Former President Barack Obama didn’t mince words during a speaking engagement in his hometown of Chicago on Tuesday night, warning the crowd at the Economic Club of Chicago about the care and attention needed to maintain a healthy democracy and invoking the specter of Nazi Germany.
The event, a Q&A session moderated by Mellody Hobson, covered a range of topics, from Obama’s favorite superheroes to the importance of America’s position on the world stage, Crain’s Chicago Business reported Wednesday. But Obama got especially pointed when he began discussing the growing trend of nativism, as people across the world grapple with rapid change.
“Nothing feels solid,” Obama told the crowd, according to Crain’s. “Sadly, there’s something in us that looks for simple answers when we’re agitated.”
He brought up Joseph McCarthy and President Richard Nixon as examples of dark moments in U.S. history, when the country needed a free and functioning press to survive.
The danger, Obama said, comes when people are complacent. “We have to tend to this garden of democracy or else things could fall apart quickly,” Obama told the crowd, bringing up 20th Century Germany’s slip from democracy into fascism and extremism. “Sixty million people died,” Obama said, “So, you’ve got to pay attention. And vote.”
Obama’s reference to Nazism was a historical analogy — but it rings especially true in a moment when American neo-Nazis and white supremacists are holding rallies in U.S. cities, some wearing Nazi symbols.
In August, ABC News reported that, according the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in the U.S. had risen about 17% between 2014 and 2016.