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History, the Holocaust and King Midas

Americans, and Jews in particular, feel rightly indignant by the many casual references applied to the Holocaust in contemporary culture. Many feel, with much justification, that it’s blasphemous to make simplistic analogies between sequestering children and restricting the flow of illegal immigrants into our great country with the Nazi death camps intended to effect a Final Solution to the “Jewish Problem.” 

They are right—it is unjust to compare what happened some 75 years ago with what is happening today, and we should refrain from superficial comparisons that defile the memory of those whose lives were destroyed by the greatest act of barbarism in human history. 

But to the many Americans who rightly reject the simplistic analogies to an unspeakable past, the question remains: How do we accurately and — most importantly — adequately address what America is doing today? How shall we respond, if not by analogy to previous moments of human suffering and injustice? 

George Santayana’s famous quotation argues that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And so it is incumbent upon those of us who feel that America is headed not merely in a wrong direction, but in a dangerous slide towards authoritarian rule, to speak both truthfully and with appropriate historical understanding to our present moment. 

Donald Trump is not Adolf Hitler. He has not risen from the grave in black and white like an old newsreel, saluting his followers with hair slicked over, barking outrages in coarse German, sporting the moustache that Charlie Chaplin so brilliantly ridiculed in “The Great Dictator.”Of course not. We should not be looking for history to repeat itself literally; how could it? Instead we must look to the past for signs, for subtle (and not so subtle) indications that we are slipping back into a nightmare from which we seem to have all too quickly awakened—and whose consequences have been largely forgotten. 

When I look at this country today on July 4, 2019, I see a nation and a political system violently and possibly irreparably at odds with itself. We confuse jingoism and slogans with true patriotism; we confuse chants of “USA! USA!” or “Make American Great Again” with the kind of moral leadership that sets an example for the rest of the world—not in tanks and fighter jets, but in humaneness and concern for the sufferings of others. And we seem determined to assume that America’s beautiful, noble gift to the world as a great experiment in democratic thought makes us impervious to the vanity and moral shortsightedness that have brought so many great civilizations to ruin.

Most of all, when I look at America in 2019, I see a nation completely enamored with itself. Like the Greek hunter Narcissus, America is still a very young nation and still a supremely beautiful one. Narcissus was promised long life by the gods, but due to excessive vanity, fell so deeply in love with his own visage that he drowned trying to embrace his own reflection. In President Trump, we have our own incarnation of Narcissus, a perfect representative of these spiritually impoverished times who is, sadly, the perfect reflection of our national identity. It is completely fitting that he boasts the Evangelical religious right among his most fanatical boosters. Trump is a man who sees the world as one thing—an extension of himself and his own wants. The bigger, the more powerful something is, the better. 

The pageantry of tanks rumbling through the streets of Washington, D.C. is the perfect reflection of the world as he sees it—and all in service to his glorified vision of himself. In this he is also disturbingly like another Greek, King Midas. Like Midas, Trump has managed to transform his world into gold—from the color of his skin, his hair, and the gleaming facades of his majestic towers, down to the very toilet seat on which he relieves himself. 

As we know, King Midas’s fate was not a happy one, and his insatiable greed turned his very food to gold. Of course, there is another less painful version of the Midas story, and perhaps it is this one that is most salient for us today: In this version, the god Apollo changed Midas’s ears into those of an ass. Midas did his best to conceal them under a turban and made his barber swear (a sort of ancient non-disclosure agreement like those who serve in the White House are forced to sign) not to tell a living soul about his transformation into an ass. The barber, however, bursting with his secret, whispered it into a hole in the ground. He filled in the hole, but reeds grew from the spot and broadcast the sibilant secret—“Midas has ass’s ears”—when the wind blew through them. Despite his sycophants’ best efforts at concealment, the truth about King Midas eventually emerged to one and all.

Henry I. Schvey is professor of drama and comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis.