This Sunday, Father’s Day, marks the four-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s announcement of candidacy for the presidency on the United States. On June 16, 2015, Trump rode an escalator down to the lobby of Trump Tower and, in a 3,600-word diatribe, pounded home two messages: evil schemes of foreigners had badly weakened America’s foundations, and he, unlike other candidates, possessed the superhuman strength to lift America from the ruins.
The end of America’s greatness, Trump insisted, had come from two places: Mexico and China. When “Mexico sends its people," he claimed, we get rapists and drug users. As for China, they’re “killing us," because “their leaders are much smarter than our leaders.”
The racial stereotyping was blatant, but hardly original; only the targets had changed from 90 years earlier. “Mein Kampf” was published in 1925, proclaiming Adolf Hitler’s worldview and calling for the creation of a “Greater Germany.” The treatise linked Jewish dark features to greed, cunning and sexual treachery. It declared: “The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce.”
Germany and its good Aryan people, Hitler wrote, had been outsmarted, leaving their nation economically controlled by Jews: “The intellectual faculties of the Jew have been trained through thousands of years … At this stage finance and trade had become his complete monopoly.”
My Jewish parents were both born in Germany. They and their families had to flee for their lives. That is the lens through which I’ve viewed the Trump candidacy, and now his presidency. When I listen to the political rhetoric of contemporary America, I hear echoes, and they are not all that faint.
I am writing this Father’s Day column to honor the enormous personal hardship endured and the sacrifices made by my father and those of his generation who saved the world from a genocidal dictator. I write also to sound an alarm: when citizens react to government hate-based rhetoric and policies with apathy, indifference or encouragement, a national or international bonfire will likely result.
Is it alarmist to draw parallels between present-day America and the rise of Nazi Germany? Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning doesn’t think it is. In an essay published last October, he identifies “several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.”
The similarities, he writes, include President Trump’s “xenophobic nationalism (and in many cases explicitly anti-white immigrant nationalism)." Another chilling similarity for Browning is Trump’s stated admiration for autocratic leaders, and his direct attacks on key elements of the democratic process.
The difference: while Hitler and Mussolini ruled by absolute dictatorship, Browning argues, 21st century autocrats promote “illiberal democracy." To rule as an autocrat, Browning declares, a Vladimir Putin or a Donald Trump does not have to formally abolish democratic institutions.
My father, Arnold, was born in 1919 in Pforzheim, Germany, an urban center by the Black Forest. His pre-teen years were a time when the drumbeats of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party on the march were growing ever louder. In 1933, Hitler seized power; my father and his Jewish family remained in Pforzheim for five years.
Living through government hate messaging and policies of horror, they did not leave until 1938, when my paternal grandfather was forcibly taken to a refugee camp in Poland. My father and the remaining family members then fled to the U.S. and Canada.
By 1942, my father was a 23-year-old American citizen living in Philadelphia. He became one of the nearly 2,000 men to make the transition from Nazi Germany refugee to American soldier. Near the war’s end, he suffered six days and nights in heavy combat at the Battle of the Bulge. He said little about any of this; his frequent silence and depression spoke volumes.
Kept on the shelf of my father’s study was a copy of American journalist William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." Shirer, a correspondent stationed in Berlin and Vienna from 1934 to 1940, chronicled four of the years my father endured what Hitler called “The Fatherland."
“The Rise and Fall," originally published in 1960 after 15 years of intensive research, provides extremely valuable history. Its detailed description of the way in which post-WWI resentments and German nationalism were used to manipulate the public and to destroy democratic institutions should be mandatory reading.
Tens of millions of people have purchased Shirer’s book. My father lived it through and through, first as a member of the largest group subjected to “The Final Solution," and then as part of the army that defeated The Third Reich.
With this in my DNA, I cannot watch the Trump presidency without speaking out. I am both angry at his election and deeply worried about our country.
Trump’s vicious verbal attacks continued relentlessly throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. He targeted three additional groups: African Americans, Muslims and women.
African Americans were delivered a violent message at a Trump rally. A black demonstrator, defenseless as he was being led out, was punched in the head by a white man. Trump praised the attacker, and added that he was considering providing aid to his legal defense.
Muslims were to be prevented from coming to America, Trump declared, foreshadowing the draconian ban. His view of the appropriate role of women was made clear in October 2016, with the web release of the “Entertainment Tonight” segment: as tens of millions have seen and heard, an open mic captured Trump boasting of, and encouraging, the grabbing of women by the genitals.
Trump campaign rallies have been marked by the venting of hatred. I watch them with pain and dread. We’ve all heard “build the wall” and “lock her up” chanted in a burning rage. How different is the evoked emotion there from the rallies of the Third Reich? And is there any significant difference between the advocacy in “Mein Kampf” of “The Big Lie" and the use of more than 10,000 misleading or false statements by President Trump since he took office? Can it be anything other than admiration for neo-fascistic rallies after Trump’s response to the deadly Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally: "very fine people on both sides?"
Who can be surprised that Trump has created a cult of personality after a campaign in which he proclaimed to the world, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters?" Who can be surprised that he considers himself and his staff above the legal requirements for congressional review, when he declined to pledge acceptance of the result of a November election were his opponent to win?
Amidst all the horrific statements, policies, tweetstorms and distractions, there are two events that set off the loudest alarm bells in my ears. First, Trump began his presidency with Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor. Flynn, five months prior to the Trump inauguration, had thundered: “Islamism [is] a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet, and it has to be excised!"
Flynn’s subsequent dishonesty led to his dismissal, and was followed by a guilty plea on a felony count. Flynn’s selection, however, as a principal White House adviser demonstrates that rabid hate speech, to the point of warmongering, is highly approved of by the president.
Second, Trump gave his assessment, three months ago, that his ultimate authority rests not on the duly constituted powers of the office, but on the military and paramilitary forces at his disposal. He declared: “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad.”
A majority of Americans rejects the Trump-driven forced march from democracy to autocracy, and rejects the hate-based premises of his policies. In 2016, 54 percent of us voted for Trump opponents. Polling about the Trump presidency has a majority consistently rejecting his actions.
I have a hope for Father’s Day 2020. It involves a "Million Man March Against Hate" taking place in Washington. Men, specifically white men over the age of 50, hold the majority of our nation’s political offices. This demographic — mine — constitutes a highly disproportionate share of Trump voters, and those chanting at Trump rallies.
We have a responsibility to stand up for democracy, decency and an end to government-sponsored hate. Men would take the lead in organizing the assemblage; all people of good will would be welcome. We owe it to my father and others in “The Greatest Generation," to ourselves, and to the world as a whole to do this. I hope to see you in Washington next June.
Ron Malzer is a retired psychologist and freelance writer who lives in La Crosse. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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