In light of recent events I have been re-reading the history of the early 1930’s Weimar Republic again. The parallels we can see in the current presidential election are simply frightening. A populist leader arising to manifest the resentments and fears of a large segment of our population that feels dis-empowered and threatened. The issues have inspired me to consider again the history of our own country, what it really means to be American.
It is not so much Donald Trump I am worried about. He is merely a con man who’s game has grown out of all control. No, it is what Trump enables and represents that I am truly worried about. A basic disrespect for the institutions of government put in place by the founding fathers two centuries ago. Trump and his followers do not want to work to improve our government, they want to take a hammer to it and destroy two centuries of success.
Trump has repeatedly indicated his contempt for many of the functions of the federal government. Worrisome proposals by Trump include significantly reducing the freedom of the press, allowing more participation of religious organizations in politics, slashing environmental protections, and repudiating many longstanding international treaties. While the candidate is extreme, a good portion of his political supporters go far further in expressing their desire for slashing at core functions of the federal government.
The voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. – Alexander Hamilton at the Federal Convention, June 19, 1787
To be honest the left wing of American politics has an extreme fringe. Typified by the more extreme elements of the environmental movement, the anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, and even anti-government proponents, these elements of the political scene represent a significant force in the political discourse. But at their worst they are not the clear and present danger to the entire system that the current Republican presidential candidate and his followers represent.
The conservative core of American politics has been in a state of panic for decades. They know that they are slowly losing the struggle for the cultural identity of our country. They have lost on control of women’s reproductive rights, religion in schools, the gay marriage issue, and are now notably losing the war on drugs as several additional states move to legalize marijuana. While these are the touchstone issues, they represent a shift in the underlying cultural foundations of the country. A shift towards something many Americans do not feel comfortable with.
The only tactic that has worked to stem this slow shift is the elevation of hate as a political tool. Hate targeting immigrants, hatred of racial minorities, hatred for the LBGT community, hatred towards anyone who does not fit their simple vision of the perfect citizen. Hate has motivated voters to the polls and allowed the election of many conservative candidates. The use of hatred like this is a very old tactic that plays on basic human motivations. As we have seen… It works. It has also led directly to many of the most disastrous episodes in history.
Nurturing this hatred has been an endless cacophony of television and radio talking heads… Fox News, Breitbart and other “news” outlets create content that then echoes about on social media and in coffee rooms across the country. Never mind how far detached from the truth or unjustified the accusations become, how devoid of actual facts, they bounce back and forth in the echo chamber of the right wing media until accepted as truth by far too many people.
Need an example of this? Look at climate change, an issue firmly backed by endless amounts of hard data. Yet despite this data, despite a clear danger to the survival of our civilization, the conservative elements of American politics continue to deny the situation. They deny the issue even exists, or that it caused by human activity, or that the effect will be as bad as the predictions. There are accusations of fraud and the falsifying of data, not just in right wing media, but made by elected leaders on the Senate floor.
This hatred is also targeted at the institutions of government that make our country possible. Do not like environmental restrictions that keep your company from making a larger profit? Have an issue with a public school system that refuses to teach your religion to children? More than enough reason to seek to devalue and discredit the institutions in the minds of many. The result of this attack has been a steady erosion of the reputation of governmental institutions.
This also results in a steady decline in the quality of people wishing to work in government, a feedback effect that degrades the entire system. Candidates for office with lower qualifications, and consequently voters with lower expectations of their elected officials. Civil servants who no longer exemplify a traditional belief in public service, resulting in a lower quality of service from many agencies.
It is worth going back and reading the newspapers from a century, or even a few decades ago. Articles in the press reflected an optimism that is absent in current reporting. There was a basic respect for institutions and public figures that has all but vanished in many media outlets today. How can we expect to get the best from our government when all we do is heap derision upon it. Like it or not, some form of government is all that keeps our society functioning, a basic lesson that too many Americans do not fully understand.
The founding fathers were stunningly well reasoned in constructing our government. In reading the correspondence between them, the published articles arguing the finer points, you can see a clear understanding of the needs of government, and an acknowledgement in the difficulties in achieving a good government. What we have is not by chance, men put their lives on the line to put in place a system that would outlast their great-grandchildren.
We are now forming a republican government. Real liberty is neither found in despotism or the extremes of democracy, but in moderate governments. – Alexander Hamilton, debates of the Federal Convention, June 26, 1787
Anyone who has really read history can see the possibilities in this moment. Down what road are we traveling? Did the voters in 1932 Germany realize what road they had chosen? Did King Emmanuel realize what would happen when he handed power to Benito Musolinni? It is not much of a stretch to realize we stand at this sort of critical intersection in history right now. This is all too close to one of those moments where future historians can point and say… This is where it went wrong.
The hard right-wing of American politics has been nurturing this movement of hate for decades, slowing moving us ever closer to where we are today. Trump is merely the result of this effort, enabled by this effort. It is likely he represents the pivotal moment in this trend. This is where we can step back from the brink, this is the moment at which we can either repudiate the politics of hate or step into the abyss.
I can only hope that the institutions that our country is based on are stronger than the political whims of the electorate. I can only hope that voters soundly reject a candidate who is not only embarrassingly unqualified to govern, but who would enable far more damage to our country and its institutions than many realize.
I can only hope.
Updates: I suggest you read the excellent endorsement by the Arizona Republic, a conservative newspaper that has made the tough choice to repudiate a unqualified GOP candidate… http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/editorial/2016/09/27/hillary-clinton-endorsement/91198668/