I’ve thought a lot lately about my great-grandfather who immigrated to the United States from Germany between World War I and World War II. He left just before the rise of Hitler and probably due to economic pressures more than political, but family lore also has it that he often said of Hitler, “I knew that guy was crazy.”
And that family legend has made me ponder this question many times during my life: How did he know?
Was it when the crowds gathered and cheered on hostile language toward minorities? Was it the impassioned speeches with promises that couldn’t be delivered? Was it when he wanted to make Germany powerful again? When leaders characterized journalists as the lugenpresse or “lying press”? Was it when propaganda stirred something dark and unkind in the people around him to the point where he wondered if he was the only one in the crowd who saw his country described as a problem for which the authoritarian was the only cure?
Or was he just lucky? Could he only see it from shores of liberty in New York? Was it when, far from the individual strokes of authoritarianism, he could piece together the picture of what felt wrong all along?
And what about people in Germany—did they ever realize they were in too deep or did the fear of secret police suppress rationale thinking? When did they realize these were more than words but actions? When he attacked the trade unions? When businesses were forced to comply with the will of the party? When he started attacking a minority group? When they rejected science and burned books?
Yes, over the years, I’ve thought a lot about the man who made it possible for me to grow up in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Lately, my heart’s filled with trepidation that I might now be beginning to understand. First, there was the attack on a war hero. Then a disabled journalist. Then journalists that I personally know were being called liars and needing police escorts to their cars for doing their jobs. There was the grieving Gold Star mother and father. The pope. The union boss. The faithful public servants who valiantly protect our safety. All this while he praised dictators who have killed journalists and dissidents.
There was the moment a friend told me her six-year-old daughter’s horror when she had discovered that there are people who hate Jews in this world. Another friend had to explain to her preschooler that Trump calling girls “dogs” was not acceptable.
Now there are friends and family — people who I once knew as good people — whose kind words have sharply changed. People that I once laughed with and loved, some who raised me, who now seem more distant. Their words are harsher. They’re emboldened to act on their darker impulses. The morals they once celebrated are slowly slipping away without them realizing it. They don’t even see how their words are hurtful anymore. I start questioning myself: Were they like this all the time? Or did I miss their gradual change as well in the politeness of life?
We’re naïve to think that authoritarianism doesn’t begin subtly. It rises as gently as the tide in an oncoming storm until suddenly even the best swimmers struggle to fight the current. Throughout history, it sneaks up on democracies whose citizens have never experienced it, and thus ignorant of its power, struggle against the riptide. They’re swept into the depths of the dark ocean, wondering if the pull is normal and they’re overreacting to the waves, many filled with false confidence they could eventually ride the tide to safety.
And I realize in this moment, the difference now is that this is not a president with whom I disagree with on policy.
This is a president who I disagree with on fundamental human rights. Whose convictions stand in sharp contrast to the American values I cherish. Whose rhetoric undermines the very democratic institutions that make this country great.
I will not and I cannot stay silent any longer.
I could comfortably sit on the sidelines, confident that I am not rocking the boat of a future of returning to journalism, but I believe this is not the time for benevolent people to stay silent. I will not stand by while a leader bullies my fellow Americans. I will not stay idle while he hijacks patriotism and uses it to oppress others.
This brings me to the people supporting Trump. When will they know? What could be said that would give them pause?
How will they know?
I don’t know if they ever will. I know I cannot control what a president says or tweets. But I can stand up and say this is not okay. I can say that the words he speaks do not represent American values of the country I know and love. Perhaps seeing me march will cause those who know my values to pause and take a breath.
This is why I march.