Martin Niemollar, a Protestant Pastor who spent years in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote a frequently cited warning after World War II about the dangers of staying silent in the face of evil:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
For those who assert that Donald Trump doesn’t really mean what he says or that he will act differently if he is elected president, my response is: Can we really take that chance? Presidential campaigns are almost always hard-fought contests that stretch the boundaries of truth, engage in hyperbole, attempt to divide the electorate between those for and those against a candidate and appeal to emotions. But by any historical comparison, Trump’s approach in this election is far outside the boundaries of normal for any of those categories.
Trump has been called a lot of things during this election, including a narcissist, a racist and a neo-fascist. Of the first charge, there’s no question; he’s a textbook case. Whether or not he is a racist–and there’s lots of evidence to support the allegation–he certainly appeals to racism among his followers. It’s neither subtle nor hidden and the reactions are on full display at many of his rallies.
Fortunately for us, Trump has not yet had the opportunity to prove that he is a fascist. He has certainly expressed his admiration for figures like Mussolini as well as dictators like Vladimir Putin. His campaign speeches show no understanding of or regard for the safeguards of our constitutional system. His assertions about what he would do once in office sound very much like those dictators he so admires.
How might Martin Niemollar update his warning in light of Trump’s demonizing of different groups?
First they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Muslim
Then they came for the Mexicans, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Mexican
Then they came for the Syrian refugees, and I did not speak out–Because I was not a Syrian refugee
Then they came for Hillary Clinton and her supporters with “2nd Amendment” remedies, and I hoped that we hadn’t waited too long
Of course, lots of people are speaking out about the dangers posed by Donald Trump and his campaign for the presidency. As inflammatory, bigoted and divisive as his rhetoric continues to be, the most disturbing part of his campaign is his encouraging and enabling of the worst in human nature. Some of his supporters appear only too willing to follow without question his lead.
Racist language has become more overt. Anyone who does not support him is an enemy, not merely an opponent. His pronouncement that a victory by Hillary Clinton could result only from a rigged election is an open call to his followers to challenge the legitimacy of her presidency. The sub-text of encouraging violence is above not below the surface.
And still so-called Republican leaders refuse to disavow this man who would pull down the pillars of our democratic government. Pragmatism is always a major component of politics, but sometimes it goes too far. This is one of those occasions.
Criticizing a particularly outrageous statement by Trump but continuing to support his candidacy is a moral copout. Trying to draw meaningless semantic distinctions between not endorsing him but still voting for him is an abdication of a higher responsibility to the truth. Making excuses for his rhetoric, as Paul Ryan did in claiming Trump’s reference to “Second Amendment remedies” was a bad joke, means the Speaker of the House is an enabler, not a leader.
Dante said it best centuries ago: The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Reince Priebus and a dishonor role of others have seating guaranteed to them.