Donald Trump and the Important Lessons of History

ROCHESTER, NY - APRIL 10: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at JetSmart Aviation
ROCHESTER, NY - APRIL 10: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at JetSmart Aviation Services in Rochester, NY on Sunday April 10, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

I came to this country 70 years ago as a stateless refugee from Nazi Germany. This country has been good to me. Like so many others before me, I was able to live the American dream and enjoy the benefits of our democracy in business and in public service.

Growing up in the Europe of the 20's and 30's, I saw there what happens when democracy is allowed to be hijacked by authoritarian demagogues who skillfully stoke and exploit the fears and resentments of voters with grievances. And I experienced directly what can result when intolerance replaces civil public discourse, violence undermines the rule of law, and the scapegoating of religious and ethnic minorities poisons the atmosphere. No surprise, therefore, that I have always felt especially committed to the fundamental values of American democracy. Some may take for granted our bedrock beliefs in equality of opportunity and equal rights for all, of freedom of speech and assembly, religious tolerance, the rights of minorities, and of peaceful dissent. For me, however, these are values that have always had a particularly special meaning.

Somehow, I always believed that our shared values would never be seriously at risk. Now I am no longer so sure. For we are in the midst of an unprecedented political situation with elements that remind me eerily of circumstances and events on the other side of the Atlantic that once had a profoundly disturbing impact not only on me, but eventually on the entire world.

The Germany into which I was born was suffering through the consequences of a disastrous world war and the subsequent failure of world leaders to shape a durable peace. The result was economic and societal upheaval in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, ruinous inflation, a worldwide depression, with weak governments and ineffective, quarreling leaders incapable of addressing the grievances of those in the population most affected by the difficult times. This is what made these voters easy prey for unscrupulous demagogues who beguiled them with seemingly simple, but dangerously impractical, undemocratic solutions to their problems. Skilled at stirring popular passions, their populist rhetoric was inflammatory and authoritarian. They blamed the establishment and the incompetency of its leaders. They scapegoated religious, ethnic or racial minorities at home, and faulted the policies of neighboring countries abroad. 'Follow me,' they preached, 'I am smart and strong and I won't let anyone stand in my way. I know how to clean house, solve your problems and make you secure and proud once again.' Sound familiar?

Historical analogies have their limits. Yet there are several disturbing parallels between this sad history of the rise of the 20th century dictators, and our current situation. Then, as now, a series of fundamentally transforming events upset the social order and led to hardship and resentment among significant elements of the population. And in both instances, there was a lag in the capacity of political leaders to understand the implications of such rapid changes and to effectively come to grips with them. In Germany it was the ravages of a world war and its economic and political consequences that upset the lives of many. Today, it is rapid transforming technological change that has had a similar effect. The globalization of economies, with big losses for some and big gains for others, porous borders, armed conflicts in world hot spots, trans-border terrorism, and millions of people on the move have all played a part in raising the level of insecurity and fear for people in many countries, including the U.S.

So it's times like these that explain popular support for xenophobic demagogues like Donald Trump who play on the resentments of voters, point the finger at others, and promise easy solutions with policies that are as dangerously impractical and unworkable, as they are intolerant and undemocratic. In France, Marine Le Pen's National Front reflects this trend, and in Germany, the new anti-EU, anti-immigrant rightist AfD party reflects it as well.

It worries me that Trump and what he preaches reminds me so painfully of the posturing and rhetoric of last century's European demagogues. His "politically incorrect" attacks on the establishment, his belligerent rhetoric against Muslims and Mexicans, the blaming of foreign countries for domestic problems, and the half-truths, outright lies and bullying of opponents all sounds distressingly familiar to me. His boasts of personal strength, pathological egomania, the lack of humility or capacity for self-criticism, his narcissism and vanity and the promise of easy solutions with strongman boasts -- all these are part and parcel of the same rhetoric the fatal European dictators of my youth used to mislead the public and to undermine and ultimately destroy democracy.

Hitler and Mussolini sounded much like this during their rise to power, and the parallels chill me. True, they were fateful accidents of history and the product of a special time. But they succeeded not only because they were clever demagogues who knew how to rouse the masses, but also because for too long they weren't taken seriously enough by a divided political opposition. Hitler, in particular, greatly benefited from the fatal illusion that he was too outrageous ever to come to power. When it became clear that he nevertheless might do so, there were too many others who rationalized that he 'didn't really mean it,' and that once in office he was sure to moderate his views. Surrounded by responsible advisors, he could surely be controlled, they asserted. And, of course, there were always those unscrupulous opportunists who chose to join him because of their own bigotry or because they saw opportunity for personal power and financial gain. In the end, they paid a heavy price for their cynicism and irresponsibility. But by then it was too late.

Trump is no Hitler or Mussolini. Far from it. In fact, he is more a buffoon and the caricature of a serious political leader. The United States is also a far different country from those in 20th century Europe. We are blessed with a strong Constitution, and democratic traditions and institutions firmly supported by the major political parties and the preponderance of voters across a broad spectrum from left to right. So there is no reason for exaggerated pessimism about our ability to keep Trump from capturing control of the GOP or -- God forbid -- from reaching the White House.

My main concern is that, in rejecting Trump, we learn from history and heed the lessons of the past. Trump may well be as uninformed, unqualified an aspirant to the White House ever to come as close as he now has to capture the nomination of a major party. It is also true that his policy proposals show a colossal ignorance or disregard of facts and world realities, rendering many of his policy prescriptions unworkable and a threat to our welfare and our standing in the world. But, unfortunately, history shows that none of that may matter; that a skilled demagogue can successfully bring the masses to his side all the same.

What matters most is that Donald Trump's expressed views represent a challenge to our most fundamental values. Indeed, to American democracy itself. History shows that, with someone like him, there cannot be rational dialogue or compromise. There can be no doing business with a candidate for the White House who demonizes an entire religion, endorses torture, belittles women, is master of ethnic slurs, compliments foreign dictators and insults our friends and allies.

Such a candidate cannot be advised, appeased, or controlled from the inside. He can only be brought down if ostracized and exposed.

Democrats who secretly hope he is the GOP's nominee because they believe he would be easiest to beat in November are playing with fire. Republicans who contemplate supporting him out of mere loyalty to their party better think twice.

Let us remember that we are all Americans first. Defeating the ambitions of a man like Trump is a matter that transcends partisan politics. What is needed is a unity of purpose on this -- Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. There is no benefit in equivocation, delay or dreams of containing him from within. It might not work and the risks are too great. So the time to deal with him -- for all of us -- is now. That is the most important lesson of history.