There is no excuse for being silent. For being caught unawares. Or for missing the last plane out if you intend to go. The warning signs are plentiful, and it is not overreacting to speak of them. One should not assume that we’ll most likely muddle through. Perhaps we will, but it’s time for a fight-or-flight plan.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two Harvard government professors who study historical failures of democracies, wrote in The Times that among the warning signs is the rise of anti-democratic politicians into the mainstream. They concluded that Donald Trump tested positive against the established indicators by encouraging violence, promising to prosecute his opponent, threatening the media, and undermining trust in the election—all before the voting. Furthermore, they argue, the democratic institutions we depended on to protect us from Trump—and Huey Long and Joe McCarthy—are weakening.
Reading about Hitler’s rise to power I’ve been struck by the similarities in the character and methods of Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler.
Yes, of course, the differences are many. Trump evaded the draft when his country was at war; Hitler served six years at the front in WWI and was wounded but never rose above corporal. Trump came from wealth, went to college, and made billions; Hitler, the illegitimate child of a servant girl, did poorly in school, and never held a job.
Hitler was socially inept, had few close friends, wished desperately to impress people, was intolerant of opposition, even becoming outraged at people who disagreed with him. So does Trump. Both were given to grandiosity with a deep conviction of their own superiority combined with an equally deep resentment of the failure of others to acknowledge it. Hitler required unending adulation and behaved strangely when he didn’t get it. So does Trump.
Trump blamed foreigners, mainly Muslims and Latinos, for the problems of workers and encouraged hatred toward them. Hitler blamed Jews, encouraged hatred of them, and began their extermination.
Hitler controlled his party newspaper the Völkischer Beobachter and the German press, and labeled foreign newspapers as liars. Trump communicates directly via Twitter, has started his own television outlet, and calls the standard news media liars.
Regarding his method, in Mein Kampf Hitler wrote, “It is not by the principles of humanity that man lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by means of the most brutal struggle.” His biographer Alan Bullock wrote that “the ability to lie, twist, cheat and flatter; the elimination of sentimentality or loyalty in favour of ruthlessness” were the qualities Hitler admired and adopted. In his campaign Trump also lied, cheated, flattered, avoided sentimentality, and was ruthless well beyond the normal practice of political campaigns.
“Whatever goal man has reached is due to his originality plus his brutality,” Hitler said in a speech. Hitler’s originality was not in his ideology, Bullock said, but in his ability to create a mass movement and secure power on the basis of the ideas. His skill was in reading the minds of his audiences, finding their sensitive spots and hammering on those, observing carefully his listeners’ responses.
“The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted,” Hitler wrote. “Never hesitate, never qualify what you say, never concede an inch to the other side. Paint all your contrasts in black and white.”
Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men and Sinclair Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here provide abundant examples of such methods. Here’s the narrator of All the King’s Men (1946) talking early in the story to Willie Stark, the Huey Long character:
“’Yeah,’ I said, ‘I heard the speech. But they don’t give a damn about that. Hell, make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em think you’re their weak erring pal, or make ‘em think you’re God-Almighty. Or make ‘em mad. Even mad at you. Just stir ‘em up, it doesn’t matter how or why, and they’ll love you and come back for more. Pinch ‘em in the soft place. They aren’t alive, most of ‘em, and haven’t been alive in twenty years. Hell, their wives have lost their teeth and their shape, and likker won’t set on their stomachs, and they don’t believe in God, so it’s up to you to give ‘em something to stir ‘em up and make ‘em feel alive again. Just for half an hour. That’s what they come for. Tell ‘em anything. But for Sweet Jesus’ sake don’t try to improve their minds.’”
Hitler never read that book and Trump probably did not, but both understood intuitively what Willie Stark was learning. It didn’t matter what he promised as long as the audience woke up and cheered. Trump’s crowd cried, “Lock her up!” and Donald smiled.
Principles, ideas, promises were a means to an end, tactics to be used or abandoned as needed. In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote, “Any idea may be a source of danger if it be looked upon as an end in itself.” The grievances of the working class were a means to his objective—gaining power—but never an end in themselves. Since Trump was elected he has softened his stance on locking up his opponent and on building the wall. That doesn’t mean he has changed, only that he no longer needs those promises.
Both Hitler and Trump chose not to support their own governments when those governments were faced with foreign aggression.
When the Russian government mounted a cyberattack against the American electoral process by invading Democratic party computers last summer, Trump sided with Moscow, urging Russia to find his opponent’s e-mails and expressing doubt that the attack came from Russia.
When French forces occupied the Ruhr valley in January 1923 blocking 80 percent of Germany’s steel and coal production, Germans united behind their government, but Hitler did not. He criticized the Berlin government and organized an opposing force in Munich where he launched a violent but unsuccessful putsch in November 1923.
Though he served time for the attempted coup, he continued to fight and organize his supporters. On January 30, 1933, he was sworn in as a minority chancellor of Germany. The next largest parliamentary bloc were the Communists. Less than a month later, on February 27, the Reichstag was destroyed by fire allegedly set by a Dutch Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe. The Communists and the Nazis accused each other of responsibility. Hitler called it the beginning of a Communist coup and convinced President Hindenburg to sign a decree for “protection of the citizens and the state” suspending civic freedoms and privacy. Communist legislators were arrested, thus creating the first Nazi majority.
On a single day, March 24, with the SA and SS surrounding and intimidating remaining non-Nazi legislators, both houses of parliament passed and Hindenburg signed the Enabling Act that allowed Hitler to enact laws by himself without parliamentary participation.
On January 20, 2017, Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States, almost three million popular votes short of a majority. He will have the benefit of a Republican House and Senate and the opportunity to create a Republican-dominated Supreme Court.
German citizens made their decisions. Some left, some stayed, and a few resisted as Hitler led his country into the abyss. In America the election is over and our time for individual decisions has arrived.