Should we attach a bland label like “illiberalism” to such a wretched public display when “fascism” fits so much better? And what term best describes a 2019 political rally where a U.S. president, who had previously suggested the shooting of migrants, laughed as a supporter shouted that they should be gunned down at the border?
Do we bite our tongues as Trump apologists dismiss this rhetoric as harmless? Do we stay silent as left-wing commentators claim this to be the natural progression of Reagan conservatism? How do we define Trump’s slandering of Hispanics as breeders? How should newspaper editors and political leaders label a presidency that inspired white supremacists such as David Duke to celebrate Trump’s moral equivocation after Charlottesville? Terms such as “illiberalism” and “conservatism” seem both inaccurate and inadequate.
It is difficult to remember a time when Trump was seen as little more than a bumptious reality star who plastered his name on steaks, water bottles and apartment buildings around the world. Manhattan society long viewed the reality host’s career as the vulgar elevation of a trashy aesthetic, but millions of Americans always saw something more. Even during his political ascent, Republican and Democratic leaders alike shared Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s view that the future president was a clown who had neither the character nor intelligence to be America’s next commander in chief. But elites’ failure to grasp Trump’s appeal, then and now, made him a greater threat to the natural checks and balances of Madisonian democracy.
One should never compare Trump’s rise directly to that of German fascism, and still there are lessons that can be drawn from every era. Sebastian Haffner’s 1939 memoir “Defying Hitler” spoke of influencers who initially dismissed the Nazi party for its “violent stupidity,” much like Trump’s critics mocked the reality star’s candidacy with a chuckle. The “Saturday Night Live” skit with Hillary Clinton laughing at her good fortune for drawing Trump as a political opponent comes to mind.
“I was inclined not to take them very seriously,” Haffner wrote in 1939, “a common attitude among their inexperienced opponents, which helped them a lot.” The German journalist and lawyer observed that while the “vilest abuse” could be directed toward Jews, “the process of the law was not changed at all.”
A cursory review of Auschwitz or Dachau’s history reveals how the evil of Hitler’s reign does not remotely compare to the current state of U.S. politics. The cost of illiberalism’s spread in the age of Trump may be better understood by studying the erosion of democratic norms in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey or Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or the further strengthening of China and Russia’s autocratic regimes. But we should still remain mindful that the failure of Germany’s political, financial and media elites to serve as a bulwark against the illiberal impulses that seized that country then mirrors the failure of American leaders initially to grasp the consequences of Donald J. Trump. Three years later, the question remains of how best to respond to that threat.
Before his passing, The Post’s Charles Krauthammer wrote that “the sinews of our democracy” were still holding “against the careening recklessness of this presidency.” Whether those institutions can hold firm through a second Trump term remains an open question. Ever the optimist, I suspect that a country that, during the 20th century alone, survived numerous financial crises, the Great Depression and two world wars while also beating back the spread of Nazism and Soviet Communism, can survive four more years of Trump. But why tempt fate?
I knew Trump fairly well before he entered politics. Like many, I saw him first as a cartoonish figure, colorful but innocuous. Then I saw him as an entertainer, superficial but engaging. Then I saw him as a threat, appealing but erratic. Then, at last, I saw this reality TV president as a malevolent character, inspiring fascist chants while proving to be more hapless than any of his 43 predecessors. All versions of Trump have been cynical and manipulative, but his latest incarnation has proved to be destructive to his party, his country and the world.
Though you may not know Trump as I once did, you do know that only a weak man speaks endlessly of his strength and only an ignorant man brags incessantly of his wisdom. Despite these debilitating flaws, or perhaps because of them, Adm. William McRaven — the man who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — believes Donald Trump is the greatest threat facing American democracy. How voters respond to that danger in the new year may well determine the arc of our future for a generation to come.