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(Evan Vucci/AP)
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Working towards the Donald: How reading history helps us find the right questions Add to ...

Following a recent episode of the “history of ideas” podcast In Our Time dedicated to Animal Farm, I thought I’d take an afternoon to reacquaint myself with George Orwell’s political fable.

Skimming through Animal Farm as an adult, in the anxious days before Tuesday’s U.S. election, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. The winking allegories – e.g., this pig isn’t just a pig, he’s Joseph Stalin – seemed cheap. Even the act of reading fiction felt indulgent and frivolous, like lazily sunbathing in the radiant heat of a cataclysmic meteor careening toward Earth. “You know what’s a better book about Stalin?” I asked myself, rhetorically. “This big book I have about Stalin.”

So, itching to read something about political power and control that wasn’t also a story about talking animals tottering around hind-legged in bowler hats, I hauled Stephen Kotkin’s recent-ish biography, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, off my ad hoc mantelpiece bookshelf. And I began rereading it. Even before Tuesday’s galling U.S. federal election results, it felt, somehow, prescient.

***

In my desperation to make sense of Donald Trump’s victory, and the unpleasantly changing tenor of political life that has already come with it, I’ve found a few cold comforts. (These are, to clarify, the privileged comforts of a white, Canadian male for whom Trump’s election does not prove any immediate, material threat, and for whom his presidency is mostly only theoretically distressing … even if it does offend pretty much my whole world view.)

One: Maybe Trump won’t manage to deport any Latinos or block Muslim immigration or roll back Roe v. Wade. Maybe he’ll get stupid-angry, launch a nuclear war within a week in office, and the whole of humanity will instantaneously evaporate in a planet-sized mushroom cloud and not have to worry about any of this. That’s the best-case scenario: the apocalypse.

Then my mind turned to more modest gains. Like … Oh man! The books! There’s going to be books! So many good books! Books that will sufficiently historicize Trump and his “movement” of coiled white rage and ticked-off American nativism that will situate his triumph within the necessary context.

But why wait? Rereading Kotkin’s Stalin book, along with German historian Volker Ullrich’s massive new bio, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, and, in a different register, American icon Bruce Springsteen’s big-ticket autobio, Born to Run, offer useful perspectives on Trump, his ascent and his iconography.

Digging back into Kotkin’s book proved bracing. The depth, the detail, the dull maps of Imperial Russia, the extensive layers of context that reduce the future Stalin to a bit player in his own story, popping up only intermittently in the first few hundred pages of Kotkin’s book, amid the flurry of imperialist and revolutionary activity. I downloaded the audiobook so I could keep “reading” as I walked my dog or shuttled around town running errands. It was amazing.

Forget novels, with their made-up heroes learning trite, imagined lessons about life from which we’re meant to somehow benefit by proxy. To hell with poetry, with its delusive rhythms and prettied words dangling like garish baubles on an empty page. This was real reading. I wanted to run along my bookshelves, arm-barring all my non-history volumes into one of those heavy-duty seasonal yard-waste bags, then huck them into a pit. So long, fantasy! Bye-bye, beauty!

Kotkin accounts for Stalin’s rise, in part, by focusing on the fatal flaw of underestimation. In the early 1920s, when Stalin was serving as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee, fellow Bolshevik higher-ups knew he was, as Kotkin puts it, “no angel – thin-skinned, two-faced, a nasty provocateur.” (Incidentally, “no angel” was exactly how American radio host, conspiracy theorist and hard-liner Trump supporter Alex Jones described the president-elect in the wee hours of Nov. 9.) Yet, despite such obvious failings, there were few indicators of “the monstrous later Stalin,” who would isolate political rivals and mastermind a sweeping campaign of political repression, forced famines and arbitrary executions.

While I’m skeptical Trump will sign an executive order mandating that American farmers switch from growing cash crops such as soy to sugar beets, there’s little doubt the history of this election has been one of underestimating Trump. Or, to use a favourite Bushian malapropism, “misunderestimating”: that is, underestimating in the wrong way.

For 18 months, the media rolled their eyes at Trump. The Slates, Salons and New York Timeses offered back-patting assurances to readers, failing to fathom the essence of Trump’s populist appeal or how deep the reservoirs of white American resentment really ran. In the end, the name-calling and ad hominem broadsides only emboldened Trump’s base.

***

This was the election of the reductio ad Hitlerum – that classic argumentative fallacy in which you discredit something by comparing it to Nazism.

For months, similarities have been drawn between Trump and Adolf Hitler. Some were crummy. But others – Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration, his calls for mass deportations, his thoughtlessly uttered threats of imprisoning rival candidate Hillary Clinton – felt nauseatingly on-point. As Jeb Lund wrote for Deadspin on Tuesday afternoon, this election cycle marked “the first time in a long time that essayists using Nazi analogies weren’t just lazy bastards fumbling for nouns more evocative than their own ideas.”

Ullrich’s new Hitler book offers valuable insight on a leader such as Trump. Ullrich expands on the theory of “working towards the Führer,” first proposed by British historian Ian Kershaw in a 1993 essay, and developed in his own two-volume Hitler biography, Hubris (published in 1998) and Nemesis (2000). Kershaw’s thesis holds that Hitler’s aloofness as a leader meant that Nazi officers, party functionaries and ground-level civil servants essentially had to anticipate his policies. As Ullrich writes, such lapdogs “were not just the willing executioners of Hitler’s ideological postulates: They drove racist policies forward.”

There’s a scarily similar structural deficiency inherent to Trumpism. Trump is consummately aloof. When it comes to politics and statesmanship, it’s accurate to say he has no idea what he’s talking about. What’s more: He expresses no desire to learn. Instead, he spins his ignorance as a virtue, making it an integral part of his Washington-outsider persona. Trump’s careless rhetoric about Muslims (they should be monitored, they should be banned), Mexicans (they’re rapists and murderers) and women (they should be punished for having abortions), combined with his nebulous approach to policy, offers similar conditions for wanton, grassroots violence.

This is a leader who has been endorsed by racists and white supremacists. In the hours after the election, former Ku Klux Klan “grand wizard” David Duke boasted that “our people have played a huge role in electing Trump!” Trump’s bombast has provided such groups, once the domain of Internet chat rooms and drunken backyard barbecues, a de facto licence to hate. Here is a man who thinks like them and who talks like them. And now, he’s leader(-elect) of the free world.

It’s all-too-easy to imagine an American chauvinist version of “working towards the Führer” unfolding in the United States, as hate-mongers and thugs act on what they presume to be Trump’s wishes. We’ve already seen attacks by Trump supporters on mosques and black Baptist churches. I’m not saying Trump is directly ordering such violence. What I’m saying is that he doesn’t have to.

It may seem paranoid or hare-brained, imagining a sixties-style KKK revival here in the year 2016. But it has all happened before. Winston Churchill once spoke of “the confirmed unteachability of mankind”: civilization’s tendency to not glean lessons from history, to favour blinkered short-sightedness, to forget the past. If only we could suppress such dangerous, arrogant predilections now. If only we could forget to forget!

***

Then there’s Springsteen, the Boss, whose persona and politics are about as antithetical to Trump’s as any American celebrity’s could be. And yet.

In my review of Born to Run in these pages a few weeks back, I noted that despite Springsteen’s talent (as both memoirist and songwriter) and solid Good Liberal politics, there remains something unsettling in the “twinkle-eyed, steely jawed charisma that keeps audiences fist-pumping, and chanting, and spending, that draws people toward its centre like a political strongman playing to the basest instincts of the populace.”

It strikes me as not-inessential that Trump, beyond his alleged bona fides as a businessman and builder of big shimmering towers with his own name on them, is known chiefly as a celebrity. It was The Apprentice that put Trump in American homes, turning his ludicrous hairdo into a shared punchline, and making “You’re fired!” a dark recession-era catchphrase. There’s a certain aura around celebrity that people respond to and that makes Trump basically tolerable despite his rather obvious repugnance. There’s a perverse symmetry in Springsteen performing an acoustic set at Clinton’s final rally in Philadelphia the evening before election day, while Trump made his own last push. Both are megawealthy celebrities cast as working-class heroes. Both spoke, in their own terms, of the dream of a better America.

However at-odds their politics may seem, they’re two sides of the same coin. Springsteen’s music has long tapped into a certain disillusionment with the broken promises of the American Dream. Trump recognized that same collective disappointment and resentment, and bent it into anger and bigotry (see also: post-Versailles Germany). Both reveal (and here I’ll quote my own Born to Run review again – sorry), “the cultural and political sway of power, and our toxic obsession with it.”

By placing Trump at some wonky, largely arbitrary intersection of Hitler, Stalin and Springsteen – if only by virtue of three fairly recent, hefty volumes published on the subjects – I’m not trying to indulge sleazy symbolism or jerry-rig together some reductive, Animal Farm-ish matrix of analogy. The point is that understanding the past in the full breadth of its context and particularity, and not merely as some convenient allegory, feels more vital and necessary than ever. Why allegorize the past, or even the present, when we can literalize it?

For the left (or the centre, or the non-fascist Western bloc) to understand Trump and what he “means” and what “we talk about when we talk about him,” we must contextualize Trump in light of the long history of such fascistic, populist movements. In Animal Farm, when the Stalin-pig expels his porky political rival from the farm, many of the animals are shocked and dismayed. And yet, they do nothing.

“Several of them would have protested,” Orwell writes, “if they could have found the right arguments.”

John Semley is a Globe Books columnist.

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