The Meek, the Weak, and the Complacent: Jewish Reflections on the Ascendency of Donald Trump
As is common these days, I was talking with friends expressing frustration that not enough people were taking Trump seriously as a real threat to our constitutional system should he come to power as President of the United States. Part of the reason surely must be how literally no one I knew thought he should be taken seriously when he first announced his candidacy (myself included—and I gave television interviews that stated my disbelief in his candidacy outright when he started to run for office).
I learned the hard way–it is time to take Trump seriously, very seriously. In fact, now in conversation I compare our situation to the Jews under Hitler. That gets people’s attention. When I bring up that incendiary historical parallel, as usual, everyone has an opinion.
One common response is how could the Jews be so meek, to go along with their own extermination. The hyper-militaristic policies of state of Israel today, they say, might reflect an over-reaction to the slogan “never again,” but only an over-reaction. The “never again” crowd thinks we are totally different today, not meek but defiant. Yet, Jews under Hitler in fact did not quietly go along with their extermination. Many fled, others fought and others found ways to survive.
Then again, as another response goes, they were not so much meek as they were weak, powerless to speak up and resist, as a subordinated minority in countries dominated by people who eventually turned on them.
Finally, others often note, that they were complacent, thinking Hitler could never come to power, and if he did, the institutions in place in Weimar Germany could contain his worst excesses.
The Jews were not meek as much as weak and complacent, hoping against hope that the worst could be forestalled, but with the collapse of those much-vaulted Weimar institutions of liberal democracy, they were left with dwindling options.
This description of how the Jews came to be gassed by the millions is an apt description to how people across the political spectrum are responding to Trump today. Whether or not the parallel includes gassing, extermination and genocide, it is important to examine it to see how ordinary people can respond to the multi-dimensional threat of a Trump presidency.
Today, people are not meek as much as they are weak and complacent. Many people complain daily about how outrageous it would be for a racist liar like Trump to become President. Others protest loudly about how his inflammatory rhetoric regarding Muslims, Mexicans, women, the press, and many others dangerously encourages extremists to insist on policies that would undo civil liberties and put basic freedoms in jeopardy. Still others note that his volatile personality and addiction to enraging his political base of support could lead to a politics that even he will quickly lose control over.
Today, therefore, our fraught political situation creates a real opportunity where we can learn first-hand what it was like to be a Jew when Hitler rose to power. We can empathize and respond appropriately to the Hitler-like threat before us.
We are all Jews today, especially the Muslims among us. Like the Jews under Hitler, we too are not meek, but we often seem politically weak and far too complacent. The historical parallel shows it is not enough to not be meek. We should also work to not be weak politically and whatever we do we should never be complacent.
Yet, it is the Republican leadership today (which is not at risk of being mistaken for either Jews or Muslims) that is the most disconcerting. They openly criticize Trump’s rank racism and ignorance while sheepishly continuing to support him in hopes of hanging onto power. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rationalizes his support by using the excuse that our constitutional system will hold Trump in check should he go off the rails. That sounds just like the complacency among the powerful in the Weimar regime who thought they could control Hitler.
No one should think like McConnell; history has a lesson for us if we do. McConnell does not even flinch when Trump pivots to revoke press credentials from the Washington Post on the grounds that they are too critical of him after his rants in the wake of the mass killings in Orlando, Florida. Trump’s undermining of our basic constitutional order begins unimpeded by the very same Republicans who are confident that they can control him. Their failure to speak up in the face of Trump’s daily doubling-down on his inflammatory rhetoric makes complacency seem far too inadequate a description for their complicity.
It is long past time now for all of us regardless of party and ideology to take Trump seriously as the unprecedented threat to our way of life that he is. Otherwise, people will ask, why did we not do more to understand the threat Trump poses and to act to prevent him from coming to power.