“First you must understand the times,” said a lifelong conservative Republican whose intelligence I normally respect, seeking to explain why he and other responsible elders were supporting their party’s presidential front-runner despite even their own inclinations. Primary election results March 1 vindicate his vision based on who is voting on the Republican side.
Sipping a vodka gimlet in the posh bar of a downtown Milwaukee hotel, he described “a fever over the land, a fever of disgrace, of indignity, of hunger. We had a democracy, yes. But it was torn by elements within.”
“Above all, there was fear: Fear of today, fear of tomorrow...fear of our neighbors...and fear of ourselves. Only when you understand that can you understand what Trump meant to us.
“Because he said to us: ‘Lift your heads. Be proud to be an American. There are devils among us: Liberals, Socialists, Muslims, Mexicans. Once these devils will be destroyed, your misery will be destroyed.’”
Aghast, I asked: Do Republicans really believe this? The nation has actually moved forward in jobs, the economy, military sophistication and health care. Perhaps the methods and ideology don’t meet with your approval but you can’t deny the progress, nor the fact that our standing in the world has risen by every poll measure after the years of Bush.
“What about those of us who knew better?” he conceded. “We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we love our country.”
“What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights? It is only a passing phase. It is only a stage we are going through. It will be discarded sooner or later. Trump himself will be discarded sooner or later.”
He certainly explained one mystifying aspect of Trump’s surge in the polls. Some of it is the sheer entertainment value of the insults, absolutes and generalities he lays down without details. Some of it is how the media is fascinated and has been for decades, refusing to give more time to rounded detailed debates and even basic fact checking. Perhaps his own self-delusion about his larger than life image catches voters up to the point that they don’t see that basic contradiction in his slogan “Make America Great Again.” If Trump, who is so like them in his most uncensored moments, can become a billionaire, they think, perhaps we all can and perhaps that is the real American dream.
Yet much of his method is painting a country that has lost hope, belief in the future and the ability to appreciate that democracy requires humbling ego rather than glorifying it.
Even during the Great Depression, suffering Americans didn’t abandon the Constitution. There were waves of violence from the poor and abandoned, but even those movements did not grab the throat of a major political party. In circumstances far worse in more than 230 years, the country never abandoned itself to fear – and it is certainly hard to imagine a President Trump telling a nation that “the only thing to fear is fear itself.” Without fear, he’s nowhere. Why has that changed? Who besides Trump should be held responsible?
I contemplated all this recently watching a television parade of Oscar winning hits over the decades including “The Best Years of Our Lives” (about the readjustment to civilian realities of returning World War II veterans) and particularly “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) in which Spencer Tracy in one of a trio of judges deciding the innocence or guilt of German judges who had reached their maturity far before the advent of Hitler.
Interestingly, going out of its way to set a tone above politics and centered in moral issues, Tracy in this film describes himself as “a rock-ribbed Republican who thought FDR a great man.”
Introducing Hitler into any modern social debate is usually a no-no, disqualifying the user because it seems so extreme an example. But what if the moral problem is comparable? What if a look 16 years after the war senses that comparisons are apt?
In fact, other students of movie lore will recognize that all the words in quotations above that I credited falsely to a conservative in a bar are directly lifted from Abby Mann’s screenplay for the “Judgment at Nuremberg.” The only changes were in proper names and in modernizing (from
Communists, Jews and Gypsies) the sacrificial lambs of that original.
Groups that overall most embrace the American ideals, such as immigrants, are apparently the lambs being burned for the gods this year.
Love Obama or hate him (I am an admirer but in intense disagreement with his policies on education and foreign trade deals), no one except GOP candidates for president can truly disagree that he has provided a stable uplifting approach to the presidency far removed from the schoolyard insults and negative tones of the GOP presidential candidates. The truth, or at least the way I look at the world and think most Americans do, was reflected in a Facebook post by an old friend and much admired colleague, Paul Hayes, the retired environmental reporter for The Milwaukee Journal:
Reflect on this: We've had more than seven years with Barack Obama as president and there has not been a whisper of scandal -- financial, political or personal. I have lived under FDR, HST, Ike, Kennedy, Lyndon, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, and Clinton. Of these only Ford and Carter come close and they served half as long. No wonder the venal Republicans hate him.
It’s natural for presidential candidates in both parties, of course, to pound away at the missed opportunity and bring out the ignored needs, putting the blame that should be spread around many levels of government on the president. Campaigning to replace him in effect means caricaturing him as the tyrant that Trump envisions and hoping the uneducated voter will believe a new president can solve it all.
Have you noticed how much of the Republican attack considers us a nation in decline? Trump is not alone among those calling for voters to abandon the principles of cooperation and mutual respect that have sustained the US for centuries. Nothing between now and November can make citizens forget the sheer negativity, the ugliness, hatred and glimpses of bigotry the Republicans have seared into our brains.
About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org. In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain. He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.