Small World: What ails conservatives?


Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

When we visited New York a few weeks ago, we saw an exhibition of German paintings and drawings from the period between World Wars I and II. Depicted were fat, evil-looking plutocrats, floozy women and the pitiful poor begging. That was the time of the Weimar Republic, a flaccid attempt at creating a democratic society that failed and gave way to Hitler’s Nazi regime.

It was also the time when the German economy was floundering. Inflation was so bad people carted marks around in wheelbarrows. Unemployment was as high as the Alps. And the gap between rich and poor was evident to all. What had disappeared from sight were the Teutonic virtues of hard work and fact-based, practical thinking.

Most people who have studied the period think that the rotten economy gave the impetus to the rotten regime that replaced Weimar. Germany moved from common sense moderation to violent, ideology-based extremism. The foreign enemy consumed national energies. Needing an internal enemy, the Nazis targeted the Jews. We can readily find other examples where a broken-down economy gave rise to a harsh, punishing and irrational bunch of manipulators. Think fascist Italy about the same time period or communist Russia a few years earlier. Similar parallels arose all over the globe.

Which brings us to our homeland. Without labeling the extreme voices we hear now in America as fascist or communist, we can say that they spring in large measure from an uncertain and unequally functioning economy.

“What?” you question me. “Our economy has rarely been doing better. Five-percent unemployment. The stock market moving merrily upward. People buying houses and cars again. We’ve come through a bad patch very nicely.”

Right enough, I reply. But that “bad patch” is still the problem. Its past damages and threatened damages left deep scars on the national psyche. The wounds still fester even among those who have recovered their jobs, homes and moved on. They’ve been wounded and they lack confidence in the good will and competence of our masters. They’ve been instructed for decades that government can’t really help. In truth, Washington is the problem, they are told.

Not everybody is so afflicted with doubt, let’s be clear. Those with capital, good educations and potent connections are doing quite all right, thank you. It’s the rest who are vulnerable — in good part because of shaky backgrounds that deny them flexibility. It is they who are most affected by the unsteady economy. We live today, the Financial Times tells us in a “splintered society” in which the middle class has been reduced in size and the rich have increased in wealth.

We saw it first with the strong sentiment against Obamacare: Why should we fix a medical system that works for us in order to benefit those below us on the social ladder, the critics asked? Moving on, these unhappy and insecure folks turned to immigration — the big job stealer and culture changer, they were told. What to do with 11 million illegals in our country? Round them up and send them home. Not a thought about how disruptive and unfair it would be to men, women and children who have made their lives here. Nor how long or how much it would cost to “purify” our population of these intruders.

The same themes are heard in discussions of foreign affairs. In the old days we were strong, now we’re weak. Leadership — or the absence of same — is the problem. No one wants to continue to commit lives to the quagmires that beckon, however — especially not their own lives. All want the world out there to bend to our will — and gracefully. Few recognize that we are confronting something new in modern world politics: the fusion of religion and nationalism. Even fewer understand how extremely difficult it is to uproot these movements.

Finding fault with weak leadership in Washington, the insecure blame it for the rise in terrorism. Spurred on by a sensation-seeking press and demagogic politicians, so-called conservatives look for radical solutions that will bring back the past. Hardly a thought for the new and difficult realities the United States confronts abroad.

From those simple analyses it’s an easy leap to Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Moslems entering the country. Well, maybe fascism is the word to use.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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