Why history? 7 – Rebirth

At the end of the epoch called the Middle Ages, Europe could have succumbed to the Muslims or the Mongols. It did not.  From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, it went through a period of rebirth (Renaissance) and reformation that for better or worse led Europe to dominate the world.

Medieval thought was closed and religious.  St Augustine and St Aquinas built huge theories on Greek philosophy that had nothing to do with the Sermon on the Mount.  The ancient learning was kept alive in Arab universities and Christian monasteries.  Some religious leaders began to assert rights of the people.  People got more interested in this world than the next.  They sought to live in hope rather than fear.  Paper had been developed in China and by the Arabs and its arrival in Europe, together with that of printing, led to explosions of knowledge.

Copernicus said that the earth moved around the sun.  Galileo proved it.  He destroyed doctrine by observation and experiment.  The world was no longer the centre of the universe.  The Church made Galileo retract.  Some say he said e pur si muove.  In the seventeenth century, the genius of Newton set out the bases of modern physics.

The artistic and scientific rebirth started in large European towns, principally Florence, Venice and Rome. The Medici were vicious and corrupt, but they were patrons of the arts.  Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael revived classical forms and gave the world masterpieces it still marvels at.  Their work would be carried on by artists like Titian and Durer and, much later, Turner. The Divine Comedy of Dante and the remarkably bourgeois Canterbury Tales of Chaucer had ensured that great writing would survive.  Writers like Montaigne and Rabelais created new forms.  Machiavelli wrote of realpolitik.  In Don Quixote, Cervantes gave the world its first novel.  Many think that it is still the best.  No one will ever get near Shakespeare.  The break from narrow ways of thinking dominated by the Church led to claims for human rights summed up under the word ‘humanism’.

As well as being intellectually closed, the Church was hopelessly corrupt and unfaithful to the life and teaching of the son of the carpenter.  Many popes behaved more like princes than priests.  The Renaissance popes were shockingly degenerate.  The Church sold religious rites.  Five hundred years ago this year (2017) a German priest announced his protest against sales meant to fund a rebuilding of St Peter’s.  His protest would split the Church, and his movement would be called the Protestant Church.  Their aim was to go back to the bible and let people go to God without the intervention of a priest.

This reform movement in Europe was religious or spiritual.  In England it was entirely political.  Henry VIII needed a divorce to secure the succession – the first duty of a king.  The Pope could not agree – he had a conflict of interest involving the Holy Roman Empire.  England therefore broke with Rome.  It did so by acts of its parliament, one of which said ‘this realm is an empire.’  This course strengthened the parliament and guaranteed independence to England.

As with most reactions, there was a lot of nastiness.  Luther said too much, and he could be quoted to support actions against the Jews and the peasants.  The Germans were the wrong people to be told to keep religion out of politics.  The cold blooded Swiss Calvin spoke of predestination.  At least Luther was human.  Churches were defaced by Protestant fanatics.  The English locked in the gentry by giving them the confiscated monasteries.  But Macaulay said that only the French Revolution could be compared to the Reformation.  Each was ‘a revolt of reason against Caste.’

Geographic horizons broadened as much as the artistic and intellectual.  Portuguese sailors rounded the horn of Africa, and in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed to America.  Then Magellan sailed around the world.  Spain took the Cross and the sword to the natives in the Americas in search of gold.  Cortez found and looted the Aztecs.  Pizarro found and looted the Incas.  Wherever they went, the Europeans treated the first inhabitants as savages.  This did nothing to alleviate the superiority complex they felt over people less advanced or less fortunate than themselves.  And as often as not, they thought that their superiority was a gift from God.

Here and there – Two Nationalists Compared


But of course there are vast differences between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump.  Hitler came to power with brownshirts and only the semblance of legality.  He trashed the constitution and put his secret police in black shirts.  He set out to rule the world and to murder a race.  He betrayed his nation and left it a smoking rubble.  Trump will do no such things.  But the two men still have a lot in common.

Both call themselves ‘nationalists’.  This celebration of the home team leads to a perverted kind of ‘patriotism’ and to nativism – a preference for home grown people over imports.  This is a curious result in a migrant nation.  It leads to conflict and division at home and a loss of respect abroad.

Few educated people in the West call themselves ‘nationalists’.  Those who have failed in life grab their nationalism with both hands.  If they have nothing else, they have their birth certificate.  They must resist their prize asset being soiled by others – like Muslims, or migrants, or refugees.  The losers among us also need to have someone to look down upon.

They want war with those they call the ‘elite’.  That weasel term here means those who have won life’s glittering prizes of wealth and power.  Since it’s the losers against the winners, we should not be surprised if the results aren’t pretty.  There is not much point in talking about ‘populism’.  That’s just a loose label for what follows.

Both leaders came to power on the back of the failure of the international economic order.  For Hitler, it was the Crash of 1929 and the Depression.  For Trump it was the Great Financial Crisis.  Both events undermined confidence in the status quo and created a giant reservoir of hurt below and vulnerability above.

Both leaders appealed to their people who had been most hurt by these world events.  Creating a sense of massive injustice was simple.  The world system hadn’t just failed – it was rotten and evil.

And with this sense of injustice came self-righteousness.  The mob looked like the sans–culottes in Paris in 1793.  They had lost out because of the crimes of others, and they were in no mood to leave vengeance to God.

Both leaders promised their followers that they would utterly cast out the old order.  They would cleanse the stables and restore the nation to the glory of a largely imaginary past.

Their thinking on how they might do this is equally obscure.  Mein Kampf says that Hitler stood for nationalism, hate, and the destruction of the Jews.  There is little else left in these ravings.  Trump doesn’t stand for anything at all.  His self-love is so consuming that there’s no room for any logical policy.

Trump will do or say anything to get power.  That’s all that matters.  A ‘policy’ could only stand in his way.  He and his followers are destroyers not builders.  It’s not what they’re for that matters, it’s what they’re against. 

Both leaders don’t just disregard truth – they look with contempt on those who respect it.  Their followers happily join them in their own world.  The assembly looks like a religious cult with its own language, rites and values, all taken on faith alone.

Trump is not out to trash the Constitution, but he shamelessly shows his ignorance of the rule of law – and his disdain of it.  He routinely scorns the judiciary and Congress.  He has now pardoned a government officer found guilty of contempt for abusing the constitutional rights of others.  This crook routinely sneered at racially different people.  He looks like a true fascist.  Trump likes him, and rewards him.  The world looks on at the old spectre of that frontier love of violence and lawlessness.

Trump stands for all that others fear in America, but he puts more value on throwing a scrap of meat to his crowd than on his sworn task of maintaining the constitution.  In this he resembles Nero and the circus, or Pontius Pilate and Barabbas.  Of one thing we may be sure – neither God nor the oath means anything to Trump.  His ego leaves no room for either.

Trump, too, seeks to rule in part by force and fear. He showed his powers of intimidation in a shameful episode – the self-abasement of his ministers at that first North Korean styled cabinet meeting.  People outside the U S again looked on in horror.  This happened in a nation that had given the world Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.

Both leaders can turn viciously on people they think have let them down, including bunnies who have been loyal to them.  But Hitler maintained his key supporters for twelve years.  Trump has discarded most of his in eight months.  The one thing you mustn’t do with Trump is to hug the spotlight.

Both leaders brought their own scapegoats.  Hitler had the Jews and the banks.  Trump has Muslims, migrants, international trade, and that hold-all of the politically inane – ‘political correctness’.  Neither leader ever said ‘sorry’ in his life, and because neither can do any wrong, each finds scapegoats to cover for his mistakes.

They both know about propaganda.  The American Constitution and press make the Goebbels model unavailable in the U S.  Trump simply brands any statement he doesn’t like as ‘fake news’.  That’s enough for the faithful.  Why interrupt the dream?  And Trump has something Goebbels didn’t – the fantastic reach of Twitter.

Both leaders had trouble with ratbags at the bottom of their base.  Hitler murdered a lot of his in the Night of the Long Knives.  Trump does not have that option.  Hitler was in a murderous class of his own on race, but America has entered a new dark age on the world stage when Trump reneged on his denial of his dregs.

Americans now have to live with the nightmare that they have elected a president who cannot unequivocally repudiate his Nazi and KKK supporters.  Trump sees ‘very fine people’ among them.  They in turn are jubilant and very grateful to their president.  Has America ever stood so low in the world – even during the agony of Nixon and Watergate?

Both leaders seek a kind of religious aura.  They demand that their followers give them faith.  This notion of faith is vital.  The followers must have faith to withstand all opposition.  It also helps them reject any evidence against the leader.  Visceral politics lives on faith.  It’s something that you pledge in your guts.  It is by definition irrational.  People like Hitler or Trump can’t bear rational analysis.

Both leaders also put great value on personal loyalty.  That is what cost the Wehrmacht so dearly with Hitler.  The generals had sold their soul, and given up their selves.

Both leaders are at their happiest when they are ranting to their adoring ‘base’.  Whether either believes any part of their rant is a matter for conjecture or God.  Some independent observers saw glimpses of Germany in 1933 in Trump at Phoenix.  Trump there looked like he may have studied the Führer.  You get someone to work the crowd and then come on – and stand silent.  Hitler would let the tension build, like a guileful lover.  But he was much better at modulating his pace than Trump.

Hitler was a lot more astute than Trump.  Trump just can’t help himself when the spots go on him.  He soaks up the applause while clapping himself, like a spoiled child being commended over nothing.  If only it could last forever, and if only he didn’t have to face Congress, judges, and journalists – or the facts.  At least Hitler knew what the word ‘leader’ entails; Trump has no idea.

Both Hitler and Trump did all they could to warn the whole world of their unfitness for office, but their bond with the faithful is unbreakable.  It derives from an unsettling communion between people who are desperate in different ways.  The leaders are desperate for power, and they will say and do anything to get it.  The faithful are desperate for vengeance, and they will give up almost anything to get a leader who can deliver it.  What you then get is a kind of Faustian pact, where people on both sides burn their bridges.

The upshot is that the followers cannot believe that their chosen champion could betray them.  Their leader can do no wrong.  They have surrendered the right to say otherwise.  The Germans believed this to the end, even when it should have been obvious that Hitler was betraying them.

With his health care and tax policies, Trump has signalled that he will betray his followers.  He will strip them of benefits to give tax cuts to his promoters.  But the mob doesn’t see this.  They don’t want to see it.  They have to believe that their ‘redeemer liveth’.

What, then, do we have?  President Obama is a man of intellect and integrity.  Trump has neither.  Obama gave the nation health care and sought to extricate it from Afghanistan.  Trump promised to repeal health care and to get out of Afghanistan.  He has broken both promises.  He has now committed his country to an indefinite participation in a war it cannot win – in a world that no longer respects America.  Was ever a nation’s fall from grace so swift and so complete?

There is one more difference between Hitler and Trump.  Hitler fought for Germany through the worst war the world has seen.  He was rejected for command, but there was no doubting his courage under fire.  He was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class.

There was never any risk of Trump taking up arms for his country.  That was as likely as his paying his fair share of taxes.  The suggestion that Donald George Trump may be a true American patriot is just another hideous untruth in a life made up of moonshine.  The permanently spoiled brat called Donald Trump is a disaster for America and the world.