My grandfather Siegfried was not a sophisticated man. When he bought a car—always the same car, a blue Peugeot 305, replaced every few years with a newer model of the same exact make—he kept the seats covered in plastic to keep them eternally clean. When you asked him for an apple, he’d hold the fruit in his hand and rotate it like a tiny globe, peeling it with his pocketknife and making sure to remove only the skin and none of the flesh. When I ran away, as a child of 6 or 7, to explore a park nearby, he dashed out the door, wearing nothing but his underwear, and ran until he found me and hugged me tight. He didn’t even hear the passersby who pointed and laughed. Nothing mattered to him but his family.
He died when I was very young, so I know his life’s story only as a broad outline: Educated in a conservatory in Vienna, he was a promising young violinist and composer when he was spooked by the goosesteps of Hitler’s goons. He convinced two of his sisters to trade in a continental future for one less tender on the shores of Palestine. Some of his friends, maybe even members of his family, pointed and laughed then, too, telling him he was hysterical, that he was getting it all wrong, that it couldn’t possibly be that bad. But grandpa Siegfried wouldn’t listen: His simple heart advised him to take the thugs at their word and leave. At least that’s how I imagine it—he never spoke of those early days, and his family and friends were all soon seized, deported, and murdered.
I’m not sharing this particular story at this particular point in time to make some kind of historical analogy. Those are rarely useful even under the best of circumstances, and to compare Donald Trump to the Fuhrer or his ascent to the rise of the Third Reich is an absurd and reprehensible proposition. But I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather’s story this past week, and in it I find three simple commandments I can’t bring myself to dismiss.
The first, and most obvious, is this: Treat every poisoned word as a promise. When a bigoted blusterer tells you he intends to force members of a religious minority to register with the authorities—much like those friends and family of Siegfried’s who stayed behind were forced to do before their horizon grew darker—believe him. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t lean on political intricacies or legislative minutia or historical precedents for comfort. Don’t write it off as propaganda, or explain it away as just an empty proclamation meant simply to pave the path to power. Take the haters at their word, and assume the worst is imminent.
Do that, and a second principle follows closely: You should treat people like adults, which means respecting them enough to demand that they understand the consequences of their actions. Explaining away or excusing the actions of others isn’t your job. Vienna in the first decades of the 20th century was a city inflamed with a desire to better understand the motives, hidden or otherwise, that move people to action. Freud and Kafka, Elias Canetti and Karl Kraus, Stefan Zweig and Franz Werfel—these were the eminences who crowded the same cafés Siegfried and his musician friends most likely frequented. But while these beautiful minds struggled to understand the world around them, the world around them was consumed by simpler and more vicious appetites. Don’t waste any time, then, trying to understand: Then as now, many were amused by the demagogue and moved by his vile vision. Some have perfectly reasonable explanations for their decisions, while others have little to go on but incoherent rage. It doesn’t matter. Voters are all adults, and all have made their choices, and it is now you who must brace for impact. Whether you choose to forgive those, friends and strangers alike, who cast their votes so deplorably is a matter of personal choice, and none but the most imperious among us would advocate a categorical rejection of millions based on their electoral actions, no matter how irresponsible and dim. So while you make these personal calculations, remember that what matters now isn’t analysis: It’s survival.
Which leads me to the third principle, the one hardest to grasp: Refuse to accept what’s going on as the new normal. Not now, not ever. In the months and years to come, decisions will be made that may strike you as perfectly sound, appointments announced that are inspired, and policies enacted you may even like. Friends and pundits will reach out to you and, invoking nuance, urge you to admit that there’s really nothing to fear, that things are more complex, that nothing is ever black or white. It’s a perfectly sound argument, of course, but it’s also dead wrong: This isn’t about policy or appointments or even about outcomes. This isn’t a political contest—it’s a moral crisis. When an inexperienced, thin-skinned demagogue rides into office by explaining away immensely complex problems while arguing that our national glory demands we strip millions of their dignity or their rights, our only duty is to resist by whatever means permitted us by law. The demagogue may boost the economy, sign beneficial treaties, and mend our ailing institutions, but his success can never be ours. Our greatness, to use a tired but true phrase, depends on our goodness, and to succeed, we must demand that our commander in chief come as close as is possible to reflecting the light of that goodness. There’s no point indulging in the kind of needlessly complex thinking that so often plagues the intelligent and the well-informed. There’s no room for reading tea leaves, for calculations or projections or clever takes. The only thing that matters now is the simple moral truth: This isn’t right. As long as we never forget that, we can never lose: As grandpa Siegfried knew all too well, those who refuse to gradually put up with the darkness are making a very safe bet; if you’re wrong, there’s no harm, but if you’re right, you win more or less everything.
So forgive me if these next four years I’m not inclined to be smart. When it comes to the task ahead, I’ve no interest in deep dives or shades of grey or mea culpas. Like my grandfather, I’m a simple Jew, and like him, I take danger at face value. When the levers of power are seized by the small hands of hateful men, you work hard, you stand with those who are most vulnerable, and you don’t give up until it’s morning again. The rest is commentary.
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