Coincidentally, I have recently finished The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood; the coincidence being that I have also recently returned from the USA, where I endeavoured to bear witness, as best a tourist can, to the rise of Donald Trump. I made no connection between the two when I first picked up the book – it is a classic and, as a writer, it behoves me to muddle through the classics. I even have a spreadsheet to assist me and The Berlin Stories was merely another column to be ticked. However, those of you familiar with it – perhaps with its fame as the crucible in which Sally Bowles and the musical Cabaret were forged – might understand how, for a stranger in a land of deepening political crises, this book should prove to be more than a tick on a spreadsheet.
I feel compelled to say I find the everyday comparisons of Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler to be, inter alia, hysterical. Surely the world has changed too much since 1933 for the next ‘Hitler’ to be recognisable as such before the bodies start to accumulate. Moreover, Hitler was a fierce ideologue, while Trump is the opposite of that, despite their shared rhetoric of national rejuvenation. The similarities are striking when seen through the lens of Isherwood’s work, but they may be just as coincidental as it was that I took up a book set amongst the hoy polloi during the rise of Nazism in Berlin, while myself attending rallies and registering first-hand the shamelessness of the red-capped, boofheaded nasties Trump’s candidacy unleashed.
In both settings the standard lexicon of scandal and outrage proved woefully unsuitable to properly communicate anything so gauche as facts or reason. ‘Reporters and jazz-writers had inflated the German language beyond recall. The vocabulary of newspaper invective (traitor, Versailles-lackey, murder-swine, Marx-crook, Hitler-swamp, Red-pest) had come to resemble, through excessive use, the formal phraseology of politeness employed by the Chinese.’ But perhaps I did not need to visit the USA to find the dilution of language so familiar.
Certainly a robust pessimism in the face of the American voter’s intellect need not be born of first-hand experience, but the substance of a forty-minute Trump rally, met with such enthusiasm by whopping crowds, was flimsy to the point of being surreal. The commentary rang hollow, the jokes unfunny, the policy promises… I’m reminded of the most vacuous moment of Charles Foster Kane’s campaign launch: ‘I’d make my promises now, if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them.’ The crowd roars. Kane was a shoo-in. As Isherwood says of Germans in a similar setting, ‘these people could be made to believe in anybody or anything.’ For a pithy definition of ‘demagogue’, look no further than a sad clown bellowing from a pulpit: ‘what this country needs is a man with hair on his chest!’
The creeping gangrene of fascism haunts the background of Isherwood’s book and remains there, the forever-looming historical catastrophe. As a writer he is not so interested in politics as he is in putting the personal intricacies of his acquaintances down on paper; The Berlin Stories being about as successful a series of character studies as I’ve encountered, which may be chiefly a result of his founding his text on his own diaries – the importance of what comes later being not so seamlessly woven into earlier scenes. Ditto how I experienced the rapture surrounding Trump. His supporters and detractors were a fascination, but I did not consider where it was all headed because the outcome of the election, to me and to most of the rest of the world, seemed assured.
Isherwood writes of the burning of the Reichstag building in Berlin in 1933 (one character ‘remarked jokingly that we ought to be grateful to van der Lubbe, because the burning of the Reichstag had melted the snow’), the terrorist event seized upon by Hitler to assume not just power, but emergency powers so drastic that Germany, at that moment, ceased to be a democracy. Are we not now counting the days to the titanic terrorist atrocity Trump will exploit for a wholesale revoking of freedoms? Or is that clueless fear mongering?
Perhaps the most threatening development over the 2016 campaign was the emergence of a new normal, whereby the population, in all its political colours, became inured to the extreme views and immoral acts of its new political class by way of relentless repetition: see Trump’s failure to pay income tax, his chauvinism, his charity fraud and his ongoing conflicts of interest. ‘There had been one scandal too many,’ Isherwood writes in 1933. ‘The exhausted public had been fed with surprises to the point of indigestion.’ This is how the German people were made to ‘acclimatise’ themselves to the ghastliness of their new reality ‘like an animal which changes its coat for the winter.’ Have Americans already reached such a point? Have we Australians, as terrified stakeholders? We might hope the outrages of a Trump campaign never transmute into the daily humdrum of a Trump administration, but even in writing those words it seems too much to hope for.
The future is always in motion, and so we cling to hope. We find ourselves at the point in history where Isherwood’s Berlin diaries finish. ‘To-day the sun is brilliantly shining… and Hitler is master of this city.’ Yes, comparisons between the two leaders are misleading and hysterical… but didn’t Hitler have a similar knack for propaganda, a similar loathing for dissent? Of course, the Weimar Republic is a poor analogy for the USA… but wouldn’t all Nazis insist their motive was to ‘Make Germany Great Again’? Undoubtedly, the world of today is not the world of 1933… but just last night, literally last night, I heard a neighbour screaming from her balcony to the noisy gathering across the lane: ‘you come to my fucking country you should speak my fucking language!’ This is in Australia, the northern suburbs of Melbourne, electorally captive to the Greens, for God’s sake. Are we really going to insist that things aren’t different now?
The rise of fascism documented by Christopher Isherwood is a warning, not a forecast. The analogy is poor, Trump is not Hitler yadda yadda yadda. But while the differences between Germany 1933 and the USA today are there to be pointed at, so is a troubling number of similarities. We ignore them with superficial motivations, not truth-seeking ones. Isherwood closes his book with the same backward glance we have all been reliving since election day: ‘Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened.’ Given how wrong I was, we all were, about where the world was headed, let us stand humbly astride the dichotomy of views until our chosen theory of the apocalypse is proven or otherwise.
What I’m reading now is The Deep Blue Good-by by John D MacDonald. Pure escapism. And that is absolutely not a coincidence.
Zane Lovitt is the author of two crime novels, The Midnight Promise and Black Teeth. He’s on twitter – @zanelovitt – where you can find an account of his arrest at the Republican National Convention in August 2016.