Chan Lowe: 'It can't happen here.' Sure it can

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PITTSFIELD — A college history professor of mine once posed the age-old question: "What shapes history: individuals or events?" We focused upon the example of interwar Germany — the mob violence in the streets instigated by paramilitary wings of various political factions; the runaway inflation that made daily life almost impossible to conduct and the general lack of confidence in a weak government that set the stage for a strong man who promised a restoration of Germany's lost honor. On the other side of the argument, we wondered how things might have turned out had Adolf Hitler — a unique figure, to say the least — not been rejected by the fine arts academy in Vienna.

This academic question acquires more salience in light of the latest occupant of the White House, because in seeking its answer we must confront the disconnect between the way we would like to view ourselves as Americans and the hard reality of whom we have chosen to lead this country. I suggest that there is a third alternative that my old professor neglected to posit: Why can't events and the individual develop in unison, acting as mutual catalysts and feeding off each other's cues in symbiosis?

Legal accession

Hitler, as many know, came to power legally. After ruthlessly manipulating the democratic political process, he eventually had himself declared Fuehrer by his own party, effectively gathering all power — and personal allegiance — to himself.

Donald Trump could have been stopped at the moment he made his golden escalator ride in June of 2015 and delivered the first of many speeches attacking Mexicans as criminals, defilers of American womenfolk and drug dealers. But the power elite scoffed, the media treated him as a punch line, and only a few realized how deeply his message of hate was resonating with those whose opinions were rarely sought or respected.

We should note that neither Donald Trump nor Hitler was elected to office by a majority of their people. Both used base appeals — blaming "the other" for the nation's problems, stoking white nationalism and encouraging disaffection with a government viewed by their followers as the enemy. They corralled this fury and fashioned it into a power base whose fervor made up for its lack of numbers. As in America today, a sizable group of people in 1930s Germany were content to remain passive, allowing events (including incremental power grabs and assaults on democratic institutions) to swirl about them as they relinquished their fate to the designs of others.

This country has made grievous mistakes, among them the Native American genocide and the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WWII. Nevertheless, it has clumsily tried to make amends and feel at least a moment's remorse before moving on to reassert its mythical position as moral leader of the Free World.

That myth — Ronald Reagan's Shining City on a Hill — is what has animated us since our nation's inception. Indeed, some of our greatest triumphs have come as a direct result of helping others: Twice, we sent our young men into battle thousands of miles from our shores to save the world for democracy. The Marshall Plan rebuilt the Europe of both our allies and former enemies. How do we, then — a nation that has always prided itself on being the light of the world and defender of human rights — find ourselves in the position of separating families and imprisoning toddlers in cages?

When the laughter ceased

We complacently assumed our institutions, norms and traditions were so entrenched that they could never break down the way Germany's did. We laughed off the brash reality show star until the laughter ceased and the disbelief began, as one by one the other Republican contenders dropped away and the possibility that Trump could actually prevail began to shoulder its way into our smug consciousness.

By then, it was too late. The opposition had mounted a flawed, vulnerable candidate who did battle by the old rules and who never realized that to her opponent, rules are only for losers. In fact, his mere breaking of them was tantamount to another endorsement in the eyes of his followers.

What is responsible, then, for the Trump phenomenon — events, the individual or an amalgam of both? Conditions existed in certain sectors of the American community that were ripe for a demagogue to exploit. Mr. Trump, with his exquisite capability for reading the grievances of his audiences, tossed chum to the masses and catapulted himself into the Oval Office with the help of technical irregularities that will never be fully unraveled. Due to his unique status under the Constitution as head of both state and government he represents us all — whether the majority wants it or not.

This is the anatomy of the dissonance between the America we would like to be and the America we are. Barring impeachment, it is within our power to correct that imbalance in the next presidential election — assuming there is one.

Chan Lowe is the deputy editorial page editor of The Eagle and a syndicated editorial cartoonist.


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