NEW YORK – There are many roads to political disaster: greed, hubris, the charisma of the demagogue, and, perhaps most dangerous of all, fear. When people panic, they can become hysterical, and hysteria often leads to mass violence. When politicians convince people that they are in a life-or-death battle – that survival is a matter of “us or them” – anything becomes possible.
Adolf Hitler combined all the elements of political catastrophe: hubris, charisma, greed, and the idea that “Aryans” and Jews were locked in a struggle for survival. Of course, none of the demagogues in the West today – from Donald Trump in the United States to Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders in Europe – are comparable to Hitler. None has promoted dictatorship, let alone mass murder. But they are definitely stirring up the politics of fear.
Trump, for one, also promotes greed, openly boasting of his wealth, and has somehow refined outlandish hubris and contradictory posturing into a bizarre form of charisma. On the one hand, he promises to fix all the world’s problems, and to show China, Russia, the Islamic State, or anyone else who is boss. On the other hand, he claims that his vast and powerful country cannot take in desperate refugees from Syria, because, he warns, Muslim asylum-seekers might stage “one of the great military coups of all time.”
Trump’s Republican colleagues in the race for the US presidency, such as Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio, stoke similar fears about refugees. Cruz, as well as the supposedly more moderate Jeb Bush, even suggested that only Christians should be allowed into the US.