When I was a boy, every classroom in our school was graced with two framed portraits. I concluded that George Washington was there because he was our first president, while Abraham Lincoln had earned his place by being our best president. I was wrong about Washington. I realize both men were mortal and flawed. When I teach history, I’m careful not to idealize either. Mr. Lincoln still holds a special place in my heart and conscience. In those hours of trial that come to us all, I’ve told myself that if he could bear the great weight he carried — the responsibility of leadership through that terrible war, and the personal sorrows that came to him as a son, husband, and father — then I can bear my burdens, too. My esteem for President Washington has crept up on me over the years. His profound sense of duty stirs my admiration as it once stirred his officers to tears. His modesty and rectitude in turning down what amounted to a crown saved our nation before it was a nation. Duty, modesty, rectitude, and sacrifice. Ask yourself if Donald Trump would turn down a crown. The present occupant of Washington’s chair has already declared himself “more presidential” than any president except Lincoln. The man who claimed he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any voters today again boasted to a rally crowd that nothing he could do would cost him their support and loyalty. The crowd erupted with wild cheers. In the United States we don’t pledge allegiance to a man. Our loyalty isn’t supposed to be blind. That’s the difference between a government of laws and absolutism, between an elected president and a führer. I don’t make that comparison lightly, and I’m not suggesting that Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler are at every point indistinguishable, one from the other. The similarities, however, between fascism and Trumpism are plain to see. Watch a newsreel of Mussolini and tell me you don’t recognize Il Duce’s posture and facial expressions. As for the German chancellor, Hitler was elected by a minority of voters after bullying his way through a field of less charismatic, more conventional politicians. Donald Trump complains that immigrants at our southern border are “infesting” the country. The Nazis depicted Jews as rats invading German streets through sewer grates. Donald Trump rails against recent American leaders for allegedly leaving us in desperate straits. Hitler blamed Jews and weak German politicians for Germany’s defeat in World War I. Hitler promised to restore Greater Germany. Trump promised to make America great again. Hitler’s stormtroopers attacked dissenters and hecklers at his rallies. Trump encourages his supporters to “knock the crap out of them.” Hitler raved about a Jewish conspiracy. Trump proclaims that “Islam hates us.” Hitler raged against the “lying press.” Trump denounces the American press as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people.” Both covet dictatorial powers. Both deal in spectacular lies. Both pride themselves on their intuition, even when it leads to Stalingrad and bankruptcy. Both equate treason with personal disloyalty to them. Both display the delusions of grandeur and paranoia that mark megalomaniacs. As Hitler rose to political prominence, members of Germany’s ruling class assured themselves that no one would take him seriously. When he became chancellor, they consoled themselves that they could manage him. By the time they realized they couldn’t, it was too late. Sound familiar? The Third Reich didn’t happen overnight. President Trump appears to neither understand nor value some of our nation’s most cherished fundamental principles. In his campaign against asylum seekers, he fails to apprehend that the act of seeking asylum is protected by law and not illegal. He also fails to grasp that since colonial times, we were founded to offer asylum to the persecuted and disadvantaged. At the same time, despite our pedigree as a nation of immigrants, we’ve commonly treated each wave of new immigrants shamefully. The president crows that thanks to him, our country is “respected again.” He’s wrong. Fear isn’t the same as respect. It certainly isn’t the same as admiration. The world and our friends in it fear us not because we’re strong, but because we’ve grown erratic and unhinged. The president claims he was joking about being president for life. Assuming, however, that he leaves office after one or two terms, his departure won’t undo the havoc he’s wreaked. What ally will again trust the United States? What will reassure the world that we won’t again choose another Donald Trump? Today our nation is torn as it was in Lincoln’s day. We’re again testing whether a nation conceived in liberty, where all men are created equal, can endure. We’re again engaged in a struggle to determine whether our government by the people, for the people, will survive or perish. I fear it is a close contest. In the closing weeks of the Civil War and of his life, Mr. Lincoln called for malice toward none and charity for all. He urged a weary people to persevere in doing right. He exhorted a divided people to help bind up the nation’s wounds. He pressed his young nation “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Are we in this troubled time capable of such exquisite wisdom, justice, and mercy? I won’t hide my doubts and discouragement. Mr. Lincoln also once reportedly observed that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. It remains to be seen if enough of the people recognize our present peril. As Europe descended into World War I, Britain’s foreign secretary lamented that “the lamps are going out all over Europe.” Churchill sounded the same warning in 1938. The lamps are dimming again. Whether we see them lit or not is up to us.   Peter Berger teaches English and history at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

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