Trump and History

One morning, as a child, I walked upstairs in my grandparents’ house and found a camera.  I was fascinated by its mechanical precision. As a physical object, it inspired awe in me. Some adult — I can’t remember who because I must have been quite small — said, yes it was amazing, and that no one else in Europe was making such things as the Germans were in the 1920s. And that it seemed, for a moment between the World Wars in Germany, that although the economy was falling apart, technology would solve all problems, and that history would step back into libraries to be studied, and no longer feared.

That camera had crossed the Atlantic along with my Jewish grandparents, who saw in America a place of hope and opportunity, a place where people were treated with decency.  I remember feeling puzzled.  How could such a camera be part of a nation that went so badly wrong?

In America, we’ve had a rough past few weeks.  The left had been jubilant when Obama won eight years ago. Though many of us were quick to point out that race was not going to vanish from the American psyche any time soon, we wanted to believe that we had taken an irreversible step forward. There are so many ways in which we were kidding ourselves, but here are a few:

  1. The Left became too insular. When even the New York Times argues that university culture stifles political debate, you’ve got a problem. In retrospect, we are quick to say that we would have been happy with a reasonable conservative, like Paul Ryan, but we’ve been methodically shunning that brand of conservatism for decades. The Left helped to create extreme positions by calling almost any divergent views deplorable.
  2. In general, we were too quick to declare old problems dead. I think even feminists underestimated how formidable the forces of sexism still are. One lesson from this past election is simply that the list of countries who have had a female leader, among them the United Kingdom, Israel, India and Germany, are not coincidentally the same ones who are currently sheltering the flame of democracy against the storms of fundamentalism and ultra nationalism, both within and without. Despite everything else that the Democrats did wrong, if Hillary Clinton had been a man, she would have won.
  3. Twitter has destroyed politics as usual. For months, the American media’s mouths were agape as Trump broke “the rules.” The rules, which are not really as old as we like to pretend, involve a very deliberate set of speeches and courtships, rituals involving tax returns, visits to powerful senators, and so on.  While Trump was doing genuinely dangerous things, the media was distracted by all of the rules he was breaking. Questioning NATO is completely legitimate; questioning women’s right to sexual safety is not. Twitter basically makes large Super-PACs meaningless and requires that we focus our outrage carefully. The irony may be that the US Supreme Court gave free rein to money in American politics at precisely the moment when money lost its value.
  4. Race and class politics will never go away, and they do not belong to either party. This past year has given us footage of police killing black people in what can only be described as murder. This is also the year that the leader of the British Labour party doubled down on his anti-Semitism and was re-elected. And a significant part of Hillary Clinton’s loss can be linked to her support of NAFTA and the TPP; she ended up looking a lot like a friend of business and less like a friend of the poor. We were too slow to see these problems, and now we have a country where Muslims could potentially be registered on a special list, in a dark echo of ethnic and religious purification — we have seen this before.
  5. Irony is dead. I was one of many in America who took refuge from the noise of Bush’s war by following the comic news of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Those men, and more recently Samantha Bee, navigated hypocrisy and educated a generation. But it’s become clear now that this is not a time for laughter. We now live in a country where hate crimes are becoming normalized, and where wearing a hijab in public has become dangerous. Whatever role humor played in 2004, it’s not helpful now.

Some in America feel triumphant; I do not. The sheer randomness of Trump’s mentality scares me. Obama’s rhetoric was often over-inflated, but he was trying to make America better, and a lot of us feel bewildered and shocked that our country seems to be lurching backward. The fear of the government, and of hate groups who have already been empowered by Trump’s rise, is real. As a Jew, I feel a particular responsibility to ensure that my country never targets people who are Muslim, Hispanic or black.

It’s been about 40 years since I stared at that camera, and tried to understand how history could go so terribly wrong. I understand better now: technology and progress does not make us safe, because it does not change who we are. Comparisons with the Holocaust are problematic, and we are certainly not there. But our future will depend on the work we do now to understand why we were so shocked last week, and on the courage we have to act on that understanding.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is an Associate Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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