By Paul Rappoport
It was never laughable, just incomprehensible. This is a terrible time to be reading “Mein Kampf.” The parallels are too awful. What’s more alarming than Trump’s malignant narcissism, authoritarianism, sociopathy, racism and bigotry, superiority, impulsiveness, defensiveness, childishness, ignorance, lack of curiosity, blaming of others, lying, intentional provocations and intimidation is that he has given others with all or some of these same fatal flaws permission to spew their stupidity and hatred across the globe.
It’s no longer a U.S. matter, but a global crisis. Trump’s victory has ignited similar pernicious passions across Europe, Asia and elsewhere. Anti-semitism and hatred for minorities preceded the rise of the Nazis because of the chaos following World War I. With so many disaffected people, scapegoating was rife and Adolph Hitler’s propaganda was met, if not with outright support, at least with the acquiescence of other nations or the turning of a blind eye — even by those democratic nations faced with their own uncertainties. By the time he emerged to take power, the hearts and minds both in Germany and elsewhere had already been converted. Nationalism had taken root.
As Trump espouses nationalism and as it spreads throughout the world, things can only get worse. He’s already talking about a nuclear arms race. One characteristic emblematic of authoritarianism is black and white thinking: the complex world over simplified. Decision-making no longer requires analysis because to authoritarians there is an obvious right vs. wrong. And they of course presume to be “right.” In short order the thinking becomes a “them vs. us” polarity.
Hitler believed that Aryans were a superior race. He believed that because inferior beings would degenerate Aryan purity through cross-fertilization, inferior races and peoples therefore needed to be exterminated. He also believed that as the Aryan race increased in size they would need more territory to survive. Thus, territorial expansion became a corollary objective. His colossal destructive power was not in his insane ideas alone, but in the incomprehensible affect his psychopathology would have by influencing the weaker minds of those millions of disaffected, angry, marginalized haters.
Trump speaks to these same people. He reaches them in the same way. His lies, rallies, his campaign of disinformation, his propaganda, and the propagation of all of this through surrogates and “fake news” is reminiscently scary when playing back vivid Hitlerian newsreels in one’s head. Yes, we have a democratic government and constitutional safeguards against such “strongman” challenges to usurping power and undermining the republic. But be reminded: no one in Germany or Europe believed that Hitler was a danger, meant what he said, or could garner support for his extreme ideas.
Ideas cross boundaries and boundaries are malleable. Boundary disputes can result in the emergence of nations (think South Sudan or developments in the South China Sea) or their disappearance (South Vietnam and Yugoslavia) or even politically gerrymandered districts in your home town. National boundaries can be as temporary and as transient as public sentiment and political systems. European borders were fixed. Then, suddenly and astonishingly, they were no longer. Brexit sent a chill through Europe, and it’s not done. In the 1960s, we had a civil rights movement. We thought those gains were won. Here, now, in 2017, attempts at the erosion of those rights are gaining steam. Powerful ideas and loud voices remind us that nothing is fixed.
Our way of life can also come and go. As a child one is born into a circumstance which seems to be permanent. You just imagine it will forever be this way. But that’s the child’s mind. At some point one grows up and discovers the temporality of things. If one trait characterizes human beings, it relates to our uncanny ability to wait, wait and wait for something to occur before we are willing to acknowledge its existence. We are terrific at looking backwards and recognizing what happened. We are far less good at prediction or connecting the dots. For some unknown reason we don’t trust our own perceptions. Donald Trump? Nah, how can you take him seriously? Hitler? You must be joking! He’s an extremist with bizarre racial and nationalistic ideas and belligerent tendencies. Maybe a rabble rouser but not a serious threat, really.
Well, Trump is real. He is as he is (even when he himself has no idea what he believes, thinks, or knows, for none of this is any of his concern or interest; self-aggrandizement is where it begins and ends). And that is one of his greatest dangers. He is shallow, uninformed, hypersensitive, impulsive, vindictive and dangerously over-confident. I repeat, dangerously over-confident despite his show of military generals and “the best of the best” surrounding him. At best, these maneuvers represent inadequate compensatory actions on his part. Think thumb in a leaking psychological dike.
In a few short days, he will be the leader of the “Free World” while he himself has no idea where he’s leading us next (for this you would need planning, forethought, a center core, and decisions driven by rational analytic thought as opposed to impulses, instincts, and emotions). We can’t wait to see what he’s going to do. We no longer have the luxury of retrospection. I hate to say this, but I must: Hitler was a really smart guy, dangerously pathological but well read, organized and studious, articulate, and an extremely effective orator — and aware that he was the brightest guy in the room. He was going to make Germany great again. Sound familiar?
Donald Trump is not a smart guy. Smart guys don’t have to tell you how smart they are. He is not well read, he is not studious, he is not well educated and despite his rallies, he is anything but articulate. But he does connect with a certain subset of the American population. Despite his enormous shortcomings, he is no less dangerous given his impact on so many people here and worldwide. Be certain, at this very moment in time, as it was with Hitler in the 1930s and despite what it feels like to most of us, this is not a political matter. Yes, politics infuses all of it, just as it was with the National Socialist Party in Germany with Hitler’s rise to power. But the National Socialist Party devastated the world not because of its political views but because it had a madman at the helm.
Leadership matters. Good leadership matters too. Impaired leadership matters the most. We already have more information and behavioral-based evidence than we need. We already see what the effects of Trump’s rabble-rousing, fear-based, freedom-limiting, despotic speech-making can have. The consequent reactions are worrisome. The Southern Poverty Law Center has already documented a large increase in acts of religious and racial vandalism and other acts of violence. Be reminded: change normally moves along a continuum. Things do not need to reach the most extreme pole (e.g. Nazism) for them to get bad. Plenty of pain and suffering can occur along the way. Alarmism is not the same as awareness.
What happened in Germany occurred for two main reasons. First was the National Socialist movement and second was the catastrophic failure of a counter-movement. Despite Newton’s third law, there was no equal and opposite “reaction” to the Nazi party. Connecting the dots is not a Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, which ironically, originated in Germany. Be certain that the forces at work here are greater than Donald Trump. Pay attention. Read the breadcrumbs. Let’s not make the same mistake by coming up short with a counter-movement. Trump’s appeal is real. Light a fire under your Senators and Congressmen. The days of the anti-war and anti-establishment movement are over. They saved us for a while. But here we are again — as well we should be when the tide turns.
Paul S. Rappoport is a recently retired clinical psychologist living in the Philadelphia area.
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