As human beings, our capacity to forget is astonishing, second only to our capacity to believe just about anything.
So in 2016, we find ourselves in a place we never thought we’d be in this century: Witnessing, and in many cases supporting, the rise of leaders proposing such things as restricting freedoms of specific groups of people, sending political opponents to prison, employing crueler methods of torture, killing families for an individual’s crimes, cracking down on the press and scapegoating entire ethnicities.
And unfortunately, it’s not just Donald Trump, who at last night’s debate refused to accept the legitimacy of the sitting President, the FBI, the election process, and, as moderator Chris Wallace put it, “the peaceful transition of power” in this country. Around the Western world, the Great Panic of 2016 is very real and very ugly, with various increasingly popular politicians and parties espousing nationalist policies that threaten democratic freedoms and human rights.
One hopes, for example, that Austria’s presidential election is not a mirror for ours. When far-right, anti-migrant candidate Norbert Hofer, who says he carries a Glock because it’s a “natural consequence” of the rise in immigration, lost the presidential election by a narrow margin, his party filed a complaint over voting irregularities and forced a repeat election, due to take place in December. If elected, Hofer has threatened to make his opponents “surprised” by the power a President can have, including dissolving the parliament.
In Hungary, something similar has already happened. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been changing the country’s constitution to undermine its democracy and checks-and-balances system, built a fence on the country’s Southern border with Serbia to keep out immigrants, encouraging Hungarians to have “more children” instead.
Meanwhile, some of the other politicians on the rise, despite widespread condemnation, include Dutch prime minister candidate Geert Wilders, who’s facing his second trial for hate speech after leading followers at a rally to chant for fewer Moroccans in the country.
In France, there’s the National Front party, led by Marine Le Pen, who compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of the country.
In Germany, there’s Frauke Petry, nicknamed “Adolfina” and infamous for suggesting the use of firearms to stop illegal border crossers. Her anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party won 21 percent of the vote in the home state of Angela Merkel, beating the chancellor’s own party.
In Australia, the virulently racist Pauline Hanson, whose policies include banning Muslim immigrants, forbidding burkas in public, and temporarily halting new mosque construction, was re-elected for the first time in 20 years, with three members of her anti-Islam One Nation party also landing state Senate seats.
Then there’s the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, and more claiming seats in their respective parliaments.
And, of course, there’s Brexit, and its various slogans urging British citizens to “take back our country” and “take back control of our borders.”
Even former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has re-emerged, and is running for office for the first time in 17 years, inspired in part by Trump’s ascendency.
If there’s one thread tying together the Great Panic of 2016, it’s that it dates back to one of the most destructive political tactics in history: scapegoating.
One would think that we’d have learned better by now. Because when a politician points a finger at a group of people and says, “It’s their fault,” and backs this assertion up with distortions, lies, and stereotypes that spread fear, what usually follows is at best discrimination and at worst genocide. And with the hindsight of history, similar so-called threats from witches, Jews, communists, intellectuals, Tutsis, Croats and so many others have proven to be groundless manipulations spread through bold lies with a high human cost.
Witness the scene in Joshua Oppenheimer’s recent documentary The Look of Silence, about the Indonesian mass killing of over half-a-million purported Communists: When a leader of one of the civilian death squads, manipulated into doing the Army’s dirty work, is asked if he feels any remorse, he explains, “You’re allowed to kill bad people. They had no religion. They slept with each other’s wives.”
The idea that Communists swap wives, just like the idea of a Zionist conspiracy to take over the world, just like the idea that all Muslims (or only Muslims) are terrorists – these ideas don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are generally marginal viewpoints wielded as rhetorical clubs by politicians either seeking to exploit the worst elements of human nature or justify the worst elements of their own nature.
The formula is: Pick a fear. Spread misinformation to turn it into outrage. Then convert that outrage into passionate support for your own agenda.
We’ve seen these types of hysterias before, and invariably regretted them. Some have been cynically created. “It was a political problem,” one of Harry Truman’s advisors, Clark Clifford, said about the president’s Loyalty Order in 1947, which triggered a witch hunt for Communists and other subversives in government and, later, the entire country. “We did not believe there was a real problem. A problem was being manufactured. … We had a presidential campaign ahead of us, and here was a great issue, a very damaging one, so [Truman] set up this whole kind of machinery.”
“The same assets that excite me in the chase, often, once they are acquired, leave me bored,” Trump wrote in 1990. “For me the important thing is the getting, not the having.”
Others have been xenophobic over-reaction. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his inauguration address, spoke one of the most-quoted lines on this subject: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Yet seven years later, with the country awash in fear and racism after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt, who’d written racist editorials before his presidency advocating “Japanese exclusion from the United States,” authorized the forcible relocation of over 110,000 Japanese-Americans to overcrowded, unsanitary internment camps. Not one of those prisoners was ever found guilty of espionage or terrorism.
So where does this put Donald Trump? The answer: In both camps.
On one hand, there’s a win-by-any-means-necessary ambition that’s so unbridled he refuses to accept the legitimacy of this democracy unless it elects him. “The same assets that excite me in the chase, often, once they are acquired, leave me bored,” Trump wrote in 1990. “For me, you see, the important thing is the getting, not the having.”
At the same time, there’s a level of brutality and authoritarianism that’s more reminiscent of Stalin and Mussolini than Truman and FDR. In their book Political Paranoia: The Psychopolitics of Hatred, Jerrold Post and Robert Robins write about Uganda’s former dictator Idi Amin, but could just as easily be describing the personality characteristics of Donald Trump in office: “Amin, first, was a person of great impulsivity – a trait that grew more dominant the longer he remained in power. He acted rather than governed. … Second, Amin was unprepared by experience or training to be the absolute ruler of a country. Because of this inadequacy and a psychological readiness to blame others for his difficulties, Amin responded with paranoia and compensatory grandiosity.”
Just this week, Trump has been pushing to “drain the swamp” of Washington. But if he drained it, then what would he replace it with? Considering that he’s proposing term limits to Congress and that the next President may be choosing as many as four members of the Supreme Court, those add up to a lot of vacancies in the other two branches of government for him to fill or influence.
Add to this Trump’s claim that he alone can fix the system, his enemy-centric worldview (either you’re with him or you’re being called a liar, a loser, ugly), his intensifying claims of vast conspiracies against him (the political system, the electoral system, big banks, the media), and his more recent rally rhetoric of “replacing a failed and corrupt – and when I say corrupt I’m talking about totally corrupt – political establishment with a new government.”
The net result: a democratically elected leader with the temperament of a paranoid, narcissistic dictator; the willingness to work our checks-and-balances system to his benefit in the same way he’s taken advantage of the tax code; and the irrepressible drive to achieve the next ego milestone, which presumably would fall short of Idi Amin’s proclamation of himself as “president for life” and “Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea.”
In all respects, the Trump campaign has been a triumph of classic misdirection. His finger is always pointing at someone else, keeping his supporters from noticing the trick being played before their very eyes. And the trick is this: Getting over 13 million people to trust a businessman with a long history of bankruptcies, defaults, exploitation, mass layoffs, outsourcing and betraying his own investors to represent the interests of the American people, especially the working class, fairly. If you saw it in a movie, you might think it unrealistic that people would vote for a greedy, self-serving businessman to protect them from greedy, self-serving politicians.
In the U.S., the 21st Century so far has been the it-can-happen-here century. We experienced the deadliest foreign attack on U.S. soil in modern history. We saw bodies floating in the streets of New Orleans after a natural disaster that our government had advance warning about. We continue to see racism killing African Americans in an endless stream of horrific videos. Even the specter of a Cold War is looming again.
Now we are seeing that it is possible for the American people to elect a racist, sexist demagogue as president in 2016 – or anytime in the future – not to mention a Hitler or Mussolini rising in Europe again. As Sinclair Lewis put it sarcastically in his American dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here in 1935: “Cure the evils of Democracy by the evils of Fascism!”
So even if Trump loses, which polls say is likely at this point (though pundits have learned the hard way not to discount Trump), America has changed for this experience. Because, just like it happens to every other country in history eventually, it can also happen here. And if a Hillary Clinton presidency further exacerbates the anxieties about globalism, elitism, corruption, high-level conspiracy and disenfranchisement of many Americans, it will only serve to grow the voter base for Trump – or someone far more dangerous to democracy, human rights and the world – in the next election.
Our jobs as citizens in this democracy is not just to vote for a leader who actually believes in democracy in November. It’s also to hold them to their promises. And to recognize that, even if he isn’t the right person to fix these problems, some of the anxieties that Trump is addressing are very real for many people, especially the economic and cultural ones, and they need to be addressed rather than debunked and demonized. This is true not just for Americans, but for Europeans, Australians and more. There is a trend toward authoritarianism, nationalism and scapegoating in the world that must be stopped, because we’ve seen it before and we know how it ends.