Before the 2016 election, some historians and journalists compared Trump’s ascension with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany before World War II. Now that Trump has been elected, it is important to critically assess these comparisons in more detail.
First, any comparison to Hitler and Nazism must begin with a couple of significant distinctions. Hitler and the Nazis considered anyone of Jewish heritage to be part of a despicable “race.” The pseudo-science of eugenics, which the Nazis promoted, played a major role in their expulsion and slaughtering of Jewish people. Moreover, although the KKK and other racist organizations support Trump, we have not heard him express outright hatred of any particular minority.
That being said, there are a number of parallels between Hitler in the 1920s and 30s and Trump today. Like Hitler, Trump has developed a cult-of-personality. He has done this by using the same tricks Hitler did. In this post, I detail some parallels between Hitler’s tactics during his rise to power, and Trump’s today, and I suggest a few steps we must take now to preserve our freedom.
Parallels between Hitler’s tactics and Trump’s tactics
Before his rise to power, Hitler was not a professional politician. He was an “outsider” like Trump (although he was unemployed and no businessman). But Hitler had a great deal of charisma, a sense of what people feared, and a grasp of what they wanted to hear. Trump has similar traits. He must have been a careful student of Hitler’s rise to power, because he uses many of the same tactics Hitler used. For example:
For the public, keep it simple and use slogans
Hitler said, “The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points, and you must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
Trump has followed Hitler’s advice. He, like Hitler, is a showman who knows how to appeal to emotions by using and repeating simple words with loaded meanings: “Make America Great Again!” “Build that wall!” “Lock her up!”
Use emotion for the many and reason for the few
Hitler said, ““I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.” For two years before Germany invaded Poland and started World War II, Britain was convinced Hitler wanted peace, because that’s what he kept telling their envoys. But for years before 1937, Hitler had been rebuilding his military, and from 1936 on, he was supplying his powerful new weapons to the rising dictator of Spain. He was preaching his peacefulness to the British at the very time when his new bombers were leveling the first non-military city in history: Guernica.
Trump is equally capable of talking out of both sides of his mouth and does it frequently. He constantly says the mainstream media is “dishonest,” but he glibly calls The New York Times “a jewel” when speaking directly to its publisher and reporters. He calls climate change “a hoax” and appoints a man who agrees with him to head the EPA; but when speaking to knowledgeable people, he leaves them thinking they had a productive discussion, and he understands there is “something to it.”
Lying is fine as long as you win
Hitler said, “The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.” Lies were second nature to Hitler, just as they are to Trump. Hitler told lies so sincerely and so often that people either believed they were true or stopped caring (as long as they didn’t directly hurt them.)
One of his biggest, most often-told lies was that the Jews caused Germany to lose World War I. In reality, Jewish men fought and died for Germany in the same proportions as everyone else. (In 1916, Germany conducted a study to prove that the country was losing the war, because Jewish men weren’t fighting on the front lines. The facts showed that proportionately more Jews were on the front lines than non-Jews, so the government buried the results.)
To Donald Trump, as to Hitler, winning is all, and lying is second nature. There is little point in enumerating his many lies. Google “fact-checking Trump” for all the examples. (Oddly, he even lies about doing something everyone can still see, such as mocking a disabled reporter.)
People need scapegoats, so blame minorities they already fear
Hitler gave the public specific, carefully selected scapegoats to blame for his country’s problems, and so does Trump. Hitler’s main scapegoat was the Jews, the traditional European scapegoats for over a thousand years. Jews were a very small minority in Germany (under 1% in 1933). Eugenics, the popular scientific theory of the day, taught that Jews were a race, not a religion. Since no one could opt out of his or her race, people of Jewish heritage who practiced no faith, as well as Jewish converts to Christianity, were targeted. Most Germans didn’t personally know Jews, so the Nazis could easily reinforce long-existing negative stereotypes and fears through their propaganda.
Trump’s primary chosen scapegoats are Muslims, who practice Islam. Of course, eugenics theory has been debunked now, so Trump can’t classify Islam as a race. But he has said that hatred of the West is “innate” in Islam. And he has called for a blanket ban on Muslims, “who are pouring into our country.” (Another lie. According to the Pew Research Center, Muslims were about 1% of the U.S. population in 2015 and are projected to be 2% in 2050.)
Hitler also targeted immigrants as scapegoats. Among his first scapegoats were thousands of people, mostly Jewish, who had come to Germany after 1914. Hitler referred to these immigrants as unpatriotic “invaders” and “foreign elements” who distorted the true German spirit. See Fraenkel, Max, “An Exclusive Interview with Germany’s Fascist Chieftain.”
Trump is targeting several groups of immigrants, whom he calls “aliens,” a word chosen to underscore his “us” versus “them” mentality. To him “aliens” are all refugees from Syria, most Mexicans (to be walled out at their expense), and all immigrants from “terror countries” (undefined, because “all you have to do is look!”).
Violence is essential for success
Hitler and his followers regularly used violence and the threat of violence to quell opposition. Hitler said, “The very first essential for success is the perpetually constant and regular employment of violence.” The Nazis encouraged their followers to threaten and physically attack dissenters attending Hitler’s rallies and speeches. From 1922 on, Nazis assaulted people at meetings of opposing parties. After taking power, they assaulted people for no reason to show power. They also beat people to silence opposition.
Donald Trump has also used violence as a tool. He has encouraged followers to assault protesters at his rallies and has said he would like to hit them himself. He has regularly belittled journalists and other critics in the social media, prompting his followers to follow up with further abuse, including death threats. Trump has fomented so much hatred, fear, and distrust among people that we now hear daily about rants and assaults of Trump’s opponents and his chosen scapegoats in schools, on airplanes, in subways, and in malls. Hate crimes have been increasing every week since Trump was elected.
Make excellent use of propaganda, and avoid the mainstream media.
Trump is using Twitter the way that Hitler used the radio. The Nazis gave away thousands of radios, so people everywhere would hear Hitler’s messages, which sounded much like Trump’s. Hitler gave passionate, emotional speeches whose content was remarkably similar to Trump’s: dark visions of his country’s decay due to inept leadership and bad deals with other countries; heartfelt assertions of his people’s innate superiority and their God-given right to lead the world; emotional promises to make the country great again; and calls to rid the country of social unrest by getting rid of those he blames for causing it.
Trump’s use of mass rallies is nothing new either. Hitler also liked using rallies, because by doing so, he could put on a show, bypass the media, reinforce his cult of personality, and further his agenda. Hitler disliked giving interviews, because he said his words were “too easily distorted.” (See Fraenkel, Max, “An Exclusive Interview with Germany’s Fascist Chieftain,” The press was highly critical of Hitler during his rise to power. Journalists made fun of his looks and demeanor and criticized his methods and his agenda.
Our press has also questioned and criticized everything about Trump from his looks to his self-important, ultra-nationalistic, anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant views. Trump regularly calls the media “dishonest” and has suggested that libel laws be changed to make it easier to sue media outlets and journalists. He rarely lets journalists interview him, and he hates press conferences. In his tweets, he praises journalists who are “nice” to him and chafes at the “unfairness” and “dishonesty” of those who criticize him.
What happens now? What should we do?
First, we must recognize that a major terrorist incident in America, like the Reichstag Fire in Germany, could provide Trump with an excuse for taking dangerous steps towards dictatorship.
We Americans are living in an anxious society under a heightened state of alert. Since the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, we have taken steps to try to prevent another major terrorist attack here.
Since 2001, our government to held suspected terrorists without trial in Guantanamo Bay. That, it seems to me, is a denial of the right to due process as guaranteed under our Constitution. Could it serve as precedent for rounding up people Trump calls his enemies? Might they be imprisoned without trial as “suspected terrorists”? Is this out of the question anymore?
We have already permitted and take for granted many infringements on our right to privacy— such as electronic surveillance, limitations on what can carry and when, scans of our bodies, and searches of our possessions—all because we are living in fear of terrorism.
But despite giving up privacy for what we perceive to be additional security, we know another attack could happen anytime. We are constantly reminded of that possibility by almost daily mass shootings in airports, schools, malls, and other public places. And because we are already accustomed to so many infringements on our right to privacy, we are primed to accept additional erosions of individual rights in exchange for assurances of greater security— whether or not they would bring greater security. If Trump follows Hitler’s mode, as he often has, we will need to be vigilant to protect our remaining Constitutional rights.
Shortly after he became Chancellor, there was a fire in the Reichstag, the legislature’s building. One man, a Communist, was convicted of arson, although some say the Nazis themselves were responsible. But what matters is how Hitler handled the incident. He labeled it an attack on Germany, and he used it as an excuse for imposing martial law. Under martial law, Hitler quelled public protests and ordered the detention of perceived enemies (critics and political opponents) in two newly opened concentration camps. With no opposition present when the legislature next met, Hitler was able to pass a law giving him dictatorial power. Most German people were grateful to have quiet streets. Few complained about martial law or the laws passed thereafter, which destroyed Germany’s democracy.
Given the erosion of our rights already, the fact of terrorism, the ways Trump has copied Hitler’s playbook, the cult of personality he has developed, the divisiveness he has fomented, and the additional powers he will have as President, we would be foolish to ignore his fondness of dictators and his potential for becoming a dictator.
Second, we must do whatever we can as individuals to preserve our free press, because without it, our democracy will not survive.
As others have already noted, when Trump takes office, he will have more power than Hitler had at first. Germany had no real army in 1933, and Hitler was not in charge of the army there. In contrast, we have nuclear weapons and a formidable army over which Trump will automatically be Commander in Chief. Trump also has more popular support today than Hitler had when he became Chancellor. Germany still had an elected President who appointed Hitler only because big businesses backed him into it. The elected President and his allies thought they could reign in Hitler if they appointed him. They couldn’t.
And who will reign in Donald Trump? Trump’s Executive Branch will consist mainly of like-minded people, who can handle his personality and feed his need for approval and adulation. (Hitler has similar traits and also surrounded himself with people who could do the same things.) Trump can also fire any Executive Branch official who displeases him.
Trump will try to control our Legislative Branch. Most Republicans in Congress represent gerrymandered Republican districts where Trump is very popular. These people will be very reluctant to oppose him. The Republican party is also deeply divided, so it is unlikely that enough Republicans would ever unite to defeat legislation Trump wants. And if, by chance, a law passed that Trump did not want, he could veto it with almost no chance of every having a two-thirds majority who would override his veto.
What of our Judicial Branch? It is likely the Supreme Court will issue rulings that comport with a conservative agenda, and that Trump will have no reason not to respect those rulings. But what if the Court issues a ruling he dislikes?
Our Presidents (with only a few exceptions in 244 years), have respected federal court rulings, even when those rulings went against their wishes. For instance, when the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Obama’s immigration order exceeded his authority, Obama halted implementation of those regulations until a higher court could decide. The integrity of our judicial systems depends upon it. But would Trump do that? So far, he has shown little respect for our courts. He has repeatedly perverted the judicial process by using lawsuits to drain people financially. During his campaign, Trump claimed that the judge was Mexican and therefore, his rulings were biased against him (The judge wasn’t Mexican).
Our career civil servants have traditionally also been something of a check on the Executive Branch. By carefully using the regulatory process, they have sped up or slowed down the implementation of new laws. But Trump has proposed weakening or dismantling a number of agencies, and he is trying to appoint, as agency heads, people who have expressed similar desires. An example of what may be coming just happened recently when the House passed a bill that would permit Representatives to fire agency employees or cut their pay to $1 under some circumstances.
What we are left with to insure the continuation of American democracy is freedom of the press. If history teaches us anything, it is that democracy can’t survive without freedom of the press. Once Hitler imposed martial law, he and his party took steps to begin silencing all opposition. But it was when Hitler shut down the free press that democracy died in Germany.
Protests, marching, and contacting our elected representatives may be helpful. But for American democracy to survive, we must make sure Trump does nothing to interfere with freedom of the press in America. We need to do whatever we can to support struggling media outlets and underwrite investigative journalism and unrelenting media inquiries into all aspects of the Trump administration. We need to support ongoing public affairs programming and investigative reporting by public radio and television. We need to subscribe to traditional and online newspapers, magazines, television, and alternative media sources that value investigative reporting.