A Cliché Or A Warning?
It’s so cliché to compare anything we don’t like to Hitler that such comparisons have become like the proverbial boy crying wolf, which is why the rise of Donald Trump is so disconcerting: the wolf wears a toupée, has a spray tan, and is leading the race for the Republican nomination for president. Trump has, of course, been the topic endless discussion–so much that it is estimated that he has “earned roughly $2 billion worth of media attention” (NY Times) And with all this attention, the allusions and direct connections to the rise of Hitler have been bountiful as well. Still, I think we would be remiss, if not irresponsible, if we failed to fully explore this phenomenon.
Like anyone who has read a fair amount about World War II (and I’ve read dozens of nonfiction books on the war), I have often wondered what went through the minds of ordinary Germans as Hitler rose to power, and especially as he began and accelerated his murderous rein of terror. The thinking usually goes something like this: the average person was powerless to stop him; was looking for someone to blame for their economic woes; was unwilling to believe the stories of genocide; was too busy going about their daily lives to pay attention as Hitler slowly eroded their rights. And perhaps they didn’t believe that “it could happen here.” Or perhaps their anti-semitism made it easier to run a blind eye.
Just The Facts
Regardless of the reason why Hitler was allowed to bring the world to war, the facts are the same: either it was impossible to stop him, and therefore he was inevitable, or he could have been stopped, and therefore the general public must accept some of the blame for what he did (and that’s before we consider how many Germans and others under Nazi rule actively participated in genocide). Moreover, we must not forget that Hitler came to power via elections. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “In the 1932 elections, the Nazis won 33 percent of the votes, more than any other party,” and “in January 1933 Hitler was appointed chancellor.”
Violence and intimidation were undoubtedly behind their electoral success, but most germane to this post is that it had a veneer of legitimacy; the average person could console themselves by thinking that the same political system that voted him in could vote him out. It’s not uncommon for despots to use the system to get to a place from which they can destroy it. Mussolini came to power in the 1924 general election, in what came to be “the last free election in Italy before World War II. (Wikipedia) In 1980 the Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe was elected “the first Prime Minister of [newly formed] Zimbabwe; he has ruled with an iron fist ever since. And in 1956, Ferdinand Marcos won nearly 52% of the vote in the Philippines; he, his family, and their cronies “looted so much wealth from the Philippines that, to this day, investigators have difficulty determining precisely how many billions of dollars were stolen.” You get the idea.
In fact, if you think about it, becoming a dictator by first being elected is genius. Resistance to your rule can be blunted by pointing out that you were appointed by the people’s will, and you can keep saying so until you have so stamped out resistance as to obviate the need for elections (or to run shame elections, which is perhaps equally brilliant).
Yes, It Can Happen Here
The history, then, is clear. Democracy, and democratic processes, can spawn evil. So what about the notion that it can’t happen here, in America? Well, the answer is actually quite simple. It has. Many times. The people who enshrined slavery into law were not only voted into office, they actually designed the very system in which the voting took place. Those who permitted the massacre of Native Americans and lynching of African Americans were voted into office, as were the politicians who carried out the internment of Japanese; who stood idly by (or partook in) McCarthy’s illegal persecutions; who allowed J. Edgar Hoover to run the FBI like his own private mafia; who did nothing while gays were dying of AIDS (that’s you, Reagan Administration); who were in power when the United States assassinated democratically elected leaders like Salvador Allende of Chile, when we murdered millions of Vietnamese, when we launched a war in Iraq based on lies or faulty intelligence that, either way, has resulted in millions of dead and displaced.
It can happen and has happened, not only in Europe and Africa and Latin America, but right here in the good ol’ United States of America. So when we talk about Trump, we are foolish to dismiss the tyrannical underpinnings of his campaign. We are foolish to dismiss his talk of deporting millions of people as unrealistic. We are foolish to think that a man who encourages violence at his campaign rallies wouldn’t encourage violence as President. We are foolish to ignore his proposal to ban all Muslims from coming to this country. We are foolish to avert our eyes from his disdain for women, and gays, and the disabled–all groups that have historically been opressed and marginalized. And we are foolish to assume that this man–an authoritarian man, a man so wealthy as to be beholden to nobody, a man completely consumed with himself and his image, a man who celebrates greed, a man with no beliefs other than that he must win–cannot win a general election.
The only lesson we can learn from similar historical moments is that if this man becomes President of the United States our freedom will be in danger. In fact, The Economist Intelligent Unit “rated a Trump presidency the same level of risk as ‘the rising threat of jihadi terrorism'”, and if all this comes to pass we will have ourselves to blame. Voting “not Trump” is not enough. Speaking out is not enough. This is a dangerous moment; Trump would be far more dangerous than jihadism, for the United States is the one with myriad nuclear weapons and the one with the largest military and economies in the world. A jihadi can blow up a theatre; the President of the United States can blow up the world.
For all our progress, America is still a racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic nation. How else can we explain millions of people supporting the erection of a wall with Mexico and the exclusions of an entire religion? How else can we explain a system that incarcerates 1 in every 15 African American men compared to 1 in every 106 white men? (American Progress) And how else can we explain that even after calling women pigs and sluts and ascribing tough questions to menstruation, Trump continues to win primary after primary?
Just as in the Germany of the late 1920s, all it takes is for a small group of people under the sway of a charismatic leader and tapping into the public’s hatred of minority groups to lead a nation down the road of despotism and calamity. We can comfort ourselves by saying that he won’t win, or that he doesn’t really mean what he says, or that only a small percentage of people hold his disgusting views, but all I can think is, now I get what people of conscience must feel like anywhere hatred is on the verge of getting into a position to carry out actual violence. I get it, and I get the message: for us to maintain a free and open society, it is incumbent on us to vote, to demonstrate, to donate, to write, to speak out, and to do whatever we can to stamp out the Donald Trump movement before it becomes a conflagration that burns all of us down.
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