“…the contest is downright dangerous.”
Elizabeth Drew on the presidential election
We knew it was coming. Certain things are simply inevitable. When every possible issue is subject to a polarizing political debate in a deeply divided nation it was just a matter of time – a short matter of time. Most of us were left at a loss for words, but not one man.
In the space of a few hours early Sunday morning 49 Americans died in a wanton massacre in a gay nightclub in Orlando. Police killed the terrorist, a young American Muslim perhaps mentally troubled, leaving the death toll at 50 with at least as many more wounded. Shock and disbelief greeted most of us Sunday morning and on to Monday.
Then the inevitable came. The man who will be the Republican candidate for president of the United States implied that the current president was complicit in the attack, clearly the most outrageous of the vast host of outrageous things Donald J. Trump has said. But he said it.
The American Authoritarian…
During a television interview Monday Trump said, “There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.” According to students of political rhetoric this is a phrase Trump repeats time and again, implying a conspiracy so immense that the president of the United States must be involved.
With Trump there could be no real, let alone decent interval – can you use the term “decent” with this horrible man – to mourn a travesty, no calm and responsible call to come together in the face of home grown terrorism, no respect (not a smidgen) for the law enforcement and intelligence professionals who spend every day keeping us safe, at least as safe as we can be in a nation that makes the purchase of battlefield weapons as easy as buying a can of soda.
Trump, ignorant, intolerant, small minded, simplistic, and wrong, almost immediately went full demagogue – again. He congratulated himself on social media for “being right” about terrorism. The Atlantic called it “a victory lap in blood.” Trump doubled down on his promise to ban Muslims from entering the United States when he becomes president, a promise that prompted the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to wonder, “How long will it be before American Muslims are forced to wear yellow badges with the star and crescent?”
In essence Trump said the president of the United States is guilty of treason for being complicit in the Orlando assault, a further outrageous perversion of his “birther” conspiracy theories. For good measure Trump also found time to attack Mitt Romney (again), get one of his henchmen to call a top Clinton aide who is Muslim a likely terrorist spy, ban the Washington Post from covering his campaign and, of course, tell bald faced lies about the inadequacy of U.S. immigration policy and much more.
He offered no credible response to the problem of international terrorism, a problem that vexes every western democracy, but rather blustered and thundered. Trump channeled his inner dictator.
I’ve been writing about this dangerous man now for months and like many I initially discounted him as a freak show that surely would bloviate himself to pieces. I counted on the principled conservatives who daily watch their movement perverted by this con man to find a means to stop him not merely for the good of their party, but for the good of the country. While calling Trump a classic demagogue, I resisted, until now, what are becoming increasingly common comparisons to totalitarian, authoritarian figures from the darkest pages of 20th Century history.
Revisiting 20th Century History…
The CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Meg Whitman, a significant Republican figure and one-time candidate for governor of California, made the explicit charge. Trump is behaving like Hitler and Mussolini, Whitman said. A former Republican senator, Larry Pressler of South Dakota, endorsed Hillary Clinton saying Trump’s rhetoric “is starting to sound like the German elections in [the late 1920s]. This is a very dangerous national conversation we’re slipping into.”
It’s a wicked charge. The kind of overheated claim that Trump might make, except after Orlando it’s obviously true. John Gunther is an original source.
Gunther, a Chicago-born journalist and author, was likely the most famous foreign correspondent in the world in the 1920s and 1930s. He reported from Europe for more than 15 years, covering all the major capitols and the biggest stories. His 1936 book – Inside Europe – was a publishing sensation selling more than half a million copies. Gunther followed with books providing insightful commentary on Asia, Africa, South America, Russia and the USA. I’ve collected all the books and they still provide a fabulous, nuanced and intelligent take on the world before the 1960s.
John Gunther on Hitler in 1936…
In January 1936, Harper’s published a lengthy Gunther piece from Berlin. The subject was Adolf Hitler who was still consolidating his power in Germany. To read the piece today, as I recently did for the first time, is to shudder at the striking similarities to our homegrown authoritarian.
I’ll quote just a few lines from John Gunther’s article and as you read them just replace the word “Hitler” with the word “Trump.” See if you come away with a cold shiver down your spine.
Gunther’s piece began with these words: “Adolf Hitler, seemingly so irrational and self-contradictory, is a character of great complexity – not an easy nut to crack. To many he is meager and insignificant; yet he holds sixty-five million Germans, a fair share of whom adore him, in a thralldom compounded of love, fear, and nationalist ecstasy. Few men run so completely the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. He is a mountebank, a demagogue, a frustrated hysteric, a lucky misfit. He is also a figure of extreme veneration to millions of honest and not-even-puzzled Germans.”
And there are these observations of the man who took Germany to the brink and beyond and plunged the entire world into darkness:
“He reads almost nothing.”
“He dislikes intellectuals.”
“His lies have been notorious.”
“Foreigners, especially interviewers from British and American newspapers, may find him cordial and even candid but they seldom have opportunity to question him, to participate in a give-and-take discussion. Hitler rants. He is extremely emotional. He never answers questions. He talks to you as if you were a public meeting, and nothing can stop the gush of words.”
“By a man’s friends may ye know him. But Hitler has none.”
Gunther analyzed Hitler’s religious convictions and concluded there were none. His passion was himself and power.
He “bases most decisions on intuition…his vanity is extreme…Hitler is a man of passion, or instinct, not of reason. His ‘intellect’ is that of a chameleon who knows when to change his color, of a crab who knows when to dive into the sand; his ‘logic’ that of a panther who is hungry, and thus seeks food.”
“His brain is small and vulgar, limited, narrow, suspicious, but behind it is the lamp of passion, and this passion has such quality that it is immediately discernible and recognizable, like a diamond in the sand.”
He is a Bad Speaker…
“Then there is the oratory. This is probably the chief external explanation of Hitler’s rise. He talked himself to power. The strange thing is that Hitler is a bad speaker. He screeches; his mannerisms are awkward; his voice breaks at every peroration; he never knows when to stop…yet, Hitler, whose magnetism across the table is almost nil, can arouse an audience, especially a big audience, to frenzy.”
“Mein Kampf, for all its impersonality, reveals over and over again Hitler’s faith in ‘the man.’ After race and the nation, personality is his main preoccupation…’a majority,’ he says, ‘can never be substituted for the Man.’”
Writing recently in the New York Review and before the awful events in Orlando the venerable Elizabeth Drew, a political observer of American presidents and would-be presidents for decades, centered on those – interesting choice of words – who “collaborate” with Trump.
“The real test is whether there are any circumstances under which Republican leaders in Congress will finally stand up to Trump, renounce him as their party’s standard bearer even if they can’t cancel his nomination. This could mean risking that their party loses the election and their majorities in the House and the Senate. This is a length to which the congressional leaders Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and some others who’ve endorsed Trump or waffled—not opposing but not endorsing—have thus far been unwilling to go. McConnell’s lack of enthusiasm for Trump is apparent; he’s recently been on a book tour and said something negative about Trump in virtually every interview. But like the others who’ve endorsed Trump, he’s still a collaborator, no matter how much he squirms.”
This election, perhaps particularly after Orlando, has become unlike any in our lifetime. A true referendum on just what America intends to be, an election where one candidate – this is no longer hyperbole – has many of the characteristics and inclinations of the most destructive dictators of the 20th Century.
To continue the European analogy, Republican “collaborators” of Donald Trump have become like those in Vichy France after 1940 who found it expedient and often in their own self-interest to collaborate with a hate mongering dictator even at the risk of surrendering the heart and soul of their nation. History regards them as morally bankrupt and fatally wrong.
Trump has gone from novelty, to laugh line to legitimate threat to American democracy. Those who refuse to acknowledge and vigorously resist the dangers of this frightful man embrace a monumental national disaster. History is our guide. In 1936 John Gunther wrote an early draft of the story we are living.