With the election a few days away, Donald Trump still has a fair chance of becoming President. But, even if he loses, unless it's by an increasingly unlikely landslide, his candidacy should have a profound impact on how America perceives itself.
Until Trump's ascendancy, the standard view, accepted by pundits, politicians and most ordinary citizens, was that the United States was a "melting pot" of many nationalities, ethnic groups, and religions, with its citizens having a good chance to achieve the American Dream of upward mobility. In addition, Americans were said to have respect for individual rights and the democratic "rules of the game," including that those who lost elections must respect the verdict of the electorate.
This perspective was embodied in the concept American Exceptionalism, which also proclaimed that the United States had an obligation to export its values throughout the world.
Historians and sociologists have, of course, long exposed the melting pot as largely mythical; racism and discrimination endemic; social mobility limited; our political system primarily serving the interests of privileged groups; and foreign policy rooted in self-interest, just like other nations'. Despite these reality checks, the self-congratulation has never ceased.
The arrogance implicit in American Exceptionalism has also fostered condescension, if not contempt, for the citizens of countries who have idolized demagogues and dictators. Not surprisingly, the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, in a formal democracy, and what it allegedly signified about the German people, has proven to be an enduring source of our self-flattery.
Ironically, a close look at the triumph of Nazism in 1933, would make the German people look no worse than Americans as this election approaches. It is a common but serious error to take the consequences of Hitler's becoming Chancellor as policies those who voted for him wanted or expected. His 1932 campaign platform did contain ominous threats to Jews, immigrants, Marxists and the signatories of the Versailles Treaty. More critical for his success, however, since Jews represented only 1 percent of the population and proportionately there were not many immigrants, Hitler's platform promised that the state "insures every citizen lives decently and earns his livelihood." This pledge probably meant more to his supporters, living during the Great Depression with an estimated 30 percent unemployed, than anything else. Absent from the platform were the promises made to himself before, during, or after 1932: the destruction of democratic institutions and civil rights in Germany, the invasion, conquest and colonization of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and genocidal policies against Jews, homosexuals, the mentally ill, Gypsies and other "inferior" humans.
Hitler was not even actually elected. He received only 37 percent of the vote in 1932, but was appointed Chancellor in 1933 because of maneuvering among various political contenders who fought each other and failed to take him seriously enough. Once in power, Hitler quickly moved to repress and then outlaw any political opposition and began implementing his personal agenda.
Donald Trump, in contrast to the situation in Germany in 1932, is running for President with unemployment at about 5 percent, crime rates still close to the lowest in decades, more Mexicans leaving the U.S. than arriving, and 24 deaths from jihadist domestic terror from 2005-2015 compared to 301,797 non-terrorist fire-arm related deaths. Yet, his campaign rhetoric focuses on nothing but unemployment, crime, immigration from Mexico, the pervasive threat of domestic terrorism and the need to arm ourselves. There are major problems in American society, just not the ones Trump is discussing.
I am not comparing Trump to Hitler. Trump is a demagogue but lacks a coherent evil worldview. Nor does he likely have much interest in governing. With his short attention span and lack of knowledge about virtually any subject, the danger arises most from those around him who compensate for his shortcomings and will advance policies that embrace xenophobia, racism, sexism and militarism. Sill, in a dark moment, one can imagine Trump wanting to drop a nuclear bomb on Syria or Iraq simply to avoid having to attend more briefings when he'd prefer tweeting and suing.
What bears comparison is the relationship of the American electorate now and German voters in 1932. What does Trump's success to date say about the "exceptionalism" of the American people? His level of hard-core support is probably comparable to that of Hitler, when the latter ran for office. But, Hitler's base was not sufficient to get power. To do that he had to enlist the help of others who might have found him somewhat distasteful on various grounds: aristocrats, wealthy businessmen, military officers, members of right-wing political parties, as well as ordinary citizens. They might not have signed on for all the elements of his platform, let alone what he ended up doing when they no longer had the power to stop him.
Trump also has his hard-core xenophobic, racist and sexist constituency, who will support him unless he makes a speech saying he has been joking all along and doesn't believe anything he is saying. But to have even come close in polls he has drawn the support of over 80 percent of those who identify as Republicans, even if some supported a Rubio, Cruz, Bush, Kasich or Carson in the primaries. These Trump voters have found some reason it's better to have him rather than Clinton; his willingness to keep taxes low for the wealthy; who he will nominate for the Supreme Court; his opposition to all gun control; his recent conversion to an anti-abortion stance; or simply, that he is a male. They may find him personally repulsive, but they don't have to spend time in his company.
So, regardless who wins on November 8, the traditional version of American Exceptionalism should be discarded. Almost half the electorate is like many of the Germans of 1932. Perhaps worse. Trump, after all, initially had more support than Hitler (without mass unemployment in the U.S. or defeat in a world war). Moreover, we have the benefit of learning from their history. Perhaps we are inventing a new form of exceptionalism: a relatively prosperous, stable, imperfect democracy possibly electing an authoritarian, demagogic, bigoted, sexual predator and con man as President for no good reason at all.