History has never seemed more relevant.
After a week of unspeakable tragedies both here and abroad, the weight of history hangs heavy as the Republicans nominate Donald J Trump as their candidate for president.
Historians are speaking out as never before.
A dozen distinguished historians from David McCullough to Ken Burns have bonded together to create a Facebook page called Historians on Donald Trump, dedicated to educating the voters on the disturbing threat trump poses to American democracy.
Historian Robert Caro called Trump a “demagogue” who appeals to the ugliest parts of human nature.
“History tells us we shouldn’t underestimate him,” Caro said. “History is full of demagogues and sometimes rise to the very heights of power by appealing to things that are unfortunately a part of human nature: racism, which I think is a part of human nature no matter how hard we try, and excessive virulent patriotism that goes by the name xenophobia.”
Joining them are Historians Against Trump, a group of history professors, museum professionals, public historians and scholars who are concerned about the ominous precedents for Trump’s candidacy. In a published open letter they wrote: “The lessons of history compel us to speak out against a movement rooted in fear and authoritarianism.”
They are all urging us to take a hard look at history.
I didn’t need the urging
History surrounds me on a daily basis. Literally and figuratively.
The flotsam and jetsam from over the past hundred years, the vintage advertising, articles, newspapers, booklets and illustrations that permeated the American Twentieth century mass media play in an endless loop through my mind, cluttering it like so many teetering stacks of vintage magazines and books that clutter my art studio.
In my constant field of vision, are a series of framed vintage Vanity Fair magazine covers from 1933 that powerfully illustrate that most tumultuous year, a year that would have far reaching global consequences. and offer a somber forewarning to our own troubled times.
Many are illustrated by Italian artist Paolo Garretto arguably one of the great European illustrators of his time, his graphic covers expose the unsettling climate of the 1930’s including Hitler’s rise to power.
These compelling images of that unsettling time serve as a cautionary tale.
As I listened to a speech in Cincinnati a few weeks ago, a rambling Trump maniacally defending the use of the Star of David in his anti Clinton image, it was clear he was pandering to his racist anti-Semitic supporters. As I looked up at the vintage Vanity Fair covers that hang directly in front of my computer, I felt a chill.
An expert demagogue whipping discontented working class voters into a frenzy, stoking racial resentment and exaggerated threats, giving the disenfranchised a bogeyman to blame misrepresenting the facts and exploiting economic insecurities.
The use of ethnic stereotypes,the exploitation of fear of foreigners, and the concerns about national decline is an ugly stew of propaganda straight from a fascist recipes book .
It’s a recipe for disaster.
But confused and angry voters can take the bait.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Rachel Maddow said that she has been studying Adolph Hitler in the first few months of his tenure as German chancellor:
“Over the past year I’ve been reading a lot about what it was like when Hitler first became chancellor. I am gravitating toward moments in history for subliminal reference in terms of cultures that have unexpectedly veered into dark places, because I think that’s possibly where we are.”
1933 opened with Adolph Hitler becoming chancellor of Germany. The great theme of his speeches throughout the previous year was that “politicians had ruined the Reich.”
Some thought a Hitler government would be a farcical affair. The right had the illusion that Hitler was a lightweight, a ridiculous Austrian demagogue whose oratorical gifts they could exploit while “managing” to contain him.
Over the course of the one year these magazine covers appeared, Hitler was elected as chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag’s Enabling Act was passed after the burning of the Reichstag, enabling police to bypass courts giving Hitler everything he needed to set up a totalitarian state making him dictator of Germany
This was quickly followed by massive Nazi Book burnings, legalized eugenic sterilization, boycotting of Jewish businesses, prohibition of trade unions and forbidding all non Nazi political parties in Germany.
The very month FDR was telling a frightened nation we had nothing to fear but fear itself, Dachau the first Nazi concentration camp opened.
It was a frightening time.
Out of the Disturbing Darkness
There are compelling reasons to feel grave concern today.
Pulitzer prize winner Ron Chernow, one of the historians on Historians on Donald Trump page remarked in a video : “I have been deeply disturbed by the Trump campaign — more deeply disturbed than by any other presidential campaign in our history.
“We’ve all been horrified by the many shocking statements this man has made, but no less frightening have been the omissions,” he continued.
“I’m disturbed by the words missing from the Trump campaign: liberty and justice, freedom and tolerance,” he added. “The only historical movement that Trump alludes to is a shameful one: America First,” he said, referring to Trump’s foreign policy slogan, which shares its name with an anti-Semitic group from the 1940s.”
“Please, please, please folks don’t let it happen here,” Chernow pleaded.”
We have the power to stop it.