Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies. It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science. You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk. And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.
Trump is the man who sold us a fake university. Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president. Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick. And he’s good at it. It’s a skill that got him to the White House. But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.
The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist. His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying. Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction. Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.
Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned. Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:
“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”
The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism. Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty. (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)
Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America. Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.
Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.” So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all. You’re acting murderously instead.
Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”
They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.
Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.
Update (3/26): If America reopens by Easter with crowded churches and the like, prepare for lots of dead people, as this article and graph show (courtesy of the New York Times):
Every year, I watch a little of the NFL draft, one of America’s most revealing cultural displays. This year the draft was held in Nashville over two nights and one day. The NFL claimed 200,000 people showed up in Nashville for the draft, and indeed the outdoor audience resembled a mass political rally. Video boards and celebrities were everywhere. Last year, I wrote about the draft here, and so I won’t repeat those arguments. Suffice to say the draft is a massive commercial for the NFL and a massive exercise in nationalism.
Of course, the NFL is at pains to celebrate the military, and the military is at pains to boost recruitment, which lately has been disappointing. So predictably there was a prominent pro-military display during the draft. Early in the third round of the draft, there was a pause in the “auctioneering” of the athletes. Nine troops walked out in dress uniform: three Marines, two soldiers, two sailors, and two airmen. They stood at attention as the rally members chanted “USA! USA!” Then Lee Greenwood’s anthem came on: “God Bless the USA.” And the assembled masses sang along.
It was an exercise in pure, unadulterated, propaganda. “Proud to be an American,” indeed!
Last August, I wrote about sports and the military for TomDispatch.com, where I quoted this telling observation by Norman Mailer, which he made prior to the Iraq War in 2003:
“The dire prospect that opens, therefore, is that America is going to become a mega-banana republic where the army will have more and more importance in Americans’ lives… [D]emocracy is the special condition — a condition we will be called upon to defend in the coming years. That will be enormously difficult because the combination of the corporation, the military, and the complete investiture of the flag with mass spectator sports has set up a pre-fascistic atmosphere in America already.”
A pre-fascistic atmosphere: a mass rally of 200,000 fans (fanatics?), applauding troops in uniform and singing about how proud they are to be Americans, where at least they know they’re free, as college athletes get auctioned off to NFL mega-millionaire and billionaire owners, all captured on gigantic video boards on prime-time television. Talk about making America great again!
Speaking of the Donald, Trump naturally had to get involved with the draft. One pro-Trump player who was drafted (Nick Bosa) had criticized ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had taken a knee at several games to raise consciousness of violence against blacks. Bosa had tweeted various insults against Kaepernick, calling him “Crappernick” and “a clown.” Trump, showing his usual leadership skills, urged Bosa in a tweet to “always stay true to yourself,” concluding “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Ah, “greatness” has so many different meanings, does it not? But something tells me America’s founders didn’t think “greatness” resided in the conjunction of sports, the military, corporations, and jingoistic shouts of “USA! USA!”
Back in 1992, when I was thinking about what to write my dissertation on, I put together a statement of intent and a bibliography. My statement was titled, “Economic Mobilization and National Strategies in Great Britain and France during the Great War.” As it turns out, I decided not to pursue a military subject, turning instead to science and religion, an area I examined when I pursued my master’s degree. I was reminded of all this as I looked through old documents this weekend in pursuit of references for a friend.
Anyway, here’s my statement from 1992 about World War I as a killing machine:
The Great War was a struggle waged by modern industrial juggernauts. The Western Front witnessed organized destruction on a scale heretofore thought impossible. Staggered by the costs of modern war, all combatants mobilized their economies, with varying degrees of success.
All countries in 1914 expected a short war and lacked plans for economic mobilization. Confronted by a stalemate on the Western Front which owed everything to modern industrialism, Britain and France drastically modified their economies. In Britain, the “Shells Scandal” provoked a cabinet crisis and the establishment of a new ministry of munitions, headed by David Lloyd George. Riding roughshod over the army’s traditional procurement practices, Lloyd George worked production miracles. Fed by massive imports of coal and metal from England, France embarked on an industrial program characterized by massive improvisation. Together, Britain and France formed an industrial alliance that proved to be a war-winning “arsenal of democracy”.
My dissertation will examine the efforts of Britain and France to gear their economies for war. I will focus on cooperation between the two countries. Since the Great War was primarily an industrial war, events in the economic sphere largely determined national strategies. My dissertation will also examine how economic concerns drove military strategy and operations on the Western Front.
As a preliminary thesis, I hold that the “industrial miracle” of Britain and France led to an overvaluing of machines at the soldiers’ expense. For Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and others like him, the new artillery with its massive stockpile of shells was a deus ex machina, a winning god of war. In his hands, soldiers became little more than power units, trained automatons who at the Somme in 1916 only needed to walk across no-man’s land and occupy the enemy’s trenches.
Overwhelmed by the conditions of modern warfare, British and French commanders placed too much faith in machines. Far from underestimating the impact of technology on the battlefield, they saw it as a panacea. Triumphs of production were frittered away in battle due to inadequate training and insufficient attention to tactical performance. Worst of all, as commanders consumed vast quantities of munitions, they seemed to become hardened to an expenditure of lives on a similar, but infinitely more horrendous, scale.
Furthermore, as economic means were mobilized, sacrifices incurred by destructive industrialism drove nations to inflate strategic ends and incite national will. Total economic warfare led to heightened political demands, eliminating chances for compromise; an incited populace could only be calmed by total victory. War was not politics by other means; it was industrial production by any means. This was not at the bequest of a “merchants of death” cartel; it was the natural outcome of a crisis which turned nations into machines for war.
In a sense, modern war became equivalent to modern industrialism, and vice-versa. Lewis Mumford suggests that “The army is in fact the ideal form toward which a purely mechanical system of industry must tend.” The individual soldier was reduced to a power unit and trained to be an automaton. Mass production and mass conscription had much in common, Mumford notes. “Quantity production must rely for its success upon quantity consumption; and nothing ensures replacement like organized destruction.”
The Great War witnessed a crisis of morale, and at the root of this crisis was the realization that military power had grown uncontrollable, and this was directly attributable to weapons technology. What disturbed so many was the futility of their efforts: the decidedly unheroic deaths awaiting them. As historian Paul Kennedy observed, victory went to the side whose combination of both military-naval and financial-industrial-technological resources was the greatest.
Extreme military effort drove countries to pursue extreme political gains. Nations became machines for war and little else.
Looking back, I can see why I didn’t pursue this. I wasn’t interested in economic mobilization; what really interested me was how warfare had changed, how nations became war machines, how it altered the politics of nations and the mindset of peoples. In a way, fascism in Italy, Germany, and elsewhere in the 1920s and 1930s was the logical outcome of near-total war mobilization in World War I.
Consider the United States today. The U.S. dominates the world’s trade in weaponry. The U.S. spends enormous sums of money on its military. The U.S. is devoted to the machinery of warfare, celebrating its weapons of mass destruction at various sporting events. The U.S. is even planning on revamping its world-destroying nuclear arsenal at a cost of $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years. All of this is considered “normal” in what Americans still consider as the world’s leading democracy.
Yet, how can a machine for war be consistent with democracy? How did we come to see more and more weapons — even WMD — as the guarantor of peace and freedom? How did the machinery of war become synonymous with the health of the state? What does it say about us as a nation?
Five years ago, I wrote an article to suggest “American fascism” was a misleading concept. Here’s some of what I wrote:
Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.
But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.
It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism:
“A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.
Here we are, in 2018, and the idea of American fascism no longer seems as misleading as it did to me in 2013. For his followers, Donald Trump is a messiah-like dictator. There’s even a movie making the rounds (“The Trump Prophecy“) about how Trump’s election in 2016 was an act of God. Meanwhile, the American justice system is increasingly partisan, increasingly captive to the political right, even as it remains favorably predisposed to the powerful. Our votes are increasingly suppressed: polling stations are closed in minority neighborhoods; onerous voter ID laws work to restrict voting by the “wrong” kind of people; early voting is being curtailed; voting rolls are being purged; and gerrymandering is widespread. All of these steps are designed to protect one party in particular: the Republican.
To return to Paxton’s definition in the light of 2018: Trump ran on a platform of American decline. He sees himself and his followers as victims; nationalist militarism is growing in popularity; democratic liberties are being eroded (whoever thought children would be separated from parents at the border and put into what are effectively concentration camps?).
Ethical and legal restraints still exist on the worst of this behavior, but for how long?
Fascism, Norman Mailer wrote, is “a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.” Nowadays we call these lies “fake news” or “alternative facts.” Whatever you call them, they feed what Mailer called “an insidious, insipid sickness” in society that “demands a violent far-reaching purgative.”
That’s where all of Trump’s lies may be leading us: to violent purges internally and violent surges externally. It’s a grim vision, one that no longer seems as far-fetched to me as it did in 2013.
My father’s family was Italian, and his relatives fought, suffered, and died in Italy’s wars before and during World War I. In his diary, my dad recounted these relatives and their fates:
My mother as far as I can recall had two brothers in the [Italian military] service. One brother had an exploding shell land near him. He was highly agitated. A doctor who knew my mother’s family saw that he got a medical discharge.
His brother had a much more dangerous career in the Italian Army. He was a forward observer for an artillery unit. He was severely gassed on the Austrian front. He survived the war but had a premature death from the effects of the gas.
Luigi, Uncle Louie, Astore had quite a career in the Italian Army. My mother used to call him El Sargento.
Uncle Louie fought three years in the Turkish War[1911-12] and four years in World War 1. He was a prisoner of war in Germany for a year. I overheard a conversation and he remarked that things were tough as a prisoner and food was a scarce item. He never told me about his experiences in World War 1.
So, my grandmother had one brother who had shell-shock (PTSD) and another who died prematurely from poison gas. My grandfather had a brother (Luigi) who was a POW who nearly starved and who didn’t talk about his war experiences. (I am too young to have clear memories of Luigi, but photos show an unsmiling man, which is not surprising given his war experiences.)
War is all hell, as General William Sherman said, and my father’s family’s experience in Italy illustrates the truth of that.
A childhood friend of mine, who also had Italian parents, sent along a book recommendation to me: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson. My friend wrote a nice little review of it in an email to me, which follows below:
The White War (about Italy’s WWI fight against the Austro-Hungarians) has been fascinating but also depressing. The insistence of Italian staff officers to send poorly armed and trained men into a battlefield even more deadly than the western front (the Italians had to scale hills and mountains in the face of withering machine gun and artillery fire) boggles the mind. The Italian high command also had the dubious distinction of ordering more summary executions of the rank and file than the Brits, French, Germans, and Austrians. Illiterate peasants needlessly sent to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands with Italian military policemen stationed with machine guns to their rear with orders to fire on them in case they did not show the requisite élan. (My mother’s paternal uncle fell in that war–I wonder what horrors he saw and experienced.) If it did not already exist, surely the stereotypical Italian cynicism toward governmental authority resulted from the incompetence and brutality of Italian military leadership in WWI.
With respect to Italian POWs and food scarcity during captivity, my friend noted the following startling fact that he gleaned from reading The White War:
Italian authorities made it a policy to prevent food packages from being sent to Italian POWs in Austrian control as part of their strategy to deter Italian soldiers from surrendering. Many POWs died as a result. Unbelievable.
So much for the alleged glories of war. Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary, fought under bitterly cold conditions in the torturous terrain of the alps, is little known in the United States. It was a disastrous struggle that consumed nearly a million men for little reason, and the frustrations of that war – the betrayal of common soldiers by societal elites – contributed to estrangement, bitterness, and the embrace of fascism in the 1920s as an alternative to the status quo.
In U.S. politics today, with the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s strong man posturing that recalls the thrusting belligerence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are we witnessing something similar? Recall that Trump in 2016 garnered a lot of support in rural areas by taking a position against America’s wasteful wars, even as he beckoned to an unspecified “great” past. Mussolini, who railed against Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I, also won support by calling for societal revival, even as he beckoned to the greatness of Italy’s imperial past.
Like Mussolini, Trump wasn’t (and isn’t) against war. Rather, both men were against losing wars. Appealing to tough-guy generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump promised Americans who had suffered they’d “win” again. Like Mussolini, he promised a brighter future (endless victories!) through higher military spending and aggressive military action. No more shame of “mutilated” victories — or so Mussolini and Trump promised.
Trump tapped the anger and resentments of American families who’d borne the sacrifices and suffering of the mutilated victories of Afghanistan and Iraq. He did this so well that, according to Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, citing a study by Boston University political science professor Douglas Krinera and University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen, it may have provided his winning margin of victory in 2016. As the study notes (also see the illustration above):
“[The] three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — could very well have been winners for [Hillary] Clinton [in 2016] if their war casualties were lower.”
Like rural Italian families in the aftermath of World War I, American rural families in the Bush-Obama “war on terror” rejected the status quo posturing of establishment politicians (e.g. Hillary Clinton), turning instead to the anger-driven nationalism (Italy first! America first!) of self-styled strong men like Mussolini and Trump.
The question is, as America’s fruitless wars persist, and as rural American families continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these wars, will “strong” men like Trump continue to prosper? Put differently, will the Democratic Party finally have the guts to offer an alternative vision that rejects forever war across the planet?
We know what happened to Mussolini’s quest to make Italy great again — total defeat in World War II. Will a similar fate befall Trump’s quest?
Editor’s Note: I’ve been reading Chris Hedges since his fine book, “War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning.” In this article, Hedges explains the cynicism of the U.S. political process, pinning the tail on the Democratic donkey even as the Republican elephant remains looming in the room. The Democrats, by moving to the right and by encouraging the rise of “fringe” candidates like Trump, have created a system that has alienated large swathes of the American electorate. Many of these people have embraced Trump, a political outsider with major, probably fatal, flaws. It’s what happens in the aftermath of Trump’s probable defeat that worries Hedges — as should it worry all of us.
Americans are not offered major-party candidates who have opposing political ideologies or ideas. We are presented only with manufactured political personalities. We vote for the candidate who makes us “feel” good about him or her. Campaigns are entertainment and commercial vehicles to raise billions in advertising revenue for corporations. The candidate who can provide the best show gets the most coverage. The personal brand is paramount. It takes precedence over ideas, truth, integrity and the common good. This cult of the self, which defines our politics and our culture, contains the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, self-importance, a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation, and incapacity for remorse or guilt. Donald Trump has these characteristics. So does Hillary Clinton.
Our system of inverted totalitarianism has within it the seeds of an overt or classical fascism. The more that political discourse becomes exclusively bombastic and a form of spectacle, the more that emotional euphoria is substituted for political thought and the more that violence is the primary form of social control, the more we move toward a Christianized fascism.
Last week’s presidential debate in St. Louis was only a few degrees removed from the Jerry Springer TV show—the angry row of women sexually abused or assaulted by Bill Clinton, the fuming Trump pacing the stage with a threatening posture, the sheeplike and carefully selected audience that provided the thin veneer of a democratic debate while four multimillionaires—Martha Raddatz, Anderson Cooper, Clinton and Trump—squabbled like spoiled schoolchildren.
The Clinton campaign, aware that the policy differences between her and a candidate such as Jeb Bush were minuscule, plotted during the primaries to elevate the fringe Republican candidates—especially Trump. To the Democratic strategists, a match between Clinton and Trump seemed made in heaven. Trump, with his “brain trust” of Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, would make Clinton look like a savior.
A memo addressed to the Democratic National Committee under the heading “Our Goals & Strategy” was part of the trove of John Podesta emails released this month by WikiLeaks.
“Our hope is that the goal of a potential HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] campaign and the DNC would be one-in-the-same: to make whomever the Republicans nominate unpalatable to the majority of the electorate. We have outlined three strategies to obtain our goal …,” it reads.
The memo names Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson as candidates, or what the memo calls “Pied Piper” candidates who could push mainstream candidates closer to the positions embraced by the lunatic right. “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”
The elites of the two ruling parties, who have united behind Clinton, are playing a very dangerous game. The intellectual and political vacuum caused by the United States’ species of anti-politics, or what the writer Benjamin DeMott called “junk politics,” leaves candidates, all of whom serve the interests of the corporate state, seeking to exaggerate what Sigmund Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences.”
However, this battle between small differences, largely defined by the culture wars, no longer works with large segments of the population. The insurgencies of Trump and Bernie Sanders are evidence of a breakdown of these forms of social control. There is a vague realization among Americans that we have undergone a corporate coup. People are angry about being lied to and fleeced by the elites. They are tired of being impotent. Trump, to many of his most fervent supporters, is a huge middle finger to a corporate establishment that has ruined their lives and the lives of their children. And if Trump, or some other bombastic idiot, is the only vehicle they have to defy the system, they will use him.
The elites, including many in the corporate press, must increasingly give political legitimacy to goons and imbeciles in a desperate battle to salvage their own legitimacy. But the more these elites pillage and loot, and the more they cast citizens aside as human refuse, the more the goons and imbeciles become actual alternatives. The corporate capitalists would prefer the civilized mask of a Hillary Clinton. But they also know that police states and fascist states will not impede their profits; indeed in such a state the capitalists will be more robust in breaking the attempts of the working class to organize for decent wages and working conditions. Citibank, Raytheon and Goldman Sachs will adapt. Capitalism functions very well without democracy.
In the 1990s I watched an impotent, nominally democratic liberal elite in the former Yugoslavia fail to understand and act against the population’s profound economic distress. The fringe demagogues whom the political and educated elites dismissed as buffoons—Radovan Karadzic, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman—rode an anti-liberal tide to power.
The political elites in Yugoslavia at first thought the nationalist cranks and lunatics, who amassed enough support to be given secondary positions of power, could be contained. This mistake was as misguided as Franz von Papen’s assurances that when the uncouth Austrian Adolf Hitler was appointed the German chancellor in January 1933 the Nazi leader would be easily manipulated. Any system of prolonged political paralysis and failed liberalism vomits up monsters. And the longer we remain in a state of political paralysis—especially as we stumble toward another financial collapse—the more certain it becomes that these monsters will take power.
Fascism, at its core, is an amorphous and incoherent ideology that perpetuates itself by celebrating a grotesque hypermasculinity, elements of which are captured in Trump’s misogyny. It allows disenfranchised people to feel a sense of power and to have their rage sanctified. It takes a politically marginalized and depoliticized population and mobilizes it around a utopian vision of moral renewal and vengeance and an anointed political savior. It is always militaristic, anti-intellectual and contemptuous of democracy and replaces culture with nationalist and patriotic kitsch. It sees those outside the closed circle of the nation-state or the ethnic or religious group as diseased enemies that must be physically purged to restore the health of nation.
Many of these ideological elements are already part of our system of inverted totalitarianism. But inverted totalitarianism, as Sheldon Wolin wrote, disclaims its identity to pay homage to a democracy that in reality has ceased to function. It is characterized by the anonymity of the corporate centers of power. It seeks to keep the population passive and demobilized. I asked Wolin shortly before he died in 2015 that if the two major forms of social control he cited—access to easy and cheap credit and inexpensive, mass-produced consumer products—were no longer available would we see the rise of a more classical form of fascism. He said this would indeed become a possibility.
Bill Clinton transformed the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. He pushed the Republican Party so far to the right it became insane. Hillary Clinton is Mitt Romney in drag. She and the Democratic Party embrace policies—endless war, the security and surveillance state, neoliberalism, austerity, deregulation, new trade agreements and deindustrialization—that are embraced by the Republican elites. Clinton in office will continue the neoliberal assault on the poor and the working poor, and increasingly the middle class, that has defined the corporate state since the Reagan administration. She will do so while speaking in the cloying and hypocritical rhetoric of compassion that masks the cruelty of corporate capitalism.
The Democratic and Republican parties may be able to disappear Trump, but they won’t disappear the phenomena that gave rise to Trump. And unless the downward spiral is reversed—unless the half of the country now living in poverty is lifted out of poverty—the cynical game the elites are playing will backfire. Out of the morass will appear a genuine “Christian” fascist endowed with political skill, intelligence, self-discipline, ruthlessness and charisma. The monster the elites will again unwittingly elevate, as a foil to keep themselves in power, will consume them. There would be some justice in this if we did not all have to pay.
A reader wrote to me this morning about Donald Trump and American fascism. Is Trump, with his anti-immigrant posturing and his generally bombastic demeanor, tapping into a “fascist spring” in America?
The question seems unduly alarming as well as absurd. But let’s pause for a moment. I recently saw on TV the results of a poll in which Americans were asked, “Which presidential candidate would best revive the American economy?” The clear winner: Donald Trump. Yes, maybe it’s just name recognition or an association of Trump’s name with money-making, but the result was nevertheless disturbing.
Here’s the thing: It’s easy to view Trump as a joke. His bad hair. His vulgar manner. His obvious bombast.
But guess who else was dismissed as a joke? Adolf Hitler.
Before he got his grip on power, many in Germany thought that Hitler was a joke: bad haircut, ill-fitting clothes, vulgar accent. Hitler was known as the “Bohemian Corporal,” a euphemism which in colloquial American English translates to “Hillbilly Grunt.” As a result, “good” Germans just couldn’t take Hitler that seriously. They underestimated him — and when they tried to move against him, it was far too late.
Of course, I’m not saying that Trump is some kind of Hitler. What I am saying is that popular demagogues are easy to make fun of — easy, that is, until they gain power.
Sinclair Lewis had it right: It Can Happen Here. All it takes is a megalomaniacal and messianic leader, a crisis to make the people desperate (such as the Great Depression that facilitated Hitler’s rise), various elites who cynically and opportunistically throw their support behind the “great leader,” and enough of the rest of us who choose, out of fear or indifference or ignorance, to do nothing.
Update (8/23/15): The Donald is still gaining in the polls, notes the New York Times, despite (or rather because of) the outrageous things he says:
In poll after poll of Republicans, Mr. Trump leads among women, despite having used terms like “fat pigs” and “disgusting animals” to denigrate some of them. He leads among evangelical Christians, despite saying he had never had a reason to ask God for forgiveness. He leads among moderates and college-educated voters, despite a populist and anti-immigrant message thought to resonate most with conservatives and less-affluent voters. He leads among the most frequent, likely voters, even though his appeal is greatest among those with little history of voting.
One thing is certain: Trump draws support from people who are simply tired of traditional candidates like Jeb Bush. But does Trump stand for anything other than himself? He’s notably vague on the issues, perhaps learning from the Obama Campaign in 2008 that it’s far better to sell vague slogans like “hope” and “change” to the American people. Trump’s slogan is “Make America Great Again!” — and that may be all that many Americans want to hear.