So much has been written about Donald Trump in the last few weeks that I have chosen not to further clog the internet with my own disgust. Watching the Trump campaign mock the other candidates into submission has been unsettling to watch, since Trump has offered little more than his reality television show as an idea of how he would govern. The regular fights that break out at his events and his threats to win the nomination in the streets if necessary remind us of the unsettling behaviors in Germany and Italy in the early 1930s. Trump’s political campaign has devolved into a freak show that demonstrates our worst selves on the global stage.
However, we also have to remember that the whole world (not just Americans) is watching Donald Trump. I get calls and emails from overseas wondering if Americans have lost their collective minds. Is the United States a safe place to invest long term? They wonder if Trump is the result of a society too hooked on celebrity and pseudo celebrity for its own good. They ask what would draw some Americans to an authoritarian mindset in a constitutional democracy. They wonder because they have seen it in their own histories and have heard stories firsthand from parents and grandparents alike.
All of the hallmarks are there to see and only the armbands or the paperhanging logos are missing. The fascist nightmare that launched a Second World War didn’t just happen on its own and nations like Germany and Japan have had their own national conversation about what took place in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It had help.
The key ingredients have been in place for some time. There is a strong mix of ultra-nationalism combined with a smattering of racial or social resentments that comes with Trump. They become the “dog whistle” for those who blame their failures on other people. Trump, like Fascists who have come before him in other places, appears unbeatable even with falsehoods that are falling out of the sky. There are no Trump steaks for sale anywhere, certainly not in the Sharper Image. The magazines that Trump supposedly ran are long gone. The winery that he talked about has nothing to do with Donald Trump, as was pointed out by Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
My peers in Europe look on with dismay and disgust because they have seen this before. What took place in Nazi Germany bears no repeating but the fascist impulse took place in other nations, like Japan, Spain, and Italy. Puppet Nazi sympathizers led by the Quislings and the Petains of the world opened their countries to the horrors of Nazi genocide.
Even England, which escaped Nazi invasion, was not immune from this fascist impulse. While Edward VII and his wife Wallis Simpson were openly pro-Nazi, the real danger remained with Sir Oswald Mosley, a member of the British aristocracy who headed up the British Union of Fascists. While thankfully long forgotten, he and his terrible group ran roughshod through Jewish communities and fought others on the streets of London. Only his internment after the Second World War began put an end to his nonsense.
My friends from around the world tell me that there is nothing new under the sun and they are right. Fascism has been called by other names over the years but it always lurks in the shadows. The combination of ultra-nationalism and a collection of resentments can sometimes make hatred seem reasonable to those who should know better. The growth of Syrian refugee crisis has energized the national Front in France and neo-Nazi skinheads on the street. In countless countries around the world, xenophobic nationalists like Vladimir Putin or kleptocrats like Zimbabwe’s Mugabe wrap themselves in national colors and social resentments.
So this brings us back to the Presidential Election and Donald Trump. The one saving grace of the nomination process is that it has forced Americans to take a good hard look at those who leverage racial hatred for political gain. Last week on PBS News Hour, the program focused on a North Carolina family who was volunteering for Donald Trump. Only after the show was broadcast did people realize that the tattoos of Grace Tilley, a 33 year old Trump volunteer, were commonly displayed by a variety of hate groups. Americans might be slow to react to this kind of internal threat but we have rejected our own internal Fascists and will do so again with Donald Trump, just like Americans who rejected David Duke, George Wallace, Father Coughlin, and a whole host of others who were destined for history’s ash heap.
While Donald Trump is now the odds on favorite to win the nomination, my friends in the rest of the world tell me that we should learn from their mistakes as opposed to making new ones of our own.