I’ve been drafting this post in my head for a few days now, walking through a haze of trying to understand why I’m surprised by the election result, and having many conversations with German acquaintances and friends and US friends and family. Needless to say, I did not vote for Trump. However, at the same time, I want to follow through on democracy and recognize him as our president-elect. I’m just not sure about the fine-line between recognizing that someone is bad for a political office and that we should use our democratic powers to do something about it, or someone got into office that I didn’t want and now I just have to learn to deal with it. That’s where this post is coming from.
But first, some history.
The running joke in my German history classes was that one only ever had to remember one date, and one would know most of the events that affected Germany’s development.
There are five notable events in German history that are connected to 9 November: the execution of Robert Blum in 1848, the end of the monarchies in 1918, the Hitler putsch attempt in 1923, the Nazi antisemitic pogroms in 1938 and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. (Wikipedia)
…I wish I had a better source to cite, but Wikipedia does the trick most of the time. The article points out the individual significance of each instance and the overall coincidence of the day as a “Day of Fate.” Without November 9th in 1918, we may not have had the November 9th of 1923… or the November 9th of 1989. However, I know this “could have been” game gets boring very quickly, and I’m not going to start playing it. However, I do ask that we don’t have to add November 9th, 2016 to this list.
What happened to the Berlin Wall?
November 9th in Germany this past Wednesday should have been a day to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall. Previous years featured movies in public TV on the 8th about the event and speeches by politicians commemorating the country that was once divided, and is now unified. Instead, election coverage and news reporting occupied the screens and radio waves. You’d think it was the German election being covered. I was surprised at how every single person I observed or met wanted to talk about the election and had his/her opinion to share about what the result would mean for the US, for Germany, how surprising it all was, etc. In light of all this, though, the significance of the day in German history was completely overshadowed.
On the other hand, life went on in Germany, and plans made months in advance did not suddenly fall through. This includes the silent, but literally lightening memorial to the Jewish pogroms in Germany in 1939. On the 9th, all through the city, I saw little vases and red candle jars placed in front of the doors of various buildings. It took me a while to realize what these objects were doing in these places, but then I realized that these candles stood in front of houses where small gold bricks inscribed with the names of Jewish citizens were also nestled in between the other bricks of the entryways. These candles were flickering and remembering the lives of those affected by Kristallnacht and its subsequent events.
This pogrom is known in English as “Night of the Broken Glass” and on that night, thousands of windows of Jewish shops, homes, and places of worship were smashed. Paramilitary SA troops were free to carry out their rampage on property and persons without interference by authorities, and news of the event spread around the world, equally criticized by all. With the lack of official resistance, it became clear that antisemitism was condoned in Germany. How many citizens not of Jewish heritage woke up that morning and were appalled? How many helped their German-Jewish neighbors sweep up the glass and board their windows? Probably a lot were appalled or shaken by the violence, and a few did help. Still, the regime and the people who participated in the pogrom were allowed to keep their power. And we all know where that led us.
The Power of Words
“Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
This saying may be a quick band-aid on a school child’s hurt feelings, but as cyber bullying and real life shows us, words have destructive effects. They are of course not the same as physical violence, but they can target a person or group and pit them against other people or groups. Then the violence starts if there’s no one with convincing counter-words to calm everyone down again.
I’m not saying that batons aimed at windows or people’s noses are the same things as general stereotypical statements about groups of people, but they are dangerously related. Most physical acts come from an attitude fueled by the way people talk about people, places, or situations.
When I refer to the dangerous power of words. I’m not ascribing to some idea of political correctness. Political correctness has to do with one or two terms used, where another word could be less offensive. I am talking about strings of words that are connected in a way to show a generally culturally and humanely insensitive attitude. No matter whether people support or reject Trump as president, it is difficult to deny that he forms these kinds of strings. They can be found in sound bites and in transcriptions on paper.
This should not be tolerated.
And yet it is. The worst part is, the world has just seen that a man who forms these kinds of strings is tolerated, and allowed to obtain the highest position of political power in the US. I don’t care what kind of great policies such a person can come up with, awful people have been constructive politicians…
Out on a limb
I’m not the first person to think this, I’m sure, but I wonder why more people aren’t making the comparison out loud. Why is Trump not, in some ways, similar to Hitler? And why are we afraid to work through this comparison and find out how true or false it really is? I admit, it is probably premature and feeds into the apocalyptic thinking surrounding the whole talk of his being elected, but I don’t think it’s unfounded.
Beyond the image we have of the man, filtered through years of half-objective instruction in schools from which we mostly just have shocking images of the result of starvation, mistreatment and hard labor in concentration camps, how many of us know how Hitler’s rise to power started? Or his plan to organize genocide? He didn’t just shoot a Jewish person in the head and that was how he announced his disdain. He also didn’t just jump up on beer table and try to declare an overthrow of government… that was just the first time. The second time, he got into office through an established (even if still young and flawed) democratic process.
Hitler represented a “voice of the people,” the masses who felt betrayed by the monarchy in 1918 (the same one that also officially fell on a November 9th), or who suffered through depression and a social system in turmoil. He was charismatic, rejected by some (Western democratic leaders, mostly), embraced by others (hello, Stalin).
It started with words… in fact, a whole string of words even before Mein Kampf. These words, even if meant for singular use and to be forgotten or not taken seriously, bring into the semiotic realm feelings that many many actually have, for whatever personal reason, and these words legitimate those feelings as okay to have.
This should not be tolerated. The things Trump says should not be tolerated. Being a person who says those things should not be tolerated enough to vote into power.
One cannot say that the things Trump says relate to the things expressed in Mein Kampf. I am not saying that the measure of what Trump has expressed equals the measure of what has been expressed by other leaders, even our own US presidents, in the past. However, I am just asking that we don’t let it come to that.
What can we expect to happen when racially profiling allows us to see people as a threat before they even step out of a car (oh wait, we already know)? Mexican (and presumably other immigrants) will be considered illegal until proven legal. What happens if those people his actions and words are targeted act decide to resist? Who will enforce his words, and will these enforcement be humane and respectful? Or will the words condone prejudice and inhumanity?
Maybe I’m particularly biased by my life work of dealing with language, but I don’t think we should underestimate the power of words.
“It’s the End of the World as We Know it”
The R.E.M. song seems to be rather popular these days. Confusion abounds and questions about the future seem more relevant to ask than they did a week ago, and everyone seems convinced something is going to change. The optimistic perspective to take would be that every moment of our lives changes the world as we know it, there’s no reason to think of this end as termination. It’s also the start of something new… hopefully something we can untangle and learn from, and then maybe we can remember how the R.E.M. song continues: “and I feel fine.”
But I’m not sure we can.
Since reading the final standing of the electoral votes on Wednesday morning, I finally had to consider the man beyond the words. I looked up his policies and plans, am grateful each time he reverses one plan, and cringe a bit when I hear who he is considering for cabinet.
Before Trump was elected, I did not even consider Trump as a possible president, because I could not accept that a man who said the things he said and behaved the way he does, or even just runs his Twitter account the way he does, would be elected.
However, he is the president elect of the USA. He became that person a bit when he gave his victory speech on Wednesday. He faded as that person when he posted about the protesters as “professional”s part of a conspiracy, refusing to recognize the democratic enactment of freedom of speech.
President Obama and Hillary Clinton both made their moves to allow for the acceptance of this man as president elect, but I cannot be convinced. In the back of my mind are all the things that can go wrong with this situation, and the fact that we’ve seen shadows of this man before, and that November 9th is a fateful day. I hope I don’t have to tell my children about the day that it became known who would be the 45th president of the USA, November 9th, 2016.
Finally, Donald Trump, please, do not treat this position and your new job as a new series on The Apprentice.
Trump, don’t ever take your power lightly.
Inform yourself about the people of Islamic faith, Latino/a identity, and your own citizens (for starters). Find out why the people elected you, return those people’s feelings of enfranchisement to them and don’t disenfranchise others in the process. I’m willing to give you a clean slate, but treat it carefully…