The media frenzy surrounding Donald Trump has inverted the nature of our problem. That a demagogue will come along to foment dissent is no surprise; that his despicable views find such gleeful resonance with so many of our voters is the frightening story, not Trump. Trump is that ominous lump we first feel in our collective breast, an ill-omened warning of a more virulent disease about to attack our body politic. Trump's ascendancy is nothing more than the visible symptom of the underlying disease, a metastasizing cancer of ignorance and hate consuming our society. Trump is not scary - he is a buffoonish Mussolini with bad hair; but those who wish to vote for him are truly terrifying.
The media have either missed or ignored the central shift that should be the focus of reporting: Trump's supporters bring to light the fact that right wing theology has moved from traditional conservative values to the full embrace of authoritarianism.
Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
We are witnessing a society going or gone mad, a collective lunacy that has detached from reality. We have seen this before and it did not end well. I despise facile references to past historic abuses, because such overreach diminishes the true horrors of atrocities such as the Holocaust or Stalin's purges. But with Trump and his supporters we simply cannot ignore the parallels to Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Muslims are the new Jews; propaganda dominates the airways, masquerading as hard fact; a fringe candidate rises on the wings of hate, paranoia and grievances real and imagined, promising a "return" to better times less tainted with the unwashed and unclean who have corrupted our virtues and undermined our economy. But...but, the claim of parallels between our situation now and Europe then - in the early part of this century - is so commonly quoted and so badly abused, the burden of proof is high. So let's meet that challenge.
Trump proposes that the U.S. Government should shut down mosques; yes, just like Nazi Germany closed synagogues. Should we have our own version of Kristallnacht now? Worse, if there can be a worse, pining for the good old days of internment camps for the Japanese during World War II, Trump suggests that the government create a database to track Muslims - much like the Nazis tracked Jews. Perhaps we should require that all Muslims wear yellow crescent moons to make them easier to identify. If it was good enough for the Nazis, it is good enough for us, no?
It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into philanthropy and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
You think I'm pushing the parallel between Trump and the rise of fascism and National Socialism too far? Then perhaps this will feel more familiar when you realize that nearly 35% of Trump followers support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Yes, you read that correctly. In South Carolina, a CBS poll concluded that 75% of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. Remember, Hitler wanted to ban Jews from Germany. Trump and his followers want to ban Muslims and the entire LBGT community. The parallel is really not a stretch.
With enough mental gymnastics, just about any fact can become misshapen in favor to one's conformational bias.
Trump describes immigrants as rapists and criminals. "But you have people coming in and I'm not just saying Mexicans, I'm talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists and they're coming into this country." Never mind the pesky fact that there is no evidence that immigrants commit more crimes than people born in the country. Here is the conclusion from a Congressional Research Service report from 2012: "The overall proportion of noncitizens in federal and state prisons and local jails corresponds closely to the proportion of noncitizens in the total U.S. population."
If you a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.
With this dark but factually incorrect perspective on the influx of criminals, Trump not surprisingly has a solution when he says all undocumented workers "have to go." This means that a candidate for the presidency of our country is proposing, seriously, that we locate, round up, arrest and then forcibly deport a population of 11 million people. To find these undesirables in our midst, would we create a secret police like the Stasi in East Germany, so neighbors would rat on neighbors? Who would take care of the children left behind? Do we perhaps create camps in which we concentrate these populations prior to expelling them?
Trump accuses Obama of being "weak and ineffective" on terrorism. Of terrorism he says, "This is a war, believe me. We're going to have to knock them out and knock them out hard." The implication is that Obama does not know this, or if he does, has done nothing about it. Yet Obama has decimated Al Qaeda, and has aggressively pursued ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Drone strikes under Obama have killed nearly 2,500 people, including innocents who suffer from such attacks. Under Obama's leadership, there has been no attack like 9/11 as there was under Bush. But no matter that Obama has kept us safe (certainly safer than Bush):
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
Perhaps the most extreme proclamation from Trump is that he would kill the families of terrorists. He would order our military to kill innocent non-combatants. He has proposed that we kill the family members of ISIS terrorists because they "know what is going on" because they are related to the terrorists. There is yet another pesky fact that intentionally killing civilians in wartime is a crime against humanity under two international treaties signed by the United States: the Hague Convention and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Voters may dismiss all of this with a wave of the hand, claiming that Trump does not mean what he says, or that Trump is simply breaking the mold and saying what others are afraid to utter; or that while his rhetoric may be extreme his governance would not be. This easy dismissal of extremism we have seen before as well, and that too did not end well. On November 21, 1922, Cyril Brown published in the New York Times a story on the up and coming Adolf Hitler. While noting Hitler's increasingly vocal anti-Semitism, the author dismissed this as "not so violent or genuine as it sounded" but rather a political ploy to pander to the angry German masses. The article goes on to report that Hitler was "merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes."
The Cult of Ignorance: Mainstream Extremism
As with demagogues and tyrants from the past, Trump did not arise in a vacuum. No, indeed, the GOP has long been nurturing the conditions that created this monster and his followers. The beginning of the end was Sarah Palin, the first national candidate in memory to embody stupid and embrace dumb. For the first time, at least in my lifetime, a national candidate wore ignorance as a badge of honor. And we have only gone downhill from there. This year we have witnessed Republican presidential hopefuls descend down to historic and frightening lows of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, each vying to outdo the other to glorify ignorance. The ugly truth is that Trump's brazen and popular foray into the realm of vile rhetoric builds on a terrible reality of conservativism in the United States: right-wing thought has fully embraced ignorance and hate as legitimate political platforms.
We are witnessing the clash of reason and faith, between science and religion, between truth and the big lie, between demagoguery and sane debate. Nowhere is that made clearer than in the Republican debates. History will show we reached the nadir of public discourse when Donald Trump on national television in a presidential debate defended the size of his penis - but that is really nothing but comic relief, even if mired in 6th grade male humor, compared to the horror of the anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-reason positions these candidates have taken.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
But unlike in the times Asimov references this "strain" has become mainstream, the bedrock of conservativism, not some offshoot of extremism or undercurrent in society. The dumbing of America has reached new extremes, and these extremes have paved the way for demagoguery. Here are some frightening statistics:
• 18% of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth.
• 74% of Republican Senators deny the validity of climate change
• 50% of Americans between the ages of 18-24 believe it unnecessary to know the location of other countries, even from those in which important news is being reported
• 42% of Americans believe God created human beings in their present from less than 10,000 years ago
• 25% of public school biology students believe that humans and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time
Rather than rail against this outrage, Trump and his ilk proudly promote their disdain for science and ignorance of the scientific method, a gaping chasm of reason that is front and center in the field of candidates on stage with Trump. With the big lie and the reliance on faith rather than fact politicians are not constrained by the annoying shackles of reality. Denying the truth of climate change is now mandatory for any Republican; the GOP is perhaps the world's only remaining significant political organization that reject the obvious certainty of human-caused climate change. False statements about Planned Parenthood are taken at face value by party sympathizers even when easily shown to be fantasy. Fighting evolution is part of the GOP fabric, a modern day version of the Church's attacks on Galileo. Ignore the fact that we can demonstrate evolution in a Petri dish; it has been proven across multiple fields of science including genetics, biogeography, and paleontology. Even the Pope in 1996 grudgingly admitted that evolution is "more than just a theory." But the GOP hangs on to the fifteenth century, touting the wonders of medieval sorcery.
Trump's campaign highlights like few others could that we are in a race for the bottom, in which the candidate who best embraces ignorance and hate wins. Once beliefs are divorced from reality, anything goes. With no common understanding of even baseline truths, we lose the ability to have any meaningful discourse to solve our very real problems. We can magically deport 11 million people. We can identify Muslims and track their movements. We can close mosques. All without consequence. Sure, why not, because reality and objective truths are no constraint.
We are plumbing new depths of depravity here; previously any one of Trump's extreme proclamations would have knocked a candidate out of the race within a few hours of being verbalized. Now, the crazier the talk the more traction the candidate gains. The cancer is spreading. Before talking about his penis, Trump openly mocked a New York Times reporter by imitating his spastic movements. Trump believes the normal human act of going to the bathroom is too gross to be mentionable. He has denigrated Hillary Clinton for taking a bathroom break during a debate saying that "I know where she went. It's disgusting." There has likely never been a more misogynist candidate; he constantly degrades women. He said that Arianna Huffington, "...is unattractive both inside and out. I fully understand why her former husband left her for a man - he made a good decision." If he does not like a question from a female reporter he will dismiss her as menstruating. Trump has called women "pigs", "dogs", and "disgusting animals." This is a candidate for president of the United States - a candidate that could survive only with an electorate too dumb, too ignorant, too hateful to stop the madness - reminiscent of 1920s Germany.
Take America Back: Make America Great
The slogan and its many variations of "make American great again" often show up in conservative circles. To what age are we harking back to exactly? The days of owning slaves? Again, perhaps you believe I'm resorting to hyperbole here. Alas, no (and I am not making this up): polls show that nearly 40% of Trump supporters question whether the Emancipation Proclamation was a good thing. We cannot be surprised that the White Supremacist movement has embraced Trump as one of their own; or that Trump only reluctantly and unconvincingly puts any distance between himself and David Duke.
Do we pine to return to the economic meltdown of the Bush Administration, the war crimes of torture, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history? Do we want to go back to the days of losing 700,000 jobs per month? Massive and growing deficits (which have shrunk by $1 trillion under Obama)? Wait, let's pause here: in fact, the deficit under Obama is now 2.5% as a percent of the total economy, below the average of the past 50 years. So we want to make American great again by returning to debilitating deficits? Do we really want to take America back to two wars unfunded and poorly managed, a collapsing housing market, the banking industry on the brink of ruin, a stock market declining after losing 25% of its value during Bush's 8 years? Do we want to return to the glory days of gas at $4 per gallon? Do we want to make America great again so we can again witness the auto industry on the verge of bankruptcy? What the hell are these people talking about when they want to make American great again? Do they mean they want to go us to go back to the Clinton Administration, the only other period of extended economic prosperity in the last 50 years? American never stopped being great; proof is we have recovered, once again under Democrat leadership, from the disastrous years of incompetent Republican rule.
Make no mistake; this is war, a fight for the soul of our nation. Making America great means, to the extreme right, dragging us back into another Dark Ages just as the rest of the world is embracing the knowledge and new technologies of the 21st century. Trump and his ilk are a pathological infection of, consuming us from within. Trump is no joke because his followers are real. His colleagues on stage are just as frightening. This is deadly serious. Our only hope is that the shocking truth about the GOP as revealed by Trump's candidacy will bring the American electorate to its senses. To survive we must reject the lies from the right so often in the past couched in acceptable terms, as if whispering would somehow help us ignore the crazy uncle in the basement nobody wants to acknowledge. Trump and his supporters bring the crazy to light; now we can see in stark contrast what our real choices are for the future. Let us hope we have enough collective wisdom to reject the false promises of xenophobic authoritarianism; enough fortitude to embrace the messy future of an inclusive democracy.