Trump And The Lessons of History
While of course it’s tempting to dismiss Donald Trump as nothing more than a buffoon and a cartoon caricature of the worst excesses of American capitalism, it wouldn’t be wise. Things are starting to get ugly in US politics, or maybe he’s just making an ugliness that’s always been there harder to ignore.
Getting on for a century ago, in the 1920′s, Hitler’s ‘Brownshirts’ were a key factor in his rise to power. They were the bully-boys he used to silence protest at his public speeches and rallies, because he was by no means universally liked or regarded as the answer to Germany’s very real problems. They were ready to attack and beat anyone perceived as a threat to their leader. They broke up opposition rallies. They saw themselves as ‘patriots’. They vilified and terrorized jews, trades-unionists, homosexuals, and other races. They hated and feared anyone who was different. If you protested at a Hitler rally you risked being silenced by the fists and boots of Brownshirt thugs.
That was then and this is now. In Birmingham, Alabama, in the USA, at a Donald Trump rally, black activist Mercutio Southall Jr, was beaten and choked by Trump supporters for protesting what he saw as their leaders racism (here). Mr Trump later said on TV’s ‘Fox and Friends’ that Mr Southall probably deserved what he got, adding .. “Maybe he should have been roughed up.” It came as no surprise to Mr Southall when Birmingham police refused to bring charges against the people who attacked the protesters because, as he said, “I was being choked right in front of a Birmingham Police officer and all he did was try to stop me from hitting the man who was choking me.”
Violence at a political event like this would be shocking even if it were a completely isolated incident but, unfortunately, it’s not. Verbal and physical violence at Trump rallies, especially directed at protesters of color, is becoming routine. Another recent rally took a violent turn when attendees shoved and spat on immigration advocates. The following week, Trump supporters were filmed dragging and kicking an immigration activist while others chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Trump’s response to these incidents has been to confine reporters at his rallies to pens in order to prevent them doing their job properly.
In a massive field of Republican presidential wannabees, bickering and squabbling like children as they try to outdo each other in how heartless and selfish they can be towards the poor and minorities and how ‘tough’ they can appear, Trump stands out like a malignant colossus. He goes straight for the jugular. He says the unsayable. He knows no boundaries of good taste or truth. He understands how to plug right into the backward, bigoted prejudices of the Republican faithful.
America in 2016 may be many things, but one thing it is very definitely not is a post-racial society. It is a country still characterized by racial inequality and made uneasy by brooding racial tension. A nation which still self-segregates and where research suggests that 75% of whites have ‘entirely white social networks without any minority presence.’ Michael Moore said with some truth that “In a country born of racial genocide, the issue of race is still an open wound on the American soul. We haven’t dealt with it.“
Trump knows this. He isn’t a fool. He is a smart, amoral political operator with a monster ego who knows his target audience. Power is his goal and to get it he is willing to use racial hatred and the bogey-man of ‘terrorism’ to fearmonger without caring about any consequences beyond his own immediate political advantage. Contrary to what some, understandably alarmed by his extreme rhetoric, have called him he is not a ‘Hitler’ and those who follow him aren’t ‘Nazi’s’ (not all of them anyway). Obviously there is no direct, point-for-point correspondence between the rise of Hitler and the rise of Donald Trump, their beliefs, or their aims. But there are worrying echoes of the past in what’s happening.
History offers lessons to those willing to learn. We know that the beast always lurks just beneath our thin veneer of civilization. We know how easy it is to stir up the very worst in human nature. We know where child-like faith in self-proclaimed ‘strong leaders’ can end. We know how easily people surrender real freedoms for false promises of ‘security’. We know what happens when we make scapegoats of race or religion. We know how dangerous it is to torment people with fear and fabricated terrors until they lash out at anyone they see as ‘different’. It’s all there in the history books and we know it doesn’t end well.
Donald Trump and the rest of the far-right who have hijacked the Republican party are playing with fire. If America hasn’t learned the lessons of history, innocent people are going to get burned.