Trump wants us to succumb to the hate and division that scarred so much of Europe.
When I served as Yugoslavia’s prime minister 24 years ago, at a time when my homeland was fracturing into separate republics, I often found myself surrounded by nationalistic politicians who cynically trafficked in fear and hate. Now, whenever I hear Donald Trump stoking fear and attacking minorities and foreigners, I feel a sick and familiar sensation in the pit of my stomach. To fuel his political ambitions, Trump is exploiting the same malevolent forces that once made Yugoslavia an ethnically divided war zone and that are on the rise again across Europe.
What is wrong with America that it needs to be “made great again”? Well, according to Mr. Trump, Mexican “criminals” and “rapists” — “the worst elements in Mexico” — are “pouring across the border,” stealing jobs and bringing drugs and disease. Because “Islam hates us,” Trump has promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has suggested that those already here — which includes members of my family — would be subjected to increased surveillance, warrantless searches and even a special ID.
Even after becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, Trump has continued to stoke fear and attack minorities and foreigners. He has repeatedly tried to diminish an American judge by dint of his “Mexican heritage.” After the mass shooting in Orlando, he not only doubled down yet again on fear-mongering, he also implied that President Obama was in league with terrorists. On Sunday, he said on CBS that “profiling is something that we’re going to have to start thinking about as a country.’’
“Fear is the very essence of Trumpism,” Jeet Heer recently noted in the New Republic. He described Trump as “a big bully who is enabling many little bullies.”
Sadly, I have seen all this before. In Yugoslavia, the Big Bully was Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who never missed a chance to turn people against their neighbors. In the speech that made him a political force, Milosevic promised Serbs angry about the Albanian majority in Kosovo that “no one will ever dare beat you again.” He sounded this same note throughout his political career, always warning of enemies at the gates and “NATO lackeys and traitors” undermining the motherland.
Milosevic’s fear-mongering also enabled little bullies. Among the most notorious was Vojislav Seselj, an ultranationalist politician who strutted around in military fatigues and a gun in his belt. He once joked about slitting Croatian throats with a rusty shoehorn, “so an autopsy can never establish what killed the victim, the slit throat or tetanus.” More recently, Seselj urged “those Americans who appreciate my political views and share my ideology” to vote for Trump.
I worked hard to unseat Milosevic in 1992, first by encouraging him to resign, later by running against him for president. I wanted to bring peace and prosperity to the Balkans, not wallow in ethnic enmities. I was pleased when the weekly magazine NIN, once firmly in the dictator’s corner, featured the headline “Milosevic — ‘ Fear;’ Panic — ‘Hope.’ ” Alas, Milosevic’s allies still controlled much of the news media and, in the end, they counted the votes. Fear won out, dooming my homeland to another decade of oppression and devastation.
We Americans should not make the same mistake in 2016. A candidate who purposefully incites fear and hatred as often as Trump has demands the highest level of scrutiny. But our national news media have too often enabled Trump’s rise, and exacerbated his worst impulses, through unceasing yet uncritical coverage. Instead of a watchdog, they have served as a bullhorn.
My earliest memories are of the horrors that hate can unleash. As a boy, I fought to liberate Yugoslavia from Hitler’s fascist armies. As a young man, I came to the United States as a refugee because I have always believed that this nation is exceptional, a beacon of hope to the world where anyone can work hard and achieve the American Dream. America has always been great because it is a country founded in hope. We must not succumb to the fear, anger and despair that scarred so much of Europe. We must not fulfill the political ambitions of Donald J. Trump.
Milan Panic, a California businessman and the former prime minster of Yugoslavia, is recently the author of Prime Minister for Peace: My Struggle for Serbian Democracy.
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