It will surprise exactly no one to learn that one of my formative influences was J. Michael Straczynski’s science fiction novel for television, BABYLON 5. In retrospect, it’s a big part of what made me want to be a writer, and specifically a screenwriter. It also shaped many of my views on morality, ethics, and, yes, politics.
One of the storylines that played out over the first four seasons was how a duly-elected president of the Earth Alliance slowly turned into a democracy into a totalitarian dictatorship, and how its citizens cheered him on with each new measure that slowly eroded their rights. Some of his tactics:
- Campaigning on a platform to put “Earth first.”
- Declaring that he would return to the principles that made Earth great.
- Stirring up anti-alien sentiment.
- Stoking fear about an enemy who was out to destroy their way of life.
- Ousted government officials and replaced them with people loyal only to him.
- Encouraging the electorate to turn on each other.
- Threatening journalists who challenged him with jail.
- Questioning the sanity of dissenters.
- Questioning the patriotism of those who disagreed with his extreme measures.
Even as a 13 year old watching in 1997, this stuff didn’t go over my head. The parallels to history were clear, even to me, and none more so than the allusions to Hitler’s rise to power. At the time I actually recall thinking the show would sometimes veer into the heavy-handed with that story. I mean, we all learned about this in school. We’re not idiots, we’ve learned from history. Did we really need such an obvious parable?
A few years later, 9/11 happened, and all of a sudden I was seeing and hearing talk everywhere that reverberated in my mind. Where had I heard this kind rhetoric before? Oh, right. Babylon 5.
So it turns out that yes, yes we absolutely do need parables like Babylon 5. We need to be reminded over and over of lessons from history because otherwise we get complacent, and we forget, and we let it all happen again. And again. And again.
Which brings me to Donald Trump.
Actually, hang on. Let me take it back a step.
In internet parlance there’s something called “Godwin’s law.” Wikipedia defines it thusly:
To invoke it is to make the point that you’ve run out of anything substantive to talk about. Usually it’s a justifiable way to shut down an argument.
But with that said, here’s my question: at what point is it okay to call a spade a spade?
There’s a TED Ed video titled “How did Hitler rise to power?”
Here are some excerpts:
- The Germans felt they had been betrayed in World War I by politicians and protesters. Hitler’s bigotry and paranoid delusions led him to pin the blame on Jews. His words found resonance among many anti-semitic people.
- Hundreds of thousands of Jews had integrated into German society, but many Germans continued to perceive them as outsiders. After WWI, Jewish success led to ungrounded accusations of subversion and war profiteering. It can not be stressed enough that these conspiracy theories were born out of fear, anger, and bigotry. Not fact.
- Combining anti-semitism with populist resentment, [Hitler’s] manipulative public speaking drew increasingly larger crowds.
- After the German economy collapsed in 1929, Hitler took advantage of the people’s anger, offering them convenient scapegoats and promising to restore Germany’s former greatness.
- Left-wing opposition was too fragmented by internal squabbles to handle the crisis, and so the frustrated public fled to the Nazis.
- In 1932, Hitler ran for president, losing the election to decorated war hero General Von Hindenburg. But with 36% of the vote, Hitler had demonstrated the extent of his support.
- Advisors and business leaders convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler as chancellor, hoping to channel his popularity for their own goals.
- Hitler steadily expanded the power of his position while his supporters formed paramilitary groups and fought protesters in the streets.
- Hitler raised fears of a communist uprising, and argued that only he could restore law and order.
- In 1933 a young worker was convicted of setting fire to the parliament building. Hitler used the event to convince the government to grant him emergency powers.
- Within a matter of months, freedom of the press was abolished, other parties were disbanded. and anti-Jewish laws were passed.
- Disturbingly, many of Hitler’s early measures didn’t require mass repression. His speeches exploited people’s fear and ire to drive their support behind him and the Nazi party.
- Meanwhile, businessmen and intellectuals, wanting to be on the right side of public opinion, endorsed Hitler. They assured themselves, and each other, that his more extreme rhetoric was only for show.
- Decades later, Hitler’s rise remains a warning about how fragile democratic institutions can be in the face of angry crowds and a leader willing to feed their anger and exploit their fears.
Sounds a lot like President Clarke.
Oh. And Donald fucking Trump.
Donald Trump has called for creating a database to register Muslims. He wants to throw his political opponent in jail. He wants to “open up libel laws” to threaten journalists who say things he doesn’t like. He’s encouraged violence against protesters. His first move as president will be to replace civil service members will people loyal to him.
Look. I don’t believe that Donald Trump plans to systematically exterminate Muslims. Though, to be fair, I’m sure most Germans in 1932 didn’t believe he was planning to exterminate the Jews either.
But the question lingers: how could the German people have known what was about to happen? How can we know?
History. History is how we can know. If Babylon 5 can make it obvious to a 13-year old, it shouldn’t be much a challenge for an adult of voting age who’s ever read a fucking book.
So a hypothetical Trump supporter is either unaware of these parallels or they see them and they’re simply not bothered. It’s one or the other. And while there are genuine neo-Nazis and white supremacists living among us (the sometimes painful price of pluralism, folks–but still worth it), I have a question for the Trump supporter who falls into the latter category. A genuine, honest-to-God question: is there anything Donald Trump could say or do that would concern you? I’m not trying to troll or antagonize. I’m trying to understand.
I think these are things fundamentally absent in the American character. But that doesn’t mean that Americans are above falling prey to those same tactics. That doesn’t mean we can’t falter. That doesn’t meant that people aren’t scared and ready to run into the arms of a strongman authoritarian ruler.
Do I think Donald Trump is evil? No. But I think he’ll do anything to win, anything to be loved, anything to get the biggest numbers. And he’s found success with this particular rhetoric and this particular group of embittered people.
But if they turn out enough support, I’m sure he’ll have no compunction about doing whatever will make them love him more.
In times like these I find myself asking: What Would John Sheridan Do?
Addendum: I also wanted to note the passing of Jerry Doyle last week at 60, the actor who played Security Chief Michael Garibaldi on B5. He’s the latest in a long line of B5 regulars who died much, much too soon: Andreas Katsulas, Richard Biggs, Jeff Conaway, and Michael O’Hare. jms wrote an honest and heartfelt tribute to Jerry Doyle that deserves a read. All I can add is that Garibaldi, as created both by jms and Mr. Doyle, was a character who taught me that it was possible to fight your demons and win. But also that the fight is never truly over.
Rest in peace.