My sleep is not so good these days. I am woken from my slumber these nights to a head full of spinning, disturbing images. A parade of early morning myrmidons marches past my mind's eye. My heart pounds, matching the beat of big bass drums and the tromping of boots in passing parades. Images of prison camps full of inmates with gaunt faces and fearful demagogues whipping maniacal throngs into a frenzy dominate my now-wide awake mind demanding my full attention.
Nightmarish questions repeatedly pose themselves: What would a Trump America look like? Would it still be America? And what would happen to the people I love and serve? What would happen to people like me?
In my visions, the pouting face of the American l’enfant terrible rises full center, sneering the words Muslims and Mexicans as if they were synonyms for excrement. I think of my many Muslim and Latin American students. I know some of them are immigrants, the documentation status of whose parents I would not want to guess. I watch their faces in class, their wide open eyes.
I wonder how they hear this. Do they tremble to think this deeply misanthropic insecure man might one day soon have power over their lives?
And I wonder, is this what the Jews and the other vulnerable populations felt in 1930s Germany?
No Option to Remain Silent
Perhaps these midnight torments come because the Holocaust, its medical experiments and the Nuremberg Trials have recently been a part of my ethics classes, the run-up to the Belmont Report we talk about in class. Perhaps it is because of the polling data that suggests that the possibilities of Trump actually winning the election are improving.
It’s hard to know why. Nightmares have a live of their own, even the waking kind.
In Hitler’s Germany, I would have been targeted for extermination early on. While I am not Jewish, I have no doubts I would not have remained silent watching them be first demeaned, then dehumanized and in the end caricaturized as sewer rats in Goebel’s propaganda films, cast as an existential “problem” requiring a “Final Solution.”
As a clergy person, I would have been pressured to either buy into the Protestant Reich Church or to remain silent in the face of a Devil’s Bargain cut between Pope Pius and the Fuhrer. Either option would, no doubt, have proven impossible for me.
As an academic, the torture of watching the inhumane treatment of friends and neighbors and the demeaning of critical reason into a subservience to a shallow rationalization of the Reich would have proven too much. I could not have remained silent.
And finally as a gay man, for the first time in his life proudly living with his life partner of 43 years, celebrating his hard-won legal marriage now in its sixth year, I would have been required to wear a pink triangle before being shipped off to the death camps. The recent wine-sodden heydays of the rowdy cabarets of Berlin would now seem as if another lifetime.
His Own Brand of Danger
Maxim often misattributed
to Sinclair Lewis
I do not construct Donald Trump as an American Hitler. There is enough difference between these two figures and between his followers and the Brownshirts – though more in degree than content - to recognize that this is not the resurrection of mid-20th CE totalitarianism. Trump is actually more like Mussolini than Hitler but in the end is not a repeat of either of those tyrants.
Trump presents his own brand of danger.
But it is the tone of his rhetoric, his unchallenged consistent dishonesty and his complete unpredictability that suggest to me that it would not be prudent to convince myself, as did the future residents of the death camps of WWII Europe, that something like those troubled times couldn’t happen here. It was, after all, the world’s best educated people in the most technologically advanced culture on earth of its time who produced these horrors even as the world assured itself this simply couldn’t happen, that the Germans simply couldn’t do the things that eventually they did.
Prior to WWII, the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany were believed to be “unthinkable.” Right up to the point the camps were liberated. Indeed, some of its victims walked naked down long halls into gas chambers convincing themselves that the unthinkable simply could not happen. No one would do something like that.
An Unchecked Downward Spiral
I keep asking myself how we got to this point. How could this be happening?
At first, I saw the references to women’s menstrual cycles and bathroom practices during the Republican debates as the aberrant behaviors of an uncouth reality show clown. It is perhaps a predictable result of an entertainment industry which has spiraled down into the muck of shallow, adolescent humor, desperate for any kind of response from its addled audiences. Like any addiction, the audience has become numb to the last round of obscenity and requires ever greater sensual assaults to be stimulated.
Then came the mockery of the disabled man. And, as the brother of a sibling with a disability, I wondered first how anyone could do something like that and then why the media continued to replay that imagery knowing how hurtful it must be.
This was followed by the racist libel of Mexicans as rapists and criminals. Trump talked about building a wall across our border at that point. As I watched Trump gaining popularity it began to occur to me that the wall might be less designed to keep Mexicans out than to keep Americans in.
Then came the deliberate and ongoing confusion of the world’s second largest religion with terrorism. All Muslims would become suspect. And life for a group of Americans identified only by a religion whose numbers now equal those of Episcopalians and Mormons would become even more difficult in a culture whose infotainment industry already tends to paint them as terrorists.
I keep thinking that surely the American people will awake from this spell. I keep hoping they will swear off their guilty pleasures provided by this sophomoric con-man who allows them to indulge their unbridled bigotry and exacerbate that misanthropy with intellectual dishonesty, self-righteously rationalizing it as a revolt against “political correctness.”
But tonight, on the eve of the debates, such as they will be, the polls say that if the election were today, America’s King of Crass, the choice of the Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, might well win the right to move into the White House.
The march of the myrmidons would be on.
The election of Donald Trump would signal to me that this is no longer the country in which I grew up, the country whose people and institutions I have spent my life serving and whose principles I once admired. That America, for all of its flaws, would be dead.
Trump’s election would also signal that people like me no longer have a place in the country that has replaced it. My life of service to that America, my values and those of people like myself will not only be rejected by such an election, I fear they would pose ongoing liabilities for me as a resident in Trump’s America much as they would have in the run-up to the Third Reich. The only questions then remaining would be how much danger I could be facing, how quickly that would materialize and what, if anything, I might be able to do to escape the tidal wave of unleashed rage in Trump’s America.
It would be only a small comfort to know I would hardly be alone in that fearful calculation.
The Crazy Woman Who Proved Prescient
Within a couple of hours, the myrmidons march off and my interrupted sleep creeps back to claim its rightful turn, my weary mind fading to gray. The awful parade rolls away leaving me, as I drift back to sleep, wondering how I and others like me can possibly survive if these nightmares ever actually come true. I will awake in a couple of hours still troubled.
It is easy to dismiss as paranoid the rantings of sleep-starved writers and social critics spinning worst case scenarios. Dismissal usually serves as a fairly effective means of avoiding disturbing considerations. It’s a lot easier to shoot the messenger, to put them out of our misery, than to deal with the disturbing messages they bear.
In perhaps the most widely read account of the Holocaust, Night, the late Elie Wiesel describes a woman named Madame Schacter who begins to mentally decompensate in the rail car enroute to the Auschwitz death camp. She has a terrible vision of a consuming fire and becomes increasingly loud and hysterical as she describes it.
The train car occupants demand she stop, shouting at her before finally beating her into submission, her shrill alarms reduced to soft, mournful sobbing. The calm has been restored, the collective denial of the freight car's human cargo allowed to return...right up to the arrival at the gates of Auschwitz.
For in the end, it was the disturbing vision of Madame Schacter, who also knew only too well the parade of early morning myrmidons, that proved prescient.
Harry Scott Coverston
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8