Traveling in Greece in 2016, I assured the man driving me that Americans would never elect Donald Trump as president. He turned to me and said, “In Europe, we have had this type of person as our leader before….”
A braggart and violent bully with an unloving father, sent to and expelled from boarding school, a misogynist womanizer, he fled military service. While his armed paramilitary supporters violently intimidated citizens around the country who didn’t agree with him, during a time of high unemployment and protests, he exaggerated threats and insisted to the middle class and wealthy landowners that he alone could bring law and order and save the country.
I am not speaking of Donald Trump, but this story starts the same way. It was Benito Mussolini in Italy. He believed in action over debate or reason, and was a maestro of propaganda — radio instead of Twitter. Once in power, he dismantled democratic institutions, became a dictator and collaborated with Hitler in a terrible war. My mother was a child who lost her mother in bomb-ravaged Italy. As a nation, we forget the beginning of the story, but the horrible ending of World War II still resonates.
Trump similarly and increasingly inflames tensions and violence to promote his political interests. He encourages his followers to intimidate, both online and in person, any who publicly disagree with him. By refusing to condemn white nationalists and armed vigilante militias of his supporters, he tacitly approves of their actions, which have included murder.
He fans the flames between extreme groups on the right and left who contaminate the original purpose of the Black Lives Matter protests, thus endangering our hardworking police officers as well as law-abiding protesters. He orders unwanted militarized federal agents into our cities. He tear-gasses peaceful BLM protesters who happen to be in his path for a completely hypocritical photo op, an amoral man holding a Bible; a man who pretends to be “pro-life” while packing maskless fans close together for rally photo ops despite a deadly airborne virus. Is our First Amendment right to free speech important to you?
Trump wields the nation’s Department of Justice as a tool to prosecute his political and personal adversaries. Does criminally pursuing political opponents feel like a dictatorship to you? He actively undermines our democracy by casting doubt on our election results, thus setting the stage for violence no matter what the outcome. He plans to quell any riots that protest his victory, and refuses to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses the election. He is loading the federal judiciary and Supreme Court with judges who owe him a favor, in the case of a contested election. Does his encouraging civil unrest or even civil war if it helps him hold onto power worry you? Does having the right to vote and the principle of a democratically elected government matter to you?
He already has damaged long-standing international alliances, withdrawn from painfully negotiated treaties without replacement and abandoned military allies while deferring to dictators who threaten the United States — even when they put a bounty on the lives of American soldiers. As the United States loses respect globally, China’s influence and power increase.
If he wins reelection, he will pursue his long-standing goal of withdrawing the United States from NATO, thus enabling Vladimir Putin’s designs on Europe. Is this how World War III begins, with a president who mocks our brave fallen and wounded soldiers as “losers” and “suckers”?
He is inciting social and racial division, shamelessly using propaganda and blatant lies, fomenting violence and undermining democratic institutions in America, while boasting that he alone can stop it. This violence and tearing apart of our country’s foundations and ideals are happening on his watch, to try to consolidate his power! The parallels with Mussolini are unmistakable.
My Italian mother tells me now, as we all feel anxious and isolated by this terrible pandemic, that at least we have food, homes with roofs, and bombs are not falling all around us — the devastating experiences that defined her childhood. We can emerge from this. Vote now to strengthen democracy and prevent the domino effect consequences of an authoritarian leader.
You are responsible for our future. Vote like our democracy depends on it, because it does.
Perla Cassayre Thulin, M.D., is a neurologist at the University of Utah specializing in movement disorders.