Trump is Hitler

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015 Politics


I’m sorry but this is exactly what nascent, doctrinaire fascism looks like. More timid comparisons (to George Wallace, to Barry Goldwater) are insufficient: Trump is following the Adolf Hitler template exactly. I don’t want to hear about “Godwin’s Law” when Bernie Sanders is called a Nazi in the National Review and Obama has been compared to (and directly portrayed as) Hitler at least as many times as he’s been called a Socialist or a Muslim; the taboo on the comparison should be retired.

We balk at the idea because Trump is so un-Hitler-like: he can’t be taken seriously; he’s “a clown” (even according to Fox News); he has no chances. But it was the same with Hitler. In late 1920s and early 1930s Germany, Hitler was “the ranting clown who bangs the drum outside the National Socialist circus.” As Andrew Nagorski, author of Hitlerland (2012), recently explained, “you had Americans meeting Hitler and saying, ‘This guy is a clown. He’s like a caricature of himself.’”

Trump’s message, exactly like Hitler’s, is blindingly simple: the public should feel justified in their suspicion that public institutions, despite their stated goals, have betrayed them—that they, the public, are being gulled by rhetoricians who cannot deliver on their promises because they function in a noncompetitive environment without penalties and, therefore, get away with nonperformance. Hitler spoke as a soldier, and Trump speaks as an entrepreneur, but they each frame the discussion in terms of a suspension of fairness: they are each saying, I have struggled to compete upon what I once believed to be a level playing field and have been sold out. For Hitler it was the treaty of Versailles; for Trump it’s Obama’s trade and immigration policies. The circumstances are vastly different but the sentiment is identical: if you, listening to me, feel that you’re not getting anywhere, you’re not alone—none of us are, because our leaders have failed us. The military and the business rhetoric are nearly identical, because both spheres operate (ostensibly) in terms of direct competition, of territory and (therefore) goods and wealth, power and influence won and lost directly through sacrifice and effort (as opposed to the empty gestures of politics). And, in both cases, the racial undercurrents of the argument seem to emerge naturally from the observation of the struggle: I can’t win, because somebody else is being given a break, unfairly, and the powers that be are letting it happen. It’s an incredibly powerful message, in either century, because it works to ennoble anyone’s frustration and envy: If things are not going your way, you don’t have to “suck it up;” you can fight back. You’re not alone; you don’t have to be embarrassed by or to hide your racially-based suspicions, because they’re correct. “Those people” are eating your lunch, and if you’re tired of concealing that certainty, you don’t have to conceal it any more.

This is why Trump always attacks not just politicians but newspapers, websites, and individual journalists by saying they lose money. (He’s been doing this since the early 1990s when Spy Magazine, after being described by Trump as “a failure” that “won’t be in business in a year,” gleefully started running its “Chronicle of Our Death Foretold” countdown calendar in each issue.) Today, responding to a blistering attack from the Des Moines Register (regarding Trump’s remarks disparaging John McCain), Trump (predictably) said, “The Des Moines Register has lost much circulation, advertising, and power over the last number of years.” In other words, you don’t have to listen to them because they can’t do their jobs—just as McCain couldn’t, when he was a soldier. (The fact that Trump dodged the draft doesn’t affect his argument—he’s directly challenging, not McCain’s bravery or ideology, but his competence in combat.) Hitler’s early triumphs, from the “Beer-hall putsch” (1923) to the remilitarization of the Rhineland (1936) were demonstrations not just of what could be done but of what Germans were being prevented, by their leaders, from doing—what their intrinsic competence made possible, as Hitler’s had, personally. Hitler spoke like a modern self-help guru—I did these things, and so can we all—and it’s the same kind of invigorating, “empowering” narrative that Trump is using today.

And, again, the racial subtext of the message (in either context) is not just clear but inevitable, since any hint of racially-based compensatory social measures (Affirmative Action, “political correctness,” “race-hustling”) can so easily be presented as thumbs on the scale; as an imposition of unfairness onto the lives of ordinary, struggling (non-ethnic) citizens. “The national community gained its very definition from those who were excluded from it,” Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw explains: “Racial discrimination was inevitably, therefore, an inbuilt part of the Nazi interpretation of the concept. Since measures directed at creating ‘racial purity’ […] exploited existing prejudice and were allegedly aimed at strengthening a homogeneous ethnic nation, they buttressed Hitler’s image as the embodiment of the national community.” As in the context of Nixon’s brilliantly toxic post-Southern-Strategy “Silent Majority” rhetoric, the listener need not feel alone or aggrieved; you finally have a champion who will say the things you cannot. As Josh Marshall explained, “Trump is running an angry, populist campaign focused on xenophobia and ‘I don’t care what you think’ aggression against ‘the establishment’ and ‘elites’ of all stripes. To think that trash talk against an establishment favorite [McCain], who is only marginally relevant to the politics of the moment in any case, will upset that apple cart is to thoroughly misunderstand the politics of the moment.”

To be clear: Trump will not be the nominee or the president. (And I’m sure he doesn’t personally harbor genocidal ideas or plans.) But the reason he won’t take power goes back to the decades-long debate about the roots of Nazism and the culpability of the leader vs. the people: our democracy, thank God, is not as weak (or young) as the doomed Weimar Republic, and our legislative and elective apparatus are not as correspondingly vulnerable to partisan tampering—we struggle with gerrymandering and voting-rights issues, but nobody can do the equivalent of dissolving the Reichstag (as Hindenburg and his cabinet did over and over, disastrously, in the 1930s, compelling the public to eventually grow weary of voting and of democracy itself). Our constitutional system protected us from Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy, and it will protect us from Donald Trump. But let’s not pretend we can’t see exactly what’s going on and what it means.

[See “Part II” here.]