I’ve been listening to the book, The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel whenever I drive anywhere. On Thursday, I will be teaching a class on the history of the Monuments Men, and I wanted to know as much as possible about the subject. I hope it goes well as it will be the first class I’ve taught as a webinar. If you don’t know who the Monuments Men were, they were part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies established in 1943 to help protect cultural property in war zones during and after World War II. The group of approximately 400 service members and civilians worked with military forces to safeguard historic and cultural monuments from war damage, and as the conflict came to a close, to find and return works of art and other items of cultural importance stolen by the Nazis or hidden for safekeeping.
One of the things that really struck me in this book is the description of the greed and opulence of the Nazis and their collaborators. Edsel points out that Hermann Göring, though being the main “collector” of art and items of cultural importance, was mediocre at best in his taste. He just wasn’t well-educated enough in art to know good art from bad art. Furthermore, it was more about the prestige of owning things that drove Göring not any artistic value. Göring, like many fascists, was garish: he owned dozens of uniforms each more grand than the last; he kept a pocket full of rubies at all times so he could jingle them like change; he had homes decorated with the most expensive things he could find most of which he confiscated illegally; and the list goes on. Göring was almost cartoonish in his appearance. It doesn’t seem real that someone could have such poor taste and at the same time feel his possessions and clothing were the height of taste. The same thing is also often said of the nouveau riche which has become a derogatory term for people who have recently acquired wealth, typically those perceived as ostentatious or lacking in good taste. The nouveau riche and the opulence of the fascists seem somewhat ridiculous to us these days, and they would be thought of as just that—ridiculous and cartoonish—if it had not been for the horrendous things they did with their power.
The ridiculousness of the fascists goes beyond just their ostentatious possessions. There are their actions in public. Think of Benito Mussolini in full military regalia with his chest puffed out, arms crossed, and his chin up. Hitler studied oratory delivery, hand gestures, and body language to make his speeches more hypnotic and mesmerizing. Both overemphasized their gestures. Hitler took lessons with the hypnotic clairvoyant and magician, Erik Jan Hanussen, and learned speaking and mass psychology from him. Looking back at the 1920s and 1930s, history shows us the rise—and fall—of charismatic leaders and/or demagogues: Mussolini, Hitler, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Ataturk, and Mao Tse-tung. Even good guys like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Huey Long used their personal charisma to get where they wanted to be. The exception to these charismatic leaders was Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Franco was one of the few dictators in modern times who was a professional soldier who fought for power to the very top. Hitler, Mussolini and Antonio Salazar (of Portugal) had to win over or neutralize the national armed forces to come out on top. Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh were primarily civilians who politicized the military for their own strategic ends. These other men bent their followers to their own will; Franco became everything to everyone.
Looking at the dictators from the 20th century, I wonder if the historians in the 22nd century will look upon Donald Trump and think he was just a silly, horrible man with power. Will they see him as charismatic? Inhumane? Dangerous? Will they mock him for his garish and ostentatious lifestyle? Will they recognize his diminished intelligence? His disdain for intelligence? His lack of action on important issues? His disastrous actions to harm others (immigrants, LGBTQ+, women’s rights, the most vulnerable in American society, etc.)? I read an article by a historian the other day who said he believed Trump was not one of the worst presidents, but the worst president—even worse than James Buchanan whose actions, or lack thereof, led to the Civil War. Will Trump’s successors be able to undo his harm? If they do, will it make historians look at Trump differently? A friend of mine commented on Saturday that when the ludicrous things a politician—referring to Trump— says and does become common place, people forget it’s not normal; they begin to normalize that behavior.
Saturday, June 20th, was Trump’s first rally since the start of the worst of the pandemic when quarantines, social distancing, and the wearing of masks were implemented. Trump chose Tulsa where a race massacre took place on May 31st, and June 1st, 1921. During the riots, mobs of white residents attacked the black residents and businesses of Tulsa’s Greenwood District. One must wonder what Trump and his campaign were thinking when they chose a rally there amid widespread protests against racial discrimination and police brutality. (And remember, the rally was originally scheduled for June 19th, or Juneteenth.) I’m pretty sure I know why, and I think it was calculated, but I will leave that for you to decide.
Like Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, and Mao, Trump thrives on the adoration of crowds. His followers are so fanatical, they are convinced they will be saved by God from the virus; that by supporting Trump, they are doing God’s work; and if Trump didn’t see the need to wear a mask, they don’t either. It may take days or weeks before we know the full extent of the outbreak that is likely to occur because of Trump’s rally. The questions are: How will Trump explain the outbreak caused by his rally? Will he just ignore any ill effects from the rally? Will his supporters ever come to the realization they put their life and the lives of loved ones in harm’s way in order to see a megalomaniac speak? The answers to all of these questions are probably predictable.
My greatest fear is that when Trump loses the election, he won’t accept it and won’t leave the White House. He’s already setting up the scene to call the election fraudulent with his cries against mail-in votes, etc. He will use every tactic he has to resist the inevitable. But one question remains, will he burn the country down in the process like a modern-day Nero burning Rome to keep himself in power? I’m afraid he will. Trump and the Republicans have done more to harm the sacred institutions of the American government than anyone else in American history. Just as he uses the charismatic tactics of fascists to advocate his position and power, he will try to use tactics of dictators to stay in office. All of this could end badly for Trump: Hitler shot himself; Mussolini was captured and publicly hanged; Göring took a cyanide capsule; Trotsky was assassinated. How will it end for Trump?