Could it Happen Here?

In an essay in the Washington Post, Danielle Allen invokes Hannah Arendt to suggest that we must speak out about the danger Donald Trump poses to constitutional democracy.

“Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand. Leave aside whether a direct comparison of Trump to Hitler is accurate. That is not my point. My point rather is about how a demagogic opportunist can exploit a divided country. To understand the rise of Hitler and the spread of Nazism, I have generally relied on the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt and her arguments about the banality of evil. Somehow people can understand themselves as ‘just doing their job,’ yet act as cogs in the wheel of a murderous machine. Arendt also offered a second answer in a small but powerful book called ‘Men in Dark Times.’ In this book, she described all those who thought that Hitler’s rise was a terrible thing but chose ‘internal exile,’ or staying invisible and out of the way as their strategy for coping with the situation. They knew evil was evil, but they too facilitated it, by departing from the battlefield out of a sense of hopelessness.”

Allen knows that Trump is not the same as Hitler. Hitler had written an ideological and racist book calling for the rise of an Aryan nation and the expulsion and murder of the Jews; Trump, on the other hand, is seemingly non-ideological. But Allen does rightly see that Trump is dangerous insofar as he seems to have no respect for limits to his power, whether those limits are civil or constitutional.

“Donald Trump has no respect for the basic rights that are the foundation of constitutional democracy, nor for the requirements of decency necessary to sustain democratic citizenship. Nor can any democracy survive without an expectation that the people require reasonable arguments that bring the truth to light, and Trump has nothing but contempt for our intelligence.”

As first Chris Christie and now Maine Governor Paul LePage endorse Trump, it is clear that Trump is breaking down the resistance of the Republican establishment. While evangelical leaders are on record saying they will not support Trump if he is the nominee, establishment Republicans seem prepared to accept Trump as their standard-bearer.

Allen’s essay was met with a barrage of ugliness on social media. In an update Allen published, she reproduces dozens of tweets she received. Everyone should read these tweets simply to recognize the racist and anti-Semitic boorishness pulsing within Donald Trumps supporters — if not Trump himself. One tweet from DMT Trump Wizard goes “You cannot stop Donald Trump. White people are going to stop hating themselves and there is nothing you can do to stop it.” Another from War & Peace (an insult to Tolstoy) reads: “Jewish ancestry? 40%? 50%?” Another says, “You would be working a McDonalds if it wasn’t for affirmative action. What exactly are you bringing to the country?” The same person then attaches an anti-Semitic cartoon and writes, “I smell a jew.” Someone named Paul Harris asks, “why do third world people come to European ancestry countries to paracite of us? Why has the third world never created anything.” An exceedingly angry racist named Theodore Bundy sends multiple tweets including: “imagine, no more affirmative action. How will you get a job? This PC shit has destroyed a once great nation.” One writes, “My jewdar just went beep. Does the affirmative action negress have a bit of jew inside. No breaks on Trump train. Soz.” Aristides writes, “I can’t wait to see the look on your primitive monkey faces when the GOD-EMPEROR takes his throne. Go back to Africa posthaste.” And adds: “Wow, you are one butt-ugly n — -er. Your face makes me sick to my stomach. Please gas yourself.” Ok, these tweets go on and on. Many are worse and call for Allen’s death. You should read them also to remind yourselves that speaking publicly takes courage.

Is Donald Trump racist and anti-Semitic? One can’t blame Trump or anyone for the opinions of his supporters. But when so many Trump supporters are so vocally racist and anti-Semitic, Trump owes it to himself and to the American people to publicly reject those vile opinions. That is a what someone must do if he aspires to be the leader of a multi-ethic and pluralistic democratic country. Not only has Trump not done so, but he has fanned the flames. Twice now he has retweeted tweets from members of white-supremacist groups, one of whose Twitter handle is @WhiteGenocideTM and whose profile tagline reads, “Get the f — — out of my country.” Trump’s attacks on President Obama, his birther comments, his questioning of Ted Cruz’s citizenship, and his demonizing of Mexicans and Muslims have contributed to an atmosphere of hate that enables such racial attacks.

None of this means Trump himself is racist. He certainly does not pedal a consistent ideological racism of supremacy as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did. There is little to suggest that Trump would attack the laws guaranteeing equal voting rights or question the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Rather, Trump is responding at least in part to decades of repressed anger where many Americans have been told they can not speak their minds, express their feelings, or state their opinion. A dishonest and calculated political correctness has enabled Trump to appear as a liberator by unleashing a pent-up anger that is a result of a political culture that has prohibited people from saying what they believe. One real and meaningful attraction of Trump’s campaign is his refusal to self-censor and his embrace of an honest if also low-class and boorish racial anger. Trump as President would likely make the USA a less tolerant and more hateful and angry country. Such a cultural transformation very well could happen here, and it is, of course, dangerous.

But the real danger of a Trump presidency may lie elsewhere. After Trump’s victory in Nevada, he hammered home his main theme: Grab as much as you can. “Now we’re going to get greedy for the United States we’re going to grab and grab and grab. We’re going to bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to make America great again, folks, I’m telling you folks we’re going to make America great again.” What Trump hates is politics, the collective striving after common ideals of democracy and justice. What he loves about America is simply its promise of abundance, not its tradition of self-government. Freedom for Trump is not the Arendtian freedom to act and speak in public in ways that matter; it is the freedom to get rich and plaster one’s name on buildings and reality television shows.

Alongside Trump’s contempt for politics is his dismissal of the rule of law. He threatens to ban Muslims, to bring back water boarding, and to kill family members of the Islamic State, which are all violations of either international or U.S. Law. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden said recently on “Real Time With Bill Maher” that the US military should and would refuse to carry out such illegal orders if Trump as Commander-in-Chief were to issue them. Trump’s contempt for the law and all political and civil limits is part and parcel of his disdain for politics and all limits on what works.

No doubt Trump’s pragmatic and greedy America is part of America. But it is not the whole or even the best of the American tradition, a tradition that has its roots in Alexander Hamilton’s expressed hope in the first of the Federalist Papers that the United States would stand not for economic liberty but for political freedom:

“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, to decide by their conduct and example, the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

As corrupt as our political system is, the answer cannot be to simply demean and dismiss the nobility of our democratic and constitutional traditions. The danger Trump truly poses is that he seems to care only about the idea of America as a land of milk and honey and to have forgotten or simply dismissed the idea of America as a land of political liberty. And he seems ready, able, and willing to tear down our corrupt political structures with no plan or idea of how they would be rebuilt or re-imagined. Creative destruction is a classic axiom of capitalist innovation, but it rarely works so well in democratic politics.


Roger Berkowitz, Academic Director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities, Bard College