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O My America: We’ll Survive. Will We Transform?

Lawrence Bush
November 7, 2016

by Lawrence Bush

OF THE SERIES of ten anti-Trump posters that I knocked out in ten days last month, it was the third image — Adolf Hitler reading about Trump and delighting in the news — that went beyond the bounds for some readers.

At the time I was reading a new biography of Hitler, Volker Ullrich's Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, a 750-plus-page analysis that examines Hitler as a politician more than as a madman. Michiko Kakutani summed up Ullrich's key points perfectly in her September 27th New York Times review:

• "Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a 'bottomless mendacity' that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message."

• He "specialized in big, theatrical rallies staged with spectacular elements borrowed from the circus. Here, 'Hitler adapted the content of his speeches to suit the tastes of his lower-middle-class, nationalist-conservative, ethnic-chauvinist and anti-Semitic listeners,' Mr. Ullrich writes. He peppered his speeches with coarse phrases and put-downs of hecklers. Even as he fomented chaos by playing to crowds’ fears and resentments, he offered himself as the visionary leader who could restore law and order."

• "Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising 'to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,' though he was typically vague about his actual plans. He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better 'to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.'"

• Hitler "benefited from a 'constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously' — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an 'erosion of the political center' and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed 'a man of iron' who could shake things up."

The analogies to the rise of Donald Trump that are implicit in Kakutani's review perhaps make her piece seem tendentious — yet today, one day before our national election, with Trump taking another hint from Hitler's playbook and flying around to five different swing states in twenty-four hours in his personal jet ("The slogan, 'Hitler over Germany,'" Ullrich writes, "which party newspapers published in screaming headlines, suggested not only that Hitler was omnipresent: it also symbolized his claim to be above classes and parties and anticipated the coming 'ethnic community'") — I find Kakutani's unspoken parallels compelling. And I think we can all be grateful that Trump is not as eloquent and exciting a speaker as Hitler, not as young as Hitler (in his forties when he rose to power in 1933), and is making his bid for power in a country that is not in nearly as desperate a condition as Germany was in the 1920s and '30s.

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WHEN the Democrats squeak through tomorrow, however — even if they tromp Trump — progressives will have to do a lot more than mop our brows and wait for Hillary to name her disappointing Cabinet and her middle-of-the-road Supreme Court nominee. The economic and military nationalism that Trump trumpets is a shortsighted response to some very real perceptions: that globalization may have helped lower poverty (somewhat) in the Third World and has hugely enriched the upper crust of America, but has turned the U.S. economy into a gladiatorial pit for uneducated workers; that the computer revolution has gone hand-in-hand with an inadequate education system to make those gladiators' weapons rusty; that the U.S. has squandered trillions on Mideastern wars that have only fomented chaos and terrorism.

I see a desperate need for leadership that can rebuild working people's confidence in government as protector, mediator, and redistributor of society's wealth through taxation and regulation. That vision needs to be proclaimed and defended — and expressed through actual policy.

I see a desperate need for leadership that can shame the Republicans and the rabble-rousers of the right, and foster political enlightenment rather than political correctness.

I see a desperate need for leadership that can bring the computer revolution to its logical conclusion and redefine "work" and the economy to include a livable minimum income for everyone and a celebration of the fact that robots and computers are making "work" obsolete.

I see a desperate need for leadership strong enough to restrain our country from making war and creative enough to invest resources into building international alliances based on the concern for human rights and human well-being.

I could go on, but it becomes a stump speech of sorts — tedious and abstract and yeah, yeah, yeah. Besides, I won't pretend that I actually know how to cut through the knots of racism, sexism, inertia, marginalization, ideology, us-versus-them animosity, ruling class greed, rapidly changing culture, hedonism, etc. etc. that have made our country seem disturbingly analogous to pre-Hitler Germany. I only know that if Trump is defeated tomorrow, it will only be a breather, a very brief respite from the drive to "strong man" leadership, unless we all think creatively, diligently, and with generosity and moral courage, about what is to be done — and then see that it gets done.

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Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.