Understanding the past is the key to the present AND the future

A Liberal Dose


Recently, my friend, John Gottlied, complained that I had spent two columns in a row talking about how bad Trump and the Republicans are rather than being balanced and talking about what I am for, instead of what I am against. In both his recent columns, he has zeroed in on one of the many points I made (such as arguing semantics on whether Trump’s claims of election fraud were thrown out of court 60+ times disproves them) and ignored all the others. This is like if I wrote a column saying that Trump kicks children, eats people’s pets, and runs rabbits, and John responded in-depth about how technically Trump doesn’t run rabbits he just walks them very fast, plus Democrats often frighten rabbits as well. He also said that my specialty is history but I, and other historians, don’t understand the present very well. I’m going to address those points.

First, and foremost, the reason I spent two weeks in a row talking about the “badness” of Trump and what he has turned the Republican Party into is that it has become an existential threat to democracy, and we all need to sound the alarm. I don’t say that lightly. Both George Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney - all those guys were normal politicians. I disagreed with them, vehemently on some things, but I did not have a legitimate fear that they might destroy America nor had that idea ever entered my mind about anyone. Joe Biden, too, like Obama and the Clintons, is just a normal politician. You might not like his policies, and you might wax poetic about how he is wrecking the country (like I did with George W.), but everyone understands that nothing he or any other politician does cannot be undone when the next party inevitably comes to power.

Trump is different. He has shown us what he is and what he wants to be, and the only thing that stood in his way last time was that many of his own people had a conscience and a sense of duty to the Constitution (though it took them an awful long time to find it), which he would correct if he got back into office. It is precisely my understanding of the past that enables me to recognize this and compels me to cry it from the rooftops.

Consider: A cartoonish rabble-rouser comes along who has the power to sway a significant minority of the population by appealing to the racism of some, to their base and violent passions, and their outrage at the establishment for “selling them out.” He gives them groups to blame all their woes on and encourages them to do so. His every word is hung onto by thugs, many of them mentally disturbed, who are eager to go into violent action to win his approval. He is underestimated by opponents who think he is too buffoonish for anyone to take seriously, and by the conservative establishment who believe they can use his popularity to gain/maintain political power for themselves and control him (but they can’t). He uses his often-imaginary enemies and conspiracy theories to justify terminating the rule of law and using it instead as a cudgel against his opponents. He does all this by insisting only he can make his country great again. Most of his countrymen ignore his antics and just go along, even as it gets worse and worse, and later claim they had no idea it would get so bad, oops.

Am I talking about Hitler, Trump, or any number of past wannabe dictators? I guess it depends on whether enough people pay attention. I can tell you this, though, what I describe is the very sort of tyrant the Founding Fathers warned us about and tried to circumvent in the very Constitution Trump said we should terminate to return him to power. BECAUSE THEY KNEW HISTORY.

Note: this column was scheduled for November 30. In the two weeks since then, Trump has announced he will only be “a dictator on Day One.” That’s like a fox saying he will only eat chickens on the first day you let him into the henhouse. Meanwhile, all the conservative Republican leaders I mentioned by name above, and others, have sounded a warning that America needs to take him at his word and recognize the threat he poses to democracy.

Bear in mind - returning to history - everyone who supported Hitler was not a racist or a violent thug. Most were just normal people who went along because they liked some things about him and ignored the rest. But history does not give them a pass, because it was all right there in front of their eyes, and they refused to see it.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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