About halfway through Michael Wolff's new book on Donald Trump, I had the sense that all this was familiar. As the pages flew by -- and the reading is both alarming and delicious -- the sense of deja vu became even more pronounced. At the three-quarters mark, I realized where I had read all this before: William L. Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."
A quick caveat, please. I am not likening Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. Trump is not an anti-Semite, crazed or otherwise, and he is not really a fascist (although he sometimes acts like one). And -- just to round out the differences -- he never saw combat, but instead ducked the draft, which is presumably what geniuses do.
But in any reading of the rise of Nazi Germany, you come to a dead stop: How did this happen? How did a nut like Hitler manage to take over one of the world's most advanced and civilized nations? The question becomes particularly acute when you consider the jumble of criminals, incompetents and ideological zealots he had around him. One answer to the question is that others in Germany thought Hitler could prove useful.
Much the same thing happened in the United States with Trump. The revelations in Wolff's book are, except for the gamey details, not particularly revelatory. Trump was always a poster boy of the selfish, egomaniacal, ignorant, bragging, cruel rich kid, whose mirror was the sleazy pages of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. Trump's oxygen was the leaked item, without which he would die the suffocating death of being shown to a bad table.
All this was known about Trump -- that and his sly approach to women. But by the time Trump ran for president, he had also mounted the attack on Barack Obama that charged -- against all evidence -- that the African-American president was African only. This was a revolting and racist allegation to which Trump, to the knowledge of those who have recently asked him about it, still clings. The man's true religion is a farrago of conspiracy theories. He believes, sincerely, in the unbelievable.
Nevertheless, when Trump declared his candidacy -- and especially after he won the GOP nomination -- much of the Republican Party collapsed out of moral exhaustion. Oh, here and there, the occasional Republican spoke out -- Jeff Flake and John McCain, for instance -- but most of the party fell into line. It often lacked enthusiasm, I grant you, but it rarely expressed outrage.
Ironically, this is Lyndon Johnson's doing. When he predicted that his civil rights legislation would cost the Democratic Party its Southern base, he did not realize that he was really dooming the Republican Party. He shooed the region's racists and nationalists into the GOP, where they have festered and dominated. The result is a party that today is infected with (disguised) racism and (undisguised) xenophobia and remains largely steadfast against science and the reproductive rights of women. Moderates have become accustomed to looking away.
When Orrin Hatch recently announced his retirement, he proudly called himself a fighter. Just in case you missed the point, he then cited Trump as saying so. But this self-proclaimed fighter swanned his song like a chicken. He said nothing more about Trump, who stinks up his party with his daily lies, childish name-calling and impatience with the Constitution. Republicans remain silent because Trump is doing what they want -- lowering taxes on the rich, eviscerating regulations, bulldozing the environment and insisting that a woman's body is not her own.
The Trump presidency that Wolff describes in virtually pornographic detail was the creation not just of Donald Trump but of all the people who failed to oppose him. These are the people who ducked the greatest political test this nation has faced since the Civil War -- who enabled the election of a man whose sanity is now questioned but whose incompetence never was. It is not true that Trump is nobody's fool. He is the GOP's.
The reference to Germany is jarring, I know, but once again the sane thought they could control the insane, the conventional were thrilled by the unconventional, the rich were assured they would remain so and a collection of political naifs bought into the Mar-a-Lago political bordello, thinking it was Monticello. Michael Wolff tells a frightening tale. It is all the more frightening because it has been told before.
Richard Cohen's email address is email@example.com.
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