Der Untergang, an American story

Der Untergang, an American story

What is “Der Untergang”, you may ask? That happens to be the German title of one of the best movies made about Adolf Hitler and World War II, “Downfall”, starring the late and lamented Bruno Ganz.

You may know it from the 2016 Donald Trump memes on YouTube. Here’s one of them. Feel free to laugh.

That was a bit of fun, and we all had a jolly good chuckle.

However, the film, as I’m sure you can tell, is about Hitler’s final days in the bunker under Berlin as the Russians are closing in. It is a movie full of claustrophobia, paranoia, and end-of-regime madness. It is the filmic account of Hitler’s final downfall.

As you can tell, Donald Trump soon became associated with the Downfall meme, for obvious reasons. What we’re seeing now is a real-life Der Untergang.

Just at the beginning of this month, Trump was cock-of-the-walk when his handpicked Attorney General, William Barr, forced Special Counsel Robert Mueller to wrap up his investigation and issue a report. Barr then issued a memo summarizing the key findings. In the memo, if you can stretch your memory back that far, Barr stated, basically, “no harm, no foul”. The GOP, Trump, and the media latched on to this. NO COLLUSION! NO OBSTRUCTION!

Of course, reality soon set in, and once the lightly redacted Mueller report dropped last week, Trump was in full Hitlerian meltdown. Oh, for a day he kept up with the “No collusion, no obstruction” mantra. But soon it became clear, even to him, that the report was devastating. And Democrats seized upon the report to follow the trail set out in it. (Yes, we can harp that Democrats aren’t moving fast enough, but I certainly won’t.)

Trump has spent the past three days rage-tweeting about his persecution. No doubt William Barr has tossed his phone to avoid the late night calls of apoplexy. Far from protecting Trump, Barr threw him under the bus—but not before, of course, savaging his own reputation, such as it was. Trump is hunkered down in his White House bunker, watching the walls close in.

As we’ve seen the past day or so, Trump is fighting every Democratic subpoena tooth and nail. He is going to obstruct and delay as much and as long as he can. He has no other endgame. But, this strategy may force Democrats to go straight to impeachment hearings.

Even that, though, might not be enough. The Justice Department just today said this:

By this, Justice is signalling that it likewise won’t respect any subpoenas issued by committees investigating Trump.

We are a nation of laws, but also of unwritten traditions. Separation of powers has been honored in those traditions. What we have now is a president* who adheres to the Führerprinzip of total power to the executive, who can just tell Congress to enforce its own subpoenas. The rolling constitutional crisis which began on Inauguration Day is now out in full force, the boil lanced by the Mueller report.

Trump is now mired even more deeply in his own resentment and animus, and we all know how he reacts when he is so mired: he acts to break all norms of accepted political behavior. The fact is that the House can issue all the subpoenas it wants, but with no enforcement arm save for the Justice Department, Trump and his lackeys can ignore them. Of course, then it goes to the courts, and in that regard Trump has no legal standing. But the damage to our traditions is being done. We have an illegal presidency now, which feels it can ignore its legal obligations. This is untenable.

Trump is Hitler in the bunker, save that unlike Hitler he does still have a few delaying tactics. But the damage he’s causing to our constitutional order is incalculable. Any political system of free people operates only so long as citizens accept basic rules. Trump has a third of the electorate ready to jettison those rules in service of the Leader. We are, quite simply, at our own point of downfall. Trump will leave the scene; but his followers will remain. What the rest of us do in the next few years will determine if the downfall does indeed become an American story.

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