The writer is a partner at Sequoia Capital
As events unfold in Washington, I thought of my grandfather who a little over a century ago fought for the German army in Verdun. This battle, the bloodiest of the First World War, lasted about as long as the American presidential election campaign and ended in stalemate even though it claimed 750,000 lives. Unexploded shells that lie just below the surface of this part of France still claim victims and much of the area the armies fought over is too poisoned to be cultivated or occupied.
But it is the political environments created by the 1914-18 conflict and by the 2020 election campaign that warn of greater dangers today.
When, at the end of the First World War, my grandfather returned to his post as magistrate in Munich, he hoped that life would return to normal. Yet after experiencing the Spanish flu pandemic, the disorderly creation of the Weimar Republic, ruinous hyperinflation there, and depression, he discovered that the demons unleashed between 1914 and 1918 had only grown in strength.
As a Jew he lost his job in 1933, was imprisoned in Dachau and later, after the borders in Europe were closed and he was refused entry to the United States, he was shipped to the Piaski ghetto. and murdered.
In today’s United States, after the election results are certified, it’s tempting to think that peace will break out and support for extreme views will dissipate. But here, too, there may not be an easy return to normal.
If Donald Trump had garnered around 43,000 additional votes out of 160 million – in the right states – there’s a good chance he will enter his second term next week. If 25,000 votes had gone the other way in the second round of Georgia’s Senate, his party would have retained blocking powers on the legislative agenda. And the 147 U.S. lawmakers who voted to oppose the election result promise tougher times ahead.
So now it’s up to all of us in business to play our part and make sure that left and right extremism in America is seen for what it is: a threat to our future together. .
We are all guilty. Some of us have been ineffective with our warnings. Some have given support to the forces of darkness. But we are all guilty of not listening carefully enough to the arguments of our opponents.
Almost five years ago I tried in vain, to highlight for the business community Mr. Trump’s past as a con artist, bully, racist, failed entrepreneur and bossy. I have also written about the differences between him and the people who start Silicon Valley companies, noting: “These are not nationalists who stir up dark memories of purges, pogroms, 1930s, men. Latin American forts or Central African dictators.
Many businessmen laughed at this portrayal of Mr. Trump – preferring to support him because they liked his policies so much.
Their arguments always reminded me of the Prussian military leaders and German business tycoons who believed they could control the dark tendencies of a corporal who became a strong politician in the 1920s. They failed to understand what could happen when the main communication channels would be requisitioned, the press denounced, justice lowered and laws undermined.
Thank goodness Mr. Trump has yet to have the managerial self-discipline to turn the Proud Boys into brown shirt militias.
Over the past four years, it has been faster for many business leaders to act like “Collabos” – as the French dubbed their compatriots who came to terms with the Germans in World War II.
Hopefully the events in the United States last week will persuade them to change their mind. They may find it helpful to remember that in 1923 Adolf Hitler led a failed coup and was briefly jailed, then manipulated his growing popularity to seize supreme power 10 years later.
The past four years have shown that sometimes it’s better to put self-interest aside. Given the choice between attractive policies and a dark character, and reprehensible policies and respectable character, it is always safer to choose the latter.
All I hear now, as impeachment looms again, are echoes of a childhood that grew up in Britain and the refrain from my parents, both refugees from Nazi Germany: “If it happens, it can happen. If it happened there, it can happen here.