No, Trump isn't the next Hitler: But his real historical comparison is still scary

A tycoon dilettante with a "straight shooting" style who mainstreamed repugnant racist views? Sounds familiar

Published December 10, 2015 8:27PM (EST)

  (Wikimedia/AP/LM Otero)
(Wikimedia/AP/LM Otero)

If I were still in a mood to make jokes about the Trump campaign I’d say the makers of “Allegiance” and “The Man in the High Castle” both owe Donald Trump money for free publicity.

The Philadelphia Daily News hailed Trump’s plan to ban all Muslim immigration--which would bring us back to the era of the openly racist Chinese Exclusion Act--with the barely-even-a-pun headline “The New Furor.” The New York Daily News, not to be outdone, showed Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty.

Prominent Republicans have been coming out of the woodwork to bash Trump for escalating Republican discourse about immigration from veiled bigotry to open bigotry. The First Amendment-defying concept of applying a religious test to immigration is apparently a bridge too far even for the Dick Cheneys and Lindsey Grahams of the world.

Twitter, of course, has been a-twittering nonstop. Jeff Bezos threatened to shoot him into space. J.K. Rowling weighed in, calling him a worse villain than Lord Voldemort. (A stretch, considering Donald Trump has not yet assassinated anyone nor created an army of mind-controlled slaves nor fused his soul to that of a giant man-eating serpent, though I guess we’ll see in 2016.)

All of this naturally leads to the question: If everyone hates him so much, why are we so worried about him? Ross Douthat points out we haven’t even held our first primaries yet; Trump has yet to win a single actual election. Nate Silver, our nation’s election oracle, recently implored the media to “stop freaking out” about Trump’s position in opinion polls as the “Republican frontrunner.” Trump gets a lot of attention, but not that much support--his overwhelmingly “high unfavorables” basically mean the nation is split between a minority that backs Trump and a majority that hates him but hasn’t decided whom they’d prefer as president instead.

As Silver says, “Nobody remotely like Trump has won a major-party nomination in the modern era”; for Trump to succeed, he’d have to beat the entire Republican Party apparatus lined up against him and thus prove that the party itself is ineffectual against a determined enough wealthy individual. People who’d like to think that the two parties are obsolete lick their chops at Trump’s headline-grabbing status for this reason, but for better or for worse that’s probably wishful thinking.

To put it bluntly, Trump isn’t Hitler, not because Trump’s views aren’t as personally odious as Hitler’s were but because Trump doesn’t live in Hitler’s Germany and, to be blunt about it, he doesn’t have Hitler’s balls. The Adolf Hitler who took power in 1933 was a man who’d previously taken politics seriously enough to lead an armed revolution against the state and be imprisoned for it. His party already had a paramilitary wing (the SA) of organized, uniformed thugs who seriously thought of themselves as a rival to the existing military. He rose to power in a country that saw itself as a desperate underdog, having lost a major war and been forced to make massive reparation payments that crippled the economy.

None of this describes Donald Trump. It’s impossible to imagine the effete reality-show billionaire at the head of a Beer Hall Putsch or going to prison as a martyr for his cause. His supporters are violent, frightening, boorish mobs but they’re nothing at all like an army, not even the ersatz army the SA were. And despite how ugly things have gotten in the United States during the War on Terror we are still comfortably the world’s wealthiest superpower; Weimar Germany would be lucky to have our problems.

No, as disgusted as I am that a leading candidate for president can mouth fascist slogans and trumpet fascist ideals in 2015, I don’t seriously believe the America is Germany in 1933 or Trump is Adolf Hitler.

That doesn’t mean I’m not scared.

Because there is an example of a country a lot like America in 2015 that had a candidate in mind much like Trump--an ultra-rich dilettante who seemed to treat politics like a show and shoot his mouth off without any concern for actually winning, who did indeed “freak out” the chattering classes by skyrocketing in popularity against all common sense.

That country is America in 1924, and that would-be candidate was Henry Ford.

Like Trump, Ford vacillated about which party he even belonged to but seemed none the worse for wear for his shifting allegiances--his personal brand outshining the brand of whatever party he belonged to. Like Trump, Ford’s popularity was blamed on mass media--in 1924 that was the “movie mind” overstimulated by Hollywood features; in 2015 it’s apparently the fault of the “social media mind” of self-sustaining Internet outrage.

Like Trump, Ford surged to national attention in 1924 because of the country’s deep disenchantment with the “serious” candidates, a sense that party politics was just a corrupt elite trading favors with each other--Trump, like Ford, somehow managed to be an “outsider” and to represent the “common man” despite being incredibly wealthy.

And, like Trump, Ford was beloved by his fans because he was perceived as a straight-talker, a truth-teller, someone insulated enough by his wealth he didn’t have to recite polite fictions. Among serious pundits of the chattering classes, an eccentric billionaire who goes on rants about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate has disqualified himself from being taken seriously for office. Among voters who hate and resent the serious pundits of the chattering classes, those “fringe” views only underscore the billionaire’s “outsider” credentials.

It may well be the case that Ford, had he not bowed out of running for the Republican nomination in 1924, would never have won a general election once enough people blasted the contents of his raving anti-Semitic newspaper the Dearborn Independent to a national stage--indeed, the Anti-Defamation League successfully shut down that newspaper with a boycott in 1927. It may be that historians are correct that Ford would never have made it that far into the election because, like most people who storm into presidential elections with no past political experience, he simply didn’t have the taste for politics.

And it may be that the prospect of a President Trump is unlikely for the same reasons. Trump’s whole campaign has been a series of brash, trollish provocations followed by an impressively united backlash, from the Latino community speaking up about his mass-deportation plans to the uproar about his recent anti-Muslim comments. There’s plenty of speculation that Trump is, on some level, getting off on the attention that comes from being polarizing and doesn’t have the expertise or the personnel or even the attention span to do the serious work of winning the election.

So no, if there were someone capable of plunging America into a fascist dystopian nightmare overnight, I don’t think Trump is the guy. The problem is, these things don’t happen overnight.

Henry Ford, for all his rants about rooting out Jewish influence in America and blocking further Jewish immigration, never actually proposed violent ethnic cleansing or a Final Solution. What he did propose sparked enough anger among the American mainstream that he was forced to back off of his position and publicly apologize.

But the rising star of Henry Ford’s political career in the 1920s aligned with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan as an “Invisible Empire” throughout the United States. Ford paved the way for later anti-Semitic political figures like Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh.

Most important, he pushed the Overton window far to the right on anti-Semitic politics. By openly espousing conspiracy theories that overtly named “international Jewry” as a menace to be rooted out, he allowed the harsh Immigration Act of 1924--which did not specifically exclude Jews by name, merely setting a quota for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe--to seem reasonable by comparison. He was a convenient figure for the later America First Committee to distance itself from: By expelling Henry Ford from their membership and embracing the more “moderate” Charles Lindbergh they were able to define the debate over entering World War II as one over how much the Jews were at fault for the war rather than whether they were.

Ford never created a Nazi state in America. There were no overt policies of pogroms or concentration camps or genocide aimed at Jewish-American citizens here, although the 1920s and 1930s did see the peak of the Klan’s anti-Semitic terrorism.

But Ford cheered the anti-immigration policies that kept Jewish people trapped in fascist states as anti-Semitic persecution continued to escalate. Lindbergh’s America First Committee successfully kept the United States out of World War II while pogroms racked Europe. Whether you held the “extreme” views of a Henry Ford or more “moderate” views, it had become politically normalized in America to declare excessive Jewish immigration a threat to American culture--normalized enough that in 1939 the U.S. turned away an ocean liner full of Jewish refugees, citing the 1924 law as justification for sending them back to the Nazis.

All of this echoes ominously when you remember that, amid all the uproar about ISIS/Daesh proving the threat “Muslims” supposedly pose to our way of life, Daesh has far, far more victims in the Middle East than in the West--victims that just a few weeks ago U.S. governors were gleefully racing to deny asylum to in order to show their patriotism.

But it goes further than that. Those fascists in Europe who were openly butchering a minority religious group they decided they could blame for all their problems? Several of them had read Henry Ford’s work and approved of it--his most extreme Dearborn Independent articles had been republished in Germany as “The International Jew.” One of his fans was a scrappy political prisoner named Adolf Hitler, who, after going to prison for insurrection in 1924 (the same year as Ford’s presidential run), wrote a prison memoir, “Mein Kampf,” that was largely based on “The International Jew.”

In later years Hitler kept a full-size portrait of Ford by his desk and called Ford his “inspiration”--inspiring him not just in the field of mass-market production of inexpensive automobiles but also in the field of genocide.

There is a story that after the war, when Henry Ford watched a newsreel depicting the horrors of the Nazi death camps in graphic detail--that is, when he was forced to confront the visceral reality of what his ideas led to when put in practice--he collapsed of a stroke and died shortly after. I don’t know if it’s true. I hope it is.

As I said, I see Trump as far more Ford than Hitler. He gives no indication of understanding the implications of what he says, the bloody consequences that would result from a movement that truly embraced the vicious xenophobia and racism he lets fall out of his mouth on a daily basis. To him it’s just words.

That doesn’t stop him from saying them. That doesn’t stop those words from entering the conversation and altering it, from turning our world into one where “Do you think all Muslims should be barred from entry to the United States?” or “Do you support a massive crackdown on Latino Americans to deport anyone without papers?” becomes a reasonable topic of debate.

I don’t know where the chain of dominoes ends, who the Father Coughlin or Charles Lindbergh to Trump’s Henry Ford will be. But I do think that if we see another Hitler in the West any time soon, it’ll be someone who, whether or not he puts up that big portrait of Trump and calls him an “inspiration”--something that would tickle Trump pink, I’m sure--will approvingly cite Trump as an antecedent, one of the first men who had the courage to say what needed to be done.

I hope it never comes to that. I hope Donald Trump never has to wrestle with the same horror that Henry Ford did, watching that stark black-and-white footage from Auschwitz. I hope his candidacy in 2016 is simply forgotten, a footnote in history.

Somehow, though, I doubt we’ll get off that easy.

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