Mark Twain may have been correct: History does not repeat itself but it often does rhyme.
Donald Trump's behavior is drawn from a familiar authoritarian playbook: threats of violence against his political enemies, contempt for the rule of law, incessant lies and corruption, militant nationalism, disdain for a free press, and the portrayal of his supporters as "real citizens" over and against lesser others. Trump has merely adapted those most vulgar of political tactics to fit America's political culture.
But there are more sinister echoes from one of the darkest moments in modern history in Donald Trump's version of American fascism. Some people hide behind sophomoric rules of internet culture, where to compare anything in American life to the horrors of Hitler and the Nazi era is automatically dismissed. That is functional surrender. Real resistance requires facing America's present circumstances with open eyes.
How is Donald Trump's political style and agenda similar (or not) to that of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler? What parallels and comparisons exist between the economic and social crisis in German society and democracy during the 1920s and 1930s and the United States in the age of Trump? How did mainstream right-wing German politicians -- like Republicans today -- enable Hitler's rise to power? How are anxiety and guilt among the dominant group regarding their treatment of minority groups used by right-wing authoritarians? What lessons do that earlier era of "fake news" and "the big lie" hold for America now?
In an effort to answer those questions, I recently spoke with Benjamin Carter Hett. He is a professor of history at Hunter College and the City University of New York and author of the new book "The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How do you explain Donald Trump's rise to power and eventual election to the presidency?
I am a historian of Germany, particularly the time of Hitler. When I look at what happened in the 1920s and the 1930s, what strikes me about the downfall of democracy in Germany and the rise of the Nazis was how they attracted a lot of support and particularly angry protests against the effects of economic globalization. When people initially voted for the Nazi Party, their votes were motivated by discontent with what they felt the global political situation was doing to them.
But that would not have gotten Hitler into power if it had not been for a number of very powerful people in high positions in government and in business. They looked around and said, basically, "This guy Hitler is kind of crude and he’s kind of rough -- but we can use him." It was elite accommodation that allowed Hitler to get through the doors of power. You could draw a kind of rough and ready analogy from that to how mainstream Republicans have found themselves either wanting Trump or feeling compelled to adopt Trump and his base as a means of keeping themselves in power.
There is another aspect that is also a striking parallel. The Nazis were very much involved with cultivating deliberate lies for political purposes. In a way I think you could say the Nazis were the inventors of "fake news" as a political tool.
Donald Trump has been unapologetic and transparent about his authoritarian values. Yet so many Republicans and other conservatives have supported him, despite all the ways Trump is a dangerous and disruptive presence in American politics and society. How will history remember them?
A certain segment of elite conservatives put Hitler in power and soon started to grasp the scale of the disaster that he represented and how to get out of it.
I think the strongest example of this was a neoconservative intellectual named Edgar Julius Jung. Jung wrote a book in 1927 which was his critique of democracy, called "The Rule of the Inferior." He was a vehement opponent of the democracy of the Weimar Republic. But as soon as Hitler was in power, Jung said to a friend, “We are partly responsible for this guy being in power. We have to get rid of him.” The first resistance movement that had a real chance of getting Hitler out of power came from people who were inside the system, highly placed governmental and political operatives.
They started to feel like their duty was to remove Hitler from power but they were mostly killed in the process.
How did Germans who lived through the rise of Nazism make sense of that moment? Who were the supporters? What were Hitler's detractors, and soon-to-be victims, thinking during those years?
As a general rule you could say that as soon as Hitler came into power, he was greeted by more support and enthusiasm across the spectrum than greeted Trump. Trump has a pretty good hold on 35 percent or maybe 40 percent of the electorate, and the rest really doesn’t like him. Hitler was almost certainly doing much better than that through most of his time in power.
Hitler was able to enjoy very strong support among Germans, and this actually held up to a very great degree even through to the end of the war.
As you detail in your book, there are many parallels between the rise of Hitler in Germany during the 1930s and the rise of Donald Trump in America today. How do we navigate the metaphorical minefield that is summoned into existence by such a comparison?
I’m not pessimistic enough to think that we are heading straight into World War III and genocide. But there are warning signs in that Donald Trump is pulling on some of the same emotional chords as Hitler. For example, resenting what the rest of the world is doing to you. Racism and the hostility that a majority group might feel towards a minority group are also similar.
Trump had strong support from white voters across the socioeconomic spectrum. This is comparable to how Christian Germans felt about Jews in the 1920s or 1930s. This is a kind of resentment of the minority which can be mobilized as political passion. That is never going to lead anywhere good. It obviously led somewhere spectacularly bad in Germany in that era. It’s not going to lead anywhere good for us.
The other thing that really does trouble me about this moment under Trump is the deliberate cultivation of dishonesty. This is something that Hitler famously talked about when he wrote that a politician would be well advised to use a big lie, not a little lie -- because that will get seen through. People won't be able to grasp that you are putting forward such a massive falsehood. Hitler and his chief propagandist [Joseph Goebbels] were masters of this, and this is something that we have seen with Trump.
I fear that American political life is being actively degenerated by Trump and his propagandists.
Donald Trump and the broader conservative movement in America are largely propelled by a commitment to anti-intellectualism. In general, do they represent a backlash against or rejection of the Enlightenment?
There is a parallel where a lot of the people who backed Hitler were very conscious of rebelling against the Enlightenment. Edgar Julius Jung, whom I mentioned earlier, saw this as a reaction against the Enlightenment, which he saw as being French and foreign and thus not German.
I do think we have that going on now. I think perhaps it is what happens when the present reality just seems absolutely unacceptable to a lot of people. That was certainly the case in Germany in the 1920s. Certainly America right now is not experiencing anything like the crisis that Germany experienced after World War I. But I think there are a lot of people who are not doing well economically, which paradoxically is largely a product of Republican policies over the last four years.
Donald Trump positioned himself as a defender of the supposedly "lost" and "forgotten" white American working class. Yet instead of "draining the swamp," Trump appears to be running a Mafia-like protection racket where he personally benefits from the office and fattens his and his family's bank accounts [with] shakedown money. Nevertheless, his voters are devoted to him.
The Republicans and Trump have succeeded in changing the discourse away from what’s really happening with the American economy.
This too is something that has strong parallels to Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. This is something the Nazis succeeded at very well. The Nazis depicted themselves as being of the people and against the system. And of course, for the Nazis, "the system" was something which is directed by the elites who they don’t like. Obviously, they also present "the system" as being a product of Jews as a people, Jewish capital, Jewish intellectuals and so on.
From time to time, the Nazis could actually sound very radical in their anti-business, anti-corporate, anti-elite rhetoric. Of course, they drop that as soon as they get into power, because Hitler understands perfectly well that he needs big business -- especially the big arms businesses -- to create the kind of military forces that he wants. So once Hitler's in power, the policies of his regime are really quite corporate-friendly and not very worker-friendly.
As a scholar who has studied the rise of the Nazis, when you hear Trump's rhetoric about immigrants and nonwhites, or that of his supporters, what are you thinking?
There is a kind of projection onto a group of people who really are not powerful, to say nothing of not being threatening. Yet, the projection involves labeling those people as "thugs" or "rapists." This is not dissimilar from the politics of Germany in the 1920s and the 1930s, with its rhetoric about migrants and refugees as well as the security of the border -- which was another huge theme in the Weimar Republic.
What came to mind as you watched young white men riot in Charlottesville while chanting Nazi slogans?
It was deeply revealing that Donald Trump said that there was violence equally on both sides. And of course, Trump also said there were "very fine people" on both sides -- which included Nazis and other white supremacists. In Germany, the Nazis had their own band of thugs -- the "brown shirts," known as the SA -- who instigated a good deal of violence. Their job was to go out and beat up Nazi opponents. At one point, the president of the Weimar Republic, when confronted with a dossier on the violence that the brown shirts were committing, said, "The violence is on all sides it’s not just the Nazis.” What took place in Charlottesville evoked the pattern of political mobilization which the Nazis made their trademark.
White people -- especially white male conservatives -- are the dominant social, political and economic group in the United States. Yet, reflecting back on the white supremacist riots in Charlottesville, the rise of the "alt-right" and Trump's victory, it seems clear that white men of a certain stripe are angry and believe they have somehow been victimized and oppressed.
You can’t be alive and awake and halfway attentive to the news in our country without being deeply aware of the profoundly systematic ways that our society discriminates against African-Americans, other nonwhites, women and other marginalized groups.
So, I think there is something else going on which actually reminds me a little bit of how many Germans thought about Jews after World War II. When you are a German who survives World War II and you are also not Jewish, there is guilt. The victims -- in this case Jews -- are resented because of those feelings of guilt. This resentment can become something even worse depending on the individual's personality and values. To that point, there was anti-Semitism in Germany after World War II. I believe this applies in America at present.
We must also remember that Germans in 1933 don’t know exactly where this is going to go. They also have a national feeling that Germany is a land of high culture, law and order. They are a good people, and so the rise of Hitler and the Nazis cannot go anywhere very bad.
I think we Americans have very much the same problem. With American exceptionalism, we believe that our values are good. We are, after all, the people of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We think we are a democracy. Nothing we do can go anywhere very bad. But the fact is that it can. And we ought to know better because America has committed genocide against native peoples and enslaved black people. There is a kind of dangerous innocence that Americans possess which ignores how bad things can become when the politics of racial division are stoked.
There are some people who would instinctively reject any comparison between the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the rise of Donald Trump in America. How would you rebut their claims?
Well, the parallel doesn’t and won’t hold 100 percent. But there is a deeper structure which is similar. The cultivation of hatred against minorities, against the vulnerable, against immigrants and so on. The deliberate cultivation of flagrant falsehoods. The manipulation of alienation and a sense of aggrievement among a group you then use to oppress others.
How do you deal with folks who have no real expertise about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party but nevertheless feel empowered to confidently offer their opinions on such a serious and complicated topic?
I wish I had a really good answer to that. There is a gentleman I talk to on occasion who will try to use evidence and arguments from online sources, really unreliable fly-by-night websites. I always try and think about how I can try to get this gentleman to a different place. The one time I think I had some success was when he made some ridiculous claims and I then asked, “What’s your source for that?” He paused. That threw him off a little bit.
It’s a reflex for a historian or anyone who studies something rigorously. It’s always a reflex to think: What’s the source? Is the source reliable? Does the source have an agenda? That’s always the point I try to drive home with my students or anyone I am talking to. At the end of the day, all you can do is press people to think about the information they consume, and think about it really critically. You are never going to reach everybody. So much of this is driven by emotions that are not accessible to rational argument.
Here is an example of that phenomenon. The NRA and other gun obsessives love to argue that if the Jews in Germany had had guns, they would have been able to stop Hitler. By implication, America should never have serious gun control.
The idea that there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust if there had not been gun control is so historically illiterate on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. There were between 5.5 million and 6 million victims of the Holocaust. Of those, only -- I hate to say "only" in this context, but relatively speaking -- only a couple of hundred thousand were German, meaning only a couple of hundred thousand lived in a country where the Nazi laws were actually relevant. The great majority of Holocaust victims were from Poland or the Soviet Union, so German laws had nothing to do with them. So NRA types would have to take their complaints and theories to Joseph Stalin.
Then you have to consider the circumstances under which people died in the Holocaust. I actually read a comment where someone actually said, “If people had guns when the Nazis came to get them to put them on trains and send them to the camps then they could have fought back.” Well, by no means did everybody who was killed in the Holocaust die that way. Nearly half of Holocaust victims died at the hands of mobile killing squads. These were basically massive forces of police officers who swept through areas like Poland and the Soviet Union just behind the German army as it advanced. They would roll into a village and identify the people they wanted to kill. This would happen very quickly. The mobile killing squads would enter an area and a few hours later tens of thousands of people are dead.
In that kind of situation a person does not have time or knowledge to contemplate what is going to happen. Let’s leave aside the fact that Joe Citizen with a gun is not going to get very far against the German army. Most armies didn’t get very far against the German army in World War II. The Allies did not win until we had an enormous material superiority over the Germans.
Last but not least, let’s consider the fact that a great number of Holocaust victims were elderly people or children, and the perpetrators coming to kill them were healthy young men. A firefight is not going to go well under those circumstances. It’s so dumb on every possible level. Frankly, even by NRA standards that’s a dumb talking point.
Under Trump there has also been a celebration by his voters and other allies of the cruelty by ICE enforcers against undocumented immigrants, their families and communities. What does history tell us about such casual cruelty and its impact on a given culture?
That too has parallels in the past. It’s one of the hardest things for many of us to fathom. How you could look at someone who maybe is a refugee from a place where they are going to get killed by a gang, or the government is going to torture them, and think it’s a good idea to turn them over to ICE. I don’t know how you get there, especially when it's children. We hear horror stories about children escaping from various places, and yet there are people who want to turn them back.
Of course this happened with the Nazis. It happened in the case of the Holocaust. It was remarkable how some Holocaust perpetrators seemed ready to revel in cruelty towards children.
When you hear the rhetoric which is emerging from Donald Trump or from people around him and from some of his supporters, that rhetoric really seeks to dehumanize people. It is a coded transmission that says, "It's OK now, it’s open season on people. You can do this.” That certainly is what happened in Nazi Germany, and I think we have a mild version of it happening here. But then there were good people too. The person who had an unfailing moral compass and would take risks to help a Jewish person hide or help them escape. I know we have those people too. I just hope those people outnumber those who would be cruel, who would dehumanize their neighbors.
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