I don’t think it takes much of a leap to make a connection between Donald Trump’s current spate of fame and popularity and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1920-1930’s Germany. Both Facebook posts and the Media have publicly trumpeted the comparison.
As a history enthusiast who just finished reading “The coming of the Third Reich” by Richard J. Evans, I wanted to run through the exercise myself, to compare our current reality to the situation that led to Nazi Germany.
The lowest hanging fruit, of course, lies in comparing the men themselves. Charisma, ambition and a ruthless sense of personal competition sum up both men quite accurately. While it is true that Hitler was of a poorer background, aspects of their rise follow a similar trajectory.
The Man is also the Movement
Both have created a cult of personality. Many don’t realize this, but the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazi’s for short) began life as a multi-faceted organization. Within the party, views ranged widely from the fascist dogma we now identify with Hitler, to a more socialist/communistic bent. Hitler spent the vast majority of the organization’s early years attacking opposing party leaders and entrenching himself at the center of the movement’s leadership. Trump, by comparison, seems to have had an easier time of it. Unlike Hitler, I believe Trump got further out in front of his movement’s momentum, able to take the reigns without any serious competition. What remains to be seen, however, is if Trump can successfully create the cult of personality that Hitler famously achieved. He’s certainly trying with his comments of self aggrandizement, his refusal to lay out policy specifics and focus on his personal abilities as his primary qualification for president. Trump supporters, just like those who supported the Nazis, already believe strongly in certain world views. If Trump can convince his followers that their casus belli and his person are indistinguishable, he will have made great headway towards a Hitler-esque situation.
Both men put personal loyalty above all else. This is a feature of Demagogues as whole. Men like Hitler or Trump are not held accountable by their staff. Instead, they are enabled, deferred to and protected by people first and foremost loyal to their leader. Furthermore, while the dear leader himself is above party politics, those in the second ring of power will violently clash for position, jockying and competing to curry favor and influence with the dear leader.
Both rode popular discontent to gain power. While the Nazi’s did have a strong following of fanatics (especially in the early years), most Germans who voted for the Nazis were casting a protest vote. The Weimar Republic of the late 1920 and early 1930s suffered through a series of ineffectual coalition governments and suffered crippling inflation followed by the Great Depression. Two political parties rose during this time of strife, the Nazis and the Communists*. We have also suffered through a recent recession, one that has left behind many in the working class. Economic disenfranchisement is a significant factor in the rise of men like Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler.
The rise of both Trump and Hitler were predicated on predisposed prejudice. Hitler did not create anti-semitism any more than Trump can now be credited with Anti-immigration or Islamaphobia. Both men only amplified the natural fears and suspicions present in their followers. Nazi Germany wouldn’t have been possible if the majority of Germans didn’t already hold preconceived notions, even mild notions, about Jews. Compare this to the present. While the extreme racism of Trump supporters may feel alien to many of us, consider that there is already a link present in our minds linking Islam and terrorism, a link between mexican laborers and illegal immigration. These mental models are already widespread in our culture and familiar to us. Men like Trump, like Hitler, merely take the present mental models and twist them to extremes, replacing analytic thought with emotional heuristic stereotypes.
A Culture of Violence
Both movements were founded on violence. At recent political rallies, those who publicly protest against Trump have been beaten-up and assaulted by his supporters with the backing and support of the crowd. The Nazi’s were also a violent bunch. Their Paramilitary wing, the SA, or brownshirts, were infamous for assaulting political opponents. Thugs of every nature flocked to join the SA for the sole purpose of perpetuating violence. In addition, the Social Democratic government reluctantly tolerated this right wing violence while cracking down hard on all similar Leftist (Communist) violence. SA men got the message and ramped up their terror in relative impunity. Sound familiar? Currently Ammon Bundy and his right wing paramilitary are occupying a Oregonian Government building without any interference by federal officials. Dylan Roof killed 9 people in Charleston for overtly poltical/racial reasons and was pointedly not labeled a terrorist. Those Trump supporters who were caught on camera assualting protestors? Last I heard, the local police refused to file charges and arrest anyone, instead blaming the protestor. This environment of appeasement will only encourage more violence from Trump’s base, which will only create more fear. Compare this to the violent crackdowns on Occupy Wallstreet, the protests in Ferguson, or Blacklivesmatter. There is a disparity in response and it is real.
On Violence: although Hitler supported the actions of the Brownshirts, he kept his distance from them, allowing for plausible deniability. His orders came through veiled speeches. Rhetoric was general and vague, interpreted by the paramilitaries into action. Hitler could always deny having any knowledge of his supporter’s actions. This gave him a veneer of respectability and legitimacy with opposition parties. Donald Trump has taken to this tactic as well. When supporter assaulted opponents, he merely shrugs his shoulders and says they are “very passionate.” This is coded support, that along with his general rhetoric, seeks to direct the violent wing of his organization without being directly linked.
Few realize that at the height of their electoral power, Hitler and his Nazi party received less than 40% of the popular vote. Far from expecting the public to sweep him into power, Nazi leadership understood that they would never gain majority support. Unfortunately for Germany, the Weimar Republic’s executive cabinet was appointed, not elected. Hitler was able to maneuver into the chancellorship without being elected. Furthermore, Weimar politicians enjoyed prosecutorial immunity while in office, allowing clear violations of the law to go unpunished. Herein lies some hope for our current situation. Demographics make it clear that Trump would struggle in a nationwide election. His base is not a demographic majority and could not win at the national level. American, unlike Weimar Germany, elects our top leadership and these same leaders are subject to prosecution if they break the law.
One last word of hope. The Weimar Republic, was at its core, a very young democracy. In all, it lasted only 14 years. Germans were not accustomed to Democracy and had yet to put their faith in its process. America, as a democratic nation of centuries, has a much deeper seated Democratic tradition. Demagogues have risen in our culture before and, just like before, we can defeat them once more.
*Two more interesting notes about the Nazis and Communists. As people lost faith in the Weimar Republic, politics became more polarized. People from working class urban centers flocked to the Communist party on the extreme left. Small business owners and rural workers flocked to the Nazi party on the far right. Critically, both parties did not believe in the Democratic process. Delegates from both parties ground the Reichstag (German equivalent of Congress) to a halt, purposefully disrupting governance and using parliamentary procedure to obstruct and stymy the Government’s effectiveness. In the middle, support for the moderate social democrats steadily eroded as they were unable to put together effective coalitions and push through legislation. Sound familiar? I can’t but help think of the Tea party, a group of right wing fundamentalists who have stated publicly that they want to defund the government and limit its powers, the party who shut down the government on multiple occasions. As Congress fails to legislate, more and more Americans lose confidence in the system and flock to ideological extremes. Momentum has shifted to politicians on the right (Ted Cruz, Trump) and on the left (Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren). Thankfully, one significant difference is that the left end of this spectrum still believes in governance through democracy.