Can this be happening? – Donald Trump and the Rise of Authoritarianism


If I had a bell,
I’d ring out danger,
I’d ring out a warning …
all over this land.

– Peter Seeger & Lee Hays

I want to write about something other than politics or violence—theology, art, music, film, nature—but it is impossible to ignore the unsettling spectacle of hate and fear in Cleveland this week. Thankfully, it has already set off a multitude of alarms in the mainstream media, which has for too long been complicit in the normalization of the Trump phenomenon as just another option.

The editorial board of the Washington Post has taken the unprecedented step of declaring, at the very outset of the general election season, that Donald Trump is not only “uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament,” he poses “a threat to the Constitution … a unique and present danger.” His presidency “would be dangerous for the nation and the world.”

Has a major American newspaper ever issued such stark condemnation of a presidential candidate?

Many others are joining in the chorus. The Bloomberg editorial board says that Trump’s dystopian rhetoric in Cleveland was “the most disturbing, demagogic and deluded acceptance speech by any major party nominee in the modern era.” Ezra Klein, declares that “Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.” The headline for Klein’s indictment reads: “Donald Trump’s nomination is the first time American politics has left me truly afraid.”

We are familiar with the customary partisan hyperbole of an election year, but the current cries of alarm seem radically different. We have seen American leaders exploit the politics of resentment before. But such calculated manipulation of fear and xenophobia by an unprincipled practitioner of arbitrary will seems more suggestive of Germany in the 1930’s than anything in our own history.

Although Trump’s acceptance speech attempted to paint a patently false picture of a America in extreme chaos and distress, the United States in 2016 is not the Weimar Republic. And Trump is not Hitler. But there are some parallels worth thinking about. Let me offer a few citations from Richard J. Evans’ The Coming of the Third Reich.

Describing the growing electoral success of Hitler’s roughneck party in the 1930 election, “the Nazi gains reflected deep-seated anxieties in many parts of the electorate … more and more people who had not previously voted began to flock to the polls. Roughly a quarter of those who voted for the Nazis in 1930 had not voted before.”[i]

The cult of the strong man who would fix everything quickly and easily made other leaders seem ineffective and weak by comparison. A desperate and aggrieved population was swept away by a vague and undefined promise of a better future.

“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… The vagueness of the Nazi program, 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.”[ii]

The German political and economic establishment had significant reservations about Hitler and his movement, but they believed that he could be controlled and guided once he was in power. Eric D. Weitz, in his excellent piece, “Weimar Germany and Donald Trump,” sees the same cynical capitulation going on today: “Today’s Republicans and similarly-minded figures in Europe are like the conservatives who put Adolf Hitler in power: delusional about their influence, playing dangerously with the structures of our democracy.”

In exchange for returning right-wing ideology to the White House, more traditional conservatives are willing to endow Trump with an aura of legitimacy. He’s not so bad. It’s all an act. He can be controlled. But as Hitler said in 1930, “once we possess the constitutional power, we will mould the state into the shape we hold to be suitable.”[iii] Or as Trump would put it: “It will be tremendous. Believe me.”

One final thought. As a person of faith, I found the frequent linkage of God, guns and hate in Cleveland to be sickening and blasphemous. It’s not the Christianity I know, and as Holden Caulfield would say, “Jesus would puke” if he had been forced to watch (I imagine he just went fishing this week). But it troubles me to consider how easily piety can be seduced into something demonic.

As Richard Steigman-Gall has pointed out in his study of Nazi conceptions of Christianity, it became a postwar trope to dismiss Nazism as anti-Christian. We venerate the costly resistance of Bonhoeffer, the Scholls, and the Confessing Church. But there were also many German churchgoers who knelt willingly at the altar of power, hate and fear. ”Whereas millions of Catholics and Protestants in Germany did not think Nazism represented their interests or aims, there were many others who regarded Nazism as the correct Christian response to what they saw as harsh new realities.”[iv]

Lord have mercy.



Related Post

How far can we sink? – Donald Trump and the vortex of rage









[i] The Coming of the Third Reich (London/New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 261

[ii] ibid., 265

[iii] ibid., 455

[iv] The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 262


How far can we sink? – Donald Trump and the vortex of rage

Rashad Alakbarov, "Do Not Fear," installation at Venice Biennale 2015

Rashad Alakbarov, “Do Not Fear,” installation at Venice Biennale 2015

We must love one another or die.

— W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

In the early 1930s, about a hundred communists crashed a Nazi meeting in Bremen, Germany, determined to break it up. One of them, Richard Krebs, rose to interrupt a speech by Herman Göring, head of the notorious SA stormtroopers, a paramilitary group dedicated to political intimidation and violence. Krebs only got out a few words before the “brownshirts” rushed toward him. As Krebs later wrote,

“A terrifying mêlée followed. Blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, heavy buckled belts, glasses and bottles were the weapons used. Pieces of glass and chairs hurtled over the heads of the audience. Men from both sides broke off chair legs and used them as bludgeons. Women fainted in the crash and scream of battle. Already, dozens of heads and faces were bleeding, clothes were torn as the fighters dodged about amid masses of terrified but helpless spectators. The troopers fought like lions. Systematically they pressed us on towards the main exit. The band struck up a martial tune. Hermann Göring stood calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”[i]

A political life fraught with such violent thuggery once seemed unimaginable in contemporary America. What happened in Germany could never happen here, we tell ourselves. Physical violence as a routine form of political expression is not something we expect our leaders to tolerate, much less encourage. What, then, are we to make of the violent anger which has become a common feature of Donald Trump rallies?

At one such gathering, a man held up a sign, “Make America hate again!” The crowd happily obliged, ripping up the sign and roughing up the protester. At another rally, on March 10, a 78-year-old man in the crowd sucker-punched a young activist as he was being escorted out of the arena by Trump’s security guards. “He deserved it,” the man told a reporter. “Next time, we might have to kill him.”[ii]

In Ashley Parker’s excellent New York Times piece on this phenomenon, she sees the crowd’s violent reaction as “almost biological”:

“Trump supporters typically begin shouting, pointing, jeering — and sometimes kicking or spitting — at the protester, surrounding the offender in a tight circle, like antibodies trying to isolate and expel an unwanted invader from the bloodstream.”[iii]

Is Trump to blame for the passions of his followers? He has made some cursory disclaimers after the fact, but when the anger erupts he does little to discourage it.

On February 1, he told an Iowa crowd to be on the lookout for protesters with tomatoes. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell – I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees, I promise, I promise.” Later that month, as a protester was being ejected from another rally, Trump said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”[iv] It is hard to listen to this stuff without thinking of Göring in Bremen, standing “calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”

When asked by reporters about the violence, Trump talks about “the good old days” when America wasn’t “weak,” and you were able to dish out a well-deserved pummeling. “This country has to toughen up,” he says. “These people are bringing us down.”[v]

Such scapegoating is one of the hallmarks of fascism. Instead of the hard work of developing concrete policies and building support for them, the leader simply invokes fear and hatred of “the other” to unite his followers. Trump repeatedly demonizes protesters as “nasty people” and blames them for initiating the violence, even though no reporter or camera has seen anything to support his claim, except for one thrown tomato that is said to have missed the mark.[vi] This one-sidedness may change, of course, for violence can be highly contagious.

Trump has argued that his supporters are not really angry people, but that they “do get angry when we see the stupidity with which our country is run and how it’s being destroyed.”[vii] His rhetoric bears a chilling resemblance to the Nazi justifications for Kristallnacht: “an expression of the people’s rage” …. “ “a just measure of indignation”… “our patience is exhausted.”[viii]

A few days ago, Trump described an incident at an earlier rally. “He was a rough guy and he was punching. And we had some people – some rough guys like we have right in here – and they started punching back. It was a beautiful thing.”[ix]

In this week’s Republican presidential debate, the three other candidates were given the opportunity to condemn the political violence of Trump’s mob, but they kept silent. Maybe they were hoping it would all just go away, without their having to risk the loss of any votes from “the base.” But silence in the face of evil is just endorsement by default.

We hear God invoked repeatedly in presidential campaigns by candidates who claim to be good Christians. But a “Christianity” so enamored of what theologian John Milbank calls the “ontology of violence” feels unrecognizable to me. Whether it is the manipulation of anger at a rally or policies of aggression against everyone who is “other,” such a politics is anathema to the transformative project of conforming the social body to the divine desire for justice, forgiveness, and peace.

Last October I had a conversation about American politics with a few British shape note singers in a London pub. They wanted to know what on earth the Trump spectacle was all about. I muttered the common wisdom of the moment about a clownish celebrity who would soon fade away. “Watch out,” warned one of the Brits, the daughter of an Anglican priest. “A single dumb candidate can make the whole process dumber, and drag everyone down to his level. That happened here when we elected our mayor. It could happen in America.”

She was right, as we now know, although “dumb” is the least of it. How far can we still sink? In Richard Evans’ acclaimed trilogy on the Third Reich, he describes Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover in one disturbing sentence: “Years of beatings and killings and clashes on the streets had inured people to political violence and blunted their sensibilities.”[x]

The blunting of our own sensibilities should be worrying us. But how can we resist the downward pull of fear, hatred and violence without ourselves being corrupted by it, or sucked into its vortex of rage? How may we give concrete political form to the better angels of our nature?

The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke against the violence permeating American culture in the 1960s:

“Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[xi]

Two months later, Bobby Kennedy himself would be cut down by the political violence he had so earnestly lamented. As for the rest of us, the day of our collective cleansing still remains sadly distant.




[i] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 270

[ii] Ashley Parker, “Riskiest Political Act: Protesting at Rallies for Donald Trump” (New York Times, March 10, 2016)

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Philip Bump, The Fix, Washington Post online, March 10, 2016

[v] Jim Salter & Jill Colvin, Associated Press, March 11, 2016

[vi] Daniel White, “Donald Trump Tells Crowd”, Time online, February 1, 2016

[vii] Salter & Colvin

[viii] Walter Laqueur & Judith Tydor Baumel, eds., The Holocaust Encyclopedia (New Haven: Yale UP 2001). 390

[ix] Jill Colvin & Michael Tarm, Associated Press, March 11, 2016

[x] Evans, 348

[xi] Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968