Recently while having coffee with a colleague, the topic of Donald Trump came up. My pal had noticed a number of political posters in our hallways, some comparing Trump’s rhetoric with the vile history of Nazism. She was glad to see that many of our students are politically involved. I replied that I appreciated their sentiments, even as I bemoan their excesses. “Comparing Trump to Hitler,” I said, “just seems silly.”
I affirmed my belief that Trump is a circus sideshow of blustery soundbites and shameless hucksterism. Yet a vibrant democracy must allow for his voice, I said, grating as it is. Splashing a swastika Trump’s over goofy hairdo kills the potential for serious debate. What’s worse, the attack mutes the meaning of real Nazis and the real terror they spread. Sure, Trump projects a cult of personality. His reckless militarism is scary. And his “take back our country” pablum begs the question, “take it back, from whom?” Trump’s a fool. But he’s no fascist. An opportunist? A bully? A chickenhawk? Oh, yeah. But let’s not hyperventilate just yet.
My pal rebuked me. Hitler was mocked and ridiculed, too. And then he took power.
I thought about this for a few days… until Sarah Palin entered the fray to throw her support behind Trump. “OK, that’s it,” I said to myself. “The 2016 campaign has officially become a conceptual art exhibit.” And sure enough, there was Tina Fey once again delivering a ruthless satire on SNL, rendering Palin somehow more of a laughing stock than she was in ’08. Best of all, Fey merely had to repeat Palin’s bizarro-land stream-of-consciousness almost word for word. I began to relax. Of course Palin would stand beside Trump in the political cloud-cuckoo-land of 2016! These gags write themselves.
To this point I’ve believed that Iowa Republicans would eventually get the joke. But enough Hawkeye State Republicans caucused for Donald Trump to put the New York billionaire officially in the number two spot, sending The Donald off to New Hampshire where he holds a commanding lead. This is the guy who joked that Megyn Kelly’s tough questioning could be explained by “blood coming out of her wherever,” the guy who ridiculed John McCain by saying, “'I like people who weren't captured,” the guy claimed he could "could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody" and not lose any voters… This guy almost won the GOP Iowa primary.
I still think that Trump is a national embarrassment, and I continue to believe that the democratic process is resilient enough to endure his shameful rhetoric. And I remain adamant that efforts to denigrate political hacks as “Nazis” insults both history and our potential to disagree in a constructive manner. At the same time, I will no longer dismiss Donald Trump as a national joke. He nearly took Iowa, losing to the slightly less loathsome Ted Cruz; he’s running for President of the United States, and he can still win.
If we let him.