Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Today Donald Trump will likely bury his Republican competitors in Indiana nearly ensuring that he will win the GOP nomination, and in doing so he will have defied the logic of the GOP leadership by channeling the rage and anger against the status quo that they themselves have fomented over the past four decades. As he does this he will move on, and while some people assume that he will be swept away in November by the Democratic Party nominee, there is no guarantee of that, and those who are wise should not underestimate Trump, or the movement forming around him. The great American philosopher, Eric Hoffer once wrote, “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”
Hatred is an amazing emotion. I have been almost overwhelmed by the amount of hatred being posted on social media, blogs, much of it by supposedly Christian preachers, politicians and pundits. Of course if you want find a politician, pundit and preacher all wrapped into one person look no further than Baptist preacher, conservative media pundit, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, or the “anointed one” Ted Cruz. But these charlatans of the Christian right pale in comparison to Donald Trump in their ability satiate the desire for a savior of people who are angry and fearful, people that feel cheated, that they have lost their country or their status in it.
This is scary, as it possibly portends the end of our great experiment as a nation. For unlike love, hatred is easy to conjure up. It is kind of like what you need to build a fire; fuel, oxygen and heat. To generate hatred on a massive scale all you need is a disaffected populace, a convenient target, and an agent to ignite the mixture.
Shrewd politicians, preachers, and pundits do this well. Honestly, I think that most effective politician doing this today this is Donald Trump, a man who is lavishly rich, but connects with regular people by speaking their language, and channeling their anger. The situation is much like Germany in 1930 when became a true national party capitalizing on the frustration and anger of Germans at the flailing and failing Weimar Republic. Richard Evans wrote about that in his book “The Coming of the Third Reich.”
“Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic. Many of them, too, particularly in rural areas, small towns, small workshops, culturally conservative families, older age groups, or the middle-class nationalist political milieu, may have been registering their alienation from the cultural and political modernity for which the Republic stood, despite the modern image which the Nazis projected in many respects. The vagueness of the Nazi programme, its symbolic mixture of old and new, its eclectic, often inconsistent character, to a large extent allowed people to read into it what they wanted to and edit out anything they might have found disturbing.”
It does not matter to many of Trump’s followers that his policy propositions in terms of ending alliances, building walls around the border with Mexico paying the bill, massive deportations of people, trade wars to end the deficit, and total bans on travel to this country based on religion, are quite literally impossible. But as Hoffer noted Trump’s followers, like those of any frustrated group and marked by a “facility for make-believe, a readiness to hate, a readiness to imitate [and] credulity, a readiness to attempt the impossible.”
Mass movements, like the one that Trump is building before our very eyes, demonize the target group or population and then let the hatred of their disaffected followers flow. The leaders need that disaffected and angry base in order to rise to power; such was how Hitler, Stalin, and so many other despots gained power. They took advantage of a climate of fear, and found others to blame. For Hitler it was the Jews; while for Stalin it was various groups like the Ukrainians, or the Poles who were the devil to be feared and destroyed. Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin wrote:
“Dead human beings provided retrospective arguments for the rectitude of policy. Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory.”
Snyder is quite correct, demonizing a people and making them some kind of “other”, “they”, or “them”, is a wonderful way to blame a group of people for the ills of society. It is also a good way to deflect the blame for the corporate failures of societies and governments onto a convenient scapegoat; and to blame others for the personal failures and petty jealousies of the people doing the demonizing. It also allows people to abandon ethics and the simple notion of the Golden Rule an engage in genocide.
Mass movements and their leaders love to use this technique; especially when using it against those of other races or religions. The technique is not at all new, it has been used from antiquity but has become much more dangerous in the modern era with the spread of instant communications technology. History shows us all too clearly how it has happened and how easily it can happen again. Witch hunts, slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of the Native Americans which inspired Hitler in his campaign of genocide and the Holocaust; the Soviet gulags and ethnic cleansing, the Rape of Nanking, the Chinese Communist “Cultural Revolution” the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the current crimes against humanity of the so called Islamic State. Sadly, the list can go on and on.
All of these events simply required the elements of a disaffected population, a devil or scapegoat to blame, and a leader or leaders to ignite the volatile mixture; fuel, oxygen and heat. Hoffer was quite correct that “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” The really successful leaders of such movements understand this. For Hitler it was the Jews and other untermenschen; for American Southerners after the Civil it was the Blacks and their white supporters. For the American “Know Nothings” of the 1840s and 1850s it was immigrants, especially Irish and Germans who were Catholic; for Stalin it was non-Russian ethnic minorities. For the leaders of the Islamic State, it is Jews, Shi’ite Moslems, less than “faithful” Sunnis, Christians and well for that matter anyone who does not line up one hundred percent with them on every issue. The examples are so plentiful to support this fact that it is almost overwhelming.
The problem is that when any society, or government begins to label or stigmatize a race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, or political ideology, and then in the process demonize those people to the point that they become less than human we have reached a tipping point. Trump has been doing that for his entire campaign. We are very close to the point where we are just one crisis away from all of those crimes against humanity that we believe that we are no longer capable of doing.
But sadly, we human beings are not nearly as evolved as we think and I think that the tipping point in the United States may be far closer than we could ever imagine. In fact, Andrew Sullivan wrote today that “right now, American is a breeding ground for tyranny,” and that “Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”
I really do not think that we are too far from some tipping point where the politicians, pundits and preachers; especially those of the political right and the media whores who are more concerned about market share than truth, decide that their “devils” must be exterminated and Trump, is the man to make this happen. Of course when he does, his supporters will claim a higher moral, religious, or racial, purpose; or perhaps use the language of Manifest Destiny, the Lost Cause, or the Stab in the Back or some other historical myth that suffices to justify their actions.
As I have said before, Trump’s GOP and potential Democratic opponents would be wise not to underestimate Trump and maybe even form common cause to stop him before it is too late. If they do not the tipping point will have been reached and we will move on into real tyranny.
In the Star Trek the Next Generation episode entitled The Drumhead Captain Picard has to warn his security officer, Lieutenant Worf about the dangers of rampant paranoia. Worf starts: “Sir, the Federation does have enemies. We must seek them out.”
Picard pauses and then notes:
“Oh, yes. That’s how it starts. But the road from legitimate suspicion to rampant paranoia is very much shorter than we think. Something is wrong here, Mister Worf. I don’t like what we have become.”
To claim Picard’s words for myself, I have to admit that I don’t like what we have become either.