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 abyss.
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. A 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 government.
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. When one 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. But, 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. “Work, 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.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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