“I’ve lived long enough to know,” my friend said, “history repeats itself. It’s really true.” I’m sitting with a 93 year old woman, a German holocaust survivor. Another friend and I visited her in a nursing home last weekend. “I swear it could be 1938 all over again,” she told us, “this is just how it started.”
Her words sent chills through me. The association has been made by others before. Many feel that American politics has taken on an eerie echo of the rise of Nazism, but to hear it from someone who lived that history brought the comparison into sharp relief.
I’m going to try to say my piece about this without being insulting or dismissive to too many Americans, but I’m becoming very frightened. I have studied history and the rise and fall of dictators and demagogues. To me there is a pattern to their seemingly impossible political success. A time of economic difficulty leaves large portions of the population feeling disenfranchised and disempowered. Then a politician arrives to reassure these downtrodden people. He tells them that they are somehow superior to someone else, be it intellectually, physically or culturally. He makes them feel powerful and valuable again although there has been no substantial change in their condition. The seed of prejudice is sown and flowers quickly into hatred and then violence. Hatred is addictive. It is so much easier to blame someone else than to feel responsible for your own failures.
In our situation, I don’t believe anyone is specifically to blame for the disenfranchisement of many lower and middle class Americans. Their manufacturing jobs disappeared. The government did little or nothing to provide retraining for them. Former company towns began to struggle, then languish, as those who could moved away and those who couldn’t sat idle in their homes that no one wanted to buy. Meanwhile, elsewhere, cities flourished and prospered. A handful of Americans accumulated unprecedented levels of wealth. It was a terrible sacrifice to make in the name of globalization and it very unfortunately fell on the backs on millions of good, honest people.
But there are only so many excuses we can make when it comes to the rise of someone like Donald Trump. There are wealthy people who support him as well, people who never experienced disenfranchisement or desperation. My only explanation now is that given public approval to demonstrate their personal prejudices, large swathes of the population have become addicted to bigotry and the buoyant feeling of superiority. They are bombastically defensive of their stances or quietly demurring and almost embarrassed when asked who they support to become the next president. It does not matter. A vote for Trump is a vote for hatred, bigotry, intolerance and inequality. A loud vote or a quiet vote is still a vote. I really believe that we are all better than this. Perhaps it’s naïve, but I still think most people are capable of great generosity and kindness.
I know that political opinion in America is deeply entrenched and I don’t pretend that my voice will convince anyone to switch sides come November. But I will say this: regardless of who you support, what you believe, what kind of Democrat or Republican you are, or how much anger you feel, make an attempt at kindness. Smile at someone who isn’t like you. Read a book written by someone you blame for something. Listen respectfully to someone you disagree with. I’ve done this on several occasions with Trump supporters and though it was hard to keep my mouth shut, I gained a lot of understanding from these exchanges. Kindness can be as addictive as hatred and a hell of a lot less stressful to carry around. Perhaps through kindness we can ensure that history does not repeat itself this time. Only time will tell if this country can heal its divisions, so deep and long in the making. I have a feeling that won’t be possible as long as we’re constantly attacking each other.