Posted: Monday, December 21, 2015 - 16:42
Usually at this time of year, it’s a particular Christmas tune that I can’t get out of my head. You know how it goes: Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” plays from car radio to home stereo to holiday party, and soon it’s in constant playback mode.
What’s playing back this season, though, in the midst of a presidential election, isn’t a tune. It’s a quote from, of all things, World War II-era fascist Europe. It’s that famous admonition from the German Protestant leader, Pastor Martin Niemoller:
“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.”
Pastor Niemoller — who was mortified for the rest of his life that he had not opposed fascism at its beginning — bequeathed to civilization his stark warning about failing to speak out against hate and oppression.
I know it is wise for the president of a community foundation to eschew commentary on partisan politics, and I do not usually intrude myself or my foundation into that arena. But I think the almost daily demagoguery served up by leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump goes far beyond partisan politics. It is part of the current political dialogue, to be sure. But it is much more than that in its tendency toward the fascistic: It is a threat to civility, to civil discourse and to public trust.
Mr. Trump is an accomplished performer, and he has taken his acting skills from television to the hustings to great effect, attracting a large following and stirring this presidential-election cycle into a ferment of accusation and vituperation. He has been condemned by most of the other candidates for president, Republican and Democrat, and by much of the media. But his following is not diminished; it is growing. In the latest national poll, his lead over the other Republican candidates has grown wider.
What Donald Trump represents is a threat to the very idea of community. The normal discourse of politics can produce a sharing of ideas and perspectives that leads to common ground and facilitates communal action. Historically in this country, this common ground has been the basis for solving our most persistent problems. But that journey requires trust and respect, and those are the very characteristics Mr. Trump scorns.
Mr. Trump has gone beyond criticizing or contradicting his opponents; he has vilified them, calling the other candidates and most of the media fools and miscreants and, most recently, “scum.” He has disrespected and mocked Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women and people with disabilities. He has shown clearly — and reveled in the fact — that he has virtually no respect for others, nor for their perspectives.
At his rallies, which sometimes are marked by violence against those who speak against him, he stirs his supporters in ways reminiscent of fascists from the past. And most of us understand the danger: Mr. Trump’s brand of demagoguery is a threat to a democratic society. It is a threat to our Bill of Rights and the freedoms affirmed in our Constitution.
Most recently, Mr. Trump has taken after the First Amendment, suggesting that our guarantees of religious freedom and tolerance can be suspended. He is advocating a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Mr. Trump suggests that the threat to the United States from jihadist terrorism can best be met by excluding from our country a significant part of the world’s population based solely on religion. This cuts against the First Amendment and the Constitution — in fact, against the very reason that the founding fathers birthed our nation.
The First Amendment, of course, guarantees that Donald Trump has the right to say what he wants. But the rest of us must be careful about offering support to someone who so disrespects the rights of others. It is the First Amendment he is coming after now. But what other amendments might he later find annoying and inconvenient? What about the Constitution itself?
“First he came for the First Amendment, and I did not speak out ...”
When political dialogue gets to the point of threatening the democratic process, that’s when Pastor Niemoller’s admonition matters most.
I want a society that offers the most open, vibrant and varied political dialogue imaginable. But I want a society that respects and protects the rights of Hispanics, African-Americans, Muslims, women, those with disabilities ... and everyone else.
I want America.
Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation.
This blog post also was published in the opinions/editorial section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Dec. 16.