I’ve witnessed many presidential elections. The first one I took a serious interest in was in 1968. I’ve seen good candidates, I’ve seen bad candidates. I’ve seen some that were witless like Dan, what’s his name? I can’t even remember. The guy who couldn’t spell tomato, or was it potato? That’s right, Quayle. But I’ve never seen a GOP primary contest like this one. To say it marks a new low is so much an understatement that I don’t know how to properly articulate it. It’s also hard to know what it means. Political buffoonery is one thing, we’ve had it for as long as we’ve had politics. But when an entire political party (and we basically only have two that govern, remember?) seems to spontaneously combust in a mix of sulfur and racist fulmination–you start to wonder what it means for the country.
I’m not talking about what happens if one of the buffoons wins. At this point, I don’t even want to go there (if I don’t have to). But what does it mean for us that so many Americans are charmed by these asses?
I’ll leave Ben Carson for another day. Though I can’t help reminding you of this tidbit my son heard on Trevor Noah’s show. It is from last March and originated at Bloomberg News. In the interview, he made so many blooper-errors about Palestine, it’s hard to know where to begin. Rather than dissect them, I’ll leave it whole for you to read it in all it’s ineffable glory:
Carso…was…thinking anew about how Palestinians could establish their own state.
“We need to look at fresh ideas,” said Carson. “I don’t have any problem with the Palestinians having a state, but does it need to be within the confines of Israeli territory? Is that necessary, or can you sort of slip that area down into Egypt? Right below Israel, they have some amount of territory, and it can be adjacent. They can benefit from the many agricultural advances that were made by Israel, because if you fly over that area, you can easily see the demarcation between Egypt and Israel, in terms of one being desert and one being verdant. Technology could transform that area. So why does it need to be in an area where there’s going to be temptation for Hamas to continue firing missiles at relatively close range to Israel?”
They can’t be serious? Can they, Republicans? This is presidential timber? So what I don’t get is do Republicans who’re supporting these bozos care about governing or winning elections? Or is this solely a protest vote without any consideration for practical impact? If so, does it mean Republicans are desperate, or so angry that they don’t give a crap about actually winning an election? They just want to vent?
I could go on and on. But let’s get to the guy I really want to talk about: Donald Trump. Yeah, I know too much has been written about him already. You’re probably tired of him. But I have a few thoughts that might not have crossed your mind.
Way back in the dark past of American history we had brushes with Nazism. We had isolationists like Lindbergh who thought Hitler was a pretty nifty fellow. My father, who was born and raised in a semi-rural area of New York State, remembered the German-American Bund rallying and training in Stony Point (Rockland County, NY), near his family’s home. We had lunatics like Lincoln Rockwell. But those aren’t the real dangers now. There are no Brown Shirts lifting their arms in a Nazi salute.
But we have blowhards whose views aren’t far removed from them. Is it fair to compare Trump to such an offensive ideology? I think it is. Fascism doesn’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. It evolves into something monstrous, but doesn’t start out that way.
It starts with a candidate who argues that all the adherents of one religion must be tallied and marked and surveilled because they represent a danger to the rest of us. It starts with an African-American heckler at a rally, whose assault the candidate incites. When the candidate’s followers beat and kick the heckler, it reminds some of us of the days of lynching. No, there was no rope. The poor man lying on the floor wasn’t in danger of being killed. But this is how it starts. With small incidents of hate. Then they multiply. They become more vicious the less the broader public protests. Till eventually, you have a candidate who maybe, just maybe could deliver a stem-winding Nuremburg-style election speech at a party convention. Could it happen?
My original motivation for this post came today with the news that Trump “remembers” that “thousands and thousands” of Muslim-Americans celebrated the 9/11 attacks and the destruction of the Twin Towers. He was, he claims, sitting in his office in Jersey City and he saw it with his own eyes. Then he says he saw it on TV. But no one can seem to confirm any of this. In fact, it never happened.
Ronald Reagan, who had the excuse of Alzheimer’s onset, imagined that he liberated Nazi death camps or landed on an invasion beach during World War II and was confusing his memory with a film script. In fact, Carl Sagan had some prescient words about this phenomenon that call Donald Trump to mind as well:
It is not hard to imagine serious public dangers emerging out of instances in which political, military, scientific or religious leaders are unable to distinguish fact from vivid fiction.”
But Reagan’s memory lapse is minor compared to Trump’s sheer invention of history. A man who can invent reality can do virtually anything if enough people believe him. Isn’t that what led to Hitler?
Hey, I’m a progressive. So I should love the GOP disintegrating before my eyes. It almost guarantees a Democratic victory in the next election (though I hate the likely winner of that race, but that’s another story). But I’m enough of a student of American history to know that there should be at least two viable, credible political parties. What happens if the GOP collapses into a mush of extremist nostalgia for certainties which never existed? I don’t know. But the prospect scares me. Because it means that too many of my fellow citizens reject the basic values I hold dear about this country. Without them, we are lost.
This article was published at Tikun Olam.