Eighty years ago, hundreds of Americans traveled to Berlin to attend the Summer Olympics. The Nazis passed the infamous Nuremberg Laws a year earlier, which denied German Jews basic rights of citizenship. The Dachau concentration camp had already started incarcerating homosexuals, immigrants and other opponents of the Nazis. These acts of hatred, accompanied by ubiquitous racist and militarist rhetoric, were central to the behavior of the Nazi Olympic hosts, and everyone could see that. It was reported in every major American and European newspaper.
And yet, American and other international athletes participated in the games, attending countless rallies with Nazi flags and straight-arm salutes all around them. Some joined enthusiastically in the white supremacist spectacle. In fact, the crowds at the 1936 Olympics were not very different from the mobs that attended lynchings in the American South or guillotine executions in France.
For his part, Adolf Hitler basked in the glory of his Olympic Games. He gained recognition as a world statesman for hosting such an impressive show of athleticism, power and modernity. In a Depression-stricken world, Nazi Germany felt like an island of achievement, strength and self-righteousness. The presence of representatives from almost every country made the Nazis respectable. The Berlin Olympics made condemnations of their racism and militarism in other contexts seem hollow. Within the United States, the pro-Nazi sentiment of the America First Movement reached an apex at this time.
“I look back to the 1936 Games,” Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, a former Olympic athlete, said more than 40 years later. “I think in hindsight that it was a mistake for us to attend.”
And Vance was right. American and other foreign athletes were more than bystanders. They enabled Nazi crimes. They celebrated them and even encouraged them. Historians have noted that the Nazi regime came out of the games with newfound confidence in its violent mission and a conviction that “world opinion” was on its side. After 1936, Hitler thought that the other powers would never stand up to him. He was partially correct.
Very much like the Olympics, modern political conventions in the United States are public spectacles, staged for mass audiences. The Republicans meeting in Cleveland will seek to put on a show of unity and strength for their presidential nominee, Donald Trump. He will claim respectability as a successor to other great Republican leaders: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.
Those who attend the Republican convention and cheer for Trump will replay the mistake made in 1936 in Berlin. Trump’s racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and bullying will not be contained, but rather justified and enabled by those in the crowd. He will look powerful, popular and self-righteous. Trump will claim his views are normal, his behavior is acceptable, and his fascism is part of the American way. The show will make all of these claims more convincing, and everyone in the audience will be complicit.
Democracy depends on people taking moral stands, declaring certain behavior unacceptable. Otherwise, democratic procedures descend from deliberation into violence, as we have seen in cities across the nation in recent days. The vast majority of Americans – Republican, Democrat and independent – who oppose racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and bullying must boycott and speak out against the Trump spectacle. They must stand against his claim to respectability.
As many Americans learned in 1936, there are times when neutrality or party loyalty are no longer enough to preserve basic democratic principles. Standing silently by as the worst of the rhetoric is spewed just enables more of the same. There is a moral assent in the cowardice and careerism of those who know better, but choose not to speak.
Members of the mainstream Republican Party have a clear choice in Cleveland. Speak up and deny Trump legitimacy, or take part in the next replay of the 1936 Olympics and the stream of violence that will surely follow again.
The Republican National Convention will be a fateful test of whether we have learned anything from the history of the previous century. The responsibility rests squarely with Republicans who can still recover the moral center of their party that sits on the edge of a hateful abyss.
Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.”