Do Yourself a Favor. Be Afraid.
On the one hand, it’s encouraging that even the most ardent opponents of Donald Trump are willing to accept the results and give him a chance. A peaceful transition of power is, as we hear again and again, the cornerstone of democracy.
But we ought not make the mistake of thinking Trump’s election is worthy of a normal reaction, that we should give Trump the same lee-way that we would have given to Mitt Romney or John McCain. To do so would be to neglect how social and political systems operate, to disregard warnings going back decades and even millennia.
History, the archaeologist Tobias Stone writes in The Huffington Post, consistently tells the same story: “humans have a habit of going into phases of mass destruction, generally self-imposed to some extent or another.” This occurs, she argues, in large part because most people’s understanding of history is superficial and generally limited to about 50–100 years.
Hindsight, she reminds us, is 20–20. We look back and things seem obvious. Famines, genocide, and nuclear attacks look like flukes. Chains of events that only a few smart minds were able to recognize at the time seem crystal clear to us now. In turn, we dismiss every suggestion that we are headed down a similar path because that was obvious and this isn’t.
This is a familiar story to us now. For months people have been comparing Trump to Adolf Hitler, and it’s generally disregarded. It just seems too obvious to us. Trump may not be your typical statesman, we say, but Hitler? That genocidal, evil maniac? No way.
The problem is that Trump’s rise to power, and our reaction to it now, is eerily similar––in many cases identical––not only to the rise of Hitler, but also to the march towards tyranny that our Founder’s and philosophers as far back as Plato warned against.
Granted, nobody believes we are on the precipice of mass genocide. But if the rule of law and American democracy are going to come under attack, this would be a good time for it to happen. Trump would be the man to do it. The ground-work, in fact, has already been laid.
I imagine this is the point when many people will ex-out this page––come on, this is crazy!––but that is exactly the kind of complacency that will make this moment far more dangerous than it needs to be.
It’s worth remembing that in the midst of Hitler’s rise to power, a genocide was hardly obvious. In fact, Hitler hid his anti-Semitism and mainly appealed to voters with vague ideas and lofty promises. This was highlighted in a New York Times review of Hitler’s latest biography by Volker Ullrich’s. Remove Hitler’s name and it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between the campaigns of Hitler and Trump.
Indeed, following the election of Hitler, not everyone was happy. But as Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s close associate, wrote in his diary at the time, many of the Nazis’ opponents were willing to give them a chance:
Again, this is not to say Trump is Hitler. Hitler meitculously calculated his way to achieving history’s most evil plan. Trump, on the other hand, is a con-man who doesn’t even know what he believes.
But there is no doubt what he is appealing to. Frustration with authority. Nostalgia for a time when society was more homogenous and thus easier to manage. A desire to throw away all these new rules that don’t seem to be working––political correctness, respect for women, inclusiveness––and just shut everyone up.
The clearest example is the outbreak of lawlessness and hate in the wake of Trump’s election. It’s no secret that many Americans suppress prejudice against women, immigrants, African-Americans, Jews, and others. And it is obvious that those people will feel validated and emboldened to act out if someone like Trump is elected president with 59 million votes.
If you think this is exaggerated, take a look at this:
Trump’s election has already fostered a sense of lawlessness, and why not? He has displayed a willingness to place himself above the tax code and laws against sexual assault. He doesn’t think the long-standing tradition of presidential candidates releasing tax returns, nor the freedom of the press, applies to him.
This isn’t just a feature of Trump’s appeal, this is his appeal. Trump’s election isn’t just a revolt against “the establishment,” it’s a repudiation of the values, norms, and systems that caused the sense of frustration and anxiety fueling Trump’s support. It is an effort to undo years of progress that have opened doors to women, gay people, African-Americans and others. It is a longing for a time when everything was easier, when we didn’t have to listen to all these loud voices coming from all different directions.
This shouldn’t be confused with how a lot of liberals have analyzed this election: that all Trump supporters are racist. Sure, some of them are. But by and large, Trump’s election is a reaction (a “whitelash,” as Van Jones calls it) to a 50-year transformation that has largely ignored, and oftentimes mocked, the plight of white, heterosexual men who don’t live on the coasts. This was an effort to get white America back on the stage. The problem, however, is that the transformation Trump’s supporters are responding to is a democratic transformation. It can’t be dealt with, can’t be tempered, without chipping away at our democratic institutions or the rule of law as we have come to understand it.
There are many things short of a genocide Trump can do that will severely damage this nation, and the public is displaying a willingness — indeed, a desire — to let it happen. He can abolish the filibuster, further consolidating power and wrestling it away from the minority party. He can kick adversarial members of the press out of the White House Press Corps, leaving behind only journalists who will write about the Trump Administration in a favorable light. He can pass a new law expanding the number of Supreme Court justices (yes, all you need is a law). He can further embolden a culture of lawlessness and hate.
This doesn’t seem like an unlikely outcome. Trump has already tapped Steve Bannon, the head of the white-nationalist site Breibart, as his Chief Strategist. Bannon, who appeared to have a firm grip on Trump throughout the campaign, does not conceal his apocolyptic plans for the country:
This is already beginning, and it’s precisely because Trump was able to harness frustration and anxiety the same way Hilter did. When you appeal to sinister emotions, present yourself rather than concrete plans as the solution, normalize silencing your opponents through bullying, and promise to clean up the mess with a clenched fist, you allow for a transition out of democracy and into tyranny. The rule of law and democracy become secondary concerns.
This is not a new insight. Plato warned of it all the way back in ancient Greece, as summarized in this brilliant essay by New York Times Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan. “Tyranny,” Plato wrote, “ is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.”
Plato argues that regimes begin as an aristocracy––where a group of elites rule the country––and progressively become more free. Barriers to voting and holding office are slowly removed. The will of the majority becomes increasingly powerful. Eventually, society becomes so democratic that it becomes a mess. The public will is incoherent and nothing can get done.
It is at this moment that a tyrant––usually, Plato says, a rich man who is a traitor to his class––waltzes in and promises to clean it all up. The public, willingly, undoes democracy.
The Founder’s were privy to Plato’s observations. Alexander Hamilton, at a speech in New York advocating for adoption of the Constitution, invoked Plato:
It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.
Thus, the Constitution put in place all kinds of barriers to protect against that “deformity.” Senators were selected by state legislatures. The president was chosen solely by electors, picked by the states, who were not bound to vote for any particular candidate. Voting was heavily restricted by race, gender, and property ownership.
Even culturally, the wills of the mob were kept at-bay. We had a general deference to authority. The media was structured and principled and appealed to wide audiences. We allowed party elites, rather than primaries, to choose candidates for president.
All of this has gone away. Of course, some of it had to, and it’s one of history’s great triumphs that we have created the open society that we have. But the en-masse destruction of barriers between the public will and the exercise of power has its consequences. Our society is prone to deadlock, anxiety, and incoherence. Many in this country, in turn, find it appealing to have a strong-man march through and restore order.
And so here we are.
Much of the impulse to just “give Trump a chance” is grounded in the belief that it can’t happen here. But one of the more progressive presidents in our history, Franklin Roosevelt, sent Japanese-Americans off to internment camps. Operation Wetback, a brutal immigration enforcement initiative that involved large-scale human rights violations, happened under Dwight Eisenhower. And these were done in the absence of the revolutionary mandate handed to Trump.
Trump is already backing off his plan to ban Muslims from entering the country, but imagine an ISIS-inspired attack occurs under a Trump presidency — is it crazy to think he would put in place a surveillance system or require Muslim-Americans to hold special IDs?
President-elect Donald Trump Donald Trump Trump weighing Muslim registry, says adviser The United States? Not by a long…thehill.com
Or imagine Trump passes massive tax and speanding cuts and economic growth inevitably slows. Will Trump’s supporters blame him, or will they blame Minority Leader Chuck Schumer––who just happens to be Jewish––for filibustering a repeal of Dodd-Frank? It wouldn’t be the first time Trump appealed to anti-Semitism in an attempt to assign blame:
Should Trump’s presidency result in anything of this scale, historians will say it was obvious: America––deadlocked due to its un-hinged democracy, anxious after an economic collpase and insecure because of turmoil abroad––opted for an iron fist and vague promises to replace a messy democracy. His many opponents––unwilling to look beyond the surface of history and acting out of blind hope––gave in, only to realize the consequences once it was too late.
We forget that our country is made up of people, not institutions. The rule of law, the Supreme Court, the legislature––they will only protect us so long as we collectively lend them legitimacy and elect leaders who will do the same. Trump, however, openly mocks and derides these institutions, and much of his appeal is grounded in the belief that he can take control of it all and get things done. Indeed, the leaders beneath him look prepared to fall in line.
We are dangerously close to repealing our way of life. If this does end happily, it won’t be because it was never actually dangerous in the first place, but either because Trump completely obliterated all of his campaign promises or Americans remained vigilant and prepared to fight back.
So no, we won’t just give President Trump a chance. He has consistently proven he doesn’t deserve it. We will remain vigilant, ready to strike at any moment. We will call attention to the acts of hate that he masks with moderation. We will learn and remember our history.
And we will do this not because we want to or because we are whiners. We will do this because we have to, because there’s no other choice.