The Moment When I First Became Scared of Donald Trump

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

This week–where we watched the U.S. Capitol Building overrun by fascist Trump supporters, in an attempt to prevent a peaceful transfer of power–was many things. It was tragic. It was deadly. It was dangerous and distressing.

One thing it wasn’t: shocking.

This has been brewing for years. Since before he even ran for office, Trump has been using racial resentment to bolster his own popularity and his own support. He’s co-opted right-wing militias. He refused to accept the election results in 2016, the election he won. He was open about the fact that he’d never accept a loss in this election. And by not committing to a peaceful transfer of power, he essentially committed himself to a violent transfer of power.

Moreover, at his rallies, he stoked violence against the media and anyone who dared show up to protest. He failed to denounce and distance himself–quite intentionally–from the violence perpetrated by Klansmen and Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia. He and other GOP leaders encouraged acts of violence against political opponents, such as the attack on Joe Biden’s campaign bus this summer in Texas.

Indeed, in the 5 years since Trump first became a prominent political figure in American life, there are too many instances to properly recount here.

Anyone who claims to be shocked has either been lying to themselves, or not paying attention.

I wasn’t always scared of Donald Trump. Indeed, I remember having long discussions with friends about who would be worse for the country: Trump or Senator Ted Cruz. This was during the Republican primaries in the spring of 2016. Life seemed so simple then.

Trump, for all the horrible things he is, is not a conservative. At least, he wasn’t a conservative, as we understood the liberal/conservative divide back then. There was a legitimate question to whether his brand of populism might lead to some good things. Perhaps he’d be able to invest in infrastructure, for example. And since he seemed to take three policy positions on any single issue, it was impossible to really predict what he would be like as president. In this sense, I can somewhat sympathize with anyone who was duped into voting for him the first time. He’s not a normal politician.

I can sympathize to a degree. But only to a degree. And I certainly cannot sympathize with anyone who supported him the second time around. Not after what we had seen over four years of greed, negligence, and incompetence in governing. And not after the five years of all the other horrible, anti-democratic, bigoted, and violent behaviors we had seen highlighted above.

And then the pandemic came. So far, it has cost us over 370,000 American lives, and counting. And yet, in the midst of this latest, horrific spike in cases, Trump’s biggest concern is overturning the election he lost. He first tried to pressure others to break the law in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia. When those efforts failed, he tried to pressure Congress to break the law. And when that failed? Violence.

Of course, there were signs that Trump and his supporters were dangerous from the very beginning. As I alluded to earlier, he gained support by speaking directly to racists and conspiracy theorists. He helped popularize “birtherism,” the conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in America and was therefore an illegitimate president, and he started his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants “murderers and rapists.”

In short, his lies and hateful rhetoric were there for us all to see from the beginning. Though few could see just how bad it could or would get.

There’s one moment in particular that I’ll never forget: when I first realized that it wasn’t just Trump that was “not a normal politician” but that Trump’s campaign surrounding his cult of personality was not a normal political movement.

Again, this was during the presidential primaries in 2016. One of my long-time friends, a friend from high school–someone I used to give rides back and forth to school–was a Trump supporter.

One day, I came across a meme he had posted on Facebook. It called Ted Cruz–a truly odious politician, for whom I have little sympathy–a foreign rat, because of his (gasp!) Canadian roots.

As a Jew, alarm bells were ringing in my head. I had been raised to see the warning signs of fascism. And labeling political opponents foreign vermin certainly qualifies! I had to say something.

Under the post, I simply raised the question, “Calling a political opponent a foreign rat…don’t you think that’s a little fascist?”

Here I was, defending someone who I considered to be nearly as bad, politically, as Donald Trump. Because some things should matter more than politics. Language matters. How we talk about our political opponents matter. Decency matters. And this certainly was not decent. It was dangerous imagery, which elicited a visceral reaction of other violent, dangerous, and yes–fascist–political movements based on power, bigotry, and xenophobia. It inherently dehumanizes those who disagree with you, which is an important first step in justifying any actions against them, be it verbal, political, or violent.

Somewhat ironically, Cruz was one of 7 Republican senators who voted to throw out votes from Pennsylvania. Perhaps he had “learned his lesson” about crossing Trump supporters, as we’ll discuss more below.

Regardless, the reaction from my friend of 17 years was swift, decisive, and final. He blocked me.

We haven’t spoken since.

I know the word “fascist” is provocative. It’s not a word I use loosely. Trust me, I’d rather not be using it at all. Because, if anything, it has been overused to the point of meaninglessness. George W. Bush was called a fascist. As was Barack Obama. Its mis- and overuse over the years made many of us, myself included, hesitant to utter “the f-word.” Instead, we spent years beating around the bush with Trump. He was a “demagogue,” or “racist,” or “narcissist,” and much more. Because we had misapplied the label of fascist so often, it greatly diminished the meaning of the word when we needed it the most.

However, a fascist isn’t just someone with whom we disagree. Rather, it is someone who disregards the law, and believes that might equals right. Donald Trump and his supporters never accepted the result. And enough of them believed that they could overturn the result with a show of might. Instead of a purely ceremonial vote to certify the results of the election, we got an attempted coup on Wednesday afternoon.

Those committed to the rule of law respect the results of an election. Those committed to the rule of a man do not.

One last thought about this failed coup: the insurgents who stormed the Capitol were reportedly searching for Vice President Mike Pence. They chanted that they wanted to hang him. And they went as far as constructing a fully-functional gallows.

Mike Pence, VP under Trump. Conservative Republican Mike Pence. Mike Pence who has marched in lock-step with Trump for over 4 years.

This is who they wanted to target the most. What was his “crime?” Not going along with the illegal attempt to overturn the election. Breaking with Trump, instead of upholding the law.

It reminded me of visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp. There was a prison within the prison, with conditions even worse than for the Jews and other enemies of the state.

That prison within the prison was for SS officers who dared break with the party. The only thing worse than an enemy of the state, was an ally (or rather a former ally) who broke with party orthodoxy. Who broke with the vacillating, fickle, and impulsive wishes of the leader.

This is the mentality that we are fighting against. They do not respect the laws other than their own. They do not wish to see America remain a pluralistic representative democracy. They do not wish to see free and fair elections.

They wish for their laws. Their order. And their leader, Donald Trump, to have unquestioned, and unchecked authority.

We did the necessary work to ensure that Trump will not get a second term. Now we need to find a way forward, to step back from the brink and away from fear and fascism ruling our lives and politics. Removing Trump and holding him and his enablers accountable will be important first steps, but they will be just the first of many on a long road to recovery ahead of us.

1 comment for “The Moment When I First Became Scared of Donald Trump

  1. Susan G Atlas
    January 14, 2021 at 12:59

    As always Zach, a well thought out and elegant piece.

Comments are closed.