In 1905, George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Today, I am struck by the sense that we are repeating past mistakes that we have foolishly ignored.
Last year, I read Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 and was struck by the similarities between today’s America and Hitler’s Germany. I do not mean to suggest that Trump is exactly the same as Hitler, but I worry that what is taking shape in today’s Washington is a similar ascent to power of a very worrisome person.
Like Hitler, Trump was barely elected, yet immediately moved to consolidate power. Both men created “alternative facts” and found powerful ways to discredit the press—compare Trump’s appropriation of “fake news” to the Nazi’s embrace of the term Lugenpresse. Hitler fetishized the military, stifled dissent, and viewed certain groups as subhuman. Trump shows dangerous inclinations in all three directions, though his favorite enemies are Muslims not Jews.
As Hitler rose, Germans elites (including the conservatives who saw Hitler as little more than a pawn) told themselves that it would not go too far, that the people would turn on Hitler, that the country that had produced Goethe, Kant, and Bach would never assent to be ruled by an authoritarian buffoon. There were many early opportunities for Germans to turn on Hitler and stop his rise—the remilitarization of the Rhineland was opposed by many in the military; the horrors of Kristallnacht were ignored by the authorities—but he was not stopped.
Today, well-meaning friends offer me words that are intended to be soothing. They tell me to relax, focus on the Super Bowl, and remember that this too shall pass. They assure me that our public institutions are stronger than Germany’s and that we will be ultimately stronger as a people once Trump is gone.
But I have no doubt that the Germans were telling themselves the same things throughout the Thirties. Many undoubtedly waited for some hero to emerge and lead the resistance to victory and return German politics to normalcy. But, if everyone assumes that one more body at a protest will be meaningless, there will be no protest. If everyone counts on the emergence of a hero, a hero will never emerge.
What America needs is to be SHOCKED out of complacency. We need what the Germans needed but never received before 1945, when the country was smoke and ruins.
Waves of civil disobedience or strikes across the country could wake Americans to the danger. We can still send a message to the Republican Congressional Leadership that, as David Brooks put it, the “Faustian bargain” they have made will quickly come due in the next election, if they do not impeach Trump promptly.
To all that may hear these words, I beg that you heed the thought that ignoring or attempting to wish it all away is a dangerous state of mind!