him express contempt for those who thought they could silence him. The image of a brave man standing up against powerful foes is immensely appealing. In this way, Hitler could make even his persecution of the defenceless seem like self-defence…
‘Pundits talk today about the importance of authenticity in politics. Hitler lied shamelessly about himself and about his enemies. He convinced millions of men and women that he cared for them deeply when, in fact, he would have willingly sacrificed them all. His murderous ambition, avowed racism and utter immorality were given the thinnest mask, and yet millions of Germans were drawn to Hitler precisely because he seemed authentic.’
Neil Kinnock said something very wise when we met for a family get-together last weekend. ‘It is when collective memory fails that we repeat the errors of the past.’ And that, dear reader, is why we need to keep reminding ourselves of them. There is far too much happening, in the States and in Europe, that even a few years ago, we would have been fairly confident could never have happened … Here. Or there.