By Trevor Busch
If you were an American — even a Republican American — you probably met the announcement that Donald Trump was entering the race to be your next Republican presidential candidate with a somewhat derisive comment about the nature of American politics and a flippant dismissal of his chances of actually winning the nomination.
Months down the road and Trump’s surging popularity amongst wide swaths of the American populace — mainly based on Trump’s increasingly bigoted and hate-dripping rhetoric about Muslims and other “undesirable” minorities — and we have a potential recipe that could see American voters choose to vault an individual with truly reprehensible intentions firmly into the White House.
Although only a few observers have so far been sounding a warning — most choose to believe that the majority of American voters would never throw their support behind a clearly prejudiced, self-satisfied real estate baron and billionaire (not to mention second-rate reality TV star) as their next choice for president. In fact, most Republicans are still saying that (and are not a little horrified themselves at some of the rhetoric issuing forth from Trump’s lips) but are having trouble reconciling their own condemnations and dismissals with the spectacle of Trump’s rising popularity. Don’t forget we’re talking about a nation that in recent memory elected a Hollywood actor to the White House (much analysis over the years has focused on just how much American voters resonated with Ronald Reagan’s hero film image created through years of westerns and war films).
So far reserving most of his vitriol for Hispanics and Muslims, most recently proposing the outright banning of Muslim individuals from entering the United States, Trump is taking a Machiavellian page straight out of history. The politics of fear and hate are as old as recorded history, and people in positions of power have no doubt been making use of these emotions to secure their own ends since before there were even historians to record it.
What is troubling in this instance is not that Donald Trump has been relegated to the fringes of American politics where he can continue to make bigoted comments in relative peace, safe from any danger of achieving real political power. What is truly dangerous — even horrifying — is that every time Trump appears to push the envelope with regard to what is considered politically correct, there seems to be a corresponding uptick in his overall popularity.
Attempting to judge the mood of the American voter in any across-the-board fashion is probably folly, but there does seem to be a rising tide of anger amongst segments of their voting public toward Muslims and minorities, which Trump has seized upon to exploit for his own ends. Disturbingly, the corresponding acceptance of this attitude in others (if not support of it themselves) among many more Americans could eventually see the land of the free putting an asterisk on that slogan when it comes to minority rights and religious freedoms. During the Great Depression, there were some Americans that saw signs that the nation was sliding down a slippery slope that would usher in the rise of fascism.
Mass unemployment, drought and the collapse of the national economy were all contributing to conditions ripe for the foment of political unrest, labour frictions, and an escalating crime wave that many believed the federal government incompetent or unable to tackle in any manner.
With the ascension of Roosevelt and the success of the New Deal, this speculation would all begin to fade from the limelight. But it might not have, had a different president been elected. In his classic 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, Nobel-prize winning author Sinclair Lewis explored this very question, depicting a desperate Depression-era America succumbing to the brutal ministrations of a president who becomes a dictator, and the resultant dark night of the soul that the nation would overcome on the long and often bloody road that leads back to freedom.
In many ways, Lewis’ true aim in writing the novel was contained concisely in his title, for he tried to portray to Americans of his own era that fascism very well could “happen here”. His president-turned-dictator was elected resoundingly by Americans who appealed to his hair-brained financial promises of prosperity for all citizens in exchange for the targeting of minorities, tight state control of banking, police, the military and the economy, the elimination of political enemies and other undesirables and the eventual re-creation of the United States into an armed camp where only Washington’s line of perception was considered acceptable. Throughout, Lewis was careful to suggest that Americans of all shapes and sizes and every political persuasion would choose to ignore the warning signs and to believe that, in a general sense, “things like that just don’t happen in America”. If most Americans truly believed that, asserted Lewis, fascism had already won half the battle.
Flashback to 2015, and it is not uncommon to find many Americans who also choose to believe that line of thinking in the face of criticism about the country’s new poster boy for the extreme conservative right. Fascism in the land of the free and the home of the brave? Hogwash, we’ve got the Marines. Concentration camps for minorities and liberals? They’ve already caused too much trouble already, what with their unreasonable demands and their hippie environmental concerns oozing out of their bong-holes. Keep out the Muslims? We’re a Christian nation based on Christian values, not a nation of Mecca-seekers with terrorist ideology. And the list could go on and on.
There is little question why the politics of hate and fear are some of the most powerful motivators in existence for a given society. They are, after all, two of our most powerful emotions. In most instances, they are not to be trifled with because we like to think that history has taught us that the outcome of hate is usually extreme suffering and death for the those that are the object of that hatred. And it has hopefully taught us one other important lesson as well — that although we might try to celebrate anti-values in an effort to make hatred seem positive (Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy) or a goal to be achieved to purify our society (the ideology behind genocide and ethnic cleansing) the reality is this is only camouflage for the perpetration of evil.
As we learned from the experience of Nazi Germany, as citizens we need to make our own moral choices when faced with the questionable dictates of an immoral government. The so-called Nuremberg defence, or “I was just following orders”, is now considered to be no defence at all — even if there is a touch of the judgmental in enforcing our moral code on individuals placed in situations where taking a moral stance could very well have ended up costing them their own lives. And here is one more case study from the past we can hardly ignore, especially when faced with the Non-Islamic State of Donald Trump. We would do well to remember the example of a central European state lying bankrupt and broken at the conclusion of WWI, beset by war reparations, hyper-inflation, and its populace fed on a “stab in the back” myth that their nation’s leadership betrayed them in war and peace. Following a relatively prosperous 1920s, this same nation fell pray to extreme political sentiments when confronted by the economic collapse of the Great Depression, when desperate people sought increasingly radical solutions. Add to this cauldron a dynamic, hate-filled demagogue with a flair for oratory and a seething desire to create an internal enemy ripe for exploitation — namely Jews — and you have a recipe for achieving power under Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, who it is often forgotten enjoyed considerable success at the ballot box in the lead up to their ultimate seizure of power in 1933, lending a degree of democratic credibility to a regime and party it should never have been ascribed.
Believe it or not, but there are similarities here for the United States of 2015 and her erstwhile presidential hopeful Donald Trump.
State of the economy? No Great Depression, but not exactly going like Gangbusters. Lost wars? Iraq doesn’t exactly look like the triumph of freedom lately, and nor does Afghanistan. Not to mention Vietnam. Fear of an internal enemy, namely Muslims? That’s a big 10-4. Fear of external enemies? Terrorism, Russia, Syria, join the rest of the bread line. Now enter the bigoted demagogue promising to restore the nation to greatness and smite her enemies? Check.
Simply believing that living in the professed homeland of freedom is enough to protect that freedom from being curtailed is a fool’s hope. Demagogues and dictators often arise speaking the language of care and conciliation rather than conquest, and in America speaking the language of democracy and freedom in an effort to curtail both is a masterful art form unperfected in most other Western nations. Fundamentally, people believe what they want to believe.
And if that includes a number of politically or racially charged values about their neighbours, they can be convinced of almost anything by the right individual who appears to understand the nature of their prejudices, and is not morally ambivalent about exploiting those fears to whatever end.
Although the jury may still be out, in many quarters, Donald Trump already fits that bill. It will be left up to Americans to make the choice the world will be holding their breath on.