One day we may ask ourselves—some are asking already—how Donald Trump rose to power. Beyond that, when did his power become so complete that there was no legal way to stop it? Here’s how that history might be written.
“[Official] propaganda later built up a legend which represented [his] coming to power as the upsurge of a great national revival. The truth is more prosaic. Despite the mass support he had won, [he] came to office … as the result, not of any irresistible revolutionary or national movement sweeping him into power, nor even of a popular victory at the polls, but as part of a shoddy political deal with [the same people] he had been attacking for months past. [He] did not seize power; he was jobbed into office by a backstairs intrigue….
“Before he came to power [he] never succeeded in winning more than 37 per cent of the votes in a free election. Had the remaining 63 per cent of the [voting public] been united in their opposition he could never have hoped to [win the office] by legal means; he would have been forced to choose between taking the risks of a seizure of power by force or the continued frustration of his ambitions. He was saved from this awkward dilemma by two factors: the divisions and ineffectiveness of those who opposed him, and the willingness of the [party of the] Right to accept him as a partner in government….
“But the heaviest responsibility of all rests on the [party of the] Right, who not only failed to combine with the other parties in defence of the republic but made [him] their partner …. Whatever may be said of individuals, as a class they remained irreconcilable, contemptuous of and hostile to the regime they continued to exploit. … Blinded by [self] interest and prejudice, the Right forsook the role of a true conservatism, abandoned its own traditions and made the gross mistake of supposing that in [him] they had found a man who would enable them to achieve their ends. A large section of the … middle class, powerfully attracted by [his] nationalism, and many of the [military] Officer Corps followed their lead.
“The formation of [this] coalition was based on the belief that, once he had been brought into the government, [he] could be held in check and tamed. At first sight the terms to which [he] agreed appeared to confirm this belief….
“Rarely has disillusionment been so complete or so swift to follow. Those who … believed they had seen through [him] were to find they had badly underestimated both the leader and the movement. For [his] originality lay in his realization that effective revolutions, in modern conditions, are carried out with, and not against, the power of the State: the correct order of events was first to secure access to that power and then begin his revolution. [He] never abandoned the cloak of legality; instead he turned the law inside out and made illegality legal.
“In six months, [he] and his supporters were to demonstrate a cynicism and lack of scruple—qualities on which his partners particularly prided themselves—which left [some supporters] gasping for breath. At the end of those six months they were to discover, like the young lady of Riga, the dangers of going for a ride on a tiger.”[i]
Today we are slightly beyond the six months and we are beginning to see “the dangers of going for a ride on a tiger.” Our leader has “made illegality legal” in pardoning a prominent law enforcement officer for defying a federal court order, and by interfering in the investigation of the apparent “backstairs intrigue” to help get him elected. Moreover, he has begun reversing his predecessors’ initiatives intended to create a more benevolent state, blamed national problems on ethnic minorities, and undermined the credibility of the press and the authority of the legislative and judicial branches of government. His international allies are dictators: Putin, Duterte, Erdoğan.
One can only hope that his “cynicism and lack of scruple” have left his supporters “gasping for breath,” though it appears that the most prominent of them, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are still breathing comfortably.
They may express dismay or concern but they remain unwilling to use their power to limit the damage this president can do, believing more in the hope of accomplishing their political agenda with his help than in the danger he respresents to the republic.
So it is time to reveal—as if you hadn’t guessed—that the leader described in the the quotations above is Adolf Hitler as portrayed by the Oxford University historian Alan Bullock in his influential biography, “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.”
The parallels in these two stories have been noted—perhaps too often—but the one worth noting here is the arrival of a point at which traditional political and legal opposition are no longer effective or even possible, the point at which the leader’s power becomes overwhelming and resistance is futile. That point surprised Germans when it arrived. Many tried to emigrate and found the borders closed.
We are not there yet. But if we do not recognize the danger as it approaches, the time for action could pass before we know it. Those who could prevent disaster—the Ryans and the McConnells—must act or become known as collaborators in American fascism.
[i] There was a young lady of Riga,
Who rode with a smile on a tiger.
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.