September 15, 2016Sweltering for Democracy – 54 Days
In July 2016 I wrote and published this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald
I grew up in Ronald Reagan’s America and moved to Sydney 16 years ago. I have made regular short visits to the US, but none have been as long nor as important as the one I’ll embark on soon.
President Donald Trump would be a dangerous disaster. His chances at success have been dismissed for months yet he is the Republican presidential candidate. I cannot sit idly assuming that Hillary Clinton will defeat him. It’s time for me to go and help.
In 1992, I loved both Bill and Hillary Clinton. After 12 years of Republican presidents, the promise of the Clintons in the White House was heady. They were young and part of a generation just coming into their own. It was an electric feeling, being in my early 20s, and helping bring change to America.
I was elected a delegate to the 1992 Democratic National Convention, served on the Clinton campaign staff, worked on his 1993 inaugural committee and then in the White House for most of a year. Even after I went back to finish my university degree I occasionally worked on events for the president and first lady, including President Clinton’s first visit to Northern Ireland and his 1996 re-election campaign. I was proud to be part of what they were building.
But as the century ended I had become disillusioned. I hated the way Monica Lewinsky, the young intern with whom President Clinton had an affair, was treated – by the president, by the first lady, by the media, by the gossips. She was abandoned and sacrificed. The president’s denials and the investigations they led to abused the commitment of many loyal staff. The waste of a year of the presidency was, to me, unconscionable.
I moved to Australia, happy to leave American politics to those with stronger stomachs. I could fall asleep beneath the Southern Cross thinking, “Not my problem.”
But this year is different. It’s different because Donald Trump is dangerous. It’s different because against all logical predictions a majority of British voters want to leave the European Union, demonstrating that seemingly ridiculous political propositions can prove more popular than expected. It’s different because Pauline Hanson is back in the Senate reminding me I should never underestimate the polling power of fear-mongering and scapegoating. Fascism has a habit of arriving as populism, being dismissed by intellectuals as buffoonery and bringing darkness to the lives of many.
I spent most of the last year in Europe where I thought much more about Nazism than I’ve had occasion to in the past. At a museum in Munich I copied down this quote from Karl Zuckmayer, a writer who, having seen him speaking in the beer halls of Bavaria in 1923, said that Adolf Hitler knew “how to rouse those sullen crowds … not by arguments but by the fanaticism of his performance”. Crowds he described as “distraught petit-bourgeois citizens whose world was crumbling due to the degeneration of their accustomed values”.
I thought immediately of Trump and his comments about Mexicans bringing crime and diseases to the US and his suggestion to ban Muslims from entering the country. These are not policy proposals. This is Trump trading on the fears and insecurities of his core constituency: working-class white Americans whose world is “crumbling due to the degeneration of their accustomed values”.
When we talk about Nazis our focus is on the awful end of the story. We lose sight of the subtleties of the beginning. It’s easy to categorise Hitler and his fellow Nazi leaders as the embodiment of evil, as monsters.
But in the beginning they were men with ugly ideas and an angry populace who fed on them.
It’s not the monster we have to be on guard for, it’s the human being on the road to becoming monstrous. It’s the people who are convinced that monstrous acts will solve their problems. Do I think President Trump will round up Muslim Americans? Or build a wall on the Mexican border? Not really, but most people never thought the Nazis would murder six million Jews. History has shown it’s better to err on the side of caution when dealing with fascists.
When we talk about Nazis our focus is on the awful end of the story. We lose sight of the subtleties of the beginning… But in the beginning they were men with ugly ideas and an angry populace who fed on them.
So I’m going to leave Australia for a while and help elect Hillary Clinton, a candidate I support but I don’t love. I am going to do what I can to stop Donald Trump while he is merely an ugly human being.
As the Italian-Jewish Holocaust survivor Primo Levi wrote: “It happened, and thus it can happen again.” Vigilance is the price of liberty – and simple decency, too. It’s time to stop commenting from the sidelines and re-join the battle.
Elizabeth Everett Cage is an American-Australian writer.