These days the last of the Holocaust survivors are blinking out of existence; the details and horrors of the rise of Hitlerism are, for most of us, veiled by the mists of time, unknown, unremembered and unexamined. For Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright who found his voice during the period between the first and second world wars, the proximate events that accompanied the Nazi ascendance in Germany and Austria were all too real, all too unforgettable and require close examination. Brecht was one of the fortunate ones who fled Germany, eventually settling in the U.S., where he set his theater piece “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” In this play, Brecht provides a parable centered on a two-bit Chicago gangster, a product of New York City, who rises to power, through circumstances that unmistakably parallel those of Hitler, albeit on a much smaller stage.
Upon re-reading the play recently, I could not help but note the similarities between the circumstances of Ui’s meteoric rise in Chicago and the surprising political rise of Donald Trump. Ui is a brooding, boorish lout, self-aggrandizing, craving attention and the leader of a dysfunctional mob whose tendency towards internecine squabbling is exceeded only by its brutality. Trump, on the other hand, is a brooding, boorish lout, self-aggrandizing, craving attention and the leader of a dysfunctional … well, you get the picture. The truly chilling aspect of the play, though, is not simply the existence of a man like Ui, though sadly many such Ui’s have had their day in the sun – from Nero to Hitler to Putin. No, what is frightening and tragic is Ui’s effect on those he comes to control. Ui is in the protection racket, offering his and his cronies’ services to the poor unfortunate business folks too intimidated by Ui’s violent strong-arm tactics to resist. Ui maintains his legitimacy by intimidating, buying off or corrupting the judiciary, politicians, the media and a variety of respectable people, who, once in his thrall, can no longer afford to resist.
And Trump? He is in the protection racket too, mirroring Ui in a couple of ways. Ui declaims, “first I need protection from cops and judges. Then I’ll start thinking about protecting other people.” If that doesn’t fit Trump to his initial T, then I don’t know what does (cf. Trump’s reaction to the Russian attack on our democracy). In the other sense of protection, Trump uses the power of his minority base to offer “protection” to once honorable US senators and representatives, who now have abandoned their principles, even their Republicanism, for fear of being “primaried.” With the ebbing resistance and crumbling of integrity in Congress, the one governmental body with the power to halt Trump’s inexorable destruction of American ideals, who can resist his rise? My generation has thus far failed our country, failed our children—we have allowed the despicable to reign and not just in the White House. When a child in this country is subjected to abuse and threats from Trumpists for simply asking a question of her congressman—that is despicable. When the President’s son/FOX News/Breitbart tout ridiculous conspiracy theories and blame the victims of the recent Florida school shooting for exercising their constitutional rights—that is despicable. There is so much that is despicable in Trump’s rise to the presidency—and too much that has been excused by those who should know better.
Brecht’s play is a cautionary tale. He concludes with this warning, referring obliquely to Adolf Hitler:
“Therefore learn to see and not to gape
To act instead of talking all day long.
The world was almost won by such an ape!
The nations put him where his kind belong.
But don’t rejoice too soon at your escape –
The womb he crawled from still is going strong.”
Donald J. Trump has slithered from that womb—and is on the rise. But … there is hope.
Thank God for our students and our children—many who are showing more backbone and integrity than their elders; who have seen clearly what to do, when we have not; who will do what true American patriots must do. RESIST!