My German Dad, who lived through WWII in Bavaria, is terrified of Trump. Every time I visit, he asks the same two things: “Please tell me Trump won’t win.” And, “why are so many Americans supporting him?”
My Dad doesn’t scare easily. He survived WWII, two bouts of cancer, and a failed business with three young kids. But Trump’s candidacy – and the enthusiasm by which white America has embraced him – has rattled him. You can see it in his eyes, and in the way he keeps talking about the Germany of his youth.
Every visit I reassure my Dad that, “No, Trump won’t win.” I reassure him that Trump’s ideas will not resonate with the rest of America even if it resonates with likely voters in the Republican primary. “When the general election happens, Dad, Trump will lose.” His response: that’s what we thought in the 1930s.
Trump is not a unique phenomenon, nor is the fear-mongering strategy pursued by Trump and other Presidential candidates. Politicians interested in gaining power at any cost have been pursuing this strategy since long before Hitler expertly used it.
I asked my Dad what scared him most. “Trump scares me. But the people who are voting for him scare me more. How far will Americans allow this to go?”
According to him, the conditions in the US today are not that different from the conditions in Germany in the 1920s and early 30s.
“The German mood during the 20’s was one of dissatisfaction and frustration. A war had been lost, unemployment was high, the political parties were fighting and not governing, the nation’s pride was hurt, the elected government was infighting. There was no “future”; no change for the better was expected. The upper classes (the land-owning nobility and top business management) were quite isolated above the general misery while the middle class was dissatisfied but not active in politics. Hitler took advantage of this.”
Sound familiar? The Americans who are voting for Trump are dissatisfied and frustrated. Their world was crumbling, their pride is hurt, unemployment is high, and partisanship divides the country. In their view, America is not changing for the better. Trump is taking advantage of this.
“Hitler railed against the Jews and the communists as a way to mobilize support. He used the “Kriegsschuldlüge” – the lie about who was guilty of the war to fire up the masses. Hitler argued that “Germany could be great again” but only if the country followed him. He didn’t care whether his propaganda against the ruling parties, the Jews, the communists or others conformed with the facts. He just wanted to get elected.”
This is exactly what Trump is doing. Mexican immigrants are Trump’s “Kriegschuldlüge.” According to Trump, they are part of the reason America is no longer great. His latest book is designed to convince voters that he’s the one “to make America great again.” I can see why someone who lived through the end of Weimar Germany is nervous.
But the key question remains: how far will Americans allow this to go? Will American voters do what German voters did in the 1930s and vote for someone like Trump? I think the answer is a resounding “No”. The American electorate is far more ethnically heterogeneous, our democratic institutions much stronger, and our experience with democracy much deeper than anything that existed in Germany at the time. Our wild diversity of voters and our many checks and balances will save us.
What was my Dad’s answer? “No. I don’t think the same thing will happen. In the end I still put my trust in the smart judgment of the American voter.”
Here’s to Trump losing badly in Iowa so that my Dad can sleep a little easier.