CHECKS AND BALANCES
My friend Arnold emailed me from his vacation in Colorado to tell me he had done some great fishing in the beaver dams above Estes Park. He said he had to hike a long way up above the tree lines to find these mini-lakes, and he caught a beautiful 18-inch cutthroat trout that fed four people that evening. Every third year he and his wife Irma meet his old Army buddy Gerald and his German wife Hilde for a two-week vacation, doing a lot of hiking and fishing and just communing with nature.
But the real reason for emailing me was because of a discussion they had had last night over the incidents in Charlottesville over the past weekend. While they were watching the news, Gerald’s wife kept saying, “Not again, not again.” She said it was against the law in Germany now to brandish any swastikas, or to give the Hitler salute, or anything Nazi. “They should outlaw all that stuff here too,” she said. So they got into a discussion about how a forward-looking nation like Germany, with its history of great thinkers and artists, could have ever succumbed to a fascist government.
In the course of their discussion they came up with ten reasons for the rise of the Third Reich, and he wanted to send their list to me for my perusal, and for my reaction, if I had any.
Their list: 1) institutions, especially judicial, were attacked for bias and for not protecting the country; 2) xenophobia was on the rise, especially after World War I, and certain ethnic groups were blamed for invading the country; 3) intelligence agencies were vilified and their personnel replaced by ideologues; 4) the press was demonized; 5) the universities and the intellectual elite were impugned by a base built on demagoguery; 6) national exceptionalism, hyped by the leader, was the mantra of conformist masses; 7) only one man had to be in charge and he knew more than the generals; 8) political opponents were mocked, shamed, and sidelined while whitesupremacists were given positions of power; 9) propaganda machines arose to spread lies and subvert the truth; 10) religious institutions were infiltrated by government collaborators and intimidated into silence.
“Sound familiar?” he wrote, and then signed off.
I wrote back that their list was a formidable one, and that I wondered how long it took them to put it together. Arnold replied that Hilde was a retired professor of political science at Frankfurt University and it didn’t take long at all. Her father had been a pastor in the 1930’s and was a member of the Confessing Church, which put him under a lot of pressure. Arnold told her about his friendship with me, so she wondered whether I was speaking out against bigotry and racism, and he said he thought I probably had done that.
I wrote back asking him to congratulate Hilde about the fact that Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was looked upon as the leading political voice in the free world right now. I also added that we can thank God that in this country we have a system of checks and balances, with three branches of government, legislative and judicial and not just executive. He should remind her that the wheels of democracy grind slowly, but they seem to get the job done.
So in his response to that he said she just shook her head, and wondered what kind of democracy allows the loser of the popular vote to win the Presidency. In turn I asked him if he wanted to spend his whole vacation trying to explain the Electoral College to her.
So Arnold sent me a one-line response: “OK, I’ll just put it your way: thank God for checks and balances.”