I am afraid. Over the past few weeks violence has become commonplace at the campaign rallies of Donald Trump. In the past week a reporter from the Breitbart News service, an organization that is solidly behind Trump was assaulted by Trump’s campaign manager, and Breitbart threw her under the bus for him. Protesters have been assaulted, reporters threatened, Trump not only condones the actions, he encourages them, threatening to use the law and courts to ruin people’s lives, and offering to pay the legal bills of his supporters who have been charged with crimes. He labels any opponents as “bad people” who need to be punished. The ultimate cruelty is that though he is the one inciting the violence, he and his supporters blame that violence on the victims, be they Democrats or Republicans, protestors or media, pundits, politicians or preachers. He is creating a frenzy among his most violent supporters that demands victims to satiate their new found bloodlust.
This is a phenomena practically unheard of in American politics. It is not the behavior of someone concerned with the democratic process or representative government, but of someone using that process to promote crass and brutal authoritarianism, and a large number of followers willing to embrace a strong, authoritarian leader. It is most often seen in movements that become dictatorships, such as happened in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, Red China, and other dictatorships.
As a historian who has devoted much study to the social, political, economic conditions in Weimar Germany that helped fuel the rise of left and right wing extremists that led to the legal takeover of the Republic by Hitler and the Nazi Party, I am concerned with what is going on.
When Albert Speer discussed the ability of Adolf Hitler to captivate the German people he noted something important. He discussed how Hitler and his minions played to them set by the disgruntled and angry German population. Speer wrote, “The mob determined the theme. To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery and license. The personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews, they gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions.”
Hitler played to that misery, insecurity and the obsessions of the politically and economically disaffected “conservative base” that no longer trusted the party establishments of the old-line conservative parties. He also played to the deep-rooted racism and anti-Semitism of those people. Hitler was an outsider, he was not indebted to any traditional party hierarchy and as such was able to throw away convention and play to the fear and anger of many Germans.
Donald Trump is doing today and he is running circles around the traditional politicians of the Republican Party. Every time Trump says something that would have gotten himself blown out of the race twenty years ago, but today his poll numbers keep going up. Trump spends no time on policy, all questions go back to how he will solve people’s problems and those of the nation. Unlike Hitler or Stalin, Trump shows no particular political ideology, except perhaps that might makes right, and that certain groups (minorities, immigrants, Muslims, liberals) are to blame for the mess created by the American political and business elites over the past fifty years. And for the most part the press is afraid of him and will not call him on it just as his Republican opponents cannot find the courage to openly stand up to him.
He continues to poll around 35% to 50% in most polls of GOP voters and my guess is that those numbers are low, as some supporters may not be willing to tell a pollster that they are for Trump, at least yet. The party hierarchy and most of Trump’s primary rivals consistently criticize Trump, but most say that they will back him if he is the nominee, although John Kasich and Marco Rubio seem to be waffling on their support should Trump be the GOP nominee. And it appears that the GOP establishment seems to be trying to find a way to stop Trump from becoming the nominee. I doubt if they will succeed in stopping him, but if they do Trump and his supporters will have no problem leaving the Grand Old Party and ashen ruin. Even now his most strident supporters are calling Republican opponents of Trump “traitors.”
Trump understands the mood of much of the traditionally conservative public better than his Republican establishment competitors. Trump is not stupid, unlike Hitler who actually believed in his message, Trump is not a radical, he cannot be, he has too much invested in the system. Instead, he is a street smart and pragmatic businessman who is exploiting the situation on the ground to his advantage and he is an authoritarian, something that appeals to many frustrated voters, most of whom are not racist or bad people. That being said one cannot ignore the embrace of many neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, and White Nationalist leaders and organizations who are latching onto him to expand their influence among disenchanted and frustrated voters.
His opponents and the GOP establishment are frightened, but like the hidebound conservatives of the Weimar Republic who either dismissed or Hitler or thought that they could contain him are not willing to make a stand. As a result, Trump is able to play to the mood of the base and to coin a phrase, to “trump the establishment” by channeling the deepest anger, fear, hatred, xenophobia, and racism that the GOP establishment refuses to acknowledge. When there is a push back by the establishment it further angers the base, and Trump, quite adroitly threatens to leave the party; something which would doom the GOP in the 2016 general election, and destroy the party that created him.
Trump’s GOP opponents have terribly underestimated him, and the anger of the conservatives that they have radicalized for decades and failed to comprehend. There are a lot of establishment Democrats who underestimate him too, as well as the discontent in their own party, something that they will eventually pay for if they are not careful. The Trump phenomena is not ideological, it is a rage against the GOP establishment that the establishment has no answer for because it is bankrupt. There are a lot of Democrats that are incredibly frustrated with thier party, and that frustration can and will turn into an anti-Democratic Party establishment rage if Democrats do not do something to fix their party’s failings. Even now some of that rage is being played out in the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, albeit, without the violence of the Trumped GOP race.
Trump is using his celebrity bombast and the democratic process to take control of a major political party, and he is a lot smarter than most political analysts give him credit. As such, as a non-establishment outsider, Trump has a chance at taking over a long established political party, something that has never before happened in the United States. If he continues to chum the water by giving grist and cover to his more violent supporters, people will die, just like what happened in Weimar Germany as the Nazis battled their opponents on the streets and in beer halls.
If he succeeds in his takeover bid, it will forever change American politics, especially if he is able to ride the fear, hatred, and fear to the White House. I don’t think the latter will happen, but I would not exclude it from the realm of the possible. To paraphrase Speer’s words about Hitler and Goebbels: By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Muslims and immigrants, Trump gave expression and direction to fierce primal passions of a disaffected GOP base.
Tomorrow is anothe big primary day and I am working on a follow up article to this and will also republish an article entitled Be Careful what You Vote Against that I wrote about four years ago in the next few days.