By J.D. Munch
One enduring rule of United States political discourse for several decades is that no one should ever compare another politician or event to Hitler, Nazi Germany, or the Holocaust. The reasons are twofold. First, Hitler and the events he created present a case study in evil. Hitler cruelly, calculatingly set up the Jewish people as the enemy of “good” people in Germany, and proceeded with a plan to exterminate them from the face of the earth. Attacking an individual or a political party on these terms constitutes a grave attack, one wholly inappropriate to mere partisan attack.
Second, but related, is that these attacks do not respect the lasting pain of the people directly affected by the events preceding and continuing through World War II. The Jewish people continue to feel the attack on their religious and cultural heritage—to say nothing of the heartless killing of family members and friends on a massive scale. And the Germans themselves bear the stigma of their Nazi past, one that helped tear a nation apart.
Still, identifying factors that led to Hitler’s rise remains important. To say nothing like Nazi Germany could ever exist again assumes vigilance. And as we watch President Trump attempt to build and consolidate his own power, we can see disturbing parallels to the steps Hitler took in shaping existing unrest into a wave of power that he rode into the modern epitome of despotic evil.
Nationalism and the Insidious Other
In the years before the Nazi party rose to power, Germany was decimated. World War I ended in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles, one that redrew Germany’s borders and left it buried in a mountain of debt for reparations. Combined with the worldwide effects of the Great Depression, the result was a nation not only downtrodden, but susceptible to the idea of a world oppressing its people. Hitler helped identify an insidious other within the borders: Jews. He took a devastated, broken country, identified enemies without and within, and identified himself as the savior who could restore Germany’s rightful glory.
Donald Trump may not have stepped into a nation as thoroughly beaten down as Germany of the early 1930s, but his rhetoric—and that of the alt-right broadcasts on which he relies—describe a dark, desolate world, crushed by “radical Islamic terrorism” and the burdens of a government intent on stealing freedom from good, hard-working Americans. The Affordable Care Act allowed more people to carry health insurance, and even to get plans that provide real coverage—but from Trump’s perspective, it created cost burdens on people who didn’t want them. And with every act of terrorism by non-whites in the world (white supremacist attacks do not fit his narrative, and thus elicit only his silence), Trump blasted out I-told-you-so’s to bolster his picture of a nation under attack, one in which we can only protect America by closing our borders and kicking the Other out.
Attacking Truth and the Press
Of course, when signs of despotic behavior occur, resistance rises. For a leader to control the masses with a singular nationalistic message, he or she must control access to the truth. Hitler rose to power in an environment of fear and anger over an entire world coming down on his country. But in the face of many facts explaining the punishment Germany endured, and to support his blaming of everything on the Jewish population, he had to control perception of facts. In other words, Hitler was a prolific liar. As part of the messaging he used to fight off those who opposed him, he used the term Lüggenpresse, or “fake press,” to denigrate preemptively those who would report information that made him look bad. By the end of the Nazi regime, the government controlled half of the press organizations directly, and regulated information from the others through the Ministry of Propaganda.
For those who work every day to resist Trump, much of this sounds familiar. Trump perpetually expands the tapestry of lies he weaves, and the press has to this point tracked this diligently. Politics has a long history of stretching, exaggerating, ignoring, and fabricating facts. The sheer scale of Trump’s audacity, though, knows no modern equivalent in this country. His attacks on CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and any other publication that dares dispute his lies as “fake press” continue daily, while he instead promotes the absurdities and atrocities of Breitbart, Fox News, and even Alex Jones. And his supporters continue to accept the versions of reality he creates.
When Hitler rose to power, he took advantage of a tide of anger and resentment to step into a void. He had little experience in politics, but he did not seize control as a politician. Rather, he branded himself as a savior to a nation that needed one. Germany operated in a declared state of emergency; Hitler used this to consolidate more power as chancellor, to eliminate constitutional rule and civil rights. The Nazi party, part of a coalition government, took over in single-party rule over the entire nation. Hitler governed through decree, bypassing the legislative process and intimidating those who would oppose him, and was allowed to become the monster history remembers.
Again, the resistance may experience a sense of déjà vu in reading this. Trump’s nomination acceptance speech shows that he sees the world much as Hitler saw his: a dark and dangerous place that required a savior. Trump declared himself the only person who could save the United States. He has used his brand of bombast and threats to others to ride a tide of populist rage into power. He has done most of his work through Executive Order, and attacked the other branches of government along the way.
What Is the End Game?
We have no direct reason to believe Trump plans the kind of atrocities that Hitler did, and this should not serve as a declaration that the next Holocaust is upon us. We do know, though, that Steve Bannon has cited a Nazi writer as a key influence, and that Trump himself kept a book of Hitler’s speeches in his bedside cabinet. For him, it appears he wants power for power’s sake—and is taking advantage of a scene straight out of early 1930s Germany to grab it. For the resistance to stop him, we must continue to oppose him in the face of his threats and bluster, and push our elected leaders to do the same. Trump can be stopped, even as the president, but no one should turn a blind eye any longer to the tactics he is using. Fight for the rights of others and ourselves, for the constitutional rule of law that makes our nation great. Resist.