By Robert A. Vella
For many years now on this blog and others, I’ve been warning of a buildup of cultural and ideological polarization in American politics which if left unchecked could culminate in an existential crisis for the nation. Most reactions acknowledged the fundamental issues cited in my warnings, but typically dismissed my dire projections as hyperbolic. Fair enough, cries of “wolf” should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Many dissenters correctly pointed out that America has endured such polarization in the past and still came through these crises intact. While that is true, I would admit, it provides no guarantee that the outcome of future crises will be so fortunate. History can tell us what, why, when, and how events occurred, and it can give us good rationale to forecast what might occur in the future; but, our historical reflections of the past cannot determine what is yet to occur with any sort of precision. That is up to us in the present.
Present day America is in a state of profound turmoil. The nation is in flux on virtually every level – culturally, economically, politically, and socially. These changes are transpiring so rapidly that they are stressing the adaptive tolerances of the general population. It has created fertile ground for the rise of radical elements such as the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. His political ascendancy, built upon the primal emotions of fear and hate, are now being met with a growing fury of opposition – much of which is belatedly coming from his own party.
However, this open confrontation between the Republican Party establishment and its fanatical populist base has the potential to escalate in intensity and scope which could eventually embroil the entire nation in the kind of existential crisis I’ve warned about. History provides two painful, but classic examples – the American Civil War and the rise of Nazi Germany.
First, let’s examine the internal battles within the Republican Party. From The New York Times – Rank and File Republicans Tell Party Elites: We’re Sticking With Donald Trump:
From Michigan to Louisiana to California on Friday, rank-and-file Republicans expressed mystification, dismissal and contempt regarding the instructions that their party’s most high-profile leaders were urgently handing down to them: Reject and defeat Donald J. Trump.
Their angry reactions, in the 24 hours since Mitt Romney and John McCain urged millions of voters to cooperate in a grand strategy to undermine Mr. Trump’s candidacy, have captured the seemingly inexorable force of a movement that still puzzles the Republican elite and now threatens to unravel the party they hold dear.
In interviews, even lifelong Republicans who cast a ballot for Mr. Romney four years ago rebelled against his message and plan. “I personally am disgusted by it — I think it’s disgraceful,” said Lola Butler, 71, a retiree from Mandeville, La., who voted for Mr. Romney in 2012. “You’re telling me who to vote for and who not to vote for? Please.”
“There’s nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren — there is nothing and nobody that’s going to dissuade me from voting for Trump,” Ms. Butler said.
In Antebellum America, such political polarization became so heated that it resulted in Southern Democrats deciding to secede from the Union which precipitated the disastrous Civil War. Many historians assert that the nation has never fully recovered from that tragedy, and that the animosities which triggered it linger to this day. Not coincidentally, the political regionalism of that era still persists, although the party affiliations have flipped. Back then, southern whites mostly identified as Democrats, today they are mostly Republican.
During the Interbellum period, Europe experienced similar regional polarization. Populist discontent, fueled by the economic devastation of World War I, erupted in the nationalist movements (i.e. fascism) which seized political control of Spain, Italy, and Germany. The latter country was especially seduced by the raving anti-Semitism of Adolf Hitler whose rhetorical antics closely resemble that of America’s Donald Trump. The German establishment, like America’s over the last few decades, simply waited too long to resolve the fundamental problems afflicting the nation and to counter the inherent danger of ideological extremism. For example, here’s part of a NYT editorial from 1922 which dismissed the threat posed by Hitler long before he rose to power. From Daily Kos – The first NYT article on Hitler serves as a reminder about why we can’t downplay hateful rhetoric:
But, several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as bait to catch messes of followers, and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.
A sophisticated politician credited Hitler with peculiar political cleverness for laying emphasis and over emphasis on anti-Semitism, saying: “You can’t expect the masses to understand or appreciate your finer real aims. You must feed the masses with cruder morsels and ideas like anti-Semitism. It would be politically all wrong to tell them the truth about where you really are leading them.”
That editorial expressed a similar casual dismissal as those issued in response to my previous warnings on cultural and ideological polarization in America. Here’s what the NYT says now about Trump. From Daily Kos – The New York Times Calls Out Trump For What He Is, And Who He Represents:
Donald Trump’s flirtation with the Ku Klux Klan should come as no surprise. He has functioned for years as a rallying point for “birthers,” conspiracy theorists, extremists and racists who are apoplectic about the fact that the country elected a black man president. These groups have driven the Republican Party steadily rightward, helping to create a national discourse that now permits a presidential candidate to court racist support without paying a political price.
It’s too late, the crazy horse has already left the barn and is running wild. Trump’s supporters will not back down. An historical climax is about to unfold, and there’s no telling which way it will turn. Nancy Lauro, a Brooklyn art teacher, appropriately described America’s political situation as she considered moving to either Italy or Ireland. From The Washington Post via MSN – Psychologists and massage therapists are reporting ‘Trump anxiety’ among clients:
“As phobias and fears go, this is not a pathological response to a normal situation, but a normal response to a pathological situation. Picking up one’s life feels impossible, but I keep flashing on those people who fled Germany when the writing was on the wall and those who didn’t. When do you take action to get out?”
Indeed, it’s a prudent question. If America’s leaders had learned the lessons of history, no American would be asking that question now.