Like many Jewish survivors of Germany’s Nazi period, my father didn’t like to talk about his experiences back then. But from a couple of conversations I had with him before he died in 1997, I extracted this story: In 1933, shortly after Adolph Hitler assumed power, my dad was rounded up and arrested. He’s not sure exactly how it happened, whether it was because he was Jewish, or at a gathering somehow identified as subversive or communist, but he was thrown into jail.
He didn’t sleep that night. Instead, he agonized about his plight, and concluded that the political situation in Germany would only worsen under Hitler, that the German people were becoming mesmerized by a maniac. There was no future for an ambitious 19-year-old Jew in this country.
Right then and there, in a dank jail cell, he decided he would depart his homeland, and leave his family behind. When he was released the next day, he followed through on his decision, and before 1933 was out, he was on his way to Palestine. He lived there until 1935, when he was able to gain admission to the U.S. under the strict immigration quotas of the time, to join his older brother, who had made a similar decision, and moved straight to the U.S. in 1934.
My father and uncle were anomalies of sorts, leaving Germany so early in Hitler’s reign. Most Jews, and many other thoughtful Germans as well, didn’t take Hitler seriously. They thought he was a passing fad, a bad joke, who would fade from the scene. Hitler would eventually implode and savvy Germans would come to their senses, and make this lunatic go away.
Other members of my family, among them my father’s parents and grandparents and my mother’s entire family (my parents’ families didn’t know each other in Germany), were among those hoping Hitler would go away. Of course, Germans didn’t come to their senses and Hitler did not go away. Many of these relatives just barely escaped, in the mid and late 1930s, but a few didn’t, as Hitler became ever more deranged and full of himself, and sucked the whole world into a war that killed more than 60 million people, including about six million Jews murdered by the Germans. (I researched the experiences of my mother’s family, in a book, Inge: A Girl’s Journey Through Nazi Europe.)
What most of our country doesn’t appreciate is that the dye for the Holocaust and World War II was cast during those early years of the 1930s, when Hitler was going around saying the most outrageous and dishonest things about Germany’s politicians and judges and journalists and university professors and Jews. Even a prominent critic, like NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who laments in a column that American high school students have begun bullying Hispanic students, in Trump’s name, hedges: “We need not be apocalyptic about it. This is not Kristallnacht.” But Kristallnacht, the arrests and beatings of German Jews and the burning of Jewish businesses, happened nearly six years after Hitler maneuvered himself into power as Germany’s chancellor in early 1933.
What few appreciated, even at the time, is that Hitler didn’t play by the rules of tradition and constitutions and compromise in a democratic society. He not only had no respect for Germany’s established institutions and rules of governing, he was actually contemptuous of all of it.
Now, I’m not suggesting that Trump would unleash another Holocaust, or anything close to it. History doesn’t repeat itself literally. But similar themes do repeat themselves.
As our presidential race unfolds, I find myself increasingly obsessed with comparisons between Donald Trump’s 2015-16 rise to prominence and Hitler’s 1930-33 rise to power.
I may be one of the only bloggers around who hasn’t written something about Trump, probably because I have been spellbound by what has been unfolding. I have come to understand much better what my relatives in early 1930s Germany experienced, the anxiety they felt, as I wait for Trump to implode, and go away, and for this political nightmare to end.
I watch him speak, and hear the contempt for our Constitution, for our judiciary, for war heroes, even for prominent members of his own party. More troubling, I see and hear my countrymen, thousands of them gathered together, cheering him on with calls of “Hang the bitch!” Even after he expresses admiration for the thug who runs Russia, and after he threatens assassination of his main opponent, they cheer him on.
A few weeks ago, I thought I might write something about how Trump, despite all his vitriol, at least respected healthy and organic food. Natural News has repeatedly highlighted this as a big reason it loves his bullying style. In 2015, even before he began racking up primary wins, there was this: “”The Donald”, as NaturalNews has reported is a consumer of organic food. His daughter, Ivanka, has said that the whole family consumes mostly fresh, organic meals which she often prepares herself. In addition, Trump’s children help oversee foods served at the family hotels – meals that include vegan, organic and gluten-free in-room dining choices. And when it can, the hotel chain obtains locally-grown organic foods as a way of giving back to the communities they serve. The family’s diet even has a name: The Trump Wellness Plan, which fits with Trump’s overall health and fitness lifestyle.”
But like so much of the Trump fairytale, Trump-as-supporter-of-real-food turns out to be a lie as well. Trump is a big lover of fast food—it’s not even something he tries to conceal, but rather is something he has long bragged about, according to a recent New York Times report. (The photo of Trump on this page is from one of his own tweets.) The reason? “Mr. Trump, who frets about germs and prizes cleanliness, also loves fast food because of its consistency and the promise, at least, of a basic level of hygiene. ‘One bad hamburger, you can destroy McDonald’s. One bad hamburger, you take Wendy’s and all these other places and they’re out of business,’ Mr. Trump told Mr. Cooper of CNN. “I’m a very clean person. I like cleanliness, and I think you’re better off going there than maybe someplace that you have no idea where the food’s coming from. It’s a certain standard.’ “
Yes, you sure know where the food is coming from at McDonald’s. Love those CAFOs. Whew!
Natural News, like so many other alienated parties, sees Trump through rose-colored glasses. Because he’s against the establishment, he must be great. Being against the establishment is one thing—Bernie Sanders railed against the establishment in rational terms, all the while being respectful of America’s Constitution and institutions.
No, Trump’s modus operandi is drawn straight from Hitler’s playbook—the bigger the lie, the more people will believe you. The Trump phenomenon has gotten me re-reading histories of that period, like the classic, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and newspaper assessments of Hitler. The NY Times in 1945 published an obituary of Hitler after he finally killed himself in a bunker to avoid being captured by the Allies, and here is the “playbook” it described:
*Portraying his country as being victimized by other countries:
“He went about making speeches bewailing the wrongs done to Germany….”
*Making grand promises to restore his country’s economic prominence:
“To the middle classes he promised relief from what he called the tyranny of big business, particularly the department stores, with which small tradesmen found it difficult to compete. He promised them that when in power he would dissolve the department stores and abolish all interest. To the workers he promised dissolution of the trusts. Neither of these promises was kept.”
*Zeroing in on scapegoats:
“Added to his economic program, designed to appeal to the ruined middle-class elements, he put forward his slogans of extreme nationalism and racism–the union of all Germans on the basis of self-determination in a greater Germany.”
*Creating an aura of violence among his backers:
“These (storm) troops acted as the Hitler police at public meetings and demonstrations, attacked Jews in the streets of Munich, broke up meetings of the opposition, staged street brawls with Communists and republicans, beat up leaders of other parties and, in general, conducted a reign of terror with which the authorities found it increasingly difficult to cope, in proportion as the political aspect of the Nazi movement gathered strength.”
*Treat the current rulers as fools and traitors:
“With increased support from the army and industrialists, a gigantic propaganda machine was set up, which, backed by millions of throats, blared wild accusations in an unending stream against the Government and leaders of other parties. Men like Gustav Stresemann, to say nothing of Socialists and Democrats, were denounced as traitors and held up to public ignominy.”
*And, of course, the unending lies:
“ ‘By shrewd and constant application of propaganda, heaven can be presented to the people as hell and, vice versa, the wretchedest existence as a paradise,’ he wrote in ‘Mein Kampf.’ This contempt for the people and his unbounded capacity for hatred, which found expression in his merciless treatment of opponents and persecution of the Jews….”
What’s going on here?
Yes, there is lots of economic and political alienation in this country, and I have expressed my share on these pages. But it has been in the context of an assumption that our political and economic system remains flexible enough to shift and change, in the food arena and other areas.
The main reason I can think of that so many Americans have become infatuated by an authoritarian politician so at odds with American values and history is that we have had it too good politically for too long. We’ve so long been free to say what we wish about our leaders and their policies and have access to a reasonably free media and to go to court to get unjust laws reversed and have free elections for so long, we don’t know what it’s like to live in a country that has lost these rights.
It’s easy to argue that some of our rights have been under attack, or diluted, in the U.S. But compared with many other countries, they are very much intact. As just one example, we’ve seen just recently a number of federal courts reverse state actions to dilute voting rights.
Just as in early 1930s Germany, we are witness to prominent politicians and other leaders allying themselves with the bully—the governors of New Jersey (Chris Christie) and Indiana (Mike Pence), the former Speaker of the House (Newt Gingrich), and the former mayor of New York (Rudy Giuliani)—presumably in hopes of being appointed to powerful positions in a Trump administration. I never thought I’d say this, but the heroes thus far, to my mind, are the Republicans who have stood tall in condemnation of Trump’s racism and bullying. Mitt Romney, whom I considered an empty suit when he ran for president in 2012, has stood up to Trump, accurately labeled him a “fraud.” More recently, Susan Collins of Maine has condemned him, refused to endorse him.
But the ultimate “deciders” will be the American people. The polls thus far suggest a clear majority turning from Trump. But there is considerable time to go, incidents for him to concoct and exploit. Moreover, a two or three percentage point win for Hillary Clinton may not make Trump go away, as it would any other traditional candidate. He spoke in advance of the Republican convention, when it looked like he might lose, of “riots” should he not be selected. He has spoken during the national election of the election being “rigged.”
It’s not difficult to see him challenging a loss in the courts, leading demonstrations, for years, hoping the threat of unending chaos gets him invited into government, or gets the military to help him. No, I’m afraid it will take an overwhelming loss, one so humiliating that he wouldn’t dare challenge the situation. Are Americans up to the task at hand? Or will they continue to be hypnotized by the promise of nirvana by a demented real estate developer?