Opinion | Anne Bernays

Lifesaving lessons in the time of Trump

10book "Suddenly, Love" by Aharon Appelfeld. Aharon Appelfeld Credit: Frederic Brenner
Frederic Brenner
Novelist Aharon Appelfeld’s “Baddenheim 1939” renders the tragecy of another era, in which those who look do not see. Or who perhaps see but do not act.

The river of American history meanders inexorably through the political landscape. Sometimes it swerves right, then, after a while, swerves left. Then right again. Born in 1930, I’ve been around long enough to have survived several of these swings, some more acute than others. The river has never overflowed its banks to flood the countryside. Until now.

My heart sank when Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey for president. This isn’t going to be pretty, I said to myself. . . . And it wasn’t. The White House was crawling with crooks and liars, not the least of whom was the leader of the criminal gang. For shame!

My heart sank again when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter. It won’t be that bad, I said. But it was pretty bad for those at the wrong end of trickle-down. Somehow, we managed to stay afloat.


My heart dropped further when George W. Bush beat Al Gore. (Al was a stiff, but we probably would have forgiven him for that.) During the administration of Bush II, America and Iraq combined lost approximately 1 million men, women, and children in a war that should never have occurred.

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When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, my heart sank again, this time to such depths it was all I could do to come up for air.

Those three other presidents — Nixon, Reagan, George W. Bush — had been formed in similar molds. Not exactly interchangeable, they at least fulfilled certain traditional forms of behavior — partly through political pressures and partly because, as civilized citizens, they were more or less reliable and not insane.

Donald Trump is a catastrophe. It’s distressing to listen to pundits discussing his latest toxic caper as if he were a normal person, not out of his mind, having only the flimsiest grasp of reality, and bloated with arrogance, narcissism, and envy. He abused a Gold Star father, cut funding for HUD and the arts, axed regulations on business, quit the Paris Accords, threatened North Korea, and boasted that he likes to grab pussy. The New York Times has compiled a list of thousands of lies that have slid off the end of his forked tongue. To sum up: Trump has violated almost every previous standard of public and private behavior, as well as reversing the humane trend toward improving people’s health and happiness. If Trump has any agenda, it is the scorched-earth policy employed by barbaric conquerors who wiped out all evidence of their enemy’s existence.

Early one morning in 1938, I walked into my parents’ bedroom to see my father standing by the window looking grim and my mother sitting on the bed, holding a handkerchief to her face. I asked my mother why she was crying. My father said, “Your mother’s crying because Hitler invaded the Sudetenland.” I had never heard the word Sudetenland, but I didn’t have to ask. I was overcome by an 8-year-old’s version of dread, a sickish feeling that blocks out everything else. That day, in 1938, marked the start of an antihuman political and military campaign that ended with 60 million killed around the planet, including the six million Jews slaughtered with a diabolic efficiency not seen since the inquisition.


There are a lot of theories about the causes of World War II, among them the Treaty of Versailles (viewed as too harsh toward Germany and its allies), Japanese expansion, and the rise of fascist regimes in Spain and Italy. Whatever it was, men seemed unable — or unwilling — to stop the forces behind it any more than they could have stopped the flow of lava down the sides of a volcano.

For me, as a descendent of German Jews, the worst aspect of the lead-up to war was the denial, or even acquiescence, of people all over Europe who were, for the most part, well educated, who followed the rules, looked out for each other, doted on their children, and kept a tidy home. Like you and me. They looked on passively as Hitler kept Jews from entering universities and the professions, spread fake stories about them, and finally rounded them up to be dispatched like slaughterhouse cattle. Those good German citizens did nothing to stop him. Those who want to find out more about these terrible times should read Aharon Appelfeld’s novel “Badenheim 1939,” a dramatic rendering of the tragedy of those who look but do not see. Or who perhaps see but do not act.

My dread came and went, like a virus that stays dormant for years, then explodes in shingles — or worse. It emerged during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I drove to my children’s school and pulled them out of class in the middle of the day. They thought I was nuts. The dread receded. The things that Nixon, Reagan, and Bush did — calamitous as they turned out to be — were no worse than, for instance, the Rwandan genocide, or the political murders by tyrants all over the so-called civilized world. In fact, these presidents don’t come off so badly when compared with the Shah of Iran or Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, or Bashar al-Assad. I and others of like mind were disappointed, distressed, frustrated, and angry. But we were not overcome by dread.

The dread came back when it looked as if Donald Trump was going to be our next President. It wasn’t so much that he was a rotten candidate in every sense of the word, it was more that it was inconceivable we had elected a mentally unstable 70-year-old with an unsavory business and personal reputation and the emotional intelligence of a 4-year old — who told lies more often than the truth, who abused women, war heroes, and the English language, who carried grudges, bullied people who didn’t please him, urged his followers to commit violence, and was the star and producer of a cringe-worthy TV reality show. America’s choice was as unsettling as if we had elected Bonzo. Remember Bonzo? He was the eponymous chimpanzee in a movie that starred yet-to-be president Reagan.

We now suffer from emotional dislocation, anxiety, and a growing dread because this man has no conception of what it means to drop a nuclear weapon on a city, because he has turned inside out and upside down every single forward-looking piece of legislation wrought not only by Barack Obama, but going all the way back to the life-saving legislation of the 1930s New Deal. We look but we do not act. Or, to give us the benefit of the doubt, we want to act but don’t know how. We are in danger of drowning.

Anne Bernays is a novelist, essayist, and teacher.