Mr. Trump's rise to power is not similar to Hitler's rise to power in every respect. But the two have enough in common that I cannot deny the parallels. I realize that I break one of my own rules in saying so. I usually try to avoid bringing the Shoah or Hitler into any discussion that isn't primarily about the Shoah or Hitler. Still, if I am honest, comparisons to Hitler ran through my head as I canvassed and voted for Secretary Clinton last week.
I don't suppose that the following will be compelling to Trump supporters; I'm just explaining how and why I voted. My political consciousness connects historical moments, draws analogies, and see particular personality types. I think that one of my Jewish friends said it best when he told me, "It may not be appropriate to say that Trump is Hitler. But I am going to do my best to act like a righteous gentile living in 1933 Berlin."
Now let me point out a few key similarities and differences between 2015-16 America and 1930s Germany. Both settings manifest a perceived cultural crisis. Germany's crisis was exacerbated by the failure of the Weimar Republic and the great economic depression of the post-WWI period. People were hungry, felt trapped, and looked for a particular source of the problem and blamed a people who represented the "problem." Centuries of hatred toward Jewish people and (caricatures of) Jewish ideas were easily exploitable. Christians played a large part in this collective hatred. Nazi ideology was not Christian. But there was a concerted effort to manipulate the populace using theologically motivated hatred. In other words, the Nazis trafficked in the currency of hate minted by centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Through various (sometime innovative) media strategies, National Socialism fanned a very old prejudice.
Apart from media manipulation, xenophobia, and Christian culpability, today's America and 1930's Germany are worlds apart. America might be experiencing economic stagnation, but our "crisis" looks altogether different than 1930s Germany. Another difference: Mr. Trump will not have the power to enact the domestic policies he has promised (at least not right away). But he will have all of the power afforded to the Commander-in-Chief when it comes to foreign policy. Hitler did not have nuclear capabilities, but President Trump will. So the parallels with Trump and Hitler are limited because of context.
What then is the American "crisis" that made a Trump candidacy viable? First, there is a key racial element that is unseen (I hope) by most Trump supporters. This article is very revealing and well worth a read if you are curious about the massive upturn in white voters from rural America. I would also recommend this book to understand how and why evangelicals contribute to racial fault lines in America. And this book if you want to understand why significant segments of the white populace fear a loss of culture.
Second, we have witnessed a steady but disturbing decline in political consciousness. I'm not certain about millennials and I don't want to put baby boomers on a pedestal, but us GenX folks have been egregiously uninvolved. I agree entirely with this assessment by Michael Rosenblum:
Donald Trump is going to be elected president. The American people voted for him a long time ago. They voted for him when The History Channel went from showing documentaries about the Second World War to “Pawn Stars” and “Swamp People.” They voted for him when The Discovery Channel went from showing “Lost Treasures of the Yangtze Valley” to “Naked and Afraid.” They voted for him when The Learning Channel moved from something you could learn from to “My 600-lb Life.” They voted for him when CBS went from airing “Harvest of Shame” to airing “Big Brother.” These networks didn’t make these programming changes by accident. They were responding to what the American people actually wanted. And what they wanted was “Naked and Afraid” and “Duck Dynasty.”While the Tea Party and white nationalists were organizing, creating and disseminating false narratives, and rallying against any policy that Obama was for, most of America was sedating itself with heavy doses of American Idol and fantasy football. Don't underestimate the fact that Trump's road to the Whitehouse was paved through reality TV. I really cannot imagine a more different context between ours and 1930s Germany. Our national crisis wasn't widespread hunger, it was the widespread starvation of our collective political consciousness. Out of 231,556,622 eligible voters 46.9% didn't vote.
I have a colleague who escaped North Korea as a refugee as a child. He's seen a few things in his seven decades. He's seen dictators rise to power. He's seen seemingly good people rise to power and then become dictators. Yesterday he told me that "America is finally awake."
So now that we've stirred a bit from our Reality TV stupor, what sort of political consciousness will we embrace? I will suggest that we begin with a very old definition of politics.
In his Politics, Aristotle declares that the human, by nature, is a political animal (Pol. 1253a). By this he meant that the polis ("city," or "city-state") represents the most natural environment for the human being. People of a polis orbit it's cultural center by way of custom, law, commerce, etc. Moreover, he believed that nature (which does nothing in vain) targets this goal for the human. A network of villages—with a shared commerce and central governing body—is the natural outcome of language. Language leads to partnership, which leads to households, which leads to villages, which leads to larger networks. The opposite of this is what Homer called the “clanless, lawless, and hearthless man” who is essentially anti-social and a “lover of war” (Aristotle quotes Homer on this point). Aristotle is describing human nature by analyzing binary opposites: either one is social (and thus living according to nature) or anti-social (and thus living contrary to nature). I'm not generally keen on binary opposites. But let's start somewhere, shall we?
We need each other. Even more, according to Aristotle, we are meant to live in relationship with each other. But he also tells us that if we cease to be just, we will be not be oriented to our common good as nature intended. (I probably don't need to tell you that justice is also a biblical ideal.) This is important because politics has become a dirty word in America. Moreover, for us, "politicians" are thought to be unnatural creatures; we expect them to act unjustly, out of self-interest. This was not Aristotle's vision for governance the polis. In his view, there is nothing more natural than drawing together in a common community, culture, and commerce. Being "political" wasn't for elites or crooks. It was the natural inclination of every human.
This is why, although I am political, I try to avoid Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. I enjoy a good jab at the competition. In fact, I love political humor. But most simply aren't funny enough to pull it off. I when I sense a steady stream of hatred for an ideological opponent, I think language ceases to be "political" in the way Aristotle defined the concept. We argue, we strategize against, we lose our cools, but in the end we govern together. After eight years of obstructionism in congress, I am convinced that Washington hasn't been nearly "political" enough. Though I am not a fan, I quite appreciated what Maher said a couple days ago:
I know liberals made a big mistake because we attacked your boy Bush like he was the end of the world. And he wasn't. And Mitt Romney we attacked that way. I gave Obama a million dollars because I was so afraid of Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney wouldn't have changed my life that much or yours. Or John McCain.
They were honorable men who we disagreed with and we should have kept it that way. So we cried wolf and that was wrong. But this is real. This is going to be way different.I have a different view of Bush and McCain because I tend to focus on foreign policy when I vote. But I do agree that Trump is a different sort of animal and far more dangerous. He is essentially apolitical. Trump is the “clanless, lawless, and hearthless man” that Homer warned us about, the "lover of war." Trump's vision for America is what Hobbes called the condition of war (the condition that often leads to literal warfare):
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.This is what Trump's insecure, erratic, and self-interested behavior is already creating. But we liberals must shoulder the burden of blame too. We left scorched earth behind in our relentless alienation of our republican neighbors.
Today I was emailing a conservative friend (who opposed Trump because of is unconstitutional statements about the first amendment) about the conservative/liberal divide in America. My friend wrote, "They're [Democrats] convinced that everyone on my side is evil. So fuck them, I guess they get Trump." Most would hear this as a political statement. I hear it as not nearly political enough.
Yes, we get Trump. We get Trump because we've failed to be political in the only way that makes sense: politics is about learning to live together and creating policies that promote our common good. Take a look at Garrison Keillor's Homegrown Democrat and you'll have a sense of what I mean by political consciousness.
warcrimes and praise of war criminals) is far too similar to Hitler for me to stay silent about it. At the same time, how do I say so without implying that my conservative neighbors are akin to Nazis? How do I stand up for the hundreds of people who have been targeted for hate speech and beaten in the name of Trump (complete with swastikas in some cases) and then sit down to fellowship with my neighbors who are exultant about Trump's rise to power?
It may well be impossible to maintain political ideals when an authoritarian is in power. But in four years we will get to try again. My hope is that we are willing to try again. In the meantime, let us fight for politics in Aristotle's sense of that concept.
I will leave you with a passage from Jeremiah that has been on my mind. I read it as a call to political consciousness. . . . one that doesn't end well.
"Thus says the Lord: 'Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, 'We will not walk in it.' Also I raised up sentinels for you: 'Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!' But they said, 'We will not give heed.'" (6:16-17)
Anthony Le Donne (PhD, Durham) is the author of Near Christianity: How Journeys along Jewish-Christian Borders Saved My Faith in God.