History in Rhymes — Trump’s Final Rise to Power*

10 min readMar 30, 2024

“‘The big joke on democracy is that it gives its mortal enemies the tools to its own destruction,’ Goebbels said as the Nazis rose to power.”

Photo by Erika Fletcher on Unsplash

The original working title of this week’s post was Bible Stories with Donald Trump. Holy Week and all. I’d planned to cover a golden bull[y] hocking flag-draped “God bless the USA” bibles under fraudulent pretenses, bilking his gullible discipleship out of their last mite to cover his exorbitant legal fees and appeal bond for massive fraud. The poor will, inevitably, always be with us, so don’t begrudge Trump his latest grift.

Galileo’s Recantation, Watercolor, 42" x 51", Richard J Van Wagoner, 1995, Courtesy of Angela Van Wagoner**

But no thinking person actually believes Trump replaced “that Hitler book Trump’s ex-wife said he kept by his bed” with a bible. Besides, others have covered the territory much better than I could. In her brilliant March 30, 2024 column, Donald Trump, Blasphemous Bible Thumper, for example, Maureen Dowd wrote:

“On this holy weekend, one man is taking the Resurrection personally.

“Donald Trump is presenting himself as the Man on the Cross, tortured for our sins. ‘I consider it a great badge of courage,’ he tells crowds. ‘I am being indicted for you.’ Instead of Christ-like redemption, he promises Lucifer-like retribution if resurrected.

“In January, he put up a video on Truth Social about how he is a messenger from God, ‘a shepherd to mankind.’

“Trump is, as the nuns who taught me used to say, ‘a bold, brazen piece.’ He is a miserable human who cheated on his wives, cheats at golf, cheats at politics, incites violence, targets judges and their families and looked on, pleased, as thugs threatened to hang his actually pious vice president.

“Yet, more and more, Trump is wallowing in his Messiah complex.

“Two-Corinthians Trump wouldn’t know the difference between Old and New Testaments. So he may not realize that, rather than a sacrificial lamb, he is the Golden Calf, the false god worshiped by Israelites when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments.

The Silvery Moon, Watercolor, 28" x 50", Richard J Van Wagoner, 1997, Courtesy of an Anonymous Collector**

“Just as the Israelites melted their ornaments and jewelry to make the calf, Trump is trading tacky products for gilt to pay gazillions in obligations. After his $399 golden ‘Never Surrender High-Top Sneaker,’ Trump is selling a $99 ‘Victory’ cologne for ‘movers, shakers and history makers’ with ‘a crisp opening of citrus blends into a cedar heart, underpinned by a rich base of leather and amber, crafting a commanding presence.’ A gold bust of Trump tops the bottle. (‘Victory’ perfume for women comes in a Miss Universe-shape bottle.)

“Weaponizing his martyrdom, Trump is selling $59.99 ‘God Bless the USA’ Bibles adorned with a flag and the chorus of Lee Greenwood’s song handwritten by the singer, plus the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Pledge of Allegiance.

“‘Happy Holy Week!’ he wrote on Truth Social. ‘Let’s Make America Pray Again. As we lead into Good Friday and Easter, I encourage you to get a copy of the God Bless The USA Bible.’

“David Axelrod says that, even as a secular Jew, he’s offended: ‘This is a guy who has violated 11 of the Ten Commandments.’

“Trump posted a promotional video claiming ‘Christians are under siege’ and vowing to ‘protect content that is pro-God.’ He held up the Bible — recalling the appalling moment in 2020 when Ivanka handed him a Bible from her designer bag and he clutched it in front of St. John’s Church, opposite the White House, moments after the police tear-gassed protesters and journalists in adjacent Lafayette Square at a demonstration about George Floyd’s murder.

“‘All Americans need a Bible in their home, and I have many,’ Trump barked. ‘It’s my favorite book.’ Maybe the Bible has replaced that Hitler book Trump’s ex-wife said he kept by his bed. But it’s all a scam. Running for president is about enriching himself, just as when he peddled NFTs, steaks, ties, suits, bath towels, vodka, water, office chairs, Trump University and mug-shot mugs. He even sold pieces of the suit he was wearing when he took the mug shot.

“‘I want to have a lot of people have it,’ Trump said of his Bible. ‘You have to have it for your heart, for your soul.’

“Just what the world needs: a soul cleanse with a grifter Bible, where the profits could well be going to pay legal costs in trials about breaking commandments — bearing false witness to try to steal democracy, coveting a porn star, then paying the star hush money to keep quiet about the sex.

“What could be more Elmer Gantry than that? As Sinclair Lewis wrote about his corrupt, power-hungry, narcissistic, womanizing preacher, ‘He had, in fact, got everything from the church and Sunday school, except, perhaps, any longing whatever for decency and kindness and reason.’

“Religious snake-oil salesmen have a storied history in American literature and films, from Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Wise Blood’ to Peter Bogdanovich’s beloved movie ‘Paper Moon,’ about a conniving Bible salesman and his small helper. But it’s shocking when the charlatan might be in the Oval.

“In her 2016 book, ‘The Confidence Game,’ Maria Konnikova explained that we’re easy prey for faux Nigerian princes because of all the chaos in our world. ‘The whirlwind advance of technology heralds a new golden age of the grift,’ she wrote. ‘Cons thrive in times of transition and fast change.’

“If there is one thing Trump knows how to do, it’s exploit chaos he creates.

“There has to be a yearning in the populace that the con man can channel; and, at a time when religion and patriotism are waning, people are searching for more. Unfortunately, these days that search often takes the form of conspiracy theories.

“As Donie O’Sullivan reported for CNN, no sooner had the Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed in Baltimore than a bunch of crazy conspiracy tales blossomed about terrorism, D.E.I., Obama, Israel and Ukraine.

“Declining faith in religion and rising faith in conspiracies create fertile ground for a faker like Trump. If the profane pol is re-elected, we’ll all reap the whirlwind.”

Christ, Christ, Christ . . . , Watercolor, 21.5" x 29", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 2000, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**

Trump’s Rise to Power

No thinking person believes Trump replaced “that Hitler book Trump’s ex-wife said he kept by his bed” with a bible. Trump’s new grift is simply his latest in a long pattern, but this one is deeply insidious because he falsely claims affinity with people who have sincerely held beliefs in bias-confirming selections of the religious canon. The Mormon church’s sacred texts would be next — and with Utah sales through the roof — but for evangelicals taking offense.

In his review of Timothy W. Ryback’s new book, Takeover: Hitler’s Final Rise to Power, in the March 18, 2024, edition of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik summarizes Ryback’s history-rhyming description of the Third Reich, focusing on 1932. The ascent to power is not so much the charisma, acumen, or policies of the wannabe-dictator, but more the benefit to themselves the pols have calculated by enabling the “chaotic clown’s” rise to power, until it’s too late. And, of course, a campaign to control the media and keep the voting public misinformed or altogether ignorant and in fear.

“Ryback details . . . how a country with a functional, if flawed, democratic machinery handed absolute power over to someone who could never claim a majority in an actual election and whom the entire conservative political class regarded as a chaotic clown with a violent following. Ryback shows how major players thought they could find some ulterior advantage in managing him. Each was sure that, after the passing of a brief storm cloud, so obviously overloaded that it had to expend itself, they would emerge in possession of power. The corporate bosses thought that, if you looked past the strutting and the performative antisemitism, you had someone who would protect your money. Communist ideologues thought that, if you peered deeply enough into the strutting and the performative antisemitism, you could spy the pattern of a popular revolution. The decent right thought that he was too obviously deranged to remain in power long, and the decent left, tempered by earlier fights against different enemies, thought that, if they forcibly stuck to the rule of law, then the law would somehow by itself entrap a lawless leader. In a now familiar paradox, the rational forces stuck to magical thinking, while the irrational ones were more logical, parsing the brute equations of power. And so the storm never passed. . . .

“The Nazis, as they were called — a put-down made into a popular label, like ‘Impressionists’ — began as one of many fringe and populist antisemitic groups in Germany, including the Thule Society, which was filled with bizarre pre-QAnon conspiracy adepts. . . .

“It was indeed a ‘normal’ election in that respect, responding not least to the outburst of ‘normal’ politics with which Hitler had littered his program: he had, in the months beforehand, damped down his usual ranting about Jews and bankers and moneyed élites and the rest. He had recorded a widely distributed phonograph album (the era’s equivalent of a podcast) designed to make him seem, well, Chancellor-ish. He emphasized agricultural support and a return to better times, aiming, as Ryback writes, ‘to bridge divides of class and conscience, socialism and nationalism.’ By the strange alchemy of demagoguery, a brief visit to the surface of sanity annulled years and years of crazy.

The Germans were voting, in the absent-minded way of democratic voters everywhere, for easy reassurances, for stability, with classes siding against their historical enemies. They weren’t wild-eyed nationalists voting for a millennial authoritarian regime that would rule forever and restore Germany to glory, and, certainly, they weren’t voting for an apocalyptic nightmare that would leave tens of millions of people dead and the cities of Germany destroyed. They were voting for specific programs that they thought would benefit them, and for a year’s insurance against the people they feared. . . .

“The strength of the Nazis lay, rather, in the curiously enclosed and benumbed character of their leader. Hitler was impossible to discourage, not because he ran an efficient machine but because he was immune to the normal human impediments to absolute power: shame, calculation, or even a desire to see a particular political program put in place. . . .

“‘The big joke on democracy is that it gives its mortal enemies the tools to its own destruction,’ Goebbels said as the Nazis rose to power — one of those quotes that sound apocryphal but are not. . . .

“Does history have patterns or merely circumstances and unique contingencies? Certainly, the Germany of 1932 was a place unto itself. The truth, that some cycles may recur but inexactly, is best captured in that fine aphorism ‘History does not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.’ Appropriately, no historian is exactly sure who said this: widely credited to Mark Twain, it was more likely first said long after his death.

“We see through a glass darkly, as patterns of authoritarian ambition seem to flash before our eyes: the demagogue made strong not by conviction but by being numb to normal human encouragements and admonitions; the aging center left; the media lords who want something like what the demagogue wants but in the end are controlled by him; the political maneuverers who think they can outwit the demagogue; the resistance and sudden surrender.

Democracy doesn’t die in darkness. It dies in bright midafternoon light, where politicians fall back on familiarities and make faint offers to authoritarians and say a firm and final no — and then wake up a few days later and say, Well, maybe this time, it might all work out, and look at the other side! Precise circumstances never repeat, yet shapes and patterns so often recur. In history, it’s true, the same thing never happens twice. But the same things do.

The Forgotten History of Hitler’s Establishment Enablers (emphasis added).

R.VanWagoner https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner publishes. https://richardvanwagoner.medium.com/subscribe

*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November 17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists is not, however, for the faint of heart.

**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards, and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Van Wagoner, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner are hers.




Exercising my right not to remain silent. Criminal defense and First Amendment attorney.