Being eighteen, this was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote in. Its outcome came as a total shock. Half a year ago we studied 20th century authoritarian leaderships and the regimes of Nazi Germany and communist Russia. We analyzed and identified certain salient features that characterized the “success” of these authoritarian leaders and the origins: social, economical, geo-political and historical conditions that lead to the developments of their rule. We found that almost all of the same characteristics that could be applied to Hitler and Stalin could also be applied to other totalitarian regimes, including Nasser, Nyerere, Castro and Perón. Although developing in separate regions, there were striking similarities between the leaders and the states’ conditions that led to their rule.
I particularly remember one class when we compared these characteristics to the American situation and the then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. At that time, we all believed that his chance of winning was remote, but we remarked upon the similarities between him and previous authoritarian leaders and the similarities of America’s economic and social conditions with the preconditions leading to historical totalitarian regimes.
At this point I don’t know to what extent Trump can be likened to historical totalitarian leaders, but by identifying these characteristics the extent of his popularity became clearer. He has a catchy slogan “Make America Great Again”, and the ability to get people to listen to what he has to say. His supporters rally to follow him as their “strong leader” who promises an improved, brighter future, a future of change. By demonizing ethnic groups and professing that they are the cause of all evil (he calls illegal Mexicans rapists and Muslims terrorists) he creates a common enemy that functions as a unifying force for his potential supporters. His success as an orator relies on claims which seemed utterly preposterous such as having the Mexican government pay for building a wall along the US and Mexican border, banning Muslims for entering the United States and deporting all illegal aliens and stopping global trade to “make America great again”.
Trump uses tactics that appeal to people susceptible to authoritarianism. He has promised to bring his fist down on American governance (often leaders like Trump arise when the people are tired of the slow, bureaucratic process involving legislation and approval). His followers don’t seem concerned with his political inexperience, they are solely mobilized by his propagation for drastic change. His rhetoric is appealing to those who feel threatened, discontent and angry. Trump’s simple solutions to complex and deeply rooted problems addressed in banal language appeals to marginalized malcontents. This election brought a huge popular antigovernment sentiment to the surface, the people wanted change.
It is often times of confusion, fear and chaos that lend support to individuals with authoritarian characteristics. The origins of Hitler’s rise to power was due, to a large extent, to the financial crisis of the Great Depression in the 1930’s and the harsh conditions to come out of the Versailles treaty. Although the USA has different conditions, an article published by Ezra Klein before Trump had taken the lead in the election, suggested that Trump is the “product of an extraordinary period of economic pain, demographic anxiety, and elite backlash” suggesting that conditions in American- according to Trump voters- is disastrous and that Trump’s popularity is a response to the situation.
Fear pervades the lives of not only Americans, but is experienced globally, it is an emotion that often clouds people’s reasoning, causing people to lend their ears to extremists. An article published in The Atlantic articulates the scenario perfectly by stating that “Trump summons fear in the conventional way, by describing in concrete terms the threats Americans face. But he also, in a more unusual maneuver, summons fear in the abstract: There’s something going on, folks.”
In many areas worldwide, especially in America, the fear and the perceived threat of terrorism is imminent and growing. The events that occurred in Paris, San Bernardino California in 2015, the Wurszburg train attack in Berlin and the Brussels bombing in 2016 etc, all feed this fear that Trump uses in his favor. During the Republican National Convention in June, Trump pronounced his message of fear and looming danger. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life”. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country. Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally; some have even been its victims.” Social scientists suggest that fear is what makes people hold on more tightly to what they have and regard the unfamiliar more warily. It makes them want to be protected. Trump addresses this fear with promises of aggressive protection and strength, while exaggeratingly propagating this fear. He then provides proactive aggression to ensure security for Americans.
The conditions leading to Trump’s popularity and political success are complex, and I am by no means qualified to conduct a thorough analysis of the situation. But what I do know is this. Now is a period when it is of utmost importance to not be complacent, to not get comfortable with the belief that things are going to be all right. We must actively insist on protecting human rights, equality and whole heartedly address the issue of global warming. Passively and idly accepting the situation is being permissive of Trump’s agenda that rejects the basic values that I, for one, believe to be essential for universal wellbeing. We need to stand against cultures that tolerate sexual violence and misogyny. We need to pinpoint, address and resolve the issues causing the insecurity felt by so many Americans such as economic and academic inequality. We have to listen to those who think differently from us and figure out how to bridge these differences. There are many different versions of what a great America would look like but Trump’s professed policies does not bring to mind a version anywhere near mine.
The next four years will be a test for America and Americans. It is up to everyone to take up this fight and work together to create a tolerant, supportive global community.
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