Martin Dyckman: As rhetoric descends, up pops evil

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John Kasich has taken heat for a web ad that subtly compares Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler.

Narrated by a former Vietnam POW, retired Air Force Col. Tom Moe, it paraphrases German pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous statement of regret that he did not speak up for the tyrant’s victims until he became one “and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Hitler analogies should be rare and expressed carefully lest comparisons to lesser evils trivialize his monstrosities. Too many events have already been compared to the Holocaust, for example.

But let’s see what the ad says:

You might not care if Donald Trump says Muslims should register with their government, because you’re not one. And you might not care if Donald Trump says he’s going to round up all the Hispanic immigrants, because you’re not one. And you might not care if Donald Trump says it’s OK to rough up black protesters, because you’re not one. And you might not care if Donald Trump wants to suppress journalists, because you’re not one. But think about this: If he keeps going, and he actually becomes president, he might just get around to you. And you better hope there’s someone left to help you.

Although Kasich tried Sunday to disclaim the implication as Moe’s words, not his, the candidate’s super PAC produced it and he deserves the responsibility and the credit.

That’s right, credit.

It would be just as wrong to ignore Hitler’s examples as to trivialize them. History often repeats itself. Bad history should be taken as warning.

It does not necessarily trivialize Hitler to observe that Trump’s strategy and tactics recall some of those favored by the one-time Austrian army corporal.

Like Hitler, Trump is a demagogue. He demonizes minority targets. He relishes personal insults. He revels in baseless insinuations, as in persistently questioning President Obama’s citizenship. He invents his own “facts,” such as having personally witnessed crowds of Muslims cheering 9/11. He lies with glee – the bigger the lie the better – and then lies again when he denies saying or implying what millions of people heard and saw him say.

His fundamental theme is to inflame the suspicions of people who think their country is failing itself, failing them, and riddled with conspiracies. So was Hitler’s. He sold himself as the avenger for all that was wrong and everyone who felt wronged. So does Trump.

As Hitler exploited Germany’s economic crisis and inflamed the belief that Germany’s defeat in World War I owed to the country being sold out from within – by communists and Jews – rather than to exhaustion and failure at arms, Trump wants Americans to believe our country is failing. He promises  to “make America great again,” as if it no longer is.

It’s a witch’s brew of bigotry, paranoia and scapegoating – and it’s working. The more outrageously he behaves, the more devoted his mob seems to become.

None of this is necessarily means that a president Trump would emulate how Hitler misused power. But he has said – and should be taken at his word – that he would try to round up and expel an estimated 11 million people without any care for the staggering consequences to them or to the industries – agriculture, construction, and hospitality in particular – that would collapse in their absence. How this could be done without concentration camps taxes the imagination.

When he talks loosely about surveillance of mosques and identity cards for Muslims, the image that comes to mind is of yellow stars on clothing and passports stamped “Jude.”

We have already shown a vulnerability to forfeiting our freedoms in the name of “security.” As the columnist Leonard Pitts wrote recently, Sept. 11 not only destroyed lives and buildings:

… It also shredded the Constitution and made America unrecognizable to itself. The government tortured. It disappeared people. It snooped through innocent lives. It created a secret ‘no-fly list’ of supposed terrorists that included many people with zero connection to terrorism … it also gave the president unilateral power to execute American citizens suspected of terrorism without trial or even judicial oversight.

And here comes Trump, who calls for waterboarding, which is torture. Where would that stop?

Establishment, politicians, journalists, and campaign contributors still have some trouble believing that Trump could secure the Republican nomination, let alone win the White House.

But it bears remembering that Hitler never won an election either.  He used his strong showing in German’s 1932 election, and the unrequited passion of his followers, to blackmail an aging President Paul von Hindenburg into appointing him chancellor. Hindenburg’s death a year later sealed Germany’s doom.

When Trump demands “respect,” is it the vice presidency he has in mind? Or some other lever of power?

The truly tragic side to this is that Americans have many rightful complaints. The middle class is marginalized and floundering. Young people can’t afford homes and can’t envision a bright future. The government is unable or unwilling to admit and rectify its responsibility for widening income disparity. Wall Street remains much too unaccountable. Health care reform is incomplete and out-of-pocket costs continue to spiral.

But there’s an anti-establishment presidential candidate who speaks to all these concerns without the bigotry, bombast, boorishness and bullying that characterize Trump. He is Bernie Sanders, whose additional virtues include the experience and judgment that Trump so boastfully lacks. He’s a reformer but he’s not a demagogue. He’s not a racist. He’s a humane, decent man. He’s everything that Trump is not.

And if Trump doesn’t like being compared to Hitler, let him stop sounding like him.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Asheville, North Carolina. 

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