US President Donald Trump gestures as he participates in a Thanksgiving video teleconference with members of the military forces at the White House in Washington, the US, November 26 2020. Picture: REUTERSERIN SCOTT
US President Donald Trump gestures as he participates in a Thanksgiving video teleconference with members of the military forces at the White House in Washington, the US, November 26 2020. Picture: REUTERSERIN SCOTT

Those who have studied the rise of Nazism in Germany know about the “November criminals” — the so-called traitors who betrayed the German army at the time of the Great War and subsequently oversaw the “German Revolution” and demise of the Hohenzollern monarchy.

The “stab-in-the-back” legend gained ground from early 1918, when conservative Germans refused to recognise impending defeat and — instead of interpreting events in military and economic terms — sought scapegoats to account for Germany’s defeat. Those who signed the armistice on November 11 1918 were denounced as traitors, especially Jews, left-wingers and republicans, and blamed for the overthrow of the Kaiser.

While scholars debate the precise origins of the legend and the extent to which the Nazis used it in their ascent to power, all agree that the “stab-in-the-back” notion flooded newsprint in Weimar Germany and enabled demagogues in their quest for power. Adolf Hitler was happy to play along with the legend. Scapegoats provided succour for the radical Right in postwar Germany and Hitler knew this.

One hundred and two years later, Donald Trump is revealing his own innate appreciation of the power of myth and its uses. How else can one explain his unending quest to overthrow the November election results? Trump is no fool. Few understand the political impulses of ordinary Americans as well as he does. Trump has turned lying into an art.

His latest strategy comes straight from the “November criminal” playbook. Trump is preparing for congressional elections in 2022 and for a return to power in 2024 — if not for himself then for his son or son-in-law. No doubt he takes sustenance from the 70% of Republican voters who believe the Democrats stole the election. The November 2020 legend will play a vital role in the political battles ahead.

Crude dishonesty has been on display from morning till night — and often through the night

Each failed attempt to overturn the results of the election makes little difference to his supporters. Trump knows this. Without any evidence whatsoever, he concocted the “foreign birth” of former Barack Obama and has regularly lied about Covid-19. Indeed, his road to the White House was riddled with lies and his incumbency continued in that vein. Crude dishonesty has been on display from morning till night — and often through the night.

Yet Trump’s followers remain loyal. A November 2020 election myth is under construction, with Trump as its architect. His legal teams are peddling fantasies — creating a Frankenstein monster in the words of a Pennsylvania judge — and failing to provide a shred of evidence for their case. One of Trump’s legal team (now disowned), Sidney Powell, raised a plot by George Soros in league with Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela to engineer a Republican defeat by meddling with the electronic voting systems. And The Big Lie is working — at least regarding Trump’s rank-and-file supporters.

If Trump gets his way, the lies will be peddled from Mar-a-Lago in exile — a variation of the 14th-century Avignon papacy, when seven successive popes resided in France rather than Rome after Philip the Fair had taken on Pope Boniface VIII. Trump will plot against the Democrats from his Florida palace. His 100-million Twitter followers have not heard the last from the man.

Paranoid style

Particularly frightening is the traction the US November myth is gaining among Trump loyalists. But if trained and experienced legal practitioners are happy to facilitate arrant nonsense and Republican legislators for mostly remain silent, is this surprising? Subversive Democrats are the new villains. By pulling strings in nefarious ways, they and not Trump are portrayed as subverting the voice of the people.

Decades ago, the late American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about the “paranoid style” in American politics. Laced with beliefs in secret plots and global cabals, he revealed the American penchant for conspiracies. A strain of madness seems to run through its history. At its root, Hofstadter argued, is a cast of mind characterised by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” in which “a nation, a culture, a way of life” are believed to be under threat.

We are witnessing this now. It will not disappear. Quite the opposite. In an age of ubiquitous social and electronic media and hate-filled internet sites, Trump has a weapon the likes of Hitler and Josef Goebbels could only have dreamed about. Hatred and lies can now reach millions of people at the click of a mouse. Be afraid. “The 2020 November criminals” is soon coming to a theatre near you.

• Shain is emeritus professor in the University of Cape Town’s historical studies department.

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