When liberal media outfits like The Nation or Huffington Post refer to Trump as a Fascist or say he is undermining democracy, or that he wants to install an authoritarian regime, I pay it little mind. After all, for eight years I had to listen to the other side accuse Obama of trying to subvert the Constitution to his own ends.
But today I sat up and took notice when a mainstream Republican website, The Hill, carried an editorial by a Professor of Political Science and Jurisprudence at Amherst College, Austin Sarat, who referred to Trump’s political behavior as ‘delusional extremism’ and warned that just because Trump suffered a couple of setbacks in the past week didn’t mean that “American democracy is out of danger.”
It’s a fundamental historical fallacy to use the past to explain the present. We also shouldn’t use what happened at an earlier time to predict what may come to pass tomorrow. On the other hand, understanding political history from another era at least gives us a little perspective on trying to figure out what things mean today.
In that regard, I think that Professor Sarat, along with everyone else who believes that democracy hung by a narrow thread while Trump sat in the Oval Office and tried to figure out how to sell more MAGA t-shirts both at public rallies and online, might spend some time reading William Shirer’s account, The Nightmare Years, 1930–1940, about how Hitler came to power and consolidated his authoritarian regime. The book was published in 1984 and immediately made it onto the best-seller lists.
Shirer was sent to Europe in 1928 as a newspaper correspondent but was then hired to do radio news broadcasts out of Berlin in 1934 on a fledgling radio network called CBS. His counterpart and mentor in this new technology was Edward R. Murrow, who was stationed in London. Together, these two remarkable journalists made the transition from print to voice, and kept Americans tied nightly to their radios to get the war news.
After the war, Shirer published a remarkable book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which combined both his own notes and reportage as well as documentation from the Nazi archives that was released at the war’s end. Want to understand what 20th-Century authoritarianism was all about? I recommend Shirer’s two books plus Franz Neumann’s extraordinary work, Behemoth, The Structure and Practice of National Socialism.
It must be admitted that when it comes to how Trump promoted himself in political terms, the parallels between what he said and what Hitler said are eerily alike. From the beginning of his 2016 campaign and throughout his entire administration, Trump complained endlessly about the unfair coverage he received from the mainstream media. Hitler did exactly the same thing during the years he rose to power, but stopped castigating the media when he abolished independent news sources and had the media working for him beginning in 1934.
For Trump, making America great again meant that a majority of our population would always be White. He had no problem with immigration from Western Europe — it was all those non-White people showing up from the Southern Hemisphere that was his concern. Likewise, Hitler preached endlessly about racial ‘purity,’ as the key to making Germany ‘great.’ His expansion in to Eastern Europe, most notably Czechoslovakia and then Poland was to expand the territory of the pure, Germanic volk.
Where the two authoritarians were closely matched was in terms of how they defined their political agendas by using conspiracy theories to explain why things needed to change. For Hitler, Germany had suffered before, during and after World War I because of an unending attempt to subvert the country’s best traditions and culture being led by a secret cabal of Communists and Jews. How was Germany to be restored to greatness? Get rid of both groups.
As for Trump, this guy has been selling conspiracy theories since he started demanding that Obama produce a valid birth certificate back in 2011, and when that nonsense collapsed, Trump began promoting a conspiracy headed by unnamed officials in something called the Deep State. His continued complaints about how the election was a ‘steal’ has become his latest attempt to run a conspiracy theory up the flagpole again.
Where Hitler and Trump seem almost to be talking at the same time and in the same way is when they talk about themselves. Here’s a word-for-word excerpt from the speech that Hitler gave one week before his armies marched into Poland and World War II began: “Essentially, all depends on me, on my existence, because of my political talents. My existence is therefore a factor of great values.”
Here’s Trump: “If you’re weak — which some people would like you to be — if you’re really, really pathetically weak, the country’s going to be overrun with millions of people. I am strong, politicians are weak.”
On a rhetorical level, or what we might consider political style, these two guys appear to be almost identical twins. Both countries needed to be saved by someone who was strong, both countries needed to rid themselves of enemies — Jews, Deep State — who wanted things to remain as they were. Both countries had a once-only chance to become what they had been some time in the past and could become that way again if these new leaders did what needed to be done.
There’s only one little problem with this comparison, which is the reason I cautioned at the beginning to avoid using the past to explain what is going on right here and now. Because in the case of Hitler, he didn’t just try to make the electoral process more ‘legitimate’ or ‘honest’ or whatever euphemisms Trump has used to keep inner-city residents to coming out to vote. Hitler abolished elections. As Grandpa would say, ‘prusht und prushit.’ That was the end of that.
Hitler also moved quickly to eradicate any organization or population that might have stood in his way. All labor unions were made illegal and were replaced by a national labor organization run by the Nazi state. Want a good-paying union job? Keep your mouth shut and accept whatever salary the government decides you should get.
In a country which had always been the center of intellectual and creative artistic life, the university faculties were stripped of anyone considered to be a critic or a less-than-compliant supporter of the regime. Why do you think Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein ended up over here?
And then of course, there was the ‘problem’ of the Jews. That was solved by the Nuremberg laws in 1935 and if anyone didn’t get the message, these laws were followed up by the Kristallnacht atrocities in 1938. And by the way, Kristallnacht was the handiwork of Hitler’s private militia, the SA, who went around German cities and towns routinely beating people up.
What made Hitler a successful authoritarian is that he combined rhetoric with action and his penchant for violence didn’t just stop at the borders of the Reich. You can’t separate Hitler’s authoritarian politics from his decision to start a war which would eventually claim over 30 million lives in Europe alone. And let’s not forget that these weren’t just the lives of men who fell in battle.
What I find interesting about Trump is the gap between words and action when it comes to what he tried to do to make people really believe that he was all that big and tough. If anything, his first three years in office were remarkable in terms of how little he actually accomplished between signing a tax bill that had been sitting around on the GOP legislative leadership’s desks just waiting for a Republican to take over the Oval Office.
What more did he do, particularly reshaping government to reflect his authoritarian ends? Nothing. Putting judges onto the Federal bench who were recommended by the Federalist Society was no different than Obama pushing judgeships with names he got from the ACLU. Creating a personal militia to intimidate and attack political enemies the way Hitler created the SA and the SS? I can just see the Proud Boys going up against the thousands who demonstrated against Trump’s after his inauguration both in D.C. and more than dozen large cities throughout the United States.
What makes it appear that Trump threatens America with the same authoritarianism which Hitler used so successfully in the years leading up to 1933, is what appears to be the degree to which the conspiracy theories used by both Trump and Hitler evoked so much enthusiasm and support from the average man and woman in the average street.
But here again, what has been the accepted version of the strength of conspiracy theories promoted by the Right may turn out to be largely a fiction both for Hitler and Trump. In this regard, let’s look first at Trump because I want to save the best for last.
My previous column for Medium was a detailed analysis of some data which I used to figure out the strength of the so-called Trump ‘base.’ What the data clearly shows was that in 2016, Trump’s MAGA brigade was so narrow and so weak that it wouldn’t have been able to withstand a challenge from the Libertarian Party if voters who claimed before the election that they were going to vote for Gary Johnson, had remained loyal to that claim when they entered the voting booth.
In 2020, the turnout for Trump did not necessarily reflect any growth in a Trump ‘base’ or increased enthusiasm among Trump voters for his hard turn to the authoritarian Right. While mail-in voting appears to have been 2–1 in favor of Democratic votes, the large number of mailed ballots upped returns for both parties, particularly in crucial, battleground states.
When William Shirer got to Berlin in 1934 and began reporting on the National Socialist Regime, he expected to find a civilian population that was enthralled and enlivened by the abolition of the Weimar Republic and its replacement by a hard-core, authoritarian regime. At least this was the image which shaped his expectations from what was already a captive and compliant media which Shirer was reading in Italy before he went back to begin reporting from the Third Reich.
In fact, what Shirer found in Berlin was a city whose residents seemed to be mostly apathetic and uninterested in current political events. The depression and fears that had gripped the population directly after World War I were gone, as were the daily street confrontations between partisans of the Left versus partisans of the Right.
But by the time Shirer arrived in Berlin, which was 1934, Hitler was already beginning to make speeches which strongly hinted at the country using military force to expand the Reich within Europe, particularly in territories to the East. The vast, cheering crowds at Nazi rallies that Shirer had seen in movie news films directed by Leni Riefenstahl were figments of a political imagination developed by Josef Goebbels — there was no relation to reality at all. Shirer describes in detail how small groups of Berliners would stand on street corners watching a military or SA unit march by without so much as a murmur of excitement coming from the small crowd.
You don’t overthrow a democratic government by sending a loony like Sidney Powell into court. You don’t stage a coup by getting mad at Twitter for closing down your account. You don’t even lead an insurrection by telling a couple of thousand demented idiots to go down to a Capitol building that didn’t even have a riot fence around it and demand that Mike Spence be hung. And you certainly don’t end a 230-year history of continuous national elections by telling a Department of Justice Acting Attorney General to issue a statement saying that the election which ended your term of office was corrupt.
The liberal media is calling Trump’s childish and no-nothing statement to Jeffrey Rosen about how he’ll ‘handle’ everything a bombshell? That’s the best they can do?
Here’s how you change a democratically-elected government into an authoritarian state. First, you take control of the institutions that the government uses to enforce its authority — courts, military, police — and make these institutions swear their loyalty to you. Then you suppress any objection to this chain of events by closing down all the media and other public institutions that might be tempted to raise a stink. Then you get rid of anyone in a management position within the government who won’t carry out your demands. And just to make sure that everyone understands that you mean what you say, getting rid of someone isn’t just done by telling them to leave. It’s accomplished by sending the Gestapo out in the middle of the night and then someone disappears.
This is the progression of events which William Shirer graphically explains in his book. Has anyone noticed that the ‘failing’ New York Times has ben shut down? Was Bob Woodward taken out to some undisclosed location after he published a book which stated that Trump lied about the dangers of Covid-19?
What Hitler did before and after taking power and the planning behind what he did, wasn’t the same thing as a bunch of scam artists like Steve Bannon, Roger Stone and Rudy Giuliani seeing how much money they could make off of pretending to build a wall between Mexico and the United States (Bannon), selling MAGA t-shirts at rallies (Stone)or producing a documentary film on Joe Biden’s corrupt dealings in the Ukraine (Giuliani.)
That’s what Trump’s Presidency was really all about. How much money could you make for yourself by getting close enough to Trump to whisper some crazy idea into his ear. That’s not what creating or running an authoritarian government means in the slightest — not at all. It’s nothing more than just another opportunity to build your brand and make another buck off your name.