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A Time for Vigilance

The President-elect Donald Trump and the German dictator Adolph Hitler share some significant character flaws.   Even if Trump should manage to avoid a slippery descent into racist authoritarianism, his striking similarities with the Fuhrer are cause for alarm.  The President-elect, his cabinet and circle of right-wing advisors are poised to unleash new laws and policies that will likely have dangerous and far-reaching consequences—for America and the world.

In his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell wrote “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever. Those who think it could never happen here, should read Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich.

According to Ullrich and other biographers, Hitler was narcissist, with a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” He was an impulsive risk-taker who lacked self-control.  A promisor of national greatness, he peppered his speeches with mantra-like phrases and coarse language.  To those who dared criticize him, he was vindictive and revengeful.  Like Mr. Trump, he jumped into national politics with no prior experience in government.

Both Hitler and Trump managed to attract adoring crowds with their unconventional oratory and acting skills. At the same time, they were able to hide their xenophobic racial biases behind a “mask of moderation” and oft-repeated untruths.

Readers who have seen Leni Riefenstahl’s acclaimed film, Triumph of the Will, may recall the dramatic opening scene:  Hilter in a plane descending from the clouds to preside over the 1934 Nuremberg rally.  In the recent presidential campaign, TV newscasts often pictured Trump descending from his private plane or helicopter to greet enthusiastic campaign supporters.

On November 13, Trump selected Stephen K. Bannon as his senior counselor and chief West Wing strategist. Bannon headed Breibart News, a far right website that according the New York Times has accused President Obama of “importing more hating Muslims;” compared Planned Parenthood’s work to the Holocaust; called the conservative commentator Bill Kristol “a renegade Jew;” and advised female victims of online harassment to “just log off and stop “screwing up the internet for men.”  That Trump selected Bannon for such a key role on his White House team is an ominous sign of what may lie ahead.

At the same time, the President-elect chose Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, as his White House chief of staff.  Between the two contrary advocates, who will prevail in influence: the alt-right enabler or the Washington insider?  The New York Times noted that Trump’s management style is to create rival power structures beneath him, “encouraging them to battle it out.”  In Ullrich’s telling, Hitler did the same thing: he tended not to intervene when his subordinates battled.

Looking ahead, some dangers on the horizon may include:

+ A Republican party of nationalist populism;

+ A vastly expanded military, with a greater risk of nuclear war;

+ More frequent ocean and weather disturbances from unrestrained global warming;

+ Expanded immigrant deportations;

+ Discrimination against innocent Muslims;

+ Diminishment of health care for the poor and middle class.

+ Greater income inequality, as the wealthy get richer; and

+ Conflicts of interest with the many Trump businesses.

Referring to his recent meeting with the man who will succeed him, Mr. Obama said that “he [Trump] is not ideological” and that “his pragmatism” will be an asset.  The fact is we don’t yet know the President-elect’s true agenda.

According to Ullrich, the rise of Adolph Hitler was not inevitable.  The German people failed to derail Hitler before or after he became Chancellor, and indeed, demoralized by the Versailles treaty and Great Depression,  welcomed the political shake-up.

Will Donald Trump become a pragmatic leader, moderating the extremist views he expressed during his campaign?  Or will he become an authoritarian dictator, crippling democratic institutions as he conducts his presidency?  Only time will tell.

In either event, citizens should remain vigilant.  Hibernation, moving to Canada or avoiding politics altogether are not responsible options.

When Trump policy shifts begin to imperil free speech, the rule of law, human rights, environmental protection and global security, they should be called out for public discussion– and for protest and active resistance through petitions to Congress, social media campaigns, local and state push-back and non-violent demonstrations.

Only vigilance and mass activism can ensure the survival of American democracy.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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