Kathleen Parker: A demagogue can become president
WASHINGTON — Now that Donald Trump has spoken before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group, Americans have learned the following:
Trump can read a teleprompter; he finally got someone to write him a decent speech, which he was able to deliver without resorting to vulgarities; and he has provided something like a justification for reluctant Republicans to support him.
Which is a pretty low bar, you must admit. And it’s not nearly enough.
You know all the arguments pro and con by now. He speaks plainly. So did Archie Bunker. His message of walled-in isolationism appeals to those tired of loose immigration policies. So was the case with Sen. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, the nativist demagogue in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 cautionary novel, “It Can’t Happen Here.”
Windrip, like Trump, spoke of national greatness, though Windrip was more explicit, saying that Americans “must continue to be the greatest Race on the face of this old Earth.” Like Trump’s, Windrip’s base consisted largely of working-class white males, whom he called upon to help control dissent after he ascended to the Oval Office. Sound familiar? Punch anybody in the nose lately?
It’s called fascism by any other name and, yes, it does seem that it can happen here. That is, a demagogue can become president, as Lewis was trying to warn. And, yes, we do have checks and balances in this country, but does anyone really think that Trump should have the power to start a nuclear war? He’s mighty quick to rile.
No one is more familiar with the language of marginalization and authoritarianism than the Jewish community, causing one to wonder why Trump, whose rise has been spiced with bigotry and group-blaming rhetoric, was allowed in AIPAC’S door. The answer is that the nonpartisan organization traditionally invites all presidential candidates, among others, to speak to its annual policy conference.
Well, that’s an explanation, anyway.
The conundrum for Republicans is that though Trump may be the devil, he’s their devil. How can they condemn the guy that a near-majority of their own party prefers? If you’re, say, House Speaker Paul Ryan, how do you say you won’t support your party’s nominee? Then again, if you’re a good man like Ryan, how do you support him?
That is the question of the moment, isn’t it? This is what we ask ourselves about the industrialists and “good Germans” who supported Hitler. This is what we ask our Southern grandparents about the time when blacks were being lynched. What we ask the World War II generation about rounding up Japanese-Americans. And while we’re at it, what was your vote on Vietnam, Iraq? There’s a price to pay for silence.
That so few have shown the courage to deny Trump tells us how difficult it is to be brave — and how rare character is. But one can only pretend for so long not to hear the dog whistles of history, a skill at which Republicans have become too well practiced over the decades. Perhaps they’re no longer listening. Or they’re deluding themselves that Trump’s words don’t really mean what, you know, they mean.
“He won’t be that bad.”
No, he’s worse.
A Jewish friend of mine — a Democrat, scholar, erstwhile politician and former U.S. ambassador whose parents were Holocaust survivors — called to vent after Trump’s speech to AIPAC. First, he said he was glad his father wasn’t alive to see this, and that he’d almost like to join AIPAC so he could resign in protest.
“The reality,” he said, “is if you go back and look at Hitler, somehow you elect someone that you know is beyond the pale. But you do it because you’re afraid of someone else. And then later, you look closely. And it’s too late.”
The tiny flame at the end of this darkening tunnel is a contested convention, which depends on Ted Cruz and John Kasich starving Trump of the necessary 1,237 delegates needed to secure the nomination. It could happen, according to Princeton University’s Sam Wang, a statistical prognosticator and game theorist with a golden record. Basically, if Kasich campaigns only in proportional delegate states, leaving winner-take-all states to Cruz, Trump’s chances of becoming the nominee are reduced from 90 percent to 50 percent, says Wang.
It’s a big gamble, but it beats losing your soul.