On Not Being Funny Anymore

Emil Feb 22, 2016


In case you’ve been under a rock for the past 36 hours or so, Donald Trump has won his second primary.

This blog is not about politics. It’s supposed to be about my writing. But current events have taken an eerie, and actually quite frightening, parallel trajectory to my most important writing project.

When I was very young my father told me a story about my grandfather. In the late 1920’s, before he brought his family to the United States, my grandfather opposed the NSDAP (the Nazi party) in an election. My grandfather wasn’t running for office himself, he just spoke out against them.

My grandfather’s word was important because he was respected as a hero from World War I as well as someone educated because he had traveled outside of the village to learn a trade as a machinist.

This led to one of them trying to kill my grandfather (with a scythe) while he was working in the families’ fields outside the village. (Despite his learning a trade, my grandfather ended up responsible for the family farm because his older brother was killed in the war, leaving him the eldest.)

To be honest, even as a kid I found this a little hard to believe. I knew my grandfather as a quiet man, who disliked talking about the war, liked to tell jokes, and work in his garden at home.

A few years later I was in Germany serving in the U.S. Army. A cousin picked me up where I was stationed and took me to Liedolsheim (our family’s “home town”) to meet the family. When he introduced me to some older gentlemen I stopped being “Cousin Eric aus America” and became “Emil’s Enkel” (grandson.) The men treated me like a visiting dignitary. I heard a different version of the story, with my grandfather as a hero and his actions being important and consequential enough to still talk about 56 years later.

But I was 19, and drunk on Campari (which I only drank to be polite)  and the story still seemed unreal to me. While I never really forgot it, I spent several decades not looking into it and not thinking about it much.

Over Christmas I visited my Aunt. I was finally considering trying to write a book about my grandfather’s experience’s at the Somme and in Liedolsheim, but wanted to make sure there was enough there to write about.


It turns out my grandfather’s disagreement with the Nazis was not isolated to a single election, and that the incident with the scythe was only the last in a series of clashes. His opposition to them lasted years, and the incident in the fields was the one that finally led to our family getting him out of the country before he was killed.

Apparently “opposing the Nazis” in the mid/late 1920’s in Liedolsheim meant opposing them in what in the capital of NSDAP activity in that part of the country. My grandfather was the vocal minority, and a troublemaker.

(It’s like we’re not even related.)

The details there, and why I misunderstood the incident when I was younger, is another post.  I only shared this to set the scene for what I have been researching of late, and why.

Trump is frequently compared to Hitler. But comparisons to Hitler and Nazis happen often enough online that it has spawned the oft-cited Godwin’s Law. As a matter of fact one of Godwin’s corollaries (often misidentified as the law) is that the mention of Hitler or Nazis in an online forum ends the discussion. Comparisons to Hitler have been overdone to the point of diminishing the understanding of his evil and impact on the world. It’s hard to take someone being called a “Nazi” seriously anymore.

The real similarity between Trump and the NSDAP is not about building walls and racism. It’s about Trump’s willingness and his ability to tap into and harness anger and dissatisfaction, regardless of the consequences. It’s about the consequences of his campaign, whether he wins or loses.

It’s about the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, too. And it’s even about the success of Bernie Sanders.

All of these things have one thing in common: anger.

The NSDAP (and several other nationalist groups) surfed a tide of anger in Germany from the end of World War I right up to 1932 when they were suddenly the majority party in the democracy that they then dismantled.

They waxed and waned in the time between WWI and 1932. They were made fun of. (“Nazi” is a pun based on a Bavarian insult.) They were outlawed (as were several other nationalist parties) and then allowed to reform after promising to not rebuild their paramilitary wing.

The NSDAP was not the first right-wing nationalist group, they were just the most successful. The end of World War I did more than set the stage for the great Depression to start early and hit hard in Germany. The formation of the immediately doomed Weimar Republic put a powerful ruling class out in the cold, and they were not pleased. Some of them formed their own parties and paramilitary groups, using connections still in the government to acquire weapons.

While Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch was the most bold and memorable attempt at fighting the Republic by force, it was not the only one. There were several very dangerous groups that engaged in attacks, assassinations, and attempted takeovers.

We would call these people “domestic terrorists.”

Germany surrendered on November 11, 1918. Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor just over 15 years later. Less than the time it takes us to hold 2 presidential elections.

During these 15 years the right wing groups surfed a tide of anger that raged over the Treaty of Versailles, the poor treatment of the outgoing German royalty, cultural change brought on during the Weimar Republic’s brief period of prosperity, and finally the double-tap to the back of the German economy’s head delivered by the Great Depression.

In 1928, the year my grandfather had to leave Germany, the Nazis lost 2 of their 14 seats in Parliament. Even before they lost those 2 seats they were a distant minority. The 9th of 9 parties.

But they harnessed that anger, and when the other 8 parties, stymied by gridlock, failed to govern, the NSDAP won 107 seats in 1930. Parliament failed again,  and the NDSAP won 123 more in 1932, and suddenly they were the majority.

People were tired of government that didn’t work. They were tired of high unemployment and runaway inflation. When someone told them it wasn’t their fault and gave them an enemy (really several enemies) they believed it and, in the words of Newt Gingrich just this past Saturday night, voted for the guy that will “kick over the kitchen table.”

You know what happened next. He kicked over the table.

People are angry right now. But we are not in the same shape Germany was in after they lost WWI. You might think we are after hearing the stump speeches of Trump, Cruz, or Rubio. You might think we are headed that way listening to Sanders.

But empirically, we are not even close. After severe economic hardships in the early 1920s, Germany saw relatively good times for a brief period. Then the Great Depression hit and their economy collapsed. The government collapsed soon after. Repeatedly. We’re not, by any measure, in such dire straits.

But people are still angry, and that matters. We do have structural problems. People are being left behind by what is a very strange economic recovery. So much so that they have rightly asked: “What recovery?”

So it’s easy for the other party to do what they need to do to win: paint a dire picture of a country in ruins. (Even when they hold both houses of Congress.)

You’re not the first person to watch a video of Hitler and say “Who the hell voted for that guy?” Nor are you the first person to say it about Trump.

The answer to both is: someone who is mad as hell and wants change. Unfortunately those people don’t always make rational decisions. You’re a laughingstock right up until you stop being one.

I thought Trump stopped being funny just before the Iowa caucuses. By that point, after watching his ineffectual opposition adopt some of his more hateful positions, it was apparent to me that he had stirred up enough anger and ill will that we would still be paying for it 8 years from now.

His escapades since then have done nothing to change my mind. I’m convinced that win or lose, his imprint on this country will outlive him.

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