Great article on how we compare Trump to previous historical figures.
The greatest civic danger, however, is complacency. Peddling certainty and solace, many historical analogies make beguiling but dangerous promises about what will happen next. When we compare Trump to George Wallace or Henry Ford, similar men who never became president, we feel worse about the Donald’s chances and better about ourselves. But historical analogies offer only the illusion of sense. And as they move things strange and shocking back to familiar terrain, as they reassure us that the past explains the present, many historical comparisons invite us to disengage. We know the script. We know how it ends. Instead of sparking our political imagination, the past can sometimes short-circuit it.
In medieval Europe, anti-Semitic rhetoric preached from pulpits led to real, bone-breaking violence against Jews. Crude sexual insinuations published by the French gutter press in the 1780s steadily corroded the political conventions shielding Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, making it possible for their subjects to imagine both revolution and execution. Germans supported Hitler in part because Nazism had become salonfähig, the socially acceptable stuff of polite conversation.
When Trump mocks the disabled or wishes that he could assault protesters or predicts riots should he be denied the nomination, he widens our shared sense of what is politically possible to think, say, and do. Here the past offers not a script so much as a crucial, destabilizing insight: Words, especially words uttered in public, can have incantatory power. They can summon demons.
The Weimar Republic can be useful for the same reason: not for breezily labeling Trump an American Hitler, but to remind us more generally that political order can be remarkably fragile, civilization only skin-deep. After all, despite volatile economic conditions and the lingering trauma of wartime defeat, Germans in the 1920s lived under the most progressive constitution in the world: a radical democratic system of proportional representation, equal rights for women, and a guaranteed right to housing. Political disagreements worsened and polarization increased, but Germans had no reason to doubt that they lived in a modern, civilized country. It took only a few elections for the land of Beethoven and Goethe to succumb to its darkest instincts. Sheer disbelief kept many Germans from emigrating when they had the chance.
The past warns us that systems work until they don’t. Watching Trump prepare to seize the Republican nomination, it’s easy to surrender to a kind of civic paralysis that’s equal parts horror and glee. We should bear in mind, however, that this election is under no obligation to settle out safely. Political orders do not automatically sustain themselves.
Understanding that last sentence is so important.
(Via James Fallows.)