Postcards from the Present
It is a help towards sanity and calm judgment to acquire the habit of seeing contemporary events in their historical setting, and of imagining them as they will appear when they are in the past.
–Bertrand Russell, “How to Read and Understand History” 1943
Watching the Republican National Convention on television, what once seemed impossible is coming true. Donald J. Trump. His image with that jutting jaw is everywhere in the “Quicken Loan Arena.” The crowd is equally omnipresent, roaring as one voice that seems perpetually angry even when responding with cheers at the almost aggressive assertion that he will be our next President. Yet, when for moment, he appears on stage, he walks out of a cloud of blue, as if he were other-worldly, like a figure in a dream.
I was just six years old, in the fall of 1949, the day I found myself riding in the back of a car with a group of girls I had just met. I don’t remember the make of the car. A Dodge? A Studebaker? It was curved at the front and back– I know that. And the rounded backs of front seats were upholstered in a camel-colored tweed. We had been at a Brownie Scout meeting and one of the mothers was driving us all home. I was uncommonly shy. As the result of my parent’s divorce, and my mother’s alcoholism, I had been taken to live with my grandmother just a few months before, separated even from my older sister, who was sent to live with my great grandmother and this had not only been disorienting but made me uncertain of myself. So when the rest of the girls began to make a gesture and then laugh, I joined in, hoping to be accepted. It worked better than I expected. Something about the expression on my face or the way I held my arm out must have been very funny, because all the other girls started to laugh even harder. And so I kept making the gesture, along with the rest of them, as we reached a higher and higher pitch of levity.
On the screen, one chilling moment follows another. It starts when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivers an entire speech as one long angry shout, telling the audience over and over how we should all be afraid, that our families are threatened by terrorists and criminals, that we need Donald Trump to protect us. “The vast majority of American citizen do not feel safe,” he yells, in the same tone one would use to warn us that a fire has started in arena, “They fear for their children, they fear for themselves they fear for police officers with a target on their backs.”
But our laughter subsided abruptly when the woman driving the car pulled over to the curb for a moment to tell us sternly that we must never, ever use that gesture again. She did not tell us why, but I imagine that each of us heard the reason that night, just as I did, from my grandmother. I knew about the recent war of course. Landing on the beach at Normandy was one of the favorite games in our neighborhood. We would crawl up the green lawns in front of our houses, imitating scenes from movies, pretending to dodge bullets and artillery explosions. The gesture, my grandmother told me, in so many words, was the salute that the Germans had used to express their loyalty to Hitler. And Hitler, she told me, had done terrible things.
The dread I felt watching the Republican Convention only increased when Governor Chris Christy conducted a mock trial of Trump’s opponent, the Democratic candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. Is she guilty? Christy would yell. Guilty the crowd roared back, and soon after, they started to shout in unison, Lock her up, lock her up.
Did my grandmother tell me that Hitler had murdered children as young as I was and younger? Here my memory is hazy. And it is mixed with something else I learned. It could have been the girl next door who told me. Yet somehow I doubt that. She was a bit of bully, with a decided mean streak, not known for compassion. And now as I try to put the pieces of memory together I realize I must have heard the story four years later, when I was ten years old, from my best friend, Rachel, who lived around the corner. We were both quite religious then. On the way home from school we would stand on the corner between our houses and talk about God. Though I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school and she to an orthodox shul, we agreed with each other that our God was the same, beyond any names or orthodoxy. We shared a youthful enthusiasm about our shared insight. Despite the mild disapproval of her parents and my grandparents, she came with me to an event at my church one evening, and, one afternoon, I went with her to the Jewish Community Center on Olympic Blvd.
And finally there was Trump’s acceptance speech. To be sure part of the dread I felt came simply from seeing that this man really was the Republican candidate for the Presidency. But his speech unnerved me for other reasons too. Especially the refrain, We will make America strong again.
It must have been Rachel who told me that there was a girl who lived a block away, at the bottom of the hill on my street, the one that, when I was younger, my playmates dared each other to speed down in our red wagons. The story my friend told me was that this girl had been in a concentration camp and her parents had died in the same camp. Was it then that I learned more about the crimes of the Third Reich and the suffering they caused? This is hard to say. By then I had certainly seen that astonishing and by now iconic photograph of very thin men in striped uniforms standing behind barbed wire. And my favorite teacher in Junior High School, who was an Israeli, must have spoken to us about the atrocities that took place in Germany during the war. He had gained my affection by talking to his classes frankly and intelligently about whatever was on his mind.
I watched with growing apprehension as again and again Trump fueled his address with fear, conjuring the menace of immigrants who commit crimes or Muslims who engage in terrorism, coupling the convention’s slogan Make America Safe Again with the slyly racist Make America Great Again.
Sometime during the weeks when I was away at a Girl Scout summer camp in the Sierras, without any notice to me or forwarding address, Rachel and her family moved away. At about the same time, partly because of the way I “talked back” when earlier my grandmother had denied my request to join the Jewish Community Center, she decided she could not raise me any longer. So, that Fall I was sent to live again with my mother in the San Fernando Valley. But my friendship with Rachel must have stayed with me in another form. Over the years that followed I had a recurring dream. I would walk down the hill where I had lived with my grandparents in search of the apartment complex at the bottom. Sometimes I found it and sometimes it simply was not there. Whenever it was not there, I felt bewildered and disappointed. When I found it, I would wander through the complex, not knowing which doorbell to ring. Once I did ring a bell and a man came to the door, but I did not know what to say to him.
I recognize from history the fear Trump summons. It is the backside of the image he seeks to project with the refrain, Make America Strong Again, a slogan that goes along with the image he projected during the primary campaign. Laugh as we might, there was method to his madness. The growling burley tough guy who barked, “get them outta here” at protesters or reporters who asked questions he did not want to answer. The rough and tumble opponent who likened his opponents to little girls or children. After positioning himself as a Strong Man, he described America today as weak, and he himself as the solution. I’m the only one who can do it, he bellowed.
I cannot say in so many words exactly what I was searching for in my dreams. My friend or a girl I had never met? History? The truth? The acknowledgement of human suffering? With regard to the last, I myself was certainly living a double life, alternating between the losses I had experienced along with the bruising continuity of my mothers alcoholism (she was a mean drunk) and the social landscape of California, called “Sunny” not simply because of the unfailing weather in those days, but from a disposition nurtured by Hollywood, that had captivated American in the fifties, a persistent assertion of cheerfulness above any other mood.
Two days ago, in Milwaukee, once more, a policeman shot and killed an African American man. On the surface, it seems this event may be more complex than the long string of incidents that have occurred recently in cities across the country, from Ferguson to Baltimore, where young African Americans have died at the hands of policemen. In this case, the cop, who was black, claimed the young man he shot had a gun, refused to drop it and turned toward him and that therefore he was a “credible threat.” Yet this claim, made many times before, has so often proven false. Protests erupted immediately. And then, despite the intentions of the protest, violence: a brick thrown into the windshield of a police car, a fire started in a gas station.
My life with my grandparents was filled with long, lonely stretches of time, marked by a painful emptiness which I would often try to fill as I sat alone on the floor of their small living room by pouring over copies of The Saturday Evening Post that were delivered weekly. What I liked best were the covers, each one painted by Norman Rockwell, depicting “normal” American scenes, often slightly comical. A girl in a white slip sits staring into a mirror. She looks disappointed, as she compares the photograph of a movie star in the magazine open on her lap to her own image. A little boy sits at a lunch counter, dwarfed by the burley policeman sitting next to him, who leans toward him in a solicitous, a fatherly way. Along with a black and white cocker spaniel, three children in the back seat of a car sit turned toward the back window, while both boys, dressed in striped tee shirts, lean out, and the girl, wearing a white peter pan collar with a red bow in her hair, blows a pink bubble. I was especially fond of an iconic image first published inside the Post in the year of my birth, 1943, one that, since I remember it clearly, must have been reprinted many times. A happy family sits around a table as a kindly woman in a white apron places a platter with a massive turkey on the white table cloth. Just behind, her husband stands ready to carve. As a child I found images like these profoundly comforting. For a few fleeting minutes I was able to situate myself in these predictable scenes, characterized by small foibles, but without any great disasters.
Flying to Milwaukee, Trump tries to appeal to African American communities, though predictably, since, his first address is staged in a suburb with a black population of only 1.2%, his audience proves to be almost all white. This crowd responds enthusiastically to his promise of law and order, rallying to the call, “The war on our police must end and it must end now.” He never pronounces one name from the long list of African Americans who over recent years have died at the hands of police (or, in one case, a vigilante), Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin.
Looking back it seems very strange to me to find so few depictions in these magazine covers of the suffering from the war that had occurred so recently. Soldiers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, lost to battle; refugees among us, having lived through the holocaust or bombing raids, veterans permanently disabled in body and mind. Now I associate the sunny, often comic images, in which it seems as if suffering of every kind has been gently erased, with a gift my Great Aunt gave me. A librarian who always gave me books for Christmas, one year she presented me with a copy of Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. I read it from cover and cover. The wide popularity of this book, which promised that with the right attitude, you can rise above any circumstance, reflected the mood of nation, a denial of sorrow so rigid, it bordered on hysteria.
Whenever the subject of police violence comes up, one name in particular stays in my mind. Perhaps because she is a woman, college educated, a political activist, I have experienced Sandra Bland’s death almost as if she were a good friend. At first I did not believe she had committed suicide. But now after reading a piece in The Nation about what she went through in the years preceding this event, I have come to accept this as possible. Though with this understanding, a picture of another crime arises, a slow and no less torturous murder. A very bright, accomplished student in High School, popular, full of spirit, who participated in “a dizzying array” of extracurricular activities, including joining a foreign language honor society, cheerleading, playing trombone in the concert band, she was accepted at Prairie View A & M near Houston where she majored in “Animal Science” while counseling poor families that had difficulty adjusting to college. She did very well in her studies and showed great talent as a counselor but in the year when she graduated, 2009, unemployment, especially in her field, was high. As year after year, living in poverty, unable to find a job commensurate with her skills, she collected a number of minor traffic tickets, with accumulating fines she could not afford and which she served time to pay off. But since her record showed violations and jail time, caught in a downward spiral, she became less and less employable, at times drinking too much, and even succumbing to thoughts of suicide. Finally, after seven despairing years, a job opportunity had come through in Houston. But her arrest, she must have been convinced, would result in that offer being withdrawn.
My memory of the general cheerfulness of the fifties is matched by the sense of isolation I felt. After I moved back to my mother’s house, I would often go to school tired and hungry, kept awake or awakened at two or three in the morning by her raucous return from the bar hopping she did at least twice a week. At times, when my step father was still out drinking or if he had fallen asleep, she would haul me out of bed so she had someone to talk with. I learned to track her moods, from witty to maudlin and self-pitying to a mean mood during which she would hurl in my direction withering, uncharitable accusations about my character, the way I laughed or looked. The experience was harrowing, scarring me for many years. Yet for a long time, I felt too ashamed to say anything about it to anyone outside of our family.
On Twitter, Trump, who is supposed to have mended his ways and begun to act in a more dignified, civil manner, has called the news anchor of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” a “bright mess” and referred to him and his girlfriend as “two clowns”. He is the schoolyard bully personified. But I fear that for many of his followers, who want a “strong man” to lead them, such behavior only makes him more attractive.
But in that period, the last years of the Fifties, my life was about to change, beginning, as so much of life does, with a happy but almost accidental meeting that occurred in my first year of High School, when my new friend Harvey invited me to a party. I had gained Harvey as a friend after I surreptitiously helped him find the right answers on several quizzes in the Geometry class we shared. He took me to an old Spanish hacienda where, while her parents were out of town, a friend of his, B, a vibrantly brilliant girl a year older than me, was throwing a party. It was as if I had stepped into another universe, which was, in a certain sense, my own future. Most of the furniture had been removed, and except for the candles burning everywhere the rooms were darkened. I drank my first red wine. Though I had consumed too much beer a year or so earlier and gotten very drunk, I was still not used to alcohol and it went quickly to my head. Harvey took me outside to his car, where we kissed and then I felt his hand moving over my breasts and stroking my vagina. Though I had touched myself, I had never felt such intense pleasure before. I was not eager to stop. But Harvey, lacking any ethics about cheating, was a deeply moral young man. Knowing I was young, a virgin, not used to drinking, he led me back inside, where B, our hostess, began to focus her attention on me. After her friends who were students at Berkeley read from Howl to a recording of Charlie Parker, she learned from me that I loved poetry and jazz too. Our friendship had already begun.
If anything Trump’s followers are even more frightening than he is. He floats an idea, an epithet, an attitude and it expands. Some pundits have called the phrases he uses “dog whistles.” Taken together these signals merge, elevating inarticulate rage into a kind of ideology. If his own thinking is hardy refined enough to be systematic, it hardly matters. As a salesman, he has a good instinct for what will please his audience. Hillary is a criminal, he tells them. And he boasts that he does not care about being “politically correct.” So the crowd yells “Fuck Hillary” or calls her a “bitch” with a defiance that signals not only their opposition to the candidate but, I suspect, to feminism in general.
At one point in the evening, because the supply of wine was almost gone, someone with a car was sent to the liquor store. For some reason I decided to go along which is how I found myself, in a moment of foolish bravado picking up a bottle and concealing it in my sweater. I know I did it partly to impress B, who I sensed had a strong rebellious streak. The next morning, after spending the night sleeping on B’s living room floor, B awakened me with bad news. The liquor store owner had seen me steal the bottle and had taken down the license number on her friends car. In exchange for not calling the police, the owner insisted I come in and apologize. Did I know at the time how lucky I was? Had I not been a “well spoken” white girl, this childish mistake could have gone on my record, making it unlikely that I would be accepted to a university, condemning me to a downward spiral of unemployment or even time spent in and out of prison.
Trump frequently expresses his anger at the media and as a consequence, reporters on the ground at his rallies have felt menaced by the crowds. He blames the media for crime and for failing schools. (No matter that the rate of violent crime has gone down.) Telling one lie after another, he accuses the press of telling lies about him. In response, a woman with a Trump button calls out that the press should be locked up along with Hillary. One reporter, Jared Yates Sexton, overhears two guys near the press pit talking about ‘beating the shit out of reporters.” Later he receives a tweet saying. “We’ve always hated scum like you. You are literally cancer.” But the worst and most telling tweet he reports is this, ”You’ll be gassed first.”
Soon B became my best friend. One night when she was staying over we shared a large bottle of California wine. Still in my first year of High School, after a terrible quarrel that turned violent, I had left my mother’s house to live with my father. Though I was often alone. A fireman who was required to stay overnight at the station, he was gone every other night. Since this was one of those nights, B and I were free to do as we pleased, so we drank a great deal as we shared stories about our younger years. I remember sitting on the floor, at the end of my bed and bursting into tears. Had she asked me a question? I can’t recall. I only know that I confessed to her what I had gone through night after night with my mother. And that ashamed as I was of this revelation, I was surprised by her response. She did not blame me at all. She was kind, even caring.
A discussion continues on Facebook over whether Trump is a Fascist or not. One level-headed friend who is strongly against Trump argues that nevertheless, Trump is no Hitler. Indeed he does not resemble Hitler very much. His manner of speaking is far more casual. He doesn’t favor military uniforms or a Prussian posture. And though he is clearly quite vital for his age, he is out of shape. Moreover though he uses subterfuge to communicate racist attitudes, he does not express racist hatred directly. Nor, though he barks and boasts about building a wall, does he seem to be anywhere near as possessed with hatred as Hitler was. He is after all a businessman.
Neither of us could acknowledge that we were in love. (Though I learned much later that B told a therapist about her feelings for me.) She had a boyfriend as I soon did myself. Along with another friend, T, she was committed to helping me lose my virginity. They had the name of a doctor from whom it was easy to obtain a diaphragm. Serendipity brought me a boyfriend when one afternoon as we were leaving our English class another student, D, handed me a series of poems he had written to me. In short order a group of young would be poets, artists and those whom you might call “free thinkers” had formed around B and T and I. On the days he was working, my father’s house became our unofficial meeting place, where we drank wine, burned candles, read poems out loud, our own along with favorites by W H Auden, TS Elliot, Dorothy Parker, Lorca or Dylan Thomas, often to jazz, danced and where, from time to time, various couples would spend the night.
But even if neither Trump nor the USA appears to be very Teutonic now, Trump’s candidacy unnerves me. The Weimer Republic, at the end of which Hitler rose to power, was not so Teutonic either. Throughout the 1920s, with performances by transvestites popular in cabarets, Berlin was the epicenter of cultural rebellion, including calls for women’s rights, free love, sexual diversity, and the right to contraception, along with a number of other radical social and political movements and artistic experimentation of all kinds.
Unwittingly or not, my friends and I were part of a great shift that was about to take place. Where did it come from? While we ridiculed the pervasive cheerfulness of the fifties, a syrupy mood found everywhere from vapid Sitcoms, to advertisements for shiny new kitchen appliances or Pat Boone’s smoothly polished voice, we found solace and hope in each other. What felt like an enforced silence about any form of suffering had isolated us, each in our own way. We had been afflicted with the particular loneliness that comes from hiding what is inside, what you think or remember, feel or desire.
In a long piece in The New York Sunday Times I read about Trump’s history of racial discrimination in the housing he built and owned. In 1973, he was charged with violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968, (ironically the year Trump graduated from Business School). He and his father told managers to turn away Black applicants for the apartments they rented, and to mark their applications with the letter “C” for “colored.” Dismissing the accusation of bigotry, as part of his campaign, he has constructed a distortion that amounts to a lie, claiming he won the case against him.
P’s family was from the South and she still had a slight Southern accent, which made it all the more surprising that she wanted to be Jewish so much. She had launched her own course of study regarding Jewish culture and occasionally passed on some of the books she read to B and I, a collection of Yiddish tales, for instance. Eventually she converted to Orthodox Judaism. Did her passion for everything Jewish come from Frances, the woman for whom she worked after school? In her late fifties, elegant. with a strong German accent, Frances owned a fabric store in the center of our small town in the San Fernando Valley. I cannot remember if she was Jewish or partly Jewish or married to a Jewish man. But I have never forgotten the story P told us about her. She had been an esteemed concert pianist, but this was to change when one night the SS invited her to an auditorium to play for an audience of Nazi officers. She had no choice but to agree. She played as well as she could and her audience seemed pleased. But afterward she was led to a room backstage. Did they tell her it was for a toast? Once they had reached in that room, they cut off the fingers of her right hand.
Trump waffles. Goes from one position to another. Tells lies with no regrets. Apparently years ago when he was lecturing a room full of future salesmen, he recommended lying. His words were almost identical to a quote from Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who said that if you tell a lie over and over it begins to seem like the truth. Does Trump believe his lies when he tells them? But in that case, since he tells lies that contradict each other, which ones does he believe? It seems likely that he regularly loses sight of himself, as if he had melted back into the blue haze from which he emerged like a phantom at the Republican Convention.
I have never forgotten that story. Even today, each time I remember it, I am shaken. Where can you put such knowledge, what do you do with it? Of course I associated the story with the Diary of Ann Frank. But that story ended when she was deported. We, the many readers of those pages, knew something about where she was taken. Certain words had become part of our vocabulary. Cattle cars. Gas chambers. Crematoria. Where did I first see piles of shoes, piles of dead bodies? I remember hearing stories about the experimental operations performed on twins and later listening to a woman who had been a subject of this atrocity, but I was much older then, as I was when I learned about the thin soup, one slice of bread rationed daily, the ill fitting tattered clothing, inadequate against freezing temperatures, the roll calls where prisoners were made to stand for hours in the hot sun or icy snow, the endless and often useless, heavy labor. By then, after at least two decades had passed, many films and books about the experience had appeared. It seemed as if the world was slowly waking up to what had occurred in those camps. By then I had met and befriended more than one person who had been hidden or imprisoned. And so I knew a great more. Though of course, as has been written several times by those who were there, it is not something that could ever be imagined.
After meeting with the President of Mexico, Trump reports that they did not discuss the wall. But only a short time later, he announced that they did talk about it and that the wall was going to be built, once more insisting that Mexico will pay for it. The President of Mexico quickly corrected this impression, reiterating that they did not talk about any wall. But though Trump stopped claiming the President had agreed to his wall, the refutation had practically no effect at all on him. As has happened so many times in the campaign, he did seem at all embarrassed by having been caught been in a lie. It is as if telling lies has become an essential part of who he is. As if he surrounds himself with his own lies, and that taken together, they form a different kind of wall, one so thick no one can get in. Does this account for the smug expression on his face? The one that implies, You can’t touch me. Nevertheless, he has constructed a dilemma for himself, an impasse. Inside his walls he must feel lonely but the walls he has built are so much a part of him that once outside of them he would feel far too vulnerable, even disoriented, especially since, without his elaborate fantasies, does he even know who he is?
Because my father was so often gone, staying at the fire station over night or with his girl friend, I spent a great deal of time alone in the house I shared with him. I was not exactly lonely there. Friends dropped by or slept over; I had gatherings, parties, and perhaps most important, since I had confessed many secrets to them and shared sorrows, I was less lonely than I had been at either my grandmother’s or mother’s or house. But still there were times when I called friends, disconsolate, in tears. At night, when I was alone I became afraid. And this fear was awash in a less defined but still powerful feeling that I was unprotected, that no cared enough about my fate in the world to shield me from danger.
Throughout the Trump campaign, fear mongering leads to fearsome. The latest, a 69 year old woman, with a breathing tube in her nostrils, while calling out her disapproval of Trump, is punched in the face by a Trump supporter and falls on her oxygen tank. Fortunately, though she was bruised, she broke no bones. But the violence is unnerving, especially aimed at an older, clearly frail woman.
I often slept with a knife under my pillow. What was I afraid of? What all women fear, especially after night fall, when we are alone. Rape castes a pall over all of our lives. Though fear is never simple. In my case I know that my fear mixed with memories from when I was living with my mother and stepfather, when I was just 9 years old and too often no one came home until 2 or 3 in the morning. I remember once when I was playing with friends who lived across the street, I delayed my return home as long as I could. Finally, at dinnertime, their parents, unaware that no one was there, sent me back across the street. It must have been Winter because it was already dark and I could see that our little tract house was even darker inside. But I could not get in. The front door was locked. Afraid to go in back of the house where I knew one door would be open, I sat for a while on the concrete steps, growing colder by the minute. And I hardly felt safe there either. Each passing car, each shadowy movement terrified me.
The far right wing online publication, Breitbart News, is making accusations that Hillary Clinton has been covering up a serious health problem. The speculation, contrived as it is, has a subtext, skirting as it does, Trump’s persistent boasting about how successful he is, how strong he will be as president, how, by comparison, all his opponents are weak.
After a year or so living alone with my father, my life changed again, in still another direction. One day, after school Phyllis, who belonged to my circle of dissident friends, brought several of us to visit her father and step-mother at their small home, just a few blocks from campus. Though her parents were divorced and Phyllis lived with her mother, she often visited Mort and his second wife, Gerry, whom, because of the color of her hair, we all learned to call “Red.” Red taught arts and arts education; Mort was a painter, and they were both what we call today “progressives” though then we said “radicals,” meaning radical leftists. Mort showed us his studio, his most recent prints, paintings in progress and talked about art with us. To me, and I suspect to many of the others, the way he spoke, with such subtlety and the authority of a working artist, offered a welcome departure from the plastic atmosphere of the fifties.
Though the fact that a Trump supporter attacked an older, defenseless woman must trouble some who plan to vote for him, there are others who, without saying so, approve and even applaud this violence. The same pattern was familiar during the prelude to the Second World War when Mussolini’s supporters, called blackshirts, beat and even murdered thousands of his opponents, not just at political meetings and rallies but on streets, trains, campuses, in bars and shops. The effect of such violence is not only to bully those who have spoken out, but to keep those who have not from doing so in the future. In this way, brutality is not only aided and abetted by silence, silence itself becomes a kind of brutality, a soul murder.
The next week when we visited again, Red came outside where we had gathered and began to ask those of us she had not met before a series of questions. Though Phyllis apologized for what might be perceived as an intrusive manner, I took to Gerry right away,
I liked her directness and was touched that she had taken an interest in me. I sensed she was concerned that I was living alone so much of the time, without an adult to support or guide me. During our next visit, she invited me into the house where she asked me if I wanted to work for the family after school, babysitting their two young children, Carla and Josh, and helping to prepare meals. Of course I did, not really for the money, though that was welcome, but just so that I could spend more time with Mort and Red. After a several weeks, whenever I had been babysitting late, they invited me to spend the night. Bit by bit, I became part of the family and as Mort would read my poetry and encourage my efforts and Gerry queried me about my boy friends or my plans for college, they became surrogate parents. That is how, eventually, when in a terrible accident my father was killed, I came to live with the Dimondsteins.
It cannot have been entirely accidental that Trump posted a quote from Mussolini on Twitter, “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” They share a belief that strength is the highest virtue and weakness should be despised, and thus regarding morality, that might makes right.
In those years, the Dimondstein household was filled with pottery and fabrics from Mexico, where they had lived during the worst years of the McCarthy witch hunts, when actors, screenwriters, writers, and even artists, including Mort, were blacklisted. They found it difficult to sell their work and any attention given to their work in the media was censored too. Soon a colony of expatriates living in exile in Mexico City developed, among them the poet George Oppen and his wife, artist Mary Oppen and screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. Though Mort became a member there of Taller de Gráfica Popular, a leftwing artist’s collective, and studied with the painter Siqueiros, many of the exiles did not go to Mexico just to avoid the blacklist but instead to flee what they regarded as the real possibility that McCarthyism could well give birth to a fascist regime, in which dissidents could be jailed, or worse assassinated or, as happened later in Latin America, disappear. This was hardly an idle fantasy. In those days, the example of the holocaust still hung heavily in the air.
What do they tell themselves? The ones who do not endorse Trump’s views but have endorsed him. A popular columnist hints that you cannot take anything Trump says seriously. That he is just saying whatever he thinks will appeal to his audience. That if he is elected, he won’t be as far right as he seems now. But this does nothing to dampen my fears. Yes, with a showman’s talents, he tries to win the approval of his right wing followers. But the advisors he has chosen over many years reflect what seems to me to be a disregard for democracy. Roger Stone, for instance, whom the New Yorker has credited with ”tactical thuggery,” who played a role in the Watergate break-in, and who displays the same value system as Trump, boasting, “The Democrats were weak, we were strong.” Trump seems to be following his advice to the letter, “Admit nothing, deny everything, counterattack.”
One night when I was babysitting, the doorbell rang, I went to the window to see two men, both is gray raincoats, wearing grey fedoras, standing at the door. When I answered the door, they said they wanted to speak to Morton or Geraldine Dimondstein. When I told the men neither of the Dimonsteins were home, they left without identifying themselves. But from stories my friends some of whom were red diaper babies told me, I knew they were from the FBI. And such visits were really only intended for intimidation.
And then there is an early advisor and mentor for many years. The lawyer who defended Trump when he was charged with for discrimination in housing. Roy Cohn. The same Roy Cohn who played a prominent role on Senator McCarthy’s senate sub-committee, known for his ruthless interrogations of suspects and witnesses.