Okay. I get it. We throw out Hitler comparisons in the political sphere like Donald Trump throws out protestors. You use a comparison enough times for enough different things and it ultimately becomes meaningless.
But Hitler’s evil was not so unique that it could never conceivably be replicated. Given enough time, someone could theoretically live up to the comparison. And when that time comes, a true understanding of Hitler and the historical circumstances that allowed his rise will be essential in order to identify and stop this new Hitler in his tracks.
We’ve all wondered, in a high school history or literature classroom, how any group of people could allow a man as evil as Hitler to come to power. We read accounts of his death camps and his hateful rhetoric, and are repulsed not only by the man, but by those among the masses who he counted as his followers. How could the citizenry of Germany, a population of individuals no less human than the rest of us, support the rise and sustained power of history’s greatest villain?
Enter Donald Trump.
To be clear, I am not going to speculate as to whether this guy is following Hitler’s script purposefully or if he has a similar end game in mind. Trump’s page in history is still too short for us to imagine what his motives and ultimate goals may be. But in his actions, language, and readily increasing support, we find parallels that are so uncanny that they cannot be ignored. In truth, they must be feared.
Following the First World War, Germany, due to clear defeat and admittedly soft leadership, was crippled by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Their lands were lost. Their economy was broken. One of the world’s great empires became the outcast of Europe, and the punching bag of the world’s powers.
We are not crippled as Germany once was. We are not even close. Yet there exists today the same feeling amongst a large percentage of the American public that our greatest days are behind us. We’ve been humbled by a global recession that still drags on a once unstoppable economy. We’ve seen immense shifts in the socio-economic and cultural fabric of our nation, which is frightening to those that remember comfort before those changes. And we see power growing elsewhere in the world, in some of our greatest rivals, lending itself to a feeling that American leadership might be on the verge of collapse.
Hyper-nationalism is born from such an environment. Great nations are most susceptible to self-destruction when they fear their clout is diminishing. In 1931 Germany, Hitler was the vehicle of that self-destruction. My purpose here is not to state that Donald Trump will be ours, merely that there’s no reason why he can’t be.
Hitler grew in power by speaking to two perceptions that exist in the hyper-nationalist subconscious. The first was that their nation was superior, their people exceptional, and that they were living in a moment of temporary decline for an otherwise great empire. The German, Aryan race believed it was superior to all others, and given time it would be restored to an elite stature in the world.
The second perception that Hitler spoke to was a belief that the German, Aryan man was not to be blamed for his own decline; fault was elsewhere. With their government, which submitted weakly to the demands of the victors of World War I. With foreigners, who had no business in the war, but joined in order to diminish the strength of a German race they envied. And, of course, with the Jews, who were not natives of their empire, yet stole work and wealth from the rightful inheritors of Germany’s glory.
Hitler began by speaking to both perceptions as an outsider in a party of opposition. He reminded his audiences of how great life had once been, while prophesizing a future that was even greater. All they had to overcome, in Hitler’s view, were those that had either failed them or sought to keep them down. All they had to overcome was their government, foreigners and the Jews.
They needed just two things to overcome these obstacles, and Hitler promised to provide them with both. They needed unflinching, unapologetic national pride, and they needed a great leader to guide them into the future. Hitler’s words served to energize the former while his mind would constitute the latter. From that strategy, a nation was moved, a revolution occurred, and a demagogue attained power. Through incrementally increasing bigotry, he was then able to convince his followers that not only could they build a great nation for themselves, they could destroy the threat of those that had once brought them down. They’d have to be vigilant. They have to be aggressive. They’d have to be willing to do what needed to be done in order to end all threats to Aryan supremacy. Hitler was able to use this strategy to guide a nation from hyper-nationalism, to xenophobia, to ethnic cleansing. All he needed was a microphone.
Donald Trump has seized the same perceptions of superiority and the same rejection of blame for America’s challenges that too many of us still cling to. He has stoked our fears by painting our government as inept, stupid, and deceitful. He convinces us that foreigners have stolen our jobs and that members of the Muslim minority wish to destroy our very way of life. He promises a great future, greater even than glory of our past, so long as we follow him without question and preach his message of national pride and unapologetic superiority. And he is succeeding.
Mr. Trump encourages his followers to use violence against protesters. He has called for an “opening up” of libel laws so that he as President can sue and presumably control the fourth estate.
In December, Mr. Trump took the next step on the path of ever increasing xenophobia, calling for a ban on entry into the nation for all Muslims. He’s suggested registering Islamic citizens, providing them with IDs, and conducting government surveillance on their places of worship.
Once again, I will not speculate as to what Mr. Trump’s next step is or what his end game might be. I will not accuse the leading candidate for the republican nomination of attempting anything more than he has already said or done. He is not Hitler, at least not yet. But you simply cannot deny that this guy’s trajectory towards power does mirror that of the worst example of human evil we’ve ever known to exist. For that reason, it is impossible to say that any possibility is off the table.