Opinion guest column

Donald Trump is who he said he was

Lessons from the Capitol riot

The 2020 Olympics may have been postponed, but that hasn’t stopped the mental gymnastics of many former Trump-backers as they bend backwards to save their reputations from sinking along with the now-disgraced administration.

I’ve heard at least one former Team Trump member wonder if the president’s violence-inciting rhetoric reflected some form of post-COVID dementia, as if Trump’s exhortations to his followers to march “to the Capitol” and “fight like hell” were aberrations of an otherwise ordinary administration. 

No. We aren’t seeing some “stable genius” laid low by Long COVID. This Trump-led assault on our democracy was apparent to everyone whose ears were attuned to the president’s dog-whistle politics these past four years. Remember when the Nazis of Charlottesville were “good people”? Even those people without high regard for the president were aghast. “It’s racist, far-right violence, and that requires determined and forceful resistance no matter where in the world it appears,” cautioned German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, by the November 2020 presidential election, many Americans apparently didn’t heed Chancellor Merkel’s admonition.

The Germans know a thing or two about the consequences of extremism. Unlike President Trump, Hitler was successful in subverting his country’s democratic government once in power. However, like the president, he achieved the Chancellorship through legal and democratic means. A significant proportion of Germans voted for him. Like many Trump voters, the Hitler voters shared feelings of disillusionment caused by wounded national pride and economic depression that, in the case of Germany, followed their World War I defeat. 

When Allied soldiers liberated German concentration camps near the end of World War II, one great service U.S. forces did for the German population was to force them to view atrocities committed and sanctioned by their elected government at camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. Notably, 75 years later Germany is the leading democracy in Europe whose chancellor is a scientist.  

Not to say Germany is a utopia. Abundant fringe Nazi parties exist in Germany today, but they are managed with the knowledge of the dire consequences that can befall a country if fascist doctrines are accepted. Germany strictly limits speech and expression when it comes to right-wing extremism. It is illegal to produce, distribute, or display symbols of the Nazi era, and incitement to hatred is prohibited. In contrast, while incitement to riot is illegal in the U.S. and may be the basis for prosecuting President Trump following the Capitol riot, free speech is largely constitutionally protected in the United States. Despite that, American social media companies increasingly censor inflammatory comments and individuals, including President Trump since the Capitol riot.

A discussion of restricting free speech in the U.S. would be unnecessary if Americans were less susceptible to demagoguery. More than 74 million Americans voted for Trump, and that number contains only a minority of self-identifying racists. As Dr. Martin Luther King lamented from his Birmingham jail cell in 1963 following his incarceration for peacefully protesting for civil rights, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate…. Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” It was easier for Dr. King to understand those who hate than to decipher why those who didn’t hate essentially promulgated the views of the fringe element.

While the burning of the Reichstag didn’t prevent the ascension of Hitler, perhaps the insurrection that defamed the Capitol will mark a turning point for America. The first step in solving any problem is its recognition and certainly many of President Trump’s supporters in Congress have taken an about-face, which is encouraging. But that recognition was needlessly delayed. With President Trump, the writing has been on the wall for many years. Rather than a convenient absolution of recent events as reflecting a post-COVID dementia, an understanding that “when you dance with the evil, you don’t pick the tune” should be the lasting lesson.

Charles Theuer is a member of the MIT Class of 1985.