Errol Morris' "The Fog of War" is one of my favorite documentary films. It is especially timely given Vladimir Putin and Russia's war on Ukraine.
Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s and one of the chief architects of the disastrous war in Vietnam, is the film's subject. If you let people talk, they will show you who they really are. Morris demonstrates great skill at allowing villains to speak for themselves, and in doing so to reveal their complexity — and their sincere belief in their own victimhood and heroism. "The Fog of War" is a masterclass in that lesson, one which all interviewers and those others who use words for a living should internalize.
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In the film, McNamara tells this story from his World War II past:
The U.S. Air Force had a new airplane named the B-29. The B-17s and B-24s in Europe bombed from 15,000, 16,000 feet. The problem was they were subject to anti-aircraft fire and to fighter aircraft. To relieve that, this B-29 was being developed that bombed from high altitude and it was thought we could destroy targets much more efficiently and effectively.
I was brought back from the 8th Air Force and assigned to the first B-29s, the 58th Bomb Wing. We had to fly those planes from the bases in Kansas to India. Then we had to fly fuel over the hump into China.
The airfields were built with Chinese labor. It was an insane operation. I can still remember hauling these huge rollers to crush the stone and make them flat. A long rope, somebody would slip. The roller would roll over [that person], everybody would laugh and go on.
That story of laughter and death and numbness applies to America's current situation as well. Former Trump White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham recently told "The View" that Donald Trump wanted the power to kill with impunity. In explaining why Trump both admired and feared Vladimir Putin she said:
I think he was afraid of him. I think that the man intimidated him. Because Putin is a scary man, just frankly, I think he was afraid of him…. I also think he admired him greatly. I think he wanted to be able to kill whoever spoke out against him. So I think it was a lot of that. In my experience with him, he loved the dictators, he loved the people who could kill anyone, including the press.
A healthy society would have been stunned, disgusted, terrified and moved to action by Grisham's confession. The evident fact that Trump is a sociopath would have been the subject of extensive news coverage. If America were a healthy society, we would have an ongoing "national conversation" about the peril the country experienced from Trump, his Republican-fascist allies and their movement — danger that has only grown stronger.
A healthy society would now ask: How can we prevent another Donald Trump, another fascistic, sadistic demagogue, from ever coming to power?
What does it say about American society that Donald Trump and his cabal of coup plotters and other enemies of democracy and freedom have not been punished? That they are plotting in public how overthrow American democracy and return Trump to power without fear of punishment or other negative consequences? And that Trump still has many tens of millions of followers — many of whom are potentially willing to engage in acts of violence, and perhaps even die, at his command? What does that say about a country and a people?
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What was the response to Grisham's comments about Donald Trump's desire to commit murder? Silence and indifference. Neither the media nor the American people seem to care. They have become desensitized to what not long ago would have been judged unconscionable.
America is a pathocracy. The masses take their cues from corrupted elites. Malignant normality is the new normal. Political deviance has been normalized. The Age of Trump constantly offers further proof that a sick and broken society can accept just about anything, no matter how surreal and grotesque
Fascism thrives in such societies. But the poison could not have spread so quickly if the soil and foundations were not toxic to begin with.
It is not adequate simply to say that Donald Trump idolizes authoritarians, demagogues, political strongmen and tyrants. The essential question must be this: Who are the specific objects of ideation and worship for Donald Trump, the other American neofascists and their followers?
The most prominent example, of course, is Vladimir Putin. The American people and the world should not be swayed and bamboozled by the Republican Party and its propagandists, who are now trying to claim that they are diehard Cold Warriors, forever united against Putin and his aggression. The American people and the world should also not be seduced by superficial public opinion polls that purport to show that Republican voters are now vigorously anti-Putin and do not support his war against Ukraine.
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Today's Republican voters and other Trumpists are part of a political cult. They follow, uncritically, whatever directives and various signals are sent to them by Donald Trump, Fox News, the white right-wing evangelical churches and the larger right-wing echo chamber.
Public opinion polls taken before the invasion of Ukraine show that Republicans view Vladimir Putin as a better leader than Joe Biden. That is no coincidence. It is publicly known that Putin and Russia's intelligence agencies have been engaged in a long-term influence campaign designed to manipulate (and manage) the Republican Party, its leaders, the right-wing news media and their public.
Putin is an authoritarian and a demagogue. He is anti-human, anti-freedom and anti-democracy. He stands against the future and human progress and pluralism. To many of his admirers in America and the West, he is a leader of "White Christianity." Putin has persecuted and imperiled the LGBTQ community, and is hostile to women's rights and women's equality. He kills and imprisons journalists, and is doing his best to silence free speech.
Most recently, Putin has indicated that criticism of his regime and the war in Ukraine will be viewed a type of thoughtcrime. He is using similar language to the Republican fascists and the larger white right in claiming victimhood and suggesting he has been "canceled" by elites.
Putin's Russia is a plutocracy and a kleptocracy controlled by an oligarchic elite of white men. He uses secret police and other enforcers to terrorize any person or group he deems to be the enemy. Republicans in the U.S., and many of their allies and followers, want to exercise that kind of power in America.
In a new essay at the Boston Review, Bethany Moreton elaborates:
Why would a group of ultra-nationalist Americans celebrate the invasion of a U.S. ally by someone both the left and right have largely understood to be an enemy of freedom?
In fact, though, the U.S. right wing has long cultivated ties with Russia. Some of these are self-evident quid-pro-quo affairs: The "sweeping and systematic" campaigns of election interference authorized by Putin in support of a Trump victory in 2016 and 2020; Trump's attempt to leverage Congressionally allocated aid to Ukraine for political dirt on the Biden family; the confessed Russian agent who infiltrated the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast in a bid to develop informal channels of influence on the Republican Party.
More broadly, however, U.S. conservative evangelicals have developed strong symbolic and institutional ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. In recent years, these have dovetailed with white racist fantasies of Russia as an ethnically pure land of traditional religion and gender roles, symbolized by the bare-chested kleptocrat on horseback, Vladimir Putin….
At the much broader level of institutionalized ambitions to "dominion," the Russian partnership has proved invigorating to the American right's overlapping agendas of white supremacy, masculine authority, and anti-democratic Christian authority. If Putin's cooperation with the Moscow Patriarchate is a model for emulation, American theocrats are telling us what they seek here at home. We would be foolish not to take them at their word.
In total, the Republican fascists and the larger "conservative movement" have shown themselves to be Putin's puppets.
To make matters even worse, Putin now imagines himself as a 21st-century version of Joseph Stalin.
To wit. In a speech on Wednesday, Putin denounced "national traitors" who are supposedly undermining the war on Ukraine, saying that "real" Russians will "always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors." This is the man so many of today's Republicans idolize. That should make clear how dangerous to American democracy and society they truly are.
The form of politics modeled by Vladimir Putin and his Stalinist dreams cannot be precisely replicated in America. As such, it is being massaged and reshaped by the Republican neofascists and their allies to assimilate more easily into American political culture. But it is no exaggeration to suggest that those forces are engaged in a Stalinist revolutionary struggle against American democracy; their tactics, strategies and goals are that extreme.
For many reasons, this moment has brought renewed interest in George Orwell's classic dystopian novel "1984." In a letter written in 1944, a few years before the publication of that book, Orwell reflected upon the dangers of totalitarianism he saw in the U.S. and Britain:
But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven't been really tried, they haven't known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones. To begin with there is the general indifference to the decay of democracy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in England under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of people of that age don't give a damn for this?
Secondly there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on 'our' side. Indeed the statement that we haven't a Fascist movement in England largely means that the young, at this moment, look for their führer elsewhere. One can't be sure that that won't change, nor can one be sure that the common people won't think ten years hence as the intellectuals do now. I hope they won't, I even trust they won't, but if so it will be at the cost of a struggle. If one simply proclaims that all is for the best and doesn't point to the sinister symptoms, one is merely helping to bring totalitarianism nearer.
Orwell's "1984" was meant as a direct rebuttal to both Stalinism and Nazism.
The American people have been repeatedly warned about the dangers represented by the Republican fascists and the Trump movement. The past is prologue — but it does not have to be. The American people can choose to learn the lessons of the past about how democracies succumb to fascism and authoritarianism and act accordingly, or they can continue to insist, against all available evidence, that such evils only bloom elsewhere and cannot possibly happen here.
But democracy must be an active choice. Indifference and passivity are sure to destroy it. What choice will the American people make?
Read more on the showdown between democracy and fascism: