"Where were we when Hitler began shrieking his hate in the Reichstag? ... (Were we) deaf, dumb, blind?!"
Screenwriter Abby Mann's scripted words were spoken by the fictional pre-war German Justice Minister Ernst Janning, played by Burt Lancaster, as he testified before a military tribunal in the award-winning 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg. The film is prophetic. It's a reminder to self-governing institutions -- including the United States -- that the governed must be their ultimate sovereigns. The movie's message resonates almost daily in our tumultuous 2016 presidential politics.
Janning's questions are relevant in this real-life election season because the way that we respond over the next 80 days to Donald Trump's demagogic presidential campaign of hate and fear will determine how much or how little it has dented our 240-year-old American experiment.
Comparisons between the seismic events that shook Germany during the 1930s and this country's political climate in 2016 must be made with care, but they're hardly tenuous. To ignore the similarities would be at best careless; in the nuclear age, it could be catastrophic.
I remember hearing the Fuehrer's rants on the shortwave in 1940. As I developed a more comprehensive knowledge of world events in high school and college, I appreciated how much the checks and balances that are part of our social and political fabric (which are a fundamental part of what we frequently refer to as American exceptionalism) set us apart from the forces which influenced developments elsewhere. After all, the Great Depression hadn't altered our form of government. We conquered tyrannical forces abroad and survived McCarthyism at home. What happened in Europe in the 1930s, I thought, couldn't happen here because our institutions were too strong.
But the politics of 2016 have altered my previously held beliefs. After all, our institutions are only as good as the people who occupy the positions within them. Trump captured the Republican presidential nomination with an unceasing campaign of hate, lies, ignorance and self-aggrandizement. It continues as he stampedes his way toward November's election, riding a personal platform of fear and division. It threatens to get worse with Wednesday's announcement that the Breitbart News site's Steve Bannon (who has been called a bully and a street fighter) is the campaign's new CEO. Could the shameful bulldozing beat the system? Possibly.
But it's not just the candidate himself. As with 20th century European dictators, Trump needed enablers and he got them. Raucous mobs at rallies respond to his outrageous exclamations with standing ovations and gleeful laughter. More importantly, he's backed by seasoned politicos in GOP circles who should know better. Abby Mann's perspicacity when he developed his Judgment screenplay illuminates these Trump-supporting Republicans, many of whom denounced his antics before flipping after he became their nominee. "What about those of us who knew better, we who knew the words were lies and worse than lies?" asks Ernst Janning. "Why did we take part? Because we loved our country ... The country is in danger. We will march out of the shadows! We will go forward. Forward is the great password!" Today's version is Trump shouting, "We're gonna make America great again!"
Here are just a few of his enabling hypocrites who should know better:
Senators Orrin Hatch, Marco Rubio and John McCain claim they support Trump because they had previously pledged to support the Republican nominee despite strongly worded condemnations of him. So Hatch embraces the man he acknowledged has made "a lot of outrageous statements," and muses that "political rookies" are prone to say things that get them in trouble; Rubio backs "a con man with a huckster's business record"; and McCain backs the guy he excoriated both for disparaging a military hero's grieving parents and for hinting that he may renege on America's commitment to NATO.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called Trump a carnival barker, but when he quit his own presidential run, he endorsed the Donald as the candidate best "prepared to provide America with the strong leadership."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell believes that Trump's call for a travel ban on Muslims "is simply contrary to American values," but in June he said "we're all behind him now."
Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, officially the leader of that congressional chamber, not just its Republican members, sticks to his Trump endorsement despite deprecating a myriad of Trump's false, bigoted and incendiary statements that include the candidate's inciting assassinations of his political adversaries and outrageously insisting that President Obama and Hillary Clinton are founders of ISIS.
Last month Khizr Khan, an attorney and the father of U. S. Army Captain Humayun Khan who was killed in Iraq in 2004, addressed the Democratic National Convention. He told MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, "There comes a time in the history of a nation where an ethical, moral stand has to be taken regardless of the political costs." It's a plea for America to live up to its exceptionalism, and it echoes another passage from Judgment at Nuremberg when Spencer Tracy, in the role of presiding judge Dan Haywood, says, "A decision must be made in the life of every nation ... (when it confirms) what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult."
Since the Democratic National Convention in late July, Donald Trump's incessant, off-the-charts rants have stimulated strong reactions from an increasing number of individuals across partisan lines and among media sources.
Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy railed against "this sick bravado of Donald Trump ... where he's just tougher than everybody else ... This is a confrontation which he's calling for ... We can't tolerate this. People of good will have to reject this rhetoric ... This is a dangerous human being who must be repudiated lest we repeat what we've seen happen in our own country and seen happen in other countries. Let's be clear -- he does not have the temperament to be president of the United States. This is not someone we turn the codes over to."
Earlier this month business executive and high profile Republican activist Meg Whitman strongly denounced Trump, calling him "a dishonest demagogue," who could lead the country "on a very dangerous journey." She also said that people who were saying that what happened in Germany before World War II can't happen here are being naïve.
When Trump suggested that "second amendment people" could do something about a President Hillary Clinton getting to pick judges, veteran journalist Dan Rather stated the obvious: "This is a direct threat of violence against a political rival." Admonishing the supporters who continue to advocate for him despite the rhetoric, he said, "The rhetoric is the candidate."
Rather's comments remind me of that March 9, 1954 evening when pioneer broadcast newsman Edward R. Murrow took down the infamous Senate anti-communist witch hunter Joseph McCarthy while few others dared to try. His closing comments that night could easily apply to Trump. Just substitute the words "Donald Trump" for the references to Wisconsin's Senator McCarthy in this quote:
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities ... The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
These developments illustrate that the Donald's presidential phenomenon is meeting some palpable headwinds, suggesting that American exceptionalism lives and can trump what Ernst Janning bemoaned about his country in Judgment; and that here, we who know better, we who know the words are lies and worse than lies, we do not sit silent, that we take part because we love our country.