During these days of rising Trumpism, it is instructive to go back to 1937 and ask an ordinary German citizen why they joined the National Socialism party. We can do this because Milton Mayer did. Here is an answer from Heinrich Hildebrandt, a schoolteacher who recalled his experience when joining the Party in 1937, given in an interview shortly after World War II. His words cut to a deep, difficult truth: the Nazi party drew its strength from the power of social acceptance.
There were good things, great things in the [Nazi] system [although] the system itself was evil...
Perhaps I should make it singular rather than plural. The good thing. For the first time in my life, I was really the peer of men who, in the Kaiser time and in the Weimar time, had always belonged to classes lower or higher than my own, men whom one had always looked down upon or up to, but never at. In the Labor Front - I represented the teachers' association - I came to know such people first hand, to know their lives and to have them know mine.
Even in America - perhaps; I have never been there - I suspect that a teacher who talks about 'the common people' has never known one, really known one, not even if he himself came from among them, as I, with an Army officer as a father, did not. National Socialism broke down that separation, that class distinction. Democracy - such democracy as we had had - didn't do it and is not doing it now.
In 2016 we are a lifetime away, but people are the same, and I think this is a core appeal of Trumpism today. Trump is the blue-collar white-trash billionaire who brings together a group of common people and sees them, really sees them, as peers. His racism, shoot-from-the-hip thinking, crude language. conspiracy theories and lack of intellectual rigor - these are all forms of commonfolk thinking, and Trump accepts them, adopts them, and meets them as equal to him - really equal.
It is also a mirror image of the political failure of the current Democratic party. We Obama/Clinton Democrats are a mix of Harvard policy wonkishness, MIT scientific rigor and Wellesley political correctness. While the Democratic party wants to think that it works in the best interests of the common man, it does so with sterile academic arguments that are incomprehensible to and uncomprehending of regular folks. Democratic policies are for your own good because experts say they are. The delivery is paternalistic instead of a meeting of equals.
People are ordinary, not elite. And there is huge power in the feeling of acceptance, membership, and treatment as true equals that Trump's approach can bring. Of course that does not mean that it is ultimately good for the world.
This is the warning from 1937 that we should all heed.