Fragility and discontent: We can only hope history isn’t repeating itself

Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, The Globe and Mail

Words matter. That’s how the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum responded after a curious meeting in Washington last week.

“The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words,” the museum said in a statement Monday after a white supremacist conference was held days earlier, just a few blocks from the museum.

From a public podium, white nationalist Richard Spencer had told his audience they were the vanguard of the future. His language elicited the ghosts of memory. “Hail Trump!” he called out, echoing the Nazi cry, Heil Hitler. He chose the Nazi word Lügenpresse to smear the so-called “lying media.” In rapturous phrases, he designated the white supremacists standing before him as “children of the sun” who would rise and triumph in the name of Donald Trump. The flattered young men erupted in cheers and Nazi salutes.

It looked like a video game of Germany in the 1930s led by a superhero avatar. Except it wasn’t. Mr. Trump – known to some as the “god-emperor” – was about to become the most powerful man on the planet, and his foot soldiers were growing bolder.

How did this happen? To understand, we should not be afraid to examine the early Nazi era – not to predict the future, but for context. Let us momentarily forget the crimes of Adolf Hitler and focus instead on his modus operandi. From the start he was an ideologue – unlike Mr. Trump, who is primarily an opportunist.

Yet both men acquired power by preying on the economic and social anxieties of their time and by heralding a return to an imagined golden age, once the roadblocks – targeted minorities/enemies – were decommissioned.

I’ve spent much of my writing life studying how seemingly solid multicultural societies break down. I’ve seen this play before. It starts with perceived fragility, with genuine discontent exacerbated when an incumbent government appears unwilling, or unable, to make corrections; or with a political void. Into this tenuous space steps a strongman who accesses power by scapegoating a national religious or ethnic minority – the fastest, most insidious route to a high position.

History is replete with illustrations. Slobodan Milosevic, for example, stepped into the void created by the death of Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia and similarly awakened the disquiet that sleeps under the surface of mixed societies.

How many of Mr. Trump’s radical plans, including deportations and the creation of a national registry of Muslims, will be enacted remains to be seen; the United States is a free country, and popular protest, coupled with Senate pushback, may stop him. But his hate-filled campaign has liberated people who normally suppress their antisocial views to act out their fantasies.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., has documented 701 incidents of harassment since the election. They estimate the presence of 892 hate groups across the country.

To prevent hate crimes from escalating in this new climate, and as evidence of his stated willingness to govern for all Americans, Mr. Trump must forcefully marginalize prominent racists such as Mr. Spencer. People take their cues from the top.

We, too, are vulnerable. According to a recent report in the journal Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, there are approximately 100 hate groups operating in Canada, slightly more per capita than in the United States.

And since we are inherently no more immune to the blandishments of hatred than others, there has also been an uptick of racist incidents here: alt-right posters urging white Canadians to reject multiculturalism; racial insults on a crowded streetcar; the defacing of religious institutions; female politicians targeted by misogynistic attacks; political hopefuls playing the identity card.

The next year will set the tone for the Trump presidency. Should potential social disruption in the United States spill over our border, I believe our commitment to multiculturalism as a core value will provide protection, but we must be vigilant.

We must avoid normalizing discriminatory speech and behaviour, and in this the teaching profession can play an important role. And Canadian leaders must speak out early, and loudly, and use the full force of the law to prosecute hate crimes. As citizens we must protest any assault on the peaceful fabric of Canadian society.

With the election of Mr. Trump, the United States will face an unprecedented test of its inclusive values.

Americans will need to be ultra-vigilant. And so will we.

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