In 1918, while Corporal Adolf Hitler was recovering in a Berlin hospital from a gas attack on the Western Front and less than two decades after Donald Trump’s grandfather was kicked out of Bavaria for being a draft-dodger, American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken wrote,
“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”
Hitler, of course, was not the first to send people chasing for safety from imaginary hobgoblins and Donald Trump won’t be the last. Sadly, our American democracy no more isolates us from false populists than Weimar democracy did Germans.
People are easily manipulated by fear. Hitler knew it. Trump knows it. Republicans have been dangling fear of one “other” or another in front of Americans for many decades: Communists, socialists, women, gays, blacks, any foreigners who aren’t white and some who are. The list is long.
Historian Richard Evans (The Third Reich in History and Memory, 2015), recounting social exclusion in the Nazi Reich, wrote,
“Dividing their world into ‘racial comrades’ and ‘community aliens’…the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, the Nazis defined almost any kind of refusal to contribute to their goals as deviant, sick, racially motivated or degenerate.”
If this sounds a lot like the Republican Party of today it is because this is how the Republican Party of today categorizes its enemies. Liberalism and progressivism have become as delegitimized in conservative eyes as communism and marxism, and President Obama was subject to a cascade of religious and ethnic insults by Republicans because he declined to contribute to their goals.
Two years later, writing in The Baltimore Sun, Mencken commented, prophetically,
“The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
That day, sadly, has come and the “plain folks,” Sarah Palin’s “real Americans,” have gotten their wish. Mencken had many harsh words for democracy, some of them no doubt richly deserved. Certainly, it is difficult post-election to argue with the proposition that,
“The profoundest truths of the Middle Ages are now laughed at by schoolboys. The profoundest truths of democracy will be laughed at, a few centuries hence, even by school-teachers.”
After all, the greatest democracy on earth just elected a corporation to run it. In particular, the results of the 2016 election might lend truth to Mencken’s claim that,
“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
We got it good and hard, folks.
Ironically, that is why the Founding Fathers gifted us with the Electoral College, which was meant to protect us from our ignorant selves by keeping demagogues like Donald Trump out of the White House. That obviously didn’t work. And as becomes more obvious by the year, our democracy is a very fragile thing indeed, held together more by consensus that it functions rather than by any particular glue.
Naturally, that consensus only works if more people agree than disagree and though Hillary Clinton won the election, that margin is slim enough to be easily unbalanced by corporate-owned media, fake news whether from Fox News or a bunch of Macedonian kids trying to make a buck (there is no effective difference between the two), and foreign tampering.
The sad truth is that though American democracy has lasted far longer than Weimar’s brief experiment, the modern-day liberal democracy is a new experiment and there is no guarantee it will endure better or longer than other tried and failed ideologies and political systems.
There is good news too: Demagogues can tatter it and satirists can comment on it, but only people can keep the hope of democracy alive. As one of the greatest liberals to ever be delegitimized by Republicans said,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Trump would convert our advance into retreat. It is up to Americans living today to save America from the Founding Father’s lack of faith in our judgment and to get the last laugh on one of our greatest political satirists.
Trump can’t take satire. It is up to us to show democracy can. And will.