The only thing more ignorant than a Trump supporter who thinks that the man will single-handedly make America great again, is the Trump hater who thinks he is the new incarnation of Adolf Hitler. Hitler, he is not. Weimar Germany, America is not. And not by a long shot. Similarities certainly exist. For instance, both Hitler and Trump have two arms, two legs, a head, and hair (albeit Hitler had a better idea of how to part his locks). A cursory (not superficial) glance at history and the present highlights the simple-minded mentality that propagates such sophomoric comparisons.
There are two things that should be considered. First, a comparison of Hitler and Trump’s ideas. Second, a comparison of their respective political contexts. Upon reflection, the Hitler-Trump memes are absurd. The main culprit I think is how much people have forgotten about Hitler. He has become a caricature, a trope that has been used and abused and laden with nicknacks from all the strawman hobbyhorses he has been nailed to. He is simply the monster without form or essence. The problem here is not merely an academic one. If you misdiagnose the problem, you will never get around to orchestrating a thoughtful response to the Trump phenomenon.
Hitler v. Trump: Ideology v. Id
Even if we take the most salacious rumors of Trump seriously, they are rumors. With Hitler there existed no rumors. From the start of his political career and the publication of Mein Kampf he made it known exactly what he thought and what he would do if he came to power.
Hitler’s vision of the world is ruthless and chillingly simple. The Jews were perfidious creatures, not even worthy of the title “subhuman” (as some mistakenly believe), who invented communism, Christianity, the rule of law, to enslave humanity with a false conscience and thus secure for themselves shadowy financial and political power. As Hitler puts it in Mein Kampf, if the Jew triumphs, “his crown of victory will be the funeral wreath of the human species.” So what is the nature of this human species that the Jew is destroying? No different than the animals, Hitler believed that mankind’s nature was to struggle, and through war and bloodshed remake the world in accordance with the principles of raw power rooted in racial hierarchy. Hitler was a Social Darwinist to the max. To this end, he believed that the elimination of the Jews would purify man of false cultural superstructures designed to neuter mankind and give the Jews control; it would eliminate artificial state boundaries, and return mankind to its natural animal state based purely on racial power. The solution to setting the world right was clear: German conquest of Europe, the Final Solution, the elimination of supposedly Jewish Bolshevism in the Soviet Union, and the acquisition of Lebensraum for the Aryan race (note, Aryan, not German exclusively). With a strange blend of materialism and mysticism, Hitler proclaimed his intentions to the German people and the world. While Germans and non-German alike did not take his most extreme statements seriously, they were no secret.
Let that vision sink in for a second. Then consider Trump at his media-smeared worst, and ask yourself: is there even an ideological comparison between the man and Hitler?
The fact is that Trump does not have a grand plan and his ideas are boringly American, however bombastically he articulates them. Like politicians before him, he is playing to the American id at a time when folks are frustrated by condescending, do-nothing politicians and media elites who patronizingly tut-tut their concerns. The economy and security, in particular, have left Americans disgruntled and Trump has articulated for his followers the cause of their problems. First, China: mock him if you will, but with saber rattling in the South China Sea, concerns about Chinese expansion in Africa, new ship-busting missiles, and cheap labor, the Obama administration is concerned as well. Second, Mexico: mass deportations are not the answer, but America has done it before under a loved president, and a visceral response to illegals should not be cause for an indictment of American empathy (we are the most charitable in the world) to say nothing of blanket accusations of racism. Further, the idea that immigration law should be enforced and that you cannot simply take up residence in our house without our permission is not insane. Full stop. Third, and on a related note: security. With the rise of ISIS, is a little more circumspection about our immigration policies and building a wall on our southern border such a crazy proposition?
As for a national registry of Muslims, it’s ridiculous, but why not compare Trump to our beloved FDR interning Japanese at a time of war? No one was screaming about FDR being a closet Hitler even if they were critical of his decision. It’s a slippery slope argument that assumes that internment naturally transitions into gassing; and Trump has not even proposed internment! Further, the idea that we shouldn’t admit immigrants from the Middle East is wholly in line with historical practice: when you’re at war with a country, you generally don’t accept mass immigration from said country. Granted, the situation in the Middle East is murky, but the nature of the foe and willingness to commit terrorism ought to give us pause especially in light of events in Paris and California. Simply put, Trump is addressing issues that matter to the American people and proposing solutions that are not wholly inconsistent with past American policy. In this way, it’s not what he’s saying, it’s how he’s saying it that is causing the ruckus.
None of this is to say that Trump is right or that he isn’t a boor. But back to Hitler, let’s not pretend Trump is out to exterminate Arabs or Mexicans. He’s not. Arguably, in more peaceful times, I don’t see any reason Trup would have any trouble with legal Mexican or Arab immigration. Hitler would never be so sanguine with the lesser races, so stop the comparisons.
Hitler v. Trump: Catastrophic Context and Political Organization
For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume Trump has a secret room in Trump Tower packed full of Nazi memorabilia and always carries with him a copy of Mein Kampf. How dangerous could such a man really be in America? To answer this, back to the past.
Hitler’s rise to power can only be understood in the context of a weak Weimar Republic. Taking advantage of the situation, Hitler used brilliant rhetoric and Party building, political violence, and constitutional maneuvering to win over the people and gain total control of Germany.
After the failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, Hitler and the Nazi Party drifted into obscurity as Germany began to recover economically and politically from the defeat in the Great War. The Nazis knew that the only way they could begin their crusade to remake the world in accordance with their principle of racial superiority was if there was a catastrophe that galvanized the people to embrace their extreme ideology, however unwittingly. By itself, a “politics of catastrophe” is not inherently odious. All politicians use the idea of crisis to one extent or the other to advance policy. Trump is no exception. The key is that the Nazis’ ends were direly sinister, articulated clearly to the world, and unfortunately the Weimar Republic was not strong enough to weather the storm. Fascist Trump innuendo does not a Nazi make.
In 1929 the American Stock Market crashed and initiated a worldwide Great Depression. This created an economic and political firestorm across the globe that led to the rise of fascism, communism, and aggressive imperialism. For starters, then, lets keep in mind the current economic-political climate in America. It isn’t great, but there is no desperation akin to what we find in 1930 Germany nor America in 1930.
With the mainline socialist and conservative parties in disarray, Hitler delivered his simple but compelling message to the German people: he would overthrow the Treaty of Versailles, regain lands lost, degrade the powers of the scheming Jews who had brought on the Great Depression, combat the sinister spread of communism (synonymous with Jewry in Hitler’s mind), and solve the economic crisis. In short, he would make Germany great again. Unlike Trump, though, Hitler created an extensive political organization to advance his message. The Nazi Party already had operatives and leaders in all the major German cities ready to spread propaganda and enforce party discipline. Key to discipline was the creation of an extensive paramilitary force (the SA) to intimidate political opponents (hundreds of street battles happened in June 1932 alone leading to scores of deaths), organize rallies (Nazi rallies were nothing short of stupendous and theatrical), and keep members in line and the message on point (the Night of Long Knives in 1934 is a dramatic example of Hitler murdering dissidents within the Party). Hitler also organized an extensive network of children’s clubs akin to the American Boy Scouts called the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth). Discipline, sports, camaraderie, camping, and fervent nationalism drew in the children and their parents who increasingly saw the Nazi Party as a solution to the Great Depression and German weakness. A loyal, organized base coupled with political violence revolving around the charisma of The Leader proved decisive to Hitler acquiring power, holding it, and then building a fervent army ready for conquest.
Once again, step back and think about this for a second. Sure, Trump and Hitler both embraced the cult of personality, but Trump is only personality. There is no militant Party cracking skulls in the street or troops of children singing praises of The Leader.
Hitler v. Trump: Constitutional and Cultural Differences
Constitutions limit what a government can do and how they can do it. There is no need to go into a detailed comparison of Weimar Germany and America’s constitutions. In their original form, both had a bicameral legislature, a president, and a court system; however, whereas the American Constitution jealously protected the rights of the States and feared the domination of any one branch of the Federal Government, the Weimar Constitution could be construed autocratically. Granted, the people chose their representatives in the Reichstag and even directly elected the president, but the state governments had few powers. The president was given wide-ranging authority and in times of national emergency he could suspend civil liberties and rule by fiat. Perhaps of greater import, though, was the fact that despite having a democratic government, the German people had little experience with democracy or constitutional governance. This led at least one scholar to conclude, “[I]t was doubtful whether such a democratic constitution could work in the hands of a people that was neither psychologically nor historically prepared for self-government” (Klaus Fischer, Nazi Germany: A New History, 59). Indeed, in the early 1930s German political parties, in particular the Nazis and the communists, organized paramilitary forces and killed each other in the streets. Both proclaimed themselves for the people but also that democracy was a chaotic cancer that had led to gridlock in the Reichstag and legislative impotence. Civil War was a real possibility. The only options in 1932 seemed authoritarian.
Long story short, Hitler finally won the chancellorship and his Nazi Party dominated the legislature. After a fire at the Reichstag, the Nazis had the the pretext and hysteria necessary to abolish by legislation civil liberties and later under the Enabling Act acquire dictatorship powers for their Fuhrer. Hitler promptly took advantage of this power and began enacting laws without the consent of the Reichstag. Most Germans were relieved. The political chaos was over. The threat of communism squashed. And as it turns out, Hitler’s policies pulled the nation out of the Great Depression faster than any of the other industrialized powers. If there was some political brutality, at least there was peace and prosperity.
That’s the thumbnail sketch.
Now compare Germany’s reaction to the Great Depression to America’s. Paramilitary forces did not engage in street battles. No party advocated the end of democracy or the suspension of the Constitution. No party scapegoated a minority. Granted, FDR took constitutional liberties, but even then, he faced staunch opposition from the Supreme Court, and when he tried to pack the court received a drubbing from Congress, which was dominated by his own Party (see this chart). Not only that, but FDR faced opposition from state governments fiercely guarding their legislative prerogatives. Whatever might be said about FDR (or Obama for that matter), America’s constitution has proven to be resilient, long-lasting, and while certain erosions have occurred, the idea that a Trump presidency would result in a Hitleresque security state is madness. There are too many interests and political powers that would put up a violent fight to defend their prerogatives. Even now, with the rise of the Leviathan security state and massive bureaucracy, there exists staunch opposition to the president overstepping his bounds. Hitler, if anything, should make us appreciate how different we (and thus Trump) are from Germany in the 1930s.
Hope and Change
As the historian A. N. Wilson puts it, “Hitler offered the most tempting of Class A narcotics, that is, Hope” (Wilson, Hitler, 36). Right wing crazies would anachronistically smear Obama with this quote, but the point remains: beware superficial comparisons. All politicians seek to identify angst and propose a solution. This is the nature of politics, and Trump, like all other politicians, is playing the same game. America sucks, he will make it great. America is plagued by division, Hope and Change will unify us. Germany is weak and pathetic, the Nazis will restore German pride. The glaring differences in Hitler and Trump’s ideas and their respective contexts should not be washed away by a few sophomoric comparisons.
I am sure the media will continue to propagate the fascist cliche as seen in this rather hilarious Vice article (Correspondent: But, really, he’s a fascist, right? Historian: Yeah, not really.) But the analysis is poor, and if you don’t diagnosis a problem properly, you can never hope to solve it. And as long as that doesn’t happen, as long as analysts keeping wasting time arguing that Trump is the new Hitler, Trump is left free to propagate his analysis and solutions while both left and right run around with their hair on fire accomplishing nothing. Then again, perhaps we should be thankful for Trump’s eccentricity. If a great artist is one who makes us see the truths about ourselves, he is certainly pulling it off.
P.S. For additional thoughts on what Trump is up to, check out this other feralyawp piece: Donald J Trump: The Artist is Present.
See also William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; A. N. Wilson, Hitler; Klaus P. Fischer, Nazi Germany: A New History.