The American Hindenburgs

No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it would be hard to view Donald Trump’s first 10 days in office as anything less than a complete shit show.

The reckless and impulsive nature in which executive orders have flowed out of the Oval Office is more in line with the Friday night actions of a frat boy jacked up on cheap beer and bad Molly than that of the leader of the free world.

These actions have ignited waves of protest as anti-Trump forces organize to resist against whatever the administration is planning to throw at them next. Ostensibly this is a good thing and the sign of a healthy, vibrant democracy in action. But in the real world, it’s a bad substitute for the best defense against an incompetent leader – never letting them take office in the first place.

I hear lots of people arguing these days that Trump is a modern-day Hitler. To be sure, this is a lazy, simplistic argument that not only shows a lack of historical knowledge but does a great injustice to those who suffered and died under the Nazis. However, there are some similarities in the way both rose to power which should be noted.

Heading into the German elections of 1932, the incumbent, 84-year old Paul von Hindenburg – he of future blimp fame – had already served seven unenthusiastic years as president. A former war hero, he represented the old guard of German society, whereas Adolf Hitler was the outsider and champion of the völkisch movement, or people’s movement.

There were many in the German political establishment who saw Hitler as the true threat he was and were determined to make sure he was not elected president. So, who did they run against him? That same tired legacy candidate, Paul von Hindenburg, who by then wanted nothing more than to slip quietly into his long-delayed retirement.

Much of the citizenry was as tired of Hindenburg as he was of holding office and because of that he failed to win a majority in the first round of balloting, coming in with 49.6% of the vote in a multi-candidate election.

Let that sink in for a moment. Hindenburg came within 0.5% of winning an outright majority. Could a better candidate have closed the gap and potentially relegated Hitler to a historical footnote? Instead, election rules required a second round of voting, before which numerous candidates dropped out and Hitler was able to secure several key endorsements.

When the ballots for the second vote were tabulated, Hindenburg won but Hitler had picked up 36.8% of the vote, a strong enough showing to keep him politically viable and emboldening his allies to push for his appointment to Chancellor in 1933. When Hindenburg died a year later, Hitler abolished the office of President, installed himself as Führer, and rained death and destruction on Europe for the next 11 years.

Adolf Hitler and Paul von Hindenburg, 1933

Just as the German people were responsible for tolerating a less than desirable alternative to Hitler, there’s a collective American responsibility for allowing our respective parties to foist upon us their frontline defense against a Trump presidency – tired legacy candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, the GOP establishment’s candidate.

Candidates so deeply flawed that they could not beat a thin-orange-skinned reactionary egomaniac with bad hair who has made us the laughing stock of the world.

What does this say about the state of our political system and about us as the electorate?

How could we have stood by as the party machinery on both sides gave us these “American Hindenburgs,” who if they had one more ounce of charisma, vision, or leadership – or one less of scandal – could have rendered Donald Trump a harmless sideshow, reduced to a line item entry in the historical ledger of political oddities.

Once the organizing and the protesting and the demonstrating is over, that is the question we should ask ourselves. That, and how can we do better within our own parties to makes sure nothing like this ever happens again?

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