“First they came …” is the poetic form of a prose post- war confession first made in German in 1946 by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy (including, by his own admission, Niemöller himself) following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group. Many variations and adaptations in the spirit of the original have been published in the English language. It deals with themes of persecution, guilt, repentance, and responsibility.
The best-known versions of the confession in English are the edited versions in poetic form that began circulating by the 1950s. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes the following text as one of the many poetic versions of the speech:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Along these lines, Rick Wilson, writing in the Daily Beast explains how Trump Takes a Dump on the American Dream - and offers bad news about how the Trump Horror Show can only get worse. You see, Wilson observes, “The president delivered a mouth-breathing clod take on the majesty and magic of our country, our history, and our Constitution, and a middle finger to our immigrant ancestors.”
Donald Trump’s performance these last few days show how powerful a man devoted to political and racial arson can be when he is beyond shame, reason, and dignity and possessed with the power and platform of the presidency.
In the scope of a half-dozen tweets, President Grievance managed to ignite a racial brouhaha designed to frame 2020, push his white-nat-adjacent audience into paroxysms of joy, and take a massive dump on the American dream. Trump was due for one of his periodic dog-whistles to the alt-reich segment of his base, and he delivered in spades.
Over the last 240 years, immigrants who came to this country to change their lives and to better the destiny of their children built, prayed, worked, and struggled alongside those here since before the Mayflower. Their sons gave their lives in our wars. The language they spoke, the god they worshipped, and the dances of their homelands were irrelevant in the eyes of the Constitution and the law. America creates Americans.
As flawed as our operating system was in the beginning with the stain of slavery, generations have worked to extirpate that sin, through civil war and civil rights, through the long, slow bending of the arc of history. We are a country with a memory of our mistakes, but still bound together and lifted by a shared commitment to being better than we were.
It wasn’t just that America has been one of the few places in the world where the persecuted and oppressed could rest their heads at night without the terror of the secret police kicking down the door. It was more. The American dream was that anyone from anywhere could come here, work hard, rise to live in prosperity, dignity, security, and even hold political office. Yes, Donald, even Muslims. Even women. Even people with whom we ideologically disagree.
The freshmen-year college-dorm socialism (“ACKTUALLY, true Communism…”), and damn-the-consequences politics of the farthest edge of the Democratic party are rich bait for a predator like Trump. The Squad’s recitation of dumb prog slogans and embrace of ideologies one could describe as unrealistic, juvenile, silly, or deeply offensive aren’t a justification for trying to carve them from American society. I disagree with them on a broad spectrum of issues, but I’ll go down fighting to defend their right to be as wrong and dumb as any other American with a First Amendment right to say whatever the hell they want.
Trump knew precisely what he was doing in telling them to “go back to where they came from.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in New York. Ayanna Pressley was born in Cincinnati, Rashib Tlaib in Detroit. Ihlan Omar was born in Somalia and is a naturalized U.S. citizen. His game is to box the GOP into either supporting him completely, including the expulsion from our nation of the four, or fully embracing their politics. There’s never a nuanced choice in Trumpworld.
Nothing has changed about the power of America to create Americans except the fear, impotence, and weakness of petty, small men. Of all the sad aspects of any nation’s slide into authoritarianism, the most disappointing is the silence of leaders who know better and say nothing. The utter silence of the GOP on this one isn’t shocking, but it is sickening.
There is no excuse for the muttered excuses of people who believe in the Constitution and the American system but live in utter terror of Trump’s Twitter feed. Even today, it’s only a minority of the GOP who buy into this garbage, but if you’re wondering why party members no longer do town hall meetings, public events, or answer questions, it’s that their testicles can’t descend from fear of enraging the Orange One. Even the opportunistic ones know how wrong he is on much of this, but there’s no way in hell they’re leaving the Führerbunker. The worst of them are whispering to reporters, “Well, I disagree with the sentiment, but it’s a brilliant political strategy.”
The dictatorships and totalitarian states of the past and the rising authoritarian technocracies of today aren’t built just by wild-eyed cultists, but by lawyers, bureaucrats, engineers, and political leaders. These men always feel that their individual part is too small to matter, that the obedience to the powers that be and the politics of the moment is just an atomized part of a whole for which are not culpable.
By the time people ask, “Why this, why now, and why me?” to the grim emergences of state power and its inevitable abuses, citizens almost always discover that the Bad Guy came to power because his way was greased by allies hoping to ride the authoritarian tiger to power and influence. Those allies who through active or tacit consent shrug off the early excesses as mere political stagecraft, mere sound and fury to woo the proles, or who promise themselves behind closed doors that they can steer the strongman into wiser paths, are always shocked, shocked to find authoritarianism going on.
The game isn’t over. Totalitarians cannot tolerate dissent in any domain. Trump will feed off the Fox-Breitbart loop, rewarded for this action and need more for an encore.
Why stop there, Donald? I’m sure Bill Barr can whip up an Alien and Sedition Act 2.0 in a trice, or justify using the Alien Enemies Act in novel and cruel new ways. You’ve already flirted with it? Why not take it to bed? How about suspending habeas corpus? Lincoln did it, so can you! FDR interned people! What’s stopping you, cuck?
Why not go all Harry Truman and issue a “Removal of Alien Enemies” executive order? When your targets change from refugees to illegals to legal residents to naturalized citizens to your political enemies born here, then you’re really cooking. How dare those enemies of the people report things that make you look bad? Look at how your boy Vladimir Putin treats those uppity reporters! Shouldn’t you step up your game?
When your wild excesses and grotesque corruption go virtually unnoticed—and certainly unpunished—by an electorate too stunned and numb to respond, why wouldn’t you, or your claque of grubby collaborators, go for the big prize?