The familiar aphorism is enunciated in a variety of ways, typically with a smug, finger-wagging from the speaker, telling the listener that, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I’ve always found that expression overrated. Its pretentious promise of usefulness is seldom rewarded in a practical way. But we may be living in one of those rare exceptions.
Fascism, or whatever ugly term you want to use to describe what’s going on these days, really is on the rise worldwide. If Donald Trump’s recent visit to Britain has done anything, it’s underscored just how thoroughly everyone is lining up “for” and “against” in this terrifying global lurch to the right.
If Britain is any gauge, the good guys are losing. The roll call of persons willing to capitulate and pretend to like the “president” has included many members of the government and the Royal Family. The good guy exceptions include Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, and John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons. I was quite surprised (and gratified) in particular to see Mr. Bercow stick to his guns and refuse to allow Donald Trump to address the Houses of Parliament – despite extreme pressure from many sides to capitulate – because, as Bercow put it, “it’s not an automatic right, it’s an earned honor.” And Trump has not earned that honor, nor will he ever.
If you’ve been waiting for me to mention Munich, wait no more. That shopworn comparison isn’t merely apt these days, it’s precisely the point in history from which we can all learn and spare ourselves from the doom of repetition. We now know, from witness testimonies and from Josef Goebbells’ diary, that Hitler’s European adventure into hegemony was far more about beginner’s luck than a Triumph of the Will. Had French Premier Edouard Daladier and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rattled the odd sabre then maybe, just maybe, Hitler’s military career would have ended then and there.
No, I’m not comparing Trump with Hitler. But I do not doubt for a moment that, given the opportunity, he could prove to be as bad as Hitler. Or worse. And let us never forget, the elephant in the room is not merely a symbol for the Republican Party, it’s also the worldwide calamity we are facing right now at our own hands: climate change. Toleration of Trump places our planet and everyone in it in clear and present danger.
The world seems in a mad race to the bottom. Powerful people willing to applaud the charlatan usurper of the American White House are frighteningly too numerous, and voices for sanity are frighteningly too rare. The year 2020 just might turn out to be our last chance, and if we misstep, the followers of Trump will possibly never justly be excoriated by the 20-20 hindsight of history.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.