My Great Depression

(Photo: Sipa USA via AP/Julien Mattia)

French police patrol the border of the port of Calais on October 1, 2016, near a large refugee encampment.

I wouldn’t ordinarily write about my own state of mind, but since I suspect many readers have harbored thoughts similar to mine in recent months, I will risk getting personal. The world we live in has become profoundly depressing. Wherever I look, I see tragic impasses from which no exit seems possible.

Europe is my regular beat, so let me start there. The dream of an “ever closer union” is dead. It is doubtful that even the most robust of political systems could have survived the series of blows that Europe has sustained over the past decade: a financial crisis compounded by pitiless austerity, a massive influx of refugees, a series of terror attacks, the rise of antidemocratic politics in several member states, and finally Brexit—an outright repudiation of the dream by a country that never fully embraced it in the first place.

And of course the European Union was never very robust. It survived as an awkward, oft-patched compromise among nations that surrendered just enough sovereignty to anger domestic electorates and foment populist protest but not enough to deal effectively with simultaneous and convergent crises. Strong national (and nationalistic) leaders—de Gaulle and Thatcher—viewed Europe with suspicion; lesser (and more internationalist) leaders—a Mitterrand or a Kohl, a Blair or a Schroeder, a Sarkozy or an Hollande or a Renzi—used it as an alibi to excuse the failure of national governments to deliver on their promises. When Europe too ceased to deliver, the alibi evaporated.

National leaders then shifted the burden of providing a rationale for a robust Europe to the much-maligned Eurocrats, who come in many varieties: Some are public-spirited and far-sighted, others venal and self-serving, still others well-meaning but helpless given the dearth of resources and the weakness of the institutions they have been given to work with. “In the beginning everything is mystical,” wrote Charles Péguy, “but in the end everything is political.” Europe’s course has been even more dispiriting, from the mystical to the narrowly economical. The only European visionary today is Mario Draghi, whose vision extends no further than quantitative easing. In the stodginess of official Europe, this passes for radical and innovative thinking. Where poetry is wanted, Europe offers not even decent prose but only bureaucratic “directives” and “central bank guidance.”

The only act of moral courage by a European leader in recent memory was Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome refugees from the carnage of Syria. She offered the world a vision of Europe as a beacon of peace and prosperity, ready to accept “your tired and your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free”—which used to be America’s vision of itself before one presidential candidate erected wall-building as the ambition that will make the country great again.

This was a fine gesture for Merkel to make, but it has also proved to be a serious political miscalculation, as she herself has admitted. It fueled the rise of Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant party. It also exemplified everything that has gone wrong with European decision-making: Merkel made her decision alone, without consultation with other leaders. She assumed their cooperation would be forthcoming, no doubt because she has been able to impose Germany’s idea of what is best for Europe in the economic sphere, with disastrous consequences. And now she has been forced to backtrack. In a less depressing world, virtue would be rewarded, but in our world, virtue’s only reward is plunging popularity.

This European imbroglio was of course precipitated by the Syrian catastrophe. The devastation in Aleppo is heart-rending. The pictures of the devastated city of two million people, laid waste by Bashar al-Assad’s forces with the aid of Russian air power, inevitably recall the devastation of Grozny by the Russians two decades ago. Yet it seems impossible even to organize humanitarian aid for the beleaguered inhabitants, let alone imagine a strategy that might end the war. The brief Russo-American agreement on a cease-fire ended in mutual recrimination and the bombing of an aid convoy by the Russian air force. The United States hesitates to intervene because it sees no reliable force on the ground that could control the situation if the Assad regime collapses. Hence no relief is in sight for the population of Aleppo, which lies defenseless before attackers who seem determined to reduce it to rubble. To live there, to be a parent there, must truly be hell on earth, yet we of the free and supposedly civilized world cannot see our way clear to cross the Styx to rescue the condemned. If only there were a Picasso to paint this 21st-century Guernica and shock the conscience of the world.

For Donald Trump, meanwhile, hell on earth is not in Aleppo but here in America. “War zones,” he says, “are safer than living in our inner cities.” His mentor in political propaganda would seem to have been Joseph Goebbels, who said that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” Putin and Assad are fighting ISIS, Trump said in his second debate with Hillary Clinton, leaving the impression that if he were in charge, the United States would be supporting rather than trying to restrain them.

The juxtaposition of these two statements—that American inner cities are jungles whose savage inhabitants are killing one another with the efficiency of a modern war machine, while the collateral destruction of a city of two million people by an actual war machine is tolerable if in the service of defeating ISIS—typifies the monstrousness of the Trump candidacy. What depresses me is that the man’s utter moral bankruptcy failed to incense his cowed fellow Republicans until it was revealed that he had boasted ten years ago of serial sexual assaults—a grave matter, to be sure, but no more revealing of his depravity than these prior offenses against decency and common sense.

It seems that his party comrades are terrified of the Republican base that they themselves created and exploited all these years—people who believe, as Trump does, that immigrants are best viewed as rapists rather than potential Nobel prizewinners, the kind of people we need to “make America great.”

And frankly, I, too, am terrified of the baseness of this Republican “base.” According to the latest polls, Trump seems destined to lose this election, but his loss will come as cold comfort, since upwards of 40 percent of my fellow Americans will have supported his grotesque candidacy. Indifference to truth has been the hallmark of his entire political career, from his promotion of birtherism to his claim that he will be able to put coal miners back in jobs long since eliminated by technological progress and cheaper sources of energy, or that he can eliminate the trade deficit by taking his tough-guy act on the road to China. The Goebbels big lie works only if there are people prepared to believe transparent nonsense, and what the 2016 campaign has shown is that four out of ten Americans are credulous enough to buy snake oil if only it is branded with a moniker made famous by trash television.

If that isn’t reason enough to sink into the slough of despond, nothing is. The Great Depression is upon me, and I fear that the clouds will not dissipate after November 8.

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