Opinion » Viewpoint

Trump and the “H” Word

How much difference is there between a “strong leader” and a “strongman”?



Donald Trump's emergence as the presumptive GOP nominee should be anything but surprising, given the party's racist strategy for the last 50 years.  What is shocking is that GOP leaders did not know this at the beginning of the campaign, which is a measure of how out-of-touch they are with the white working and middle classes. That any Americans voted for Trump is a measure of how desperate they are for change. But voting for Trump because you want to shake things up is like burning your house down because you need to clean out your closets. A President Trump will almost certainly take us down the path to nationalist politics that could destroy our republic. And despite all the polling that indicates his support is waning, a Clinton landslide is far from certain.


In a recent interview on Lawrence O'Donnell's show, Larry Pressler, a former Republican senator from South Dakota, mentioned his academic work as a Rhodes scholar on the German elections of 1927-28 and how our current political climate contains parallels. I am loath to compare politicians to Hitler, but it may be time to get over my squeamishness, because the wave of sentiment that has carried Trump this far is not unlike Hitler's rise to power in 1933. And Germany's elites objected to him, too.  

All revolutions spring from dissatisfaction with the status quo. From Louis XVI's date with the guillotine, to the murder of the Russian czar, to the overthrow of Batista in Cuba, citizens chose to man the barricades and risk death, rather than starving while the oligarchs stuffed their bellies.  

Into this political maelstrom comes a Robespierre, a Lenin, a Castro — and the rest, as they say, is history. How much difference is there between a "strong" leader and a "strongman"?

My mother came of age in the Depression and regaled me with stories of how Germans would roll wheelbarrows of cash into stores in their efforts to stay ahead of an exchange rate that at its height in 1924, was 4.5 trillion German marks to one U.S. dollar. Then came Hitler, swept along by nationalist fervor and economic insecurity. Compare his propaganda regarding Jews with Trump's on Hispanics and Muslims, and his promise to make Germany into a major power again, and one cannot easily ignore the parallels.  

Insecure, fearful people are, by definition, not rational. They care little for what history has to teach — they only know that once they had a secure place in society, and now they don't. They've heard all the promises before, but their jobs disappeared anyway.

So, when House Speaker Paul Ryan blathers on about the "dignity of work" while opposing an increased minimum wage, people intuitively understand how little the GOP has done for them. When conservative pundit David Brooks allows the phrase "creative destruction" to float so effortlessly across his lips when discussing technology's elimination of jobs, workers hear that the elites don't give a damn about the dislocation of flesh-and-blood human beings.  

What's truly laughable is the GOP's sudden interest in "conscience" as they try to engineer the ousting of Trump. Ever since LBJ's civil rights legislation was passed, Republicans have been playing to the racial fears of the people whose jobs they were simultaneously helping CEOs to outsource. Now they're unhappy with the GOP People's Choice? 

I guess they'd like to forget that Reagan's 1980 campaign was announced in Philadelphia, Mississippi — site of the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964.  If that doesn't explain their strategy, I don't know what does.

Not that Democrats have much to brag about in protecting the interests of the everyday American. Their own standard bearer is pretty cozy with some of the same elites. If you doubt this, ask if Goldman Sachs would pay Hillary Clinton a quarter of a million dollars to take them to the proverbial woodshed.  

Neither candidate is likely to significantly improve the outlook for the working and middle classes, but our descent into anarchy will be slowed if Clinton is elected. In the meantime, maybe we can avoid societal chaos by convincing former Trump supporters and other constituencies that our best shot at making this country great is by working to elect more "small d" democrats.

America is not so special that we cannot fall under the spell of a Hitler-like demagogue during uncertain times. Those times are here and that demagogue's name is Trump.

Ruth Ogles Johnson is a frequent contributor to the Flyer.

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