Goldie Muse, my maternal grandmother, would’ve been 100 this St. Patrick’s Day. Scots-Irish and Appalachian to her core, the world into which she was born was still recovering from the War to End All Wars – the ghastly, near-global conflict that decimated Europe, and extinguished an estimated 38 million military and civilian lives.
My grandma could scarce have known that even as she was coming of age, a maniacal, recently discharged German Army lance corporal was laying plans for a military conquest and genocide program that would eliminate 3% of the world’s population.
Goldie was a kind, bright, but not worldly soul. Already resigned to the menial labor that defined her life of poverty, she had no time for radio reports about the gathering storm: what she knew about Adolph Hitler was that her brothers, cousins and friends were being sent across a vast ocean to finish what the bastard started.
On VE-Day, May 8, 1945, her generation did just that. The maniac and his grizzly dream were ended; but at a cost in human and planetary carnage unrivaled by any military action in recorded history.
As the true scope of Nazi brutality became obvious, a traumatized world embarked on a painful period of self-scrutiny, asking over and over why the warning bells were ignored.
Given this new era of hypervigilance toward budding demagogues, it was inevitable that future ringleaders with a broad following would be likened unto the Fuhrer, in method if not scale: Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, Qaddafi, Marcos, Milošević, Saddam, Kim Jong-II.
When applied to the likes of despots such as these, comparisons with Hitler are easily justified. In each strongman’s case, he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents, many by the cruelest of means. And with clear, Hitlerian efficiency.
But calling out evil has become increasingly complicated in an age of shifting political alliances and enmeshed global markets. Given they possess enough oil, offer enough cheap labor or are strategically located, even countries under despotic rule stand a chance of enjoying full relations with democracies.
This blurring of moral boundaries describes the confounding hot mess otherwise known as US-Russia relations in the year 2017 – a semi-cold war mismatch between a seasoned, SS-style henchman; and an ill-equipped president who (save for the occasional nuclear saber rattling) clings to the notion all will be well so long he and his counterpart can just “sit down and do a deal.”
But in reality, neither threats nor appeals to kibbutz like businessmen can conceal the bald truth that Trump cannot out-Hitler Vladimir Putin, and he’d better get used to it.
Not all the blame for this state of affairs should fall to Trump. Putin owned Bush 43 the second the leader of the free world looked into the once-KGB agent’s eyes and told the world he “saw his [Putin’s] soul.”
And while the relationship between Putin and Obama was decidedly less cordial, no major American influence was brought to bear as Russia engaged in cyber hacking, territorial annexation, intervention in Syria or the shadowing of American warships by the Russian fleet.
There are three reasons Putin will use his inner Hitler to intimidate if not dominate Trump:
First, by way of political independence, the American presidency exists in the context of a three-tiered, checks-and-balances system – a set of constitutionally-sanctioned gates in much weaker form in the Russian government. By design, Putin faces many fewer institutional challenges when trying to get his way.
Secondly, Trump’s a bully, not a brawler. While the son of privilege was finishing up an Ivy League degree, Putin was gathering high-grade intelligence for the Soviet Union. Ask the ghost of Neville Chamberlain: Personal toughness and cunning count in international relations.
Third, Putin is a real, not imaginary dictator. With the help of Soviet-style bureaucrats, he has managed to avoid the creation of a truly free press. (A 2015 poll done by Reporters Without Borders ranked the Russian press 148th out of 179 countries studied.) While Trump and his representatives continue their regular assaults on the media, they do not yet enjoy the echo chamber that is the Kremlin.
Be it a hostile or better relationship between the two leaders, the world needs their symbiotic arrangement to function at some basic level, starting with ratcheting down talk of a nuclear option.
After that, Russia is clearly aspiring to greater influence in the world, raising new anxieties in the West as U.S. foreign policy is now in the hands of amateurs. All the while setting off alarm bells we’d hoped were forever silenced.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Email donaldlrollins@ gmail.com.
From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2017
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