Trump’s not Hitler, but…

This article is from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette dated October 2, 2016 – The author is Philip Martin.

In his book The Coming Victory of Democracy published in 1938, Thomas Mann wrote that “in a democracy which does not respect the intellectual life and is not guided by it, demagoguery has free play and the level of national life is depressed to that of the ignorant and uncultivated … [i]f the conception of culture and its level are determined from below, according to the ideas and understanding of the mob—this, precisely, is nothing but demagogy; and we have its perfect example in the so-called Kultur speeches of … Hitler.”

I’m not saying Donald Trump is Hitler, though lots of people are, or at least rolling the idea around in their minds. For instance, in the New York Times last week the venerable critic Michiko Kakutani wrote a review of Volker Ulrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 that—though she never mentions the Republican presidential candidate—is interpreted by many as a veiled comparison between Trump and Hitler.

(I’ve just started Ulrich’s book; so far it’s a measured deconstruction of the accreted monster mythology that obscured the historical Hitler. This is important; we should keep in mind that even the worst people may possess a full complement of emotions. Understanding a Hitler capable of love and kindness is necessary if we are to fathom the potential for evil-doing in ourselves.)

It’s not unusual that people see Hitler in Trump. Hitler has become an all-purpose symbol for anything we wish to dismiss. Yet when talking about a notorious celebrity rising to political power through mendacious attacks and scapegoating, the analogy might be irresistible, even if it’s not especially helpful. While only in the fevered imagination of Trump and his most-blighted followers is America a hellish place in anything close to the truly terrible shape that Germany was in in the aftermath of the Great War, it’s undeniable that a lot of Americans are disappointed and disillusioned. Economic numbers may say one thing, but there is still a pervasive feeling of discontent among many people in this country.

A lot of us feel economically insecure. A lot of us worry about whether our jobs will last and whether our children will be able to enjoy the lifestyle our parents took for granted. All this talk about black lives mattering irks the kind of people who think of themselves as no beneficiary of any privilege. People who have trouble making their mortgage and car payments are bound to bristle when they feel their pain dismissed while others are put forward as a victimized class. They are bound to respond when someone tells them that their struggles are compounded by institutional favoritism and government appeasement.

Even if there’s no empirical basis for these suspicions, people will respond to someone who confirms their biases, who tells them what they want to hear. And if you’re hurting in America, maybe you respond to the guy who tells you it’s not your fault and he can fix it.

Because it might not be your fault.

It’s quite possible to do what you’re supposed to do, to work hard and study, and still end up living from paycheck to paycheck in this country. Or living without a paycheck. Just because you’re not living in the Weimar Republic where you’d better spend a 50-million mark note today because tomorrow a gallon of milk might cost a billion marks doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing real trouble.

The only thing that inoculates us from the promises of would-be demagogues is an understanding of the inherent complexity of the world. Nothing is as simple as a reductionist soundbite; there are unforeseen consequences and hidden costs implicit in every policy decision. Bright-line rules might be necessary in some cases, but if your goal is justice or even fairness you have to at least consider why other people behave the way they do and believe the things they believe.

While there are a minority of Trump supporters who openly subscribe to the tenets of National Socialism, the overwhelming majority of his backers would want to punch you in the face if you called them Nazis. By their lights, they’re seeking to secure the blamed blessings of liberty for themselves and their posterity. They want an America for Americans—just like the Germans wanted a Germany for Germans.

What’s dangerous is the idea that some Americans are more real than other Americans, and that—like pornography—Americanism is easily identified if difficult to define. What’s dangerous is the idea that there ought to be religious, racial or ethnic tests for Americanism. We are not a white nation, we are not a Christian nationwe are a mongrel nation comprised of people of various cultural traditions pledged to tolerance. There’s nothing American in suggesting that we’d be better off if we were less diverse.

And while people are easily frightened, there’s nothing American in suggesting that we ought to exchange long-held principles for the illusion of safety. You can’t enjoy your freedom without being a little brave; to live in the world requires that we accept and assume certain risks. It’s obvious there is a chance that you can die violently in America, but there are limits to what government can do; there’s no way to assure anyone of absolute safety.

Just as there’s no way to assure everyone of a fair break. There will be winners and losers, and some people will have advantages that others don’t. Some will be born into wealth, some into desperate situations. Luck and connections factor into an individual’s chance for success—usually more than talent or diligence.

Some people see Trump’s wealth as evidence of his fitness for high office. That’s always been part of the American equation—we tend to envy, worship and suck up to rich folks while nursing the notion that someday we might find ourselves miraculously transformed. (It’s more often expressed in the negative, as in, “If you’re so smart how come you ain’t rich?”)

Most of us know why we’re not rich—or at least why we’re not richer. But in this country most of us are relatively comfortable, most of us have the luxury of indulging in a little laziness. Common sense does not trump critical thinking. What you know in your gut is likely superstition or prejudice.

Donald Trump isn’t Hitler, and supporting him doesn’t make you a Nazi.

But maybe it wouldn’t hurt you to read a little history.

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