JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for beginning your day with us.
We are delighted to welcome Rob Riemen to this Public Affairs program. He will be discussing the ideas put forward in his book To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism. Rob is based in the Netherlands and is the founder of the Nexus Institute, an international center devoted to intellectual reflection and to inspiring Western cultural and philosophical debate.
His book To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism comes at exactly the right moment. The omens are not good. For some time now, we have been witnessing the gradual erosion of longstanding moral values, both in Europe and in America, a slow and steady weakening of critical institutions, a dismantling of what has been built rather than creating something new. Debate is discouraged and loyalty demanded. As democracies around the world are beleaguered with threats from multiple sources, the question is how to meet and overcome these challenges. The answers may be found in a close reading of To Fight Against This Age. It is as timely as it is timeless.
In two compelling essays, our speaker warns about the global resurgence of fascism and explores its weaknesses, which he says are so often disguised by false promises of freedom and greatness. In the second essay, Mr. Riemen articulates ways to resist the perils of fascist ideology and draws upon his vast knowledge of history and philosophy to issue a humanist appeal. It is an argument that makes the case for a return to enlightened values emphasizing truth and justice, values that he posits are the origin and basis of a democratic civilization.
At a time when profound transformations are taking place in public discourse around the world, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest, who in To Fight Against This Age reminds us what should be of value and importance at this time.
Rob Riemen, thank you so much for coming.
ROB RIEMEN: Joanne, thank you so much for this very gracious introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for being here at an early hour. I know it is a kind of American habit, the power breakfast. For us Europeans it is still a relatively new phenomenon, but I am very happy to see all of you here.
In Downtown New York only a week ago I saw a billboard with just two lines. The first line was, "It won't happen to us," and below, "This is not an emergency plan," and I thought, This is brilliant. "It won't happen to us/This is not an emergency plan."
It reminded me of this brilliant novel of Sinclair Lewis in 1935, It Can't Happen Here, which as you recollect, was this satire that he imagines that Franklin Roosevelt will lose the election to his character Windrip, who will create in America a kind of plutocratic totalitarian state not unlike what was happening at that time in Nazi Germany. The difference between this Windrip figure and Hitler is that Hitler is an ideologue, but this Windrip, he is a con man, he is a manipulator. He has no ideology like Hitler.
The story in real life, of course, was much more hopeful. Franklin Roosevelt won the elections. He could stand up against "the plot against America," and mainly due to him, in 1945 fascist Europe was defeated forever.
That was the question which haunted a young French novelist and intellectual who in March of 1946 came to New York. He was young. He had only published one novel, but there was already a buzz around him. I am talking about Albert Camus, who wrote his book L'Étranger/The Stranger. That is the kind of novel which tries to explain how absurd life is, how meaningless it is, given all of the things that have happened in Europe.
Three days after his arrival, at Columbia at the Miller Theatre he would give a talk. I think there were around 700 places, and there were more than 1,200 students coming to listen to Albert Camus. Those who expected Camus to talk more about how absurd life is, how meaningless it is, probably would have been very surprised. We don't have the lecture, we only have notes of what Camus then said in March 1946, but based on the notes we know that he said the following:
"My generation in Europe," told Camus, "was born at the beginning of World War I. We were adolescents at the time of the Great Depression, and a few years later the rise of Hitler in Germany, civil war in Spain, and in 1938 the betrayal of Munich, and then the Second World War, Hitler in our country. Born and bred in such a world, what is there that we could believe in? In nothing. The world in which we were called to exist was an absurd world with no place to find refuge because the world of culture was too beautiful to be true."
"And so, when we had to face Hitler and his Nazis, which values could be opposed to him? None. None, because what we were facing was much worse than the bankruptcy of a political system. This fascism came from the root of our society, which was fundamentally a society deprived of any moral and spiritual values. The violence of fascism was just its logical consequence. Yet this fascist society, we had to fight it, and we did."
"But now Hitler is gone. We know one thing for certain: the poison of fascism has not been eliminated at all. It still exists. More than that, it is still present in each of us who still think in terms of power, efficiency, and historical tasks in which ordinary people are sacrificed for a political goal."
A year later, 1947, Camus publishes his very brilliant novel Le Peste/The Plague to tell us that fascism will never be defeated forever. Fascism, he wanted his readers to understand, is like a bacillus, a virus that never dies and never disappears for good, as it can and will come back to destroy democracy from inside.
The same year, an older German who found a place here in this country, Thomas Mann, came here and was well-connected and was very much befriended by the mother of Katherine Graham, Agnes Meyer. Due to her, he could give lectures at the Library of Congress. He was friends with Roosevelt. He was probably the last European who could spend weeks in the White House at the invitation of the president.
Anyway, in 1947 he gives a lecture, and he makes the same point. He said, the war is over, but please don't make the mistake. Fascism did not disappear. It is not over. Again it will come back. Why? Again, before the war, in 1938 when he arrived here and which turned out to be the beginning of his exile, he came with a very important lecture called "The Coming Victory of Democracy." It was a coast-to-coast lecture [tour] from here to San Francisco, 40 town halls with thousands of Americans, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 6,000, literally, people listening to a lecture of more than two hours.
There he makes the following argument: He says, "Look, in my hometown, Munich, I have witnessed the rise of Hitler. I was living there, he was living there. And I have seen how a fascist movement came to power all over Europe." He had seen how the spirit of democracy can disappear in a mass society where demagogues are welcomed with the politics of resentment, the incitement of anger and fear, xenophobia, the need for scapegoats, and its hatred of the life of the mind. So with this experience he wanted the Americans to understand what democracy is really all about. So he says, look, what I got to learn, what I got to know is that democracy is "that form of government and society which is inspired above every other with the feeling and consciousness of the dignity of man."
He said, well, these are big words, and I am very well aware of how petty we can be, that we all can be the victims of our own egotism and cruelty and stupidity, etc., but precisely for that reason he urged us never to forget that the great and honorable in men manifests itself as art and science, a passion for truth, the creation of beauty, and the idea of justice. These are the things a true democracy will cultivate because it wants to be that form of government that attempts to elevate human beings and to enable them to think critically and to be free.
Now let's be honest, okay? This is not our democracy. Instead of equal chances and equal rights, there is a growing inequality and exclusion. Instead of elevating people, there is the ongoing dumbing-down everywhere. Instead of the cultivation of universal moral and spiritual values, we are cultivating mainly the values of the commercial world—productivity, efficiency, quantity, usefulness, and an aggressive materialism that dominates the whole society.
Our commercial sale culture has no interest in reason, truth, beauty, and justice; it only activates our lowest instincts. Instead of compassion, there is resentment, there is racism, there is fear, and there is hatred. And instead of a serious political intellectual discussion about the way forward to create a better society together, there is nothing more than tribal politics, Twitter slogans, propaganda, and image-building.
Crucial to understand is that the true spirit of our society is a society of kitsch. In general, people think that kitsch is just bad art. But that is a mistake. Kitsch is the mindset of a society that has given up on the cultivation of moral and spiritual values. So at school a kitsch culture is completely meaningless, yet all of this remains concealed behind the cultivation, even the idolatry, of our basic instincts and desires, and they have to fill the spiritual void.
How does a kitsch society look in practice? In a kitsch society, our identity is no longer based on who I am but on what I have. And our constant compulsion to buy and to possess is therefore not as much a manifestation of greed as it is this deep longing to have an identity and then to show it off to as many people as possible with the expectation and hope that they will like you. The "likes" are becoming very important.
The life of the mind in a kitsch society is no longer relevant. It is all about feeling good, and you feel best if everything is nice and therefore pleasant. So pleasant will become the absolute measure of everything you spend your time on—your work, your relationship, what you do in leisure time. At the very moment you no longer feel very happy, there is Ritalin or other drugs. The use of Ritalin in this society is already above 25 percent among youngsters.
If everything has to be pleasant, religion, for example, will no longer be the call to change your life and to have compassion for your fellow human beings, but it will become indulgence in self-righteousness and higher feelings. Mr. Roy Moore and Mr. Steve Bannon are prime examples of this kitsch religion.
Another crucial consequence is that the quest for quality, which is a spiritual value, will be replaced by the longing for quantity. So everything has to be big. And in the kitsch world, the best is by definition the biggest number. But there is always a bigger number, so it will never be enough.
Now combine the dominance of materialism with the faith in quantity, and you understand why in this kitsch society we will always idealize the desire to be rich, and the rich as being the true heroes of our time.
In this respect, it is only logical that education in the kitsch world is reduced to an instrument for the transfer of everything useful, knowledge that is usable for the economy, and everything you need to know in order to earn money. Emotions and irrationalism will prevail because reason and the act of thinking make life too complicated, and in the kitsch culture nothing is allowed that is difficult because everything has to be fun, easy, cool, hip, sexy, and entertaining. In such a society, you can wait for the king of kitsch, who his followers believe to be the new messiah who will cure society of all evils and make them happy again and the country great again.
Europe and the United States have two different histories. Fascism has been part of our history for decades, and not only in Italy or in Germany, but in Spain, in France, in the Netherlands, in Central Europe. It was everywhere for decades. I presume that the United States, because of its own history, there is here a greater sensitivity for racism, but we Europeans have a greater sensitivity for fascism, again because it has been part of our history for so long. Albert Camus and Thomas Mann, who both lived through the fascist era in Europe, were absolutely right: fascism is a political phenomenon that will never disappear, as it is the dark side of every democracy.
So when our democracy degenerates into this kitsch society whereby demagogues, stupidity, propaganda, vulgarity, and the lowest human instincts increase their dominance, that will inevitably give birth to that bastard child of democracy, which is fascism.
Everything changes over time. Two years from now, five years from now, all of us will be different, and yet we are still the same. It is the same with fascism. When it returns, it will be different from how we saw it in the time of Mussolini and Hitler, and still it will be the same. The fascist mindset in our time will not present itself in black uniforms or strange crosses or silly gestures, and of course every fascist will deny being a fascist.
But the character of the mindset of fascism will not have changed, and this is how you recognize it, not by its ideology, because it doesn't have an ideology. This is one of the basic mistakes made by so many political scientists. It doesn't have an ideology. But the characteristics are always the same.
Let me just mention a few. The new fascist leader will present himself—most of the time it will be a him—as the anti-politician, the strongman, the leader who will cure society from all social evil, and knowing that that's not true. As the false messiah of a secular religion, he has no other choice than to deceive his millions of believers with slogans, the false promise of a return to a never-existing past, a rich and never-ending variety of enemies to exploit their resentment and fear, and last but not least, with endless propaganda to manipulate their habits and opinions. He has no other interest than self-interest, and his lack of ideas and vision will be hidden by blaming all kinds of scapegoats, and his disinterest in the rest of the world promoted as a brilliant strategy to make his own country great again.
His worldview will be profoundly materialistic and favor extreme nationalism. He will be a pathological liar—they are all pathological liars—and his politics of lies underscores how right Thomas Mann was in 1940, when he gave a lecture in Los Angeles, entitled "War and Democracy," when he warned the audience: "Let me tell you the whole truth. If ever fascism should come to America, it will come in the name of freedom."
The fascist leader, the fascist mindset is always the mindset of an anti-democrat who despises the free press and prefers to make any judge he doesn't like suspect and to have it through Twitter, indulging in name-calling and avoiding any serious intellectual debate. This is exemplary of the populist demagogue who despises the life of the mind and the spirit of democracy.
He always will be the showman, the con man, who will exploit vulnerable people, and we got the most disgusting example of that two days ago at the State of the Union, where vulnerable people, like the parents of this Korean boy who was tortured and the parents of girls who were murdered by this gang. It was a fine example of political pornography. That's what it is. [Editor's note: In attendance at the 2018 State of the Union address were the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American who was imprisoned in North Korea and died shortly after being released, and Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector who was tortured as a teenager in the mid-1990s. Ji's parents were not in attendance.]
The fascist leader will demand an unconditional loyalty, and his incapability to accept any form of criticism, plus his self-image of being a genius, always characterizes the authoritarian.
These characteristics of the quintessential fascist mindset are characteristics of Mr. Orbán in Hungary, Putin in Russia, Erdoğan in Turkey, Wilders in the Netherlands, Madame Le Pen in France, Kaczyński in Poland, Zeman in the Czech Republic, the fascist leaders in Austria and Germany, and last but not least, indeed Mr. Donald Trump.
Many people get it, but interestingly enough many of the elites—the pundits, the academics, the politicians—remain in a state of denial. The "F" word is their biggest taboo, and they will not use it. What we get instead is a whole series of euphemisms—populism, right-wing populism—and new words like "Putinism" or "Trumpism" or "Trumpocracy." It is a big blind spot. Just to give you one horrific example of how blind people can be, a great man like Winston Churchill—and god bless Winston Churchill—but on February 18, 1933, Hitler was already in power in Nazi Germany, he gave a speech at the Anti-Socialist League in London in which he said: "Mussolini is a great man. He is the genius of our time. He is a true lawgiver, and his fascism will be the strategy for our future." It took him a few more years to understand what the real nature of fascism is.
So I can understand the blindness, but it is as dangerous as it is stupid. I understand, we all understand, that "inconvenient truths" are never welcome, not in your private life, not as a society, and the common response is natural. The common response is denial: "No, this cannot be true." But as I said it is as stupid as it is dangerous.
Many of you will remember the Club of Rome, which was founded in 1968 and published their report The Limits of Growth in 1972. Basically it was the very first study of the consequences of ongoing economic growth in our industrial society for our climate. And the general response in 1972 was denial: "No, this cannot be true. Things are not that serious. Things will get better," da da da. We know what happened, and it took them decades to realize that the Club of Rome in 1972 was already right, and if they would have accepted that truth in 1972 our situation for the planet Earth would be much better. Now possibly it is already too late, god knows.
The same thing is happening right now, and the key argument is that there is no return of fascism and that Trump is not a fascist is that he is not a Hitler. Well, yes, that's true. He is not a Hitler. But this is not relevant. There were many more fascists.
Or the argument, "His actions are not violent." Well, ladies and gentlemen, I can tell you that his politics should not be compared with World War II. His politics should be compared with the time of its inception, the 1920s. You really do not need a Ph.D. in psychology to understand that with his racist rhetoric, his divisiveness due to his politics of fear and hatreds, he will incite bit by bit more and more violence in your own society and in the world, starting in 2019 with this embassy going to Jerusalem. It will be a disaster.
The trouble with all those new words like Trumpism and Trumpocracy is that we are missing both the global and historical dimension of what is happening.
And next to that, too much of all the books about what is happening right now inside the White House, which indeed within one year has been transformed into a hothouse of frauds and corruption and lies and propaganda—but it caters to the hunger of sensation, and it is a distraction from the true story. With all respect to Michael Wolff and his book Fire and Fury, you can say a lot of things about Donald Trump, but not that he has ever been shy about the guy he is. So there is not that much new in this book. Well, okay, the ego of Steve Bannon is even bigger than that of Donald Trump.
But it is a distraction because we are missing the true story, and the true story is not what is happening in the White House, but what happened so that a man like Donald Trump could get into the White House. Probably the media are not focused on this because they are too complicit with getting the guy into the White House.
The true story is not that Trump is the cause of the crisis of our democracy, but that he is an expression of our democracy in crisis. The true story is not that we are dealing with a political crisis but with a moral crisis in our society. The true story is that our elites will not solve the crisis because their mindset is the crisis.
This is very important. Elites in power have always an instinct to keep the status quo because if society really would change, they would lose their position. The true story is that we are no longer living in a true democracy because its spirit is gone due to a deep defect in our culture. Because of that we are now facing as a consequence that all over the West there is a return of fascism as the true anti-democratic spirit.
Remember that billboard that I saw downtown: "It won't happen to us/That is not an emergency plan"? Well, the return of fascism all over the West is now a fact, and so we are very much in need of an emergency plan to find an antidote to stop this early form of fascism to develop into something much worse.
The good news is there is already an emergency plan. It is here, right? So you read it, you think about it, you discuss it, you tell your friends to buy it, or if you are a good friend, you give it to them. But as time is always an issue, I will finish this talk with a very short handout, a few doubts and one important to-do.
(1) Please stop the denial and be aware that those who continue to deny and keep on talking in terms of neologisms and euphemisms are all ignorant or opportunistic or fascist themselves.
(2) Fascism being the political expression of a defect in our culture is not something that can be fixed, so science and technology will not do.
(3) We are confronted with a much bigger threat than the economic crisis, so stop thinking that with more economic growth all will be fine. That will not be the case.
(4) Don't think that political activism is enough. Yes, hopefully in November 2018 there will be already a change. Hopefully 2020 will be even a bigger change, but even with the disappearance of Trump and his gang, the bacillus of fascism will not have disappeared.
So here is the to-do: Use the second chapter of this book to think and work together on a new counterculture, a counterculture in which there is no longer a place for stupidity, in which there is no longer a place for kitsch and conformism, but to have a counterculture that will educate us in the human capacity to transcend ourselves, to have imagination and empathy, to live in truth, to create beauty, and to do justice.
This is never easy. It has never been easy, but this is the true greatness of honoring the dignity of every human being, and this is what a democratic civilization is all about. And this is what already in 1938 Thomas Mann here in America called "an education in the nobility of spirit with its enduring call never to conform to the world as it is but to be brave and accept your moral responsibility to fight against the return of fascism and the survival of the spirit of democracy."
Thank you so much.
QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.
I think you have many people who would agree with your analysis sitting here. There is one name I believe you didn't mention from Italy: Berlusconi has returned.
But my question is, who are the leaders, if there are any, who would be more humanistic and who would somehow be able to overcome this growing fascism?
ROB RIEMEN: Look, we are still living in a democracy. One of the reasons that my publisher published this book and that I give these talks is that we are still not living in a police state like Russia or an even bigger police state like China. I am still allowed to speak. We are still here, and we are still free.
Now in a democracy it is we the people. We the people means that we are in charge of who will be our leaders, so we have to change first. We have to make sure that there will be what I mentioned, this new counterculture with people who understand what is going on, and they should be representing us.
Don't focus too much on the people who are now in charge, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. Many of them are of a certain age. I do not see them changing their mindsets all that much, and I could only have wished that, for example, the Clinton family would have devoted the last decade to training young people to become the new leaders of their party instead of putting themselves first.
It is a thing that has to develop on all levels—the media, our cultural infrastructure, our education, education, education. The change will come from the bottom up. That always has been the case. So to have a new leadership means that at the root of our society something has to change, and everybody can contribute to that and "make a small difference," but it will be a very important difference.
QUESTION: David Musher.
Thank you for your comments. First of all, I always thought that values that we have as a society come from religion and from our Judeo-Christian background. You haven't talked about that at all.
Number two, I always thought that a part of the definition of fascism was subservience of the individual to the state and that fascism did not refer to any person or group of people with whom we disagree. I wondered if you would comment on that, please.
ROB RIEMEN: Concerning your first question, America, as you know much better than I do, is an extremely diverse society. People from all over the world are welcomed by your country with all kinds of religious backgrounds. The reason that I on purpose choose to speak about humanism, which for me started with Socrates, and then we have had Petrarch and then Erasmus and Spinoza and Thomas Mann and many others, is that it is an inclusive worldview which accepts the fact—and this is very important—the notion of transcendental values, and it has a focus on the dignity of man, of every human being.
Out of it came a political view which is called social democracy. Social democracy is that kind of government which states as its prime objective that everything and everybody, what is vulnerable is in our society, will be protected—sick people, old people, people without any work, animals, the planet. That is what social democracy is all about. Therefore, you have to have a health care system, you have to have pensions, etc., and you protect the planet.
The notion of humanism is that it will tell us that our own identity is not based on our how we are as individuals, but it is based on what we have in common. It is not an identity of what makes us different but what we all have in common. It is a universal idea, and the universal idea is that everybody, whoever you are, can live in truth, can do justice, and create beauty. That in practice is not much different from the Jewish view that at the end of life God will judge us by have we been tzadik, yes or no? Have we lived in justice, yes or no? Or the Christian view that it is all about have you been a loving human being, yes or no? So the common identity is part of it, and if I refer to the notions of humanism, it is much more inclusive than when I talk about a specific set of values of a specific religion.
In terms of the definition of fascism, I stressed the point that I am talking about the political consequences of a society in which the democratic spirit disappears, because again this was the key thing of what Thomas Mann wanted to argue in 1938. He said: "Yes, I know this is the country of Lincoln. This is the country of Whitman. This is the country where you now have this great President Franklin Roosevelt. But let me tell you, I have seen how the institutions and all the pillars of a democracy will eventually disappear when the spirit of democracy is gone." It is like a marriage where there is no love anymore. People are still together, but it cannot hold.
So the spirit of democracy, that is the key thing, and when the spirit of democracy is replaced by the anti-spirit of democracy, that will develop over time into a form of fascism, and this form of fascism will indeed become that we will all have to obey to the state. This is where your authoritarianism comes in.
Again, the fascism in Europe did not start as imposing fascism on the society. Camus and all the others, this is what they made their argument. It will come from the bottom up. It will take time. It will take five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years.
Next to that, I can all recommend you if you are interested in literature, please do read The Brothers Karamazov of Dostoyevsky with the chapter on the legend of the Grand Inquisitor, where Dostoyevsky in the most marvelous way explains how people fear freedom. If you are more interested in psychology and cultural criticism, please do read Erich Fromm's The Fear of Freedom, which one of the causes is the rise of fascism, and there is a lot of fear in this society, and there is also a lot of fear of freedom.
QUESTION: Allen Young.
It is certainly true, I think we would all agree, that economic growth as such, particularly when the results of that economic growth are not fairly distributed, will not guarantee the return to democracy. But isn't it true that the absence of economic growth will probably ensure the triumph of fascism? It was only because in Weimar Germany unemployment came up to about 33 percent that Hitler was successful. It is probably true that Trump has been successful because he appeals to those people living in those parts of America that are in economic decline.
ROB RIEMEN: You are absolutely right. Economics always plays a role. But again, if you look at the situation in Europe, in Europe because of our welfare system there is much less inequality. We have a lot of problems, but there is much less social economic inequality. Still, it happens in Hungary, Poland. I started to reflect on the return of fascism in my country when in the heyday of our economic boom in the 1990s we suddenly got the following of Mr. Pim Fortuyn. He then was shot, and not much later we got Mr. Geert Wilders.
So the whole idea that economics will solve it, that cannot be true for a variety of reasons, because in our democratic capitalist society there will always be rich and poor. Some are very rich, and in a social democracy some people will be less poor, but the difference will always be rich and poor.
When a society is hit by this crisis—again, this is what happened in Europe. They told people over and over, Brussels, the European Union is good because it is good for your economy. And then suddenly there was the financial crisis, man-made here, Wall Street, not that long ago, and it hit our society. Millions of people got unemployed. Still there was welfare, but they got unemployed, and suddenly there was this fear that those people from Poland, from Bulgaria or Romania, or those Muslims, they are stealing our jobs, etc.
"Man does not live by bread alone." People are hungry for more than just materialism. At the very moment where in the West there is fear of what is happening to us and what is my identity and who am I, and when they see that the world is changing and shifting and they feel threatened for whatever reasons, if again the spirit of democracy is not there to protect our notion of civilization, then we get these things, because again, we are those beings with a double nature.
We are the only beings with a double nature. On the one hand, our nature is that like animals. We are mortal, we have hunger, we have thirst, there is the sex drive, there is our aggression. We are like animals. But we also have a spirit. We are conscious of the fact that we are mortal, and we are conscious of our fears, and we are conscious of our frustrations, but we also know about truth and we know about love. We know about these things.
Civilization, as Freud will explain, is to be constantly aware of those values which we have to cultivate to make sure that the animal in us will not thrive and become dominant. The danger of all forms of fascism is that it wants to cultivate our animal nature. It goes back to our basic instincts. That is the true danger.
This is also the true danger of a commercial society. Now a commercial society in certain ways is innocent because it only wants to make money with it. They give you all this crap because it caters to our sense of sensation, our lust for all the killing and all these things.
But again, it can get a political dimension, and then people can turn into animals. It happens. It is happening, and this was the main message of Primo Levi, that in the 1980s, close to his death, he said, "Look, it happened, and therefore it can happen again because human nature did not change."
He also said: "Look, it happened that a buffoon was welcomed and cherished by millions of people because even when the economy was growing in Nazi Germany, they didn't say farewell to Hitler. No, no. He only became more their savior of everything. And still the hate was there, and still the notion of we have to make Germany great again was there, and he invaded Vienna, and Austrians were welcoming him, millions."
So again, economics is very important. Please make sure that you get a kind of system which will make it possible that people will not starve, that people will have decent health care, etc., but it is not the solution.
QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.
I think that there is one person who you did not mention in your survey of Western civilization who maybe deserves a little attention here, and that gentleman is Hobbes. I think that what Thomas Hobbes said was in so many words—and the people who followed him in various different directions, like Locke and our own constitutional founders—that men and women, people, need strong institutions to keep them safe and free. In the United States, I think we have had—at least in my lifetime, which now spans nearly three-quarters of a century—faith that our institutions would in the end help us work through our various issues.
Now that faith, I think, is something that is being severely tested by people on all sides of the political spectrum. The same in the European Union, where they devised institutions that made them wealthy and improved the standard of living and provided a basic safety net, so to speak, but did not give those institutions the power to pass these benefits on in an equitable way.
The German people didn't so much fail in the 1930s as the Weimar Constitution failed them. The same thing in the United Kingdom right now with the deadlock imposed by their institutional structures. Institutional structures just are not evolving to meet the challenges as they have so often in the past.
ROB RIEMEN: This is a very important point, so thank you so much.
But all institutions are man-made. If Mr. Trump will have a second term, and if the elderly people at your Supreme Court will not be healthy enough to go through seven more years of Mr. Trump, you will get a different Supreme Court, you will get a different institution. You have here in America your institution of Congress, and everybody knows how dysfunctional it is because of its tribalism.
The point I want to make is: What is the true base of every institution in a democratic society? The true base of every institution is trust. That is one of the things which no longer exists in our society. Trust is gone. Worse than that, common sense is also gone.
So what you get is a society—sorry, Joanne—of lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers, because everything has to be legal, legal, legal. But if something is legal, that doesn't mean it is good. There is an ontological difference between what is legal and moral good. Nazi German had endless rules, but they were not good.
The other thing that next to lawyers, because there is no trust in this society, America is a country with lawyers and shrinks. To get through life, you have to have your lawyer, and you have to have your shrink. Basic trust is gone.
So that is not good enough to keep a society and institutions alive. The institutions can only function when there is basic trust and there is basic confidence in the society: "Yes, we have those institutions. We can trust them, and they will focus on the common good." But the common good is our notion, which is gone.
Again, what is happening here in America is also happening in Europe. The institutions of Brussels are completely dysfunctional. One of the reasons that they are dysfunctional is because they are only technocratic, bureaucratic things. There is no spirit, there is no soul in it. Therefore, there is also no European consciousness. So it cannot function. Is there anybody who still has any trust in your political class? Nobody. For good reasons.
So again, at the end of the day, it is our responsibility because we are the people, we are responsible for our own democracy. So we have to change first, and we can make better institutions, stronger institutions, get the best people in those institutions, but there is a lot of work to be done because these institutions are, again, not good enough to protect us from the things that can happen.
QUESTION: Susan Bader.
I would appreciate it if you could speak about the rise of fascism today in the context of war. In the 1940s, it led to world war, and today we are seeing the drumbeat for war in North Korea. From everything I have heard, Trump is eager to attack.
ROB RIEMEN: A lot of good questions.
Fascism, again, is this political culture which thrives on crisis and hatred and resentment and scapegoats and so on and so forth. Given the fact that human nature did not change, that we are also those insecure people with our own fears and our own frustrations and our own need for security and whatsoever, in such a period you only need a spark.
A few sparks: World War I started with the murder of a crown prince, a silly crown prince, and the whole thing exploded in Europe and nobody expected it. Nobody expected it. There is this wonderful book by Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, which is a perfect description of how the elites, blinded by will, got Europe in ruins.
The Balkans: With this ideology, "our tribe, our nation first," and you only needed a spark.
In my first book, Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, I start to tell the story of my friendship with the daughter of Thomas Mann, Elisabeth Mann-Borgese, who by the way was the godmother of the environmental movement. She was the first.
She told us that she was with her father and mother on holiday in 1933 in Switzerland, and then Hitler came to power, and they realized we cannot go back. But she was a high school girl, and Hitler, yes, he was the chosen, democratically chosen leader of the country, so she just took the train and went back to Munich. Then she became aware of the fact that her girlfriends, who two weeks ago were still in awe of a teacher whom they all loved already for a whole year because he was such a magnificent teacher, they started to hate him because he was against Hitler. She told me it only takes two weeks before your best friends, your best neighbors, can become your worst enemies.
I still have to read it, but Omer Bartov, an Israeli historian, just wrote a fascinating book on what happened in a village in Ukraine where the best friends started to kill each other. So again, this killing nature is in us.
Now, on the sparks, if Trump and the others know their classics, and Putin knows his classics. Putin, to make sure that he could continue, he needed to warn Ukraine because he wanted to have his people behind our president. If they know their classics, if there is not a crisis, they will create a crisis. You still remember this funny movie, Wag the Dog? Well, that can happen in real time.
Again, things can easily happen in the Middle East, or god forbid, there will be another terrorist attack in your country. Then what?
What is so dangerous is the cultivation of aggression and the cultivation of "they and we." It is these things—again, human nature did not change, and when you have a politics which thrives on these things and which is in awe of—we have the strongest and the best military—it can be North Korea, it can be Middle East, it can be an attack, it can be everything.
QUESTION: Hi, I am a Turkish journalist who just fled the fascist regime of Erdoğan, so fascinating talk.
My question is, when I look at America, everybody is against Trump, and they don't see that the real threat is fascism. My fear for this country, because it happened in mine—it happens like you said, faster than ever, and the business and the elites are all complicit in it. Here the focus is so much on Trump that they don't realize that the underlying is fascism.
I am afraid this was just rehearsal, and Trump was like relatively a weak representative of fascism. A younger one is going to come after this one, a more articulate one, maybe a more handsome one, maybe a Harvard/Yalie, but with the same lines. Because I keep hearing at the Harvard Club from my older mentors, they're like: "Yeah, he's very silly. But listen, some of the things that he is saying, those policies are really there," so I feel like we are missing on the point. I think we are going to get rid of Trump, but we are not going to get rid of the fascist undercurrent there.
ROB RIEMEN: You summarize in your comment my book. So I can only wholeheartedly agree with you and again underline the following: What people seem to forget is—so we know about World War II, we know about Hitler and Mussolini, and we know what kind of monsters they are. Again what we forget is that for 20 years ahead of this they were welcomed, they were embraced. Not only Churchill was blinded. Even a great man like Sigmund Freud dedicated a book to Mussolini. There was a whole lineup of artists and intellectuals who wanted to be for Mussolini. The same thing we had with Stalin.
Totalitarian powers have a huge temptation, especially for intellectuals, especially for academics. That is because it comes from the bottom up, because it has a certain aesthetics, because it has this enormous charisma, because it gives us this idea of "finally we can get rid of the bureaucracy and all these things," finally a man or a woman who says how it is. But we don't recognize what is going on.
Well, everybody who has read this will open up his or her eyes, and it is time to take action.
JOANNE MYERS: Thank you for opening our eyes.