I was tempted to describe Donald Trump as a third-rate Vaudeville comedian, peddling his lowest common denominator version of humor to an undemanding audience, ripe to listen to loaded cracks aimed at every minority group in society.
But the revival of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer about a faded Music Hall comedian, Archie Rice, treading the boards with increasing despair at his failure to make star status reminded me that those vaudevillians’ talent was only directed to amuse.
Coincidentally, I was reading a remarkable account of how a young Jewish fugitive from Nazi Germany became a British army officer and hunted down the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Rudolf Höss, a man who by his own admission was responsible for the deaths of some three million men, women and children.
The book tells how Höss, a man subsequently diagnosed as “intellectually normal, but with a schizoid apathy, insensitivity and lack of empathy that could hardly be more extreme in a frank psychotic”, was mesmerized by Adolf Hitler’s demagoguery.
Hitler’s creed of the supremacy of the Aryan race and the correlative necessity to destroy all those people that posed a threat to that pre-eminence was characterized by the classifying them as untermensch, effectively sub-human species.
In the pursuit of absolute power, not only Jews and Gypsies were to be exterminated but Communists and anyone who did not adhere to the absolute rigors of Hitler’s National Socialist Workers Party of Germany, the Nazis.
A core principle of Nazism was the supremacy of Germany.
This has to be seen in the historical context of Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the crippling reparations the country was ordered to pay under the crushing terms of the Treaty of Versailles.
The great economic depression of the 1930s which exacerbated the difficulties already faced by Germans fostered a mass psychology of victimization which Hitler exploited.
He laid the major blame on the Jewish community but offered Germans a vision of ethnic supremacy which would re-empower Germany to world domination once those he classified as society’s parasites were destroyed.
His words fell on ears only too ready and willing to accept them.
The reservations and warnings of moderate liberals and intellectuals were, where necessary, physically suppressed.
Incredible though it may look to our eyes, Hitler’s solution led swiftly and without interruption to Auschwitz, Belsen and the other mass extermination factories.
The 21st century’s exponential lifting of international trade barriers, relatively free labor migration and burgeoning internet technology has, perhaps inevitably, killed off or relocated vast tracts of manufacturing industries.
This, in turn, has led to wage stagnation and unemployment or underemployment of blue-collar workers.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States and across parts of Europe.
The internet has also facilitated exposure and publication of corruption by politicians and a perception of an all too cosy relationship between the captains of industry and those in the corridors of power.
This has given rise to a paranoid sense of victimization among those who have not benefited from the asymmetric economic progress in communities.
These are ears ready and willing to listen to a demagogue offering to make America, England, France, Poland, Germany “great again”.
This recipe – I will not dignify it with the word philosophy – demands scapegoats: blame is laid indiscriminately upon Hispanics, Muslims, and immigrants of all persuasions, allegedly for ousting the indigenous population from jobs or just for having a different culture.
Caught up in the mass hysteria, an unsophisticated electorate lacks the facility to question the validity of the allegations or the viability of the smoke and mirrors panaceas disgorged so readily from the baying mouths of demagogues.
Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson (both history professors at Harvard) have proposed that the next US president create a “Council of Historical Advisers” to look for historical analogues which can inform decision-making.
Indeed, Harold MacMillan famously bemoaned the lack of a sense of history among decision-makers.
A failure to heed the lessons of history is self-imposed stupidity.
Archie Rice was a harmless entertainer; Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Victor Orban and their ilk may entertain the undemanding but their script is toxic.
No government will ever satisfy everyone but politicians would do well to adhere to the basic principle that governs doctors: “Do no harm.”
This tenet should inform electorates, too.
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