A good friend, writing to me last year, watching the
improbable rise of Donald Trump, wondered if we weren’t turning towards the
anger, the xenophobia, and the dysfunction of 1920s and 30s Europe. At the time, I thought his concerns were
overstated. The American political system has almost always shown a type of
awkward agility in dealing with fringe movements. It incorporates them, shaves
the edges off them, feeds them a few crumbs (or sometimes a part of a loaf) and
moves on. We don’t usually have radical
change here—it tends to be incremental and reflective of a popular desire to
meet emergent needs.
A year later, as the rhetoric has ratcheted ever-higher, I’m
wondering if my friend didn’t have a point, and I’ve been asking myself if we
are, in fact, nimble enough to avoid at least a temporary trip to the
In May of 1940, after the Germans invaded France, Marshal Philippe
Pétain, “Hero of Verdun” then 84 years old, was, as a confidence-building
measure, named Vice-Premier to Paul Reynard’s government. By June, with the
Germans occupying roughly two-thirds of the country, Reynard was out, and he was put in charge. He
went on national radio and announced “I make France the gift of my person” and
asked the Germans for an armistice.
collaborationist regime was set up in Vichy (later in Clermont-Ferrand), with Pétain
as nominal Head of State, and Pierre Laval acting as the true head of the
The military and moral collapse of the Third Republic was so
swift that it is hard to fully grasp. The country sorted itself out into
winners and losers. Neighbors informed against each other, political enemies were imprisoned and property was confiscated. The French security services coordinated with the
Gestapo to squelch dissent, and Jews were deported to
concentration camps. Frenchman even volunteered to serve in the Charlemagne Division
of the Waffen SS.
But at the center of this was an island of calm, Maréchal Pétain
, an old and
old-fashioned man held in enormous esteem, who saw his duty to his country: to
spare them from physical destruction, to resist left-wing ideology, and restore
traditional values of Work, Family, Fatherland.
To this end, Pétain offered France the gift of his person. He
gave to it the remnants of a national pride, an expiation for sin.
And much of France accepted. They went back to
their lives, went back to their work, and closed their shutters, and their
eyes, to the injustices and indignities around them. They collaborated.
Why? Historians have considered it—most have been unsparing
in their judgements. France was alone among the occupied European countries in
this. How did a great and cultured nation—even one battered by World War I,
frightened by the rise of Bolshevism, riven by political disputes and the rise
of radical movements turn this way? A great deal of blame can be placed on
their leadership—ego and obstruction in political matters, fatalism amongst the
General Staff of the army, a loss of nerve and will, a complacency with static
older ideas, and finally, an inability to offer enough of anything resembling
hope to an edgy populace.
cannot look forward, one often looks to the past.
I am not comparing 1940 France to 2016 America, but some of the same forces are in play—the weariness, the sense of failure associated with the
governing class, the fear of outsiders and the desire to purify, the loss of
hope, even the desire to strike out at perceived rivals.
In such fertile fields can grow a Donald Trump, a man who
bases an entire campaign on a pervasive sense of resentment.
It isn’t that Trump is actually qualified.
Clearly, he shouldn’t be President. He does have strengths—I think his critics who point to his bankruptcies (and
his probable non-payment of income tax) are missing the mark.
Trump has played the system magnificently
over the years, and a subscript of his campaign is his message that he will
play the system for his supporters.
along with his volatile temperament, he both lacks basic knowledge, and the
curiosity to obtain that knowledge.
And yet, as the tightening of the polls show, he’s at the
doorstep. 60 million people, give or take a few million, are likely to vote for
him. You can’t pigeonhole them—not everyone fits neatly into a description, a
socio-economic or educational group, or any other demographic marker.
Still, there is a common tie among many—they are the ones who
feel besieged by modernity.
Family and Fatherland” sounds about right to them.
It renders irrelevant possible policy
differences with Trump, even causes them to look away from his excesses. They
don’t apply the same standards as they might to a more conventional politician.
Rather, in search of a safe harbor, they accept Trump’s “gift of his person”
and they think the rest will work itself out somehow.
Why are Trump’s actual qualifications of so little import? There
is a paradox at work here.
The GOP has
made the last seven-plus years about diminishing the Presidency while
hyperbolizing every real and alleged flaw of its present occupant. They may
have succeeded too well.
The office is
diminished—diminished to the point where Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan believe
Trump will sign anything put in front of him. And diminished to where many in
the electorate don’t believe that a bad President can do a lot of damage—that any
risk in electing Trump is ameliorated by his expected powerlessness when it comes to the nuts
and bolts of governing.
Can he get the votes? There is plenty of enthusiasm out
there for Trump, but the people who attend rallies will not, on their own, win
him the Presidency. If he wins, it’s going to be because of the support of a
far greater number who will just go along, like those who supported Maréchal Pétain
. They will look the
other way, ignoring his flaws, consoling themselves with the thought that
difficult times require a strong hand, that the destination is more important
than a little unpleasantness on journey.
Are they enough to take the prize? I don't know, but I can say that too much confidence in Hillary Clinton's supposed edge is akin to standing behind the Maginot Line.
Beware the Blitz. Yes, Trump can win.
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