During the terrible winter days of 1933, as a Depression-battered nation waited for Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Americans longed for a dictatorship.
As Jonathan Alter highlights in “The Defining Moment,” his 2006 book on FDR’s first year, “That word — ‘dictator’ — had been in the air for weeks, endorsed vaguely as a remedy for the Depression by establishment figures ranging from the owners of the New York Daily News, the nation’s largest circulation newspaper, to Walter Lippmann, the eminent columnist who spoke for the American political elite.”
That was the backdrop for Roosevelt’s stirring words after he took the oath of office amid record unemployment and a chilling erosion of faith in democracy: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Unreasoning fear has always been the biggest domestic threat to America’s freedoms.
Hysteria over supposed enemy saboteurs in early 1942 led to the unconstitutional internment of about 117,000 Japanese-Americans (most of them U.S. citizens). The Communist victory in China and Soviet nuclear tests fueled the panicked rise of Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s. The Wisconsin guttersnipe launched a 1954 speaking tour against the Democrats entitled “Twenty Years of Treason.”
That may have been the low point of American demagoguery — or, at least, it was until Monday morning. That was when Donald Trump, the statesman who will be nominated by the party of Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, broadly suggested that President Barack Obama may be deliberately aiding terrorism.
In an appearance on Fox News, Trump sneered that the president “doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands.” This was not an accidental slip of the tongue since Trump made a similar charge about Obama on NBC: “There are a lot of people that think maybe he doesn’t want to get it.”
America had its dark moments after the Twin Towers toppled on September 11. But there were also moments of grace. In her Monday speech on terrorism, Hillary Clinton went out of her way to rightly praise George W. Bush for visiting “a Muslim community center just six days after the attacks to send a message of unity and solidarity.”
Clinton’s plea for a return to “the spirit of 9/12” may have been the most intriguing aspect of her response to the horrors of Orlando. In the midst of an election campaign that makes Richard Nixon look like a paragon of high-minded politics, Clinton tried to remind voters that America can transcend poisonous partisanship.
Any hope that teleprompters would contain the dark excesses of the Trump candidacy vanished when the bilious billionaire went before the cameras Monday afternoon in New Hampshire. Like so much Trump oratory, his speech mixed lies (no vetting of immigrants to this country), non sequiturs (jumping from the American-born mass murderer in Orlando to immigration), bizarre boasts (returning to his primary vote totals) and un-American threats to citizens who are practicing Muslims.
Trump’s exact words are chilling: “Now the Muslim community, so important. They have to work with us. They have to cooperate with law enforcement and turn in the people they know are bad. They know it. And they have to do it — and they have to do it forthwith.”
It is difficult to decide what is worse: the ludicrous implication that American Muslims all know about terrorist plots or the ominous hints of punitive action if they don’t rush to the police to turn in their neighbors.
Trump also repeated his insistence that the phrase “radical Islam” must be uttered by the president and Hillary Clinton as a condition of being granted the keys to the Oval Office. The obsession with this incantation borders on the bizarre, almost as if saying these two words will automatically cause ISIS to scatter in panic. It is akin to the Grimm’s fairy tale that ends with the queen saying the magic word, “Rumpelstiltskin.”
This speech, by the way, was Donald Trump — the oft-bankrupt real-estate promoter and reality television star — trying to be presidential at a moment that cries out for healing and unity. The teleprompters were there to add a note of intellectual seriousness to a campaign that has been mostly based on illogical bluster. Instead, they underscored the Faustian bargain that the Republican Party has made in embracing a candidate who radiates contempt for the values that should bring us together as a people.
The hope, as always, is that the good sense of the American voter will prevail and that fear will strike out. But after the worst mass murder in American history — after an attacker pledging fidelity to the Islamic State mowed down innocent revelers in a gay nightclub — the danger remains that frightened voters will choose as the next president a trumped up trumpeter peddling a trompe l’oeil illusion of security.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.
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