Donald Trump isn't Hitler. The United States is not Weimar Germany. Our economic problems are nowhere as bad as those in Depression-era Germany. Nobody in the Trump administration (not even Steven Bannon) is calling for genocide (although saber-rattling with nuclear weapons could lead to global war if we're not careful).
That said, it is useful for liberals, progressives and radicals to think and strategize as though we face that kind of situation. None of us in our lifetimes have confronted an American government led by someone like Trump in terms of his sociopathic, demagogic, impulsive, thin-skinned and vindictive personality (not even Nixon came close), his right-wing inner circle, his reactionary and dangerous policy agenda on foreign policy; the economy; the environment; health care; immigration; civil liberties; and poverty; his willingness to overtly invoke all the worst ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds in order to appeal to the most despicable elements of our society and unleash an upsurge of racism, anti-semitism, sexual assault, and nativism by the KKK and other hate groups; his lack of understanding about Constitutional principles and the rule of law; and his lack of experience with collaboration and compromise. All this while presiding over a federal government in which all three branches are controlled by right-wing corporate-funded Republicans. We may be lucky to discover that Trump might be an incompetent leader and unable to unite the Republicans, but we shouldn't count on it.
In such a situation, progressive movements, journalists and Congressmembers face a dilemma and some strategic choices:
On the one hand:
- Treat Trump and his administration as "normal" politicians and government officials?
- Try to negotiate compromises to get the best deal to make life less desperate for vulnerable people?
- Encourage Trump to be "pragmatic," as President Obama (trying to look sincere) did the other day, and, as some Democrats are suggesting, "give Trump a chance"?
- Allow Trump to use the media as a megaphone to announce his appointments and his policy ideas as though he was a "normal" President with a consistent ideology and a willingness to compromise?
- Cover Trump with the typical "he said/she said" journalistic formula -- he makes an announcement and the press finds a Democrat or a liberal to provide the "other" perspective, as though they were equally valid (ie climate change is a "hoax" (Trump) versus climate change is real (99.9% of scientists)? (The current phrase for this misleading approach is "false equivalence")
- Refuse to treat Trump as a "normal" politicians and refuse to legitimate his regime?
- Refuse to cover Trump in the media as though his ideas were legitimate, but rather assume that almost everything he says is a lie or a half-truth?
- Maintain an all-out effort to constantly remind the public of Trump's ugly and outrageous views and his sociopathic and sexist behavior, including full coverage of all the criminal and civil lawsuits against him?
- Be prepared to take advantage of his character flaws that will likely lead to lots of outrageous and embarrassing comments?
- Refuse to compromise on legislation and instead make him and the GOP own his agenda so he takes the blame when people suffer?
- Develop and constantly promote a clear, easy-to-understand progressive policy agenda as an alternative to Trump's agenda -- a kind of shadow cabinet -- to remind Americans that there IS a better way to run the country and win the support of many Americans who failed to vote or who voted for Trump?
- Spend the next two and four years mobilizing opposition to obstruct almost everything he seeks to do, while laying the groundwork to win a majority in the House in 2018 and win back the White House in 2020 by raising money and investing in organizing campaigns in key swing districts and states ASAP?
- Try, as best we can, to avoid the left's proclivity to fragment and divide itself via issue silos, organizational turf battles, personality disputes, and constituency rivalries?
In the not-too-distant future, we can try to translate our progressive policy agenda into actual policies -- adopting campaign finance reform, immigration reform, stronger environmental regulations, stricter rules on Wall Street, and greater investment in jobs and anti-poverty programs; turning Election Day into a national holiday, reforming our labor laws, protecting women's right to choose, expanding LGBT rights, making our tax system more progressive, reforming our racist criminal justice system, investing more public dollars in job-creating infrastructure and clean energy projects; adopting paid family leave, and expanding health insurance to all and limiting the influence of the drug and insurance industry.
But, at the moment, our stance must be one of resistance and opposition.
The Trump presidency and Trumpism is a new phenomenon in our country's history. Never before has such an authoritarian personality been president. We've had demagogues in the House and Senate, but never in the Oval Office. The best primer to understand what we're facing is Philip Roth's 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, a counter-factual history in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 presidential election by the pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic aviator Charles Lindbergh.
It is not enough simply to proceed with caution. We must view Trump as a real threat to our institutions, to our democracy, and to our future.
Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books).