Cartoon by Ed Hall
Trump likely doesn’t realize the dark path he’s taking his country down
The National Post: Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland raised some eyebrows when she quoted Adolf Hitler in a conversation devoted to the current political realities in Washington.
It’s rarely a good idea to reference the Nazi dictator. Few humans, with the arguable exception of Joseph Stalin, rival his crimes. Comparing anyone or anything to Hitler usually serves only to identify the accuser as lacking perspective or historical knowledge, and undermines whatever cause they’re arguing by demonstrating that fault.
Freeland’s case may be an exception, however. The foreign minister, who easily holds the most difficult portfolio in Canada, encompassing both the NAFTA trade talks and the general chaos engendered by the Trump White House, made her remarks in an interview with The New York Times. That alone would be enough to have heads exploding in conservative circles, as the Times has plunged into a single-minded jihad against all things Trump.
In the article, Freeland quotes Hitler boasting of the secret to his rise to power: “Our political problems appeared complicated. The German people could make nothing of them. … I, on the other hand … reduced them to the simplest terms. The masses realized this and followed me.”
Freeland, reported the Times, “leaned forward, a look of concern in her eyes. ‘How do you attract voters and public support compared with the flashiness of exciting, chaotic, fact-ignoring populism?’ she asked. ‘The reason Hitler won was because all of the other politicians were giving complicated and difficult explanations about difficult things. Hitler just told people simple things that they wanted to hear.’ ”
She didn’t specifically identify the U.S. president, but the inference is clear. Trump’s rise relates directly to his success at dismissing complex issues and relations as simple matters he can easily fix. His aggressive nature impresses angry audiences as strength and determination. He encourages a vision of America against the world, of a right-thinking nation surrounded by enemies. So virulent is the danger, apparently, that even Canada can be presented as a threat. As a Wall Street Journal article noted this week: “It finally happened: U.S. President Donald Trump picked a fight with the nicest people on Earth.”
Trump’s Washington isn’t anything like the Nazi horror, of course, but Freeland wasn’t suggesting it was. It just happened Hitler was the one who made the remarks she’d come across. Her allusion was to the danger of demagoguery, to the abandonment of standards of political discourse and international engagement, to the deep problems that ensue when one rule book is thrown out for no rules at all.
Freeland is no neophyte in these things. She has an extensive understanding of the dangers that occur when democratic norms are challenged, both from her years as a journalist, and personally from her family’s experience in Ukraine, a country devastated by Nazis and communists alike. Her maternal grandfather worked on a Nazi-operated newspaper in Krakow during the war, a publication that reportedly identified Poland as “infected by the Jews.” She denies charges he was a Nazi collaborator, insisting his actions have been distorted by Russian efforts to destabilize democracy and undermine elected representatives like herself.
I have no idea where the truth lays in that matter, but it evidently inspired in Freeland an intense awareness of the dangers of demagoguery and the forces it unleashes where democracy is weak. Wikipedia defines demagoguery as “a leader in a democracy who gains popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the common people, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation.” That precisely sums up Donald Trump, a demagogue who has become increasingly reckless as he grows in confidence as president. He reduces the most complex issues to the most simplistic of terms. He felt no need to prepare much for his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, convinced he could wing it on a problem that has evaded solution for 60 years and 11 presidents. He happily sneers at other leaders, belittles them in public, mocks their countries, dismisses less fortunate nations as “shitholes,” shatters relationships that have taken decades to forge with allies that have time and again come to America’s aid.
His imperiousness appeals to a certain American hunger for a time when it bestrode the world as unchallenged leader. After the Soviet collapse, the U.S. was supposed to be the world’s sole superpower, but it hasn’t been feeling very super-powery. Syria’s president audaciously crosses America’s red line and suffers little for it. Terrorists leave it feeling threatened in its own home. Someone apparently forgot to inform China and Russia of their subordinate status. If Americans can’t run the world, they can still enjoy Trump swaggering around as if he did, breaking treaties, disregarding agreements, insulting friends and allies. It may result in long-term damage as trust in America erodes, admiration fades and friends begin to treat it as a problem to be contained rather than an ally to support. But what matter is that in the short run, against “the flashiness of exciting, chaotic, fact-ignoring populism?”
Trump is interested in the world only as it affects him. He surrounds himself with toadies and opportunists, flatterers and yes-men. He identifies more with the likes of Putin and Kim than Justin Trudeau or Angela Merkel. He shares their instincts, their disregard for truth and the rule of law, their overweening dedication to their own interests above all else, their belief in the power of aggression. He has an ability to rouse dark instincts and give them a target. He probably lacks the depth to appreciate whose steps he’s following in, and the long history of disaster demagoguery has wrought. That’s probably part of what alarms Canada’s foreign minister, with good reason.