Let me tell you a little story.
WHERE WE FIND OURSELVES
Over the past few days, Donald Trump’s White House has been using words like crisis, emergency, threat, national security, and humanitarian crisis to lay the groundwork for the president declaring a national emergency. Thus, Trump could invoke presidential emergency powers and order a wall on the southern U.S. border be built by the military. Something to which he already whetted his appetite, because the Pentagon has already said it will soon send troops to upgrade and build 160 miles of border fencing.
All of this for Trump to bypass Congress, its refusal to give him over $5 billion in funding for the wall, and the government shutdown Trump created over that funding.
To be clear, over and over again, the facts Trump has cited regarding the need for this wall have turned out to be false. Trump and his administration have repeatedly lied to get us to go all in for this wall.
Worse still, it turns out Trump proposed the wall not as part of some actual border strategy. Instead, the wall simply served as a mnemonic, something to keep a candidate who knew nothing about any policy, focused on policy his advisors wanted, i.e., immigration. Trump could not manage it on his own. But he could remember walls. Big beautiful walls. With his name on them. He liked that talking point because he could use it to brag about what a wonderful real estate developer he supposedly was. A memory trick for a 70 year narcissist. That’s all the wall was.
The wall has no more justification than being a narcissist’s vanity project. There are better, more cost efficient and more effective border security measures. Trump has never presented a practical plan on building, maintaining, and manning said wall, including how it really will prevent the things he claims it will prevent. Slats? Drugs fit through those. Really high wall? Still can be scaled or tunneled under. Studies indicate that our border barriers have done nothing to limit illegal immigration, much less all the bad things Trump claims go with them, at the southern border.
Yet, Trump, and his vanity, persist. Now he needs to sell the American people that they need to sacrifice to get that wall built for him. Either they can get behind a government shutdown that goes on for months or years. Or they can get behind him exercising emergency powers for personal reasons, like a dictator.
Will Trump go through with the power grab? Maybe.
We may find out tonight (January 8, 2019) when Trump addresses the nation from the oval office.
But that brings to mind a story from fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini.
Stop right there. First, I don’t think that Trump is a fascist. I think he is a narcissist and a bully, and thus an authoritarian by default, not design. Same with him as a demagogue. But as an authoritarian by default, Trump tends to follow certain patterns of political behavior we have seen in fascists, since fascism and authoritarianism overlap a lot. Is Trump a Mussolini or a Hitler? No. Can we draw parallels from time to time? Certainly.
WHERE MUSSOLINI FOUND HIMSELF
Mussolini, as a fascist dictator of Italy, relied heavily on the cult of personality, just as Trump does today. Aggrandizement of Mussolini served as aggrandizement of Italy and vice versa. Same for Trump and the U.S.
Mussolini took over an Italy which arrived late to the game of nations during the 1800s and early 1900s. In particular, it found itself way behind in something almost every other major European nation had managed. Colonial holdings. Modern Italy had very few. Even Germany, another colonial latecomer, had done better for itself in the colonial grab game than Italy. Italy just did not have enough of this symbol signalling it was ready to sit with the cool kids.
Mussolini decided that Italy just had to get a piece of that missing colonial prestige and announce Italy’s presence as a true European player. He chose something simple, something over which he figured Italy could easily stake a colonial claim. He decided Italy would make Ethiopia an Italian colony, to the grandeur of not just Italy, but Mussolini himself.
It turned out not to be that simple. Other colonial powers had objections. The land offered difficult terrain in which to fight and over which to exert control. The League of Nations made ultimately ineffectual attempts to curb the expedition. Italy poured a lot of resources in that country (from which ultimately an independent Ethiopia ended up benefiting).
But no matter the difficulties presented, Mussolini had to have it. Because once he said he was going to have it, he could not, would not, brook the personal insult to his own magnificence that it would mean for him to back down. Mussolini pushed forward with his plan to colonize Ethiopia.
Now we come to the tale of a little Italian girl during Mussolini’s reign.
WHERE AN ITALIAN GIRL FOUND HERSELF
One of my teachers was an Italian immigrant, who would sometimes tell stories of her life in Italy before, during, and after World War II. The story is hers, as best I remember it.
She was a girl when Mussolini decided Italy just had to have Ethiopia. So he pitched it to the Italian people. Speech after speech. If Twitter had been around, I am sure he would have been all over that too.
See the venture would cost quite a bit of money. He claimed Italy needed this venture. He claimed the Italian people needed to come forward and make sacrifices for the glory of the Italian state. By which he meant his own glory.
He sold the Italian people on this idea. Further, he convinced them they needed to give up belongings, hand over their gold, to him in order to make this happen. Personally, I am not sure Mussolini needed the gold so much as he wanted that sign of absolute fervor and commitment to his vanity project from the Italian people.
Did I mention that Ethiopia had pretty much nothing to offer Italy, except for questionable colonial bragging rights, which several of the cool kid nations later refused to recognize?
Regardless, the Italian people believed in this colonial venture. Truthfully, they believed in Mussolini. In his cult of personality.
So they waited in long lines, to hand over for a useless vanity project, cherished family valuables. Coins. Old crucifixes. Family rings. Anything made of gold.
That little Italian girl did it too. As a good and patriotic Italian, she had to, right? She absolutely believed she must sacrifice something too. Her family had few resources. Nevertheless, she turned in the only precious thing she owned, a pair of gold earrings which I think her grandmother had handed down to her. She held them very dear, a symbol of her growing up, a connection with her heritage, a sign of her grandmother’s love. But all the same, she handed them over because she believed in Mussolini.
In the end, following Mussolini’s path turned out to be a waste of treasure and of the Italian people. A little girl handed over something she held most precious with hands trembling with emotion. For what? For a vanity project that would accomplish nothing (except for Ethiopia) and gain Italy next to nothing. For a man who did not know of her existence and would not care if he had known.
Trump’s wall serves no purpose, was only proposed as a mnemonic device, and will cost the U.S. large amounts of resources to build, staff, and maintain, while taking property from Americans in order to get built. Trump has put himself in a position where he cannot and will not brook the personal insult to his own magnificence that it would mean for him to back down on this. Just like Mussolini.
As Trump gets set to address the nation. Amid a flurry of debunked claims from him and his administration about the situation on the southern border. To get us all behind making personal sacrifice via loss of government services. Or make us all okay with an U.S. President’s outright dictatorial power grab, from which we will never be able to walk our democracy back. All to build a border wall that will accomplish nothing other than aggrandizing Trump himself….
Well I can’t help be think back to that little girl and her dearly held earrings. Because when I heard that story, two words echoed in my mind summing up the man who had urged that sacrifice.