On Feb. 27, 1933, a deranged young Dutch communist set fire to the German parliament, the Reichstag. The newly elected German chancellor sensed an immediate opportunity to eliminate the last freedoms of the Weimar regime in the name of public safety. “These sub-humans do not understand how the people stand at our side,” Adolf Hitler thundered. “In their mouse-holes, out of which they now want to come, of course they hear nothing of the cheering of the masses.”
It goes without saying that Donald Trump is no Hitler — there is only one Hitler — and the firebombing of a Trump campaign office in Orange County, N.C., Saturday night was no Reichstag fire. But nevertheless there were some disturbing echoes of 1933 in Trump’s immediate response. He tweeted: “Animals representing Hillary Clinton and Dems in North Carolina just firebombed our office in Orange County because we are winning.”
There is so much wrong with that sentence it’s hard to know where to begin. In the first place Trump is not winning North Carolina — the Realclearpolitics average of polls has him down by 2.9 points. Second, you don’t refer to anyone — even arsonists — as “animals”; however deeply flawed, even criminal, they remain human beings. Third, and most importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that the arsonists were “representing” Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party.
Trump gives every indication of wanting to burn down America’s political house if he cannot be its leader.
Even if the attack was the work of local Democrats, it’s impossible to imagine that Clinton or the Democratic Party had anything to do with it. It’s just as likely to be a false-flag operation carried out by Trump’s alt-right supporters to implicate the Democrats. But Clinton rightly did not make any such allegation. All her Twitter feed said was: “The attack on the Orange County HQ @NCGOP office is horrific and unacceptable. Very grateful that everyone is safe.”
Clinton’s reaction was as appropriate as Trump’s was not. Unfortunately this is part of a pattern in the past 10 days: As Trump has been falling behind in the polls, following the release of an audiotape in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women, his rhetoric has become more and more incendiary. He gives every indication of wanting to burn down America’s political house if he cannot be its leader.
In another echo of Nazi propaganda, Trump accuses Clinton of meeting “in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.” He did not allege that these bankers were Jewish but that is the implication many will draw. Trump did mention one person as part of this conspiracy — the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, who owns a minority stake in the New York Times — thus continuing his pattern of demonizing Mexicans.
Trump also says that Hillary Clinton needs to be drug-tested and “locked up.” There is a name for a country where political leaders lock up their adversaries: It’s called a dictatorship. This is the kind of thing that happens in Zimbabwe, Burma, Russia, Egypt — not in the United States.
Perhaps worst of all Trump suggests that the election is “rigged.” His compliant surrogates have tried to spin his words to suggest he is simply criticizing “biased” news coverage of all the women who are accusing him of sexually assaulting them. On Sunday, Newt Gingrich claimed that “14 million [voters] picked Donald Trump, 20 TV executives have decided to destroy him.”
This is ludicrous enough — if anyone is destroying Donald Trump it is Trump himself — but the candidate made clear that he is alleging a conspiracy that goes beyond media coverage. Trump tweeted: “The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary — but also at many polling places — SAD.” Trump and his spokesmen have expressed particular concern about voter fraud in “inner cities”— code for non-white neighborhoods.
As if fraud explains Clinton’s lead among non-white voters; in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, she beats him in this category 76% to 16%. Trump’s long record of racist and xenophobic comments might have something to do with it.
What Trump is doing is dangerous and reprehensible. He is creating his own version of the “stabbed in the back” myth propagated by German rightists after World War I. They claimed that the German army had not really lost the war; it had been betrayed by Jews and Marxists on the home front. Trump is assigning blame for his potential defeat to a shadowy cabal that includes such groups as international bankers and ethnic minorities.
In the process he is violating the most basic tenet of democracy: The willingness of one side to accept defeat at the polls and acknowledge the legitimacy of the winning side. That is something that candidates such as Richard Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000 did even when there were legitimate questions of election fraud that some of their supporters urged them to pursue. They realized that at some point pursuing their own ambitions would fray the very fabric of our democracy. Trump either doesn’t know that or doesn’t care. He is going to some very dark places where no previous presidential nominee has ever gone.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to Opinion. He was a foreign policy advisor to John McCain in 2008, Mitt Romney in 2012 and Marco Rubio this year.
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