This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in east central Europe. I’ve been thinking about those events a lot lately. I witnessed some of them firsthand, since I was living in West Berlin at the time.
But I suspect there’s another reason why I have East Germany on the brain these days.
It’s not just that President Trump is disproportionately obsessed with steel and coal and the other smokestack industries of yore. It’s not just that the president demands ritualized displays of flattery (akin to the creepy messages of praise that members of the East Berlin Politburo used to get from the proletariat and the “fraternal socialist parties” every year on their birthdays). And it’s not just the way that Trump fawns over North Korea’s dictator and Hungary’s dictator and Russia’s dictator. Especially Russia’s dictator.
It’s all of the above — and a lot of less obvious things, too. I’ve started referring to them as “those East Berlin moments.”
Yeah, I know. Trump is a Republican. East Germany’s leaders were communists. And yet.
I had to watch Sean Hannity for a while before I realized who he reminded me of. East German television had a guy named Karl-Eduard von Schnitzler, who, like Hannity, was more political attack dog than journalist. Instead of trolling the libs, Schnitzler ranted about the “class enemy” across the border in the West: the unreconstructed Nazis, the slavering capitalists, the American puppets. Like Hannity, Schnitzler wasn’t afraid to make stuff up, and he had a telltale fondness for conspiracy theories. (Schnitzler described the demonstrators at China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 as “counterrevolutionary killers,” and he reserved a special hatred for “Zionism,” which he depicted as a kind of Jewish Nazism.) Like Hannity, Schnitzler had a direct line to the leadership, and he wasn’t afraid to use it.
Most importantly, Schnitzler understood how to turn politics into bloodsport: “Put all the enemies in a sack,” he once declared. “Close it up and beat it. You’ll always end up hitting the right people.” Hannity clearly has the same instinct: “Rage, hatred, psychosis now govern this new radical extreme Democratic socialist party,” he recently declared.
As you might expect, Schnitzler was notorious for defending the Berlin Wall, which the East German leadership called the “anti-fascist protective barrier.” The border fortification that Hannity loves is supposed to keep people out rather than keep them in — a significant difference, to be sure. Yet when Trump talks about topping his wall with spikes, or laughs when someone suggests that migrants be shot, it’s difficult not to think back to the old days along the German-German border.
Or consider Jon McNaughton, who has been described as “the single most famous pro-Trump artist.” His work also harks back to the Cold War — namely to “socialist realism,” which aimed to convey messages to the masses with the subtlety of a Kalashnikov. McNaughton may not know the history, but he sure has the mind-set. His “forgotten men and women,” who bear an eerie resemblance to the tractor drivers and factory workers of Joseph Stalin’s day, gaze worshipfully at their savior Trump — when he isn’t busy rescuing a soiled American flag from uppity NFL players, or rowing members of his Cabinet, staff and family across the Washington “swamp” in a bizarre parody of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Okay, so McNaughton hasn’t yet figured out how to airbrush the unpeople out of that last picture (which still includes four former aides who have long since jumped off the Trump train). But at least he gets that he should always depict Trump as vigorous and buff and about 30 years younger. Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un could do worse.
Even more interesting than the paintings themselves are McNaughton’s descriptions of them: “The murky water of the deep state is laced with dangerous vermin, perfectly willing to destroy American prosperity for their personal ideologies and financial gain.” Or this: “I want a president that will crush the enemies of liberty, justice and American prosperity. They may have power to bruise his heel but he will have the power to crush their head.” (No wonder McNaughton is one of Hannity’s favorite artists.)
I used to think that Americans — or most Americans, at least — were above this sort of thing. I suspect that every country has a certain authoritarian constituency; no society is fully immune. But I never thought I would see so many of our leaders embracing cult-of-personality politics: A president hints about staying in office for life. Sycophants bend their principles to the Great Leader’s will. A loyal propaganda apparatus mobs critics of the party line.
Am I being unfair? Could be. After all, the United States is a democracy. The German Democratic Republic was a Soviet-style totalitarian state.
But consider this. East Germany’s leaders only stayed in power because they were backed by the Red Army’s guns. Almost as soon as the country was formed, its citizens began abandoning it in droves. As soon as they got a chance to freely express their feelings, they effectively declared it null and void. The government in East Berlin never enjoyed more than the thinnest veneer of democratic legitimacy.
Trump, by contrast, is an elected leader. A solid third of the U.S. electorate supports him. His supporters don’t just tolerate his excesses — they revel in them.
Erich Honecker would have been envious.