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.
[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