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Is There Hope for America? A Socratic Dialogue with my Dad

– Dad. How are the accommodations in Heaven?

– Martin? The library here is fantastic. As soon as I finish reading Adam Hochschild’s American Midnightthanks for honoring my wish to have it buried with me, if I didn’t finish reading it before I passed — I’m going to dive right into Richard Hofstadter’s new work on how American anti-intellectualism led to the rise of Trump. I’d love to hear what you think of his analysis, but there’s no interlibrary loan between Heaven and Earth. I had a great talk with him at the reception they threw me when I got here. He’s a real mensch.

– Well, of course he is, Dad. That’s why he’s in Heaven with you.

I presume you do get the Earthly news up there? You passed on Election Day, and I wished you could have lived just another twenty-four hours — mainly because I was on the way up to Philadelphia to see you, of course, but also so you could have heard that the Big Red Wave was a big ol’ washout.

– I did hear about that up here. I’m happy, of course, and I hope it brightened your outlook. I did keep telling you during Trump’s presidency that you were too pessimistic.

– I remember. But there are still tens of millions of angry Americans out there who have learned from MAGA how to be good little fascists, and even if Trump finally flames out, I worry that they’ll just line up behind DeSantis or some other power-hungry prick.

– Well, Martin, can you think of another example of a totalitarian movement that successfully transferred its allegiance from one charismatic leader to another?

– I mean, there are lots. Stalin to Khrushchev, Juan Perón to Eva Perón, Papa Doc Duvalier to Baby Doc…

– Those are all examples of totalitarians in power, and generally, the inheritors aren’t quite as monstrous as the originals. Nor are they quite as charismatic, charisma being, as Hannah Arendt wrote, a social phenomenon.

What are the ramifications of that observation, when we’re talking about totalitarian leaders?

– That the fascination of their so-called charisma to their followers is linked to the absoluteness of their power, and even to the numbers of people they kill?

– Right, which is why the inheritors generally don’t attract the same intensity of devotion. The North Korean regime is an exception, but there the totalitarian line of succession is all within the same familial dynasty, and each new Kim seems to be even nastier than the ones who came before.

– Why does God allow such evil in the world, Dad?

– Believe me, that was the first thing I asked Him, but He hasn’t answered yet. “The Almighty has His own purposes,” as Lincoln said.

Honest Abe was at my reception too! Towered over me, of course, but he’s a down-to-earth sort of fellow. Dear Lord, his jokes are even cornier than mine!

My point is, since MAGA never cemented its grip on power, the totalitarian charisma that attached to Trump is fading, and doesn’t seem like it would be transferrable to somebody like DeSantis. Which is not to say that you haven’t still got an enormous struggle on your hands, down there on Earth.

– Yeah, and Israel is looking less and less like a safe haven for the likes of us, with the rise of the far right there…

– Oy, Israel. That’s a whole other conversation. Anyway, your grandparents send hugs. Love you, son. – Love you too, Dad.

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