Why we want to elect “a strong man”

I recently wrote an essay on the theme that Donald Trump, as scary as he is as a candidate, is really only a product of our electoral feelings. The metaphor I used was that Trump is a weed, the plant that grows naturally in the kind of soil we (the U. S.) now have. I used my back yard as an example. The soil in my yard is too “clay-ey” so the water doesn’t drain away as it should [1] so instead of the grass I prefer, I get weeds. I get the plants that grow naturally in the soil I have.

I liked that argument and so did a lot of other people. It is so easy to say nasty things about Trump, especially if you are a liberal Democrat like me, [2] but saying nasty things about weeds doesn’t grow grass.trump b2 Amending the soil, so that the kinds of plants you want in your yard really would help. If the moisture retention of clay is my problem, then amending it with organic matter to improve drainage is the solution.

So let’s turn this ordinary back yard insight toward our politics. Imagine, for instance, that our presidential campaigns pitted the two major parties and their ideas against each other. The people chose on the basis of the platforms provided by the candidates and the united party who nominated that candidate stood ready to put that platform into operation. You could have a party/candidate favoring more centralized power against a party/candidate favoring more freedom for the states to find their own way. You could have a party/candidate who favors the redistribution of income from the poor to the rich running against a party/candidate favoring the redistribution of income from the rich to the poor.

But that’s not what we have in our politics and in this essay, I want to argue that we are up against the limits of soil amendment. I am going to extend the soil analogy in a different direction today. I think that sometimes, historical circumstances so dominate the political reality of a country that the soil cannot be amended, that all efforts at “soil amendment” will fail. And not long after that “trying to amend the soil” will be vilified and the Amenders condemned as “part of the status quo.”

I have Germany in the 1920’s in mind. I think the same forces that produced Hitler in the Germany of the 1920s have made conditions favorable for Trump in 2016. I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler. I am saying that the same soil produces the same weeds.

That means that I don’t have to say that Trump is “like” Hitler or that he is “playing the role” of Hitler. I get to say, instead, that the passionate desire of many Americans to elect a “strong man” is caused by many of the same conditions in the U. S. today that caused it in Germany during Hitler’s candidacy. [3] Over and over, you hear Trump supporters say that the status quo has failed and the country is in danger and now is the time to elect “a strong man.”

Let me pause to tell you a story that I find to be pertinent. I was at a lecture in Missoula, trump 2Montana in August 1991. A professor from the University of Montana had just given a talk opposing President George H. W. Bush’s “Operation Desert Shield.” It was a pro-Bush crowd so there was a lot of conversation afterwards. During the conversation, an old German man came up to me and said, in broken English, something that chilled my blood at the time and that I have never forgotten. He said, “I haff heard all ziss before,” and he went away shaking his head sadly. It chilled my blood because I knew who he had heard it from. He had heard if from Hermann Goering.

“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”

— Herman Goering at the Nuremberg trials

The German people wanted a strong man as their leader. How could they not want that, given the condition Germany was in? So they elected Hitler and Hitler appointed Goering and Goering told the people that they were being betrayed by their leaders and attacked by their enemies and that those Germans who were not as bellicose as the Nazis were traitors.

Hitler and Goering are the people who would have had a chance to amend the soil once President Hindenburg gave up.  Some responses to my earlier post were that it is “the people who should amend the soil, but in Goering’s statement above, the people ARE the soil. They are not in a position to “amend” anything. They are Germans, they are paying the price for their leaders’ conduct of World War I; their economy is a disaster of hyperinflation; their “Congress,” the Reichstag,  does not seem to be able to stir itself to address the crisis. It is time for “strong measures” and that will require a “strong leader.”

To return briefly to my landscaping metaphor, the costs of World War I and the post-war effects of World War I “fixed” the soil beyond hope of amendment. The Weimar government (1919—1933) could not have amended the soil, under the circumstances, to bring to the front a Chancellor who would negotiate with other nations for a return to prosperity in Germany. [4] It is popular and common to blame the Weimar leaders for their ineffectiveness and there is no question that they were ineffective. The case I am making here is that the powerful desire the German people felt for a “strong leader” was what guaranteed that they would be ineffective.

Maybe it is time for another story. There is a Nazi extermination camp in Mauthausen, KZ Mauthausen, Häftlinge im SteinbruchGermany. For me, Mauthausen is the name of the camp, a place where Jews and other “enemies of the state” were to be sent to die. [5] The camp is now a tourist attraction, of course, complete with a very good bookstore. That was where I found The Logic of Evil: the Social Origins of the Nazi Party, by William Brustein of the University of Minnesota.  These are “the stairs of death” at Mauthausen when the camp was in full operation.  I walked these steps on a beautiful sunny day and could scarcely believe they were the same steps.

Brustein shows that the elections of 1932 in Germany and the United States were remarkably similar. Depression-ridden countries hoping for a new confident strong leader to bring the nation back to health were a similar soil for Roosevelt and for Hitler.  Hitler had another agenda, of course, but he didn’t push it on the campaign trail in 1932.  His campaign speeches sound remarkably like Roosevelt’s.

How about the pathetic ineffectiveness of the Weimar government?  Would anyone like to compare the effectiveness of the German parliament from 1924—1932 with the effectiveness of the American Congress from 2010—2016? As an American, I would be very hesitant to make the comparison. The faith of the German people in moderate, centrist politics was badly frayed by that time. Their plight was so severe that they had begun to call a government by their elected representatives “politics as usual” and to reject it with scorn. They yearned for a strong leader who restore Germany to its former strength and glory.  And they got one.

The passage of the PATRIOT act [6] was not as extreme as the Reichstag Fire Decree or the Enabling Act of 1933, which enabled Hitler to take complete control of the government and to suppress his enemies by means that were clearly forbidden under the German Constitution. The PATRIOT act was passed, however, in a flurry of hyped up fear and it immediately began to erode civil liberties that Americans had taken for granted. Bush’s PATRIOT act, like Hitler’s Enabling Act were “temporary measures,” necessary for “the immediate crisis.”

trump 1But as the fear and anger are jacked up, what was once the vital middle of the spectrum comes to seem “politics as usual,” or, even worse, as “the status quo.” You hear people ay they are “against the status quo” as if it were one thing and as if whatever broke it would be better. Clearly politics as usual is not giving us back the America that was stolen from us under the leadership of the moderates. (Ronald Reagan, by the way, was one of those “moderates.”) Politics as usual is not protecting us from the threat of—in the U. S. today, that means “the existence of”—extremist groups who will count no cost too high if they can inflict even a minor wound on the U. S. It’s time to elect a “strong man.”  This is a real Trump rally picture.  Let’s hope it isn’t really representative.

My argument here is that under those historical circumstances, the nature of the soil is fixed beyond hope of amendment until the conditions favoring amendment return. If the people who want to fix my soil by improving the drainage and declared enemies of the people for their efforts, they will stop making those efforts. That applies as well to parties as to candidates.

The soil which is producing today’s weeds—I described it in the earlier post by using Richard Hofstadter’s term “the paranoid style”—is marked by irrationality and violence. If we are so fearful and so alienated that we will not elect people who will bring about an improvement in our civil soil, then we will keep producing weeds.

I’m looking for some appreciation of how we can move forward together. That was Barack Obama’s appeal. Then it was his promise. Then the promise was systematically derided for partisan advantage. We need to find a way to hope again. I don’t know what will do that for us.

Obviously, as a Democrat, I hope that a Democratic candidate will be elected, but  electing a Democratic candidate won’t amend the soil. It won’t even remove the weeds. And I don’t know what will.


[1] “Should” here is not a term of argument. It means only that I have preferences about what kind of plants (grass) I want in my yard and growing that grass would require better drainage than I have devised.
[2] I’m a pragmatic liberal Democrat. That means that my heart belongs to Bernie, but my vote is going to Hilary.
[3] The rise of Vladimir Putin as a “strong man” ruler in Russia is directly parallel, but adding him in complicates the mix.
[4] Of course, the other nations did not want to help Germany return to prosperity. Hitler’s leadership in restoring Germany to prosperity was done by violating the treaties which had the permanent subjugation of Germany as their goal. How do you think that played on the campaign trail in 1932.
[5] Since it is the name of the town, local businesses have the same name. We rode past a Mauthausen McDonalds, for instance. It is hard to get past the association. Imagine that there is a McDonalds in Auschwitz (also a place name) that features “the Auschwitzburger.” That would be a hard sandwich for an American to order and there is nothing wrong with the name except my own inability to separate the name of the town from the name of the camp.
[6] People forget that the PATRIOT act—always, properly, in caps—is an acronym. It stands for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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4 Responses to Why we want to elect “a strong man”

  1. Bonnie Klein says:

    Eighty years after Hitler, has the German soil been amended? If so, what amended it?

    • hessd says:

      Yes, absolutely the German soil has been amended. We (the allies) did quite a bit of that by insisting that the conditions that could lead them toward a healthy democracy must be in place. We did more by helping them into a condition of economic strength. They have done everything themselves since then. But there are still weeds. The German right wing sounds amazingly like the American Republicans on immigration and for the same reasons. Thanks for the question.

  2. Bonnie Klein says:

    Was it only bombs and blood that amended its soil?

  3. Bonnie Klein says:

    Oops. Didn’t see your response!

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