For the past many weeks, I’ve been working my way through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison,” a book of correspondence, prayers and philosophical probings, written by the German theologian while locked in a Nazi prison during World War II.
Bonhoeffer’s story is remarkable, the stuff of legend and honest-to-God martyrdom (his biography, which is on my Christmas list, is provocatively subtitled “Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy“). A revered philosopher in some Christian circles today, Bonhoeffer’s short life was marked by moral resistance: he was an early and vocal critic of Nazism, and as Hitler’s power grew, so too did Bonhoeffer’s dissidence.
After working to fight Hitler from within the system in the early 1930s, Bonhoeffer paid an early price: blacklisted, banned from teaching and publishing, he had to take his ministry – and his resistance work – underground.
The more the Nazi’s power grew, the greater the price they exacted for resistance, and in 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned for his work with the Abwehr, a German intelligence agency which surreptitiously functioned as a “deep state” resistance to Nazism. After the Nazis uncovered the Abwehr plots to assassinate Hitler in 1945, Bonhoeffer was summarily executed as an alleged co-conspirator. He was hung just weeks before the concentration camp where he died would be liberated.
Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers” are fascinating in their courage and perspective, in their moral and theological rumination in the face of the worst side of humanity – through his work with the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer would have been more aware of the full extent of Nazi atrocities than most of his fellow Germans – and in their simple portrayal of a deeply righteous, decent man, locked away, watching his nation devour itself.
I hope to one day revisit the “Letters and Papers” for a Rebel Art Fridays post, but until then, there’s one snippet of one letter, between Bonhoeffer and a close friend, that jumped out to me recently.
Relatively early in his incarceration, when he was still expressing hope that he would be released any day now, Boenhoffer wrote to his friend about the reality that prison is a miserable existence, and begged forgiveness for (and rationalized) his own inevitable complaining about life in prison:
“I’m now praying quite simply for freedom. There is such a thing as false composure which is quite unchristian. As Christians, we needn’t be ashamed of some impatience, longing, opposition to what is unnatural…”
That notion of avoiding “false composure,” of the the moral imperative that we not deny or ignore or avert our eyes from that which is “unnatural” – that we not be ashamed of our passionate opposition – has been rattling around in my brain for the past few weeks.
Because while Bonhoeffer is, on the face of it, lamenting his personal imprisonment, I read this line through the broader lens of the final decade of Bonhoeffer’s life. Bonhoeffer was sounding alarms about the threat of Hitler in the early 1930’s, and he likely engaged in his own form of “false composure” early on, seeking to shape events from within Germany’s crumbling governmental and ecclesiastical systems, hoping that those institutions would eventually stand tall against the growing authoritarian threat.
But as Nazism surged and darkened, Bonhoeffer went off the grid, rallied resistance, took once-unthinkable steps to save his country, and paid the ultimate price. And all the while, Bonhoeffer watched while his countrymen continued to deny or downplay or explain away the increasingly “unnatural” state of affairs under Hitler.
Through that lens – through the eyes of a haggard, exhausted, imprisoned German resister in 1943, after a decade of fruitless efforts to defeat Hitler from within – “false composure” is complicity, the type of complicity that we all – seeking to reassure ourselves, our loved ones – are hopelessly prone to in dark times.
Just over two months ago, I was working on a GTFUP.org post which argued that Democrats were being far too shy about launching an impeachment inquiry. In that never-published post, amidst a laundry list of the latest Trumpist outrages, I noted a strange little developing story about a whistleblower report, demanded by Adam Schiff and hidden by the White House.
Within days, that strange little story had evolved into something more serious; within a week, it was a full-on scandal; and a week after that, Speaker Pelosi was announcing the initiation of formal impeachment proceedings.
In those early, whirlwind weeks, I set GTFUP.org aside because, I told myself, the news was moving faster than my sporadic blogging schedule allowed.
But as the story as progressed – as we saw a steady stream of extraordinarily damning information about the President’s corruption – I fell victim to that same sort of false composure that I can imagine tormenting Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew that the result of an impeachment process was preordained, that the Republican Party is much too far gone to expect even the smallest expressions of patriotism. I knew things remained extraordinarily dire.
And yet I convinced myself that this was how the system was “supposed to work”; that the Dems were in control; that Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff might just be playing an intergalactic political chess that would somehow save the day.
I told myself that, even if the President is not removed by the Senate, the hearings, the spectacle, the truth-telling from career civil servants, would finally be the gust of angry wind against the window pane that wakes Americans up from our deep, denialist sleep.
I saw polling showing every single Democrat thumping Trump nationally, and I whispered sweet nothings to myself that maybe, just maybe, the tide had turned and we were headed towards a massive, sweeping rebuke of Trumpism.
I lied to myself that perhaps natural order was simply being restored … and so I stayed away from GTFUP.org, I toned down my rants to family and friends, I scaled back my own resistance work.
And that is, alas, the epitome of “false composure.”
Because the past few weeks have reminded us that any sense of normalcy, of natural order, drifts further and further away every day that Trumpism persists.
The great lesson Donald Trump has taught his Republican enablers is that shamelessness, combined with power, is an incredibly potent weapon. The GOP approach to the impeachment proceedings – the lying, the histrionics, the refusal to even pretend to engage with facts, or the law, or basic moral decency – reflects that.
We can’t help but cling to the belief that we live in a world where truth and decency matter, where all of politics – including impeachment hearings – is ultimately a battle of political persuasion.
But the Trumpists (i.e. Republicans) have long since moved past that: they know they can’t win the argument, but they also increasingly recognize that, in Donald Trump’s America, where they hold virtually every meaningful lever of power, they don’t need to.
Why try to win power by winning hearts and minds, when you can just take it, by brute force?
All of this is not to say that I feel the impeachment process has been worthless, or that I have lost all hope of our defeating Trumpism – or at least its bloated figurehead – in the coming year.
Quite the contrary, I think that placing Trumpist corruption front and center is essential, and that – although I’d have preferred a bolder approach – the impeachment process has been invaluable in that regard. And the poll numbers are encouraging: in normal times, in a normal, functional democracy, any one of the Democratic primary candidates would roundly defeat Donald Trump next November.
But it is “false composure,” in the extreme, to believe that America over the next year will resemble a normal, functional democracy.
Indeed, the list of things happening right now that are decidedly “unnatural,” when compared to the modern history of American democracy, is pretty staggering.
First and foremost, we are dealing with an utterly faithless President – a man who has shown a clear willingness to actively damage the United States, if it might serve his shady interests.
Second, there are deeply insidious forces exploiting our faithless President: an ascendant white nationalist movement; a fanatic religious right; a corrupt, budding group of American oligarchs; and yes, for those in the cheap seats, a set of dangerous, hostile foreign powers to whom the President is beholden. None of those forces are interested in risking power to something as uncertain as a free and fair election.
And the same is true of the wholly corrupted Republican Party. Republicans – elected officials, lobbyists and power brokers, State Media, and yes, GOP voters – have made a Faustian bargain with the President, and his dangerous allies. No matter how much we tell ourselves that there remains a shred of patriotism and decency there, we have to understand that they will follow Trumpism to any end.
All the while, America finds itself in an abject crisis with regards to its citizenry’s ability to process the most basic information. Right-wing propaganda is flourishing – with the help of some of the most powerful forces in what’s left of our “discourse” (i.e. Facebook) – and a staggering number of Americans increasingly say they can no longer distinguish real news from fake.
None of this is normal, it is a state of affairs that is decidedly unnatural. And what it adds up to, as we gear up for the political fight of our lives in 2020, is a simple, unequivocal reality, one that is as foreign to Americans as any of the above conditions: we cannot count on a free and fair election in 2020.
I am as excited and passionate as anyone about the Democratic primary, not to mention anxious and fearful, and fiercely opinionated, about who I think is “best” positioned to beat Donald Trump.
But the arguments we’re having about “electability,” the squabbles about minute policy differences, are all a form of false composure.
We’re telling ourselves a dangerous lie: that the politics that we understood and recognized from before 2016 still exist. They do not. And the sooner we recognize that, the better we’ll be able to combat what’s coming.
Because the next year will be marked with lies and corruption we can’t fathom. Bill Barr is going to put the full weight of the DOJ on the scale in the President’s favor, and the rest of the federal government will follow suit. The GOP cheating – voter suppression, voter purges, intimidation – will reach new, shocking heights, and there will very likely be horrific political violence, encouraged by the President, weaponized by the far right.
And those are just the things we know will happen.
Imagine it’s October of 2020, and the polls show Donald Trump down 12 points nationally to Joe Biden. Is there anything – throwing the doors open for Russian or Saudi interference, ordering intelligence operatives to alter vote counts, enflaming race riots, cancelling the election altogether – anything that you believe this President wouldn’t do in order to win?
And when that happens – when the President’s faithlessness stretches further than our imaginations can comprehend – how confident are we that there will be any patriots left in the Trump Administration to blow the whistle? How certain can any of us be that the GOP, that Republican voters, will even care, much less join forces with Democrats to salvage our democracy?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in a Nazi prison because for a decade, as Hitler consolidated power, everyday Germans surrendered to false composure. The deeper Germany descended into the Nazism, the more they strained to convince themselves that this all fell somewhere on the spectrum of normalcy. “If things were really all that bad,” you can imagine everyday Germans telling themselves, “then surely our institutions would intervene to save us, right?” ***
I make the comparison not because I expect American authoritarianism to exactly mirror Germany in the 1930s, but because I can very much put myself in their shoes.
If we are going to defeat Trumpism, we need to recognize that we are up against something that is utterly alien to our understanding of American politics. We cannot count on our institutions alone, or on “normal” political assumptions. It’s going to take concerted, unprecedented, historic action from everyday Americans to win this fight, and even with that, a happy ending is not guaranteed.
I’ve been told by “my fan” (hi Mom) that this blog is at it’s best when I’m writing about what “concerted, unprecedented, historic action” means – about what folks like you and I can and should be doing – and it’s my sincere goal to do that, with cautious but real optimism, in the final weeks of 2019, and throughout 2020.
For now though, I’ll close with what may be Dietrich Boenhoffer’s most famous line (at least from a secular perspective), written shortly before he was arrested in 1943.
Discussing dark, unnatural times, Bonhoeffer wrote that the “ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”
Bonhoeffer was primarily chiding men who might seek glory in times like these, but I think his words can be just as easily be applied to our natural inclination towards false composure: when we surrender to false composure in the face of immense unnaturalness, we’re lying to ourselves. We’re telling ourselves that we can just ride out this storm, that if we keep our heads down, all will be well, that so long as we deny just how dire things are, we’ll be safe.
But if we’re honest with ourselves about the gravity of this moment – if we reject false composure – the only moral course is to act, not for ourselves or our personal interests, but for the future, on the other side of this American crisis, that might be.
*** The idea of “false composure” that I’ve been grappling with for the past month bears a lot in common with the notion of “normalcy bias,” which the exceptional writer, scholar, authoritarian expert, and all-around Trumpist sage Sarah Kendzior has been talking about for years.
To disabuse yourself of the tempting pull of false composure, there is no one better than Sarah Kendzior. She can be followed on Twitter at @sarahkendzior, she wrote a terrific book anticipating some of the elements of Trumpism in 2015, and she has a new book about Trumpism coming out in April of 2020.