If there were ever a time I hoped to be wrong, this would’ve been that time. Shortly after the Iowa Caucuses in February, I wrote an article titled, “Here comes the revolution, but it’s not what you think.” In that piece, I warned that exit polling data and turnout numbers for Republicans suggested a highly energized and angry base of voters. The historical markers seemed to be running parallel to Ronald Reagan’s landslide against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Honestly, being right has never felt so awful.
We should all feel awful right now. That’s the truth. If you’re angry, anxious, despondent, depressed, furious, and altogether apprehensive about Donald Trump being president, that’s a normal reaction to have.
Because this isn’t normal, and no one should be pretending that it is.
The good news is that it’s not unprecedented. History tells us something about what just happened in America. Its lessons are filled with stories of unassuming demagogues that seized power by preying on the fears and anxieties of unwitting citizens; men of the people that pointed to rigged systems and failed institutions as the cause of their suffering. “Give me power,” they demanded, “and I will end this nightmare.”
Julius Caesar blamed the Senate.
Napoleon Bonaparte blamed the Directory.
Adolf Hitler blamed the Weimar Republic.
Donald Trump promised to drain the swamp in Washington.
Donald Trump won the presidency by promising to govern as a hardline authoritarian with little regard for the civil protections embodied in our Constitution. Perhaps in a moment of excessive honesty he declared, “I alone can fix it,” at his party’s convention in July. Over the course of his campaign, he suggested he’d jail his political enemies and take punitive measures against the press. He also praised dictators and their ability to execute people at will. He proposed religious tests and registries for Muslims immigrating to America.
That’s how he defeated Hillary Clinton.
What Trump tapped into didn’t happen in an American vacuum. Brexit now seems like a warning shot across the pond, and the rush to appease Putin in light of Crimea appears to be an unmitigated foreign policy disaster. All across Europe far-right movements are gaining traction and taking over the collective consciousness in waves not seen since the anarchists brought us World War One and fascist governments ushered in World War Two.
The historical markers are there. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Communists and Jews, or Muslims and Mexicans. Using fear of the “other” as a scapegoat for working-class problems is a common thread for autocrats. If you believe Trump just said these things to get elected, and is not likely to act on them after he takes office, you should know that the New York Times said the same about Hitler in 1922, writing:
“But, several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as bait to catch messes of followers, and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.”
I know people like to dismiss comparisons with Hitler as too far-fetched to be taken seriously, and sometimes that’s a legitimate argument. In this instance, not so much. By elevating Steve Bannon to the position of Chief Strategist, a position held by Karl Rove in the Bush White House, Trump has put white nationalism at the forefront of U.S. policy. Bannon’s resume as a documentary filmmaker and head of Breitbart are reminiscent of Joseph Goebbels. “Make America Great Again” hats have ostensibly replaced swastika armbands as the contemporary branding strategy of white supremacy. Never mind the fact that they’re both red.
How can we not draw direct lines?
So here I am again, screaming at a brick wall and hoping people will listen, because our future isn’t written yet. The great thing about history is that we can learn from it. When we see the historical markers pushing us in the wrong direction, we can correct our course. We can write a different ending, but we have to be willing to accept the worst of possibilities, because history is full of people who thought it couldn’t happen in their country. Just ask Rome, France, and Germany.
The best way to start is to refuse to accept as normal what’s abnormal.
Because what’s happening isn’t normal, and no one should be pretending that it is.