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What is the most significant parallel between Hitler and Trump?



One of the most important books to deal with the origins of World War II is AJP Taylor’s “A Short History of Germany: 1815-1945”  (1969). That war, which killed 60 million people, seems like something out of the dim past, especially to a generation younger than mine; today, the slaughter that had characterized Europe for a millennium has largely passed, and the panorama of History has shifted to a more global stage. Still, the Second World War remains the most catastrophic event in human history, and the rise–and fall–of Adolf Hitler includes eerie, familiar and frightening parallels with the advent of Donald Trump.

Here is what Taylor concludes was “the deepest significance of the National-Socialist [Nazi] movement”:

“[I]t aimed at securing at long last the complete unification of the German people–in outward institutions and in inner spiritual belief. For that very reason it insisted increasingly that it, and it alone, was a great movement of the mind and soul of the German people and not merely a new political party amongst many rival political parties. It sought to transcend all the deep divisions of tribe and class, of religious and political creeds amongst Germans, and to unite them in fanatical trust both in the mission and future of their country and in the God-given infallible personality of their leader, Hitler.”

One parallel between Hitler and Trump, beyond their authoritarian instincts, lies in the nature of the constituency (“base,” we now call it) that voted them into power: disgruntled, resentful white men. In both cases, these men had lost their economic footing, blamed it on others (for Germans of the 1920s and 1930s, it was Communists and Jews; for Americans of the 2000s, it is globalization, Muslims, immigrants and Democrats). In both cases, these men elected someone who seemed to share their many grievances, and who promised to obtain revenge on the enemies.

Hitler actually did succeed in achieving “the complete unification of the German people,” a goal that had proved elusive for the thousand previous years. Of course, even during his reign, there were political opponents in Germany, but not many; and such as there were were efficiently rounded up by the Gestapo and dispatched. We have not yet reached the point yet in America of an internal security service that has thoroughly infiltrated the woof and warp of the nation, and has moreover sworn personal fealty to the maximum leader. But many of us suspect that this is something Trump desires, and we have to remain vigilant to prevent it from happening.

That Trump also desires this unification to occur across “outward institutions and in inner spiritual belief” is obvious. Again, he is experiencing grave difficulties in achieving this–thank God–due to the resilience of American institutions, and the long traditions of freedom and democracy in this country–conditions that were non-existent in Germany. Trump’s desire to unify “inner spiritual belief” is an interesting one. He’s already unified that “inner belief” across large swaths of the Republican Party. This leads to the next goal of both Hitler and Trump: to create “a great movement of the mind and soul of the German people and not merely a new political party amongst many rival political parties.”

This last phrase is worthy of detailed analysis. That Trumpism is “a movement” is clear, if the phrase “movement” can be taken as a widespread and irrational force sweeping up a large portion of a nation’s population. That Trump believes he appeals to the “mind and soul” of the American people also is obvious: not to the rational, logical part of the mind, but the emotional part–the resentment and disgruntlement–which is the same thing as the soul: those inchoate, but deeply felt, feelings that motivate his followers. (These feelings, which in addition to resentment and disgruntlement include anger, paranoia and fear, are easily traced in the “Comments” section of any Breitbart article.) It also is true that Trump desires his movement not to be perceived as  merely “one party amongst many rival political parties,” but as the one, eternal, valid and true party–as the Nazis portrayed themselves. Democrats, of course (as well as all political parties) wish to convince the electorate that they stand in the light of truth more so than their opponents, but we have never seen a movement in America that has sought to utterly discredit its opponents more than Trumpism does with regard to Democrats–except, perhaps, during the Civil War, when communication between North and South irreparably broke down.

But the most interesting phrase in AJP Taylor’s analysis is this: Hitlerism sought “to unite [Germans] in fanatical trust both in the mission and future of their country and in the God-given infallible personality of the leader, Hitler.”

This gets to the nub of the Trump problem. It’s fine to “unite” citizens to trust “the mission and future of their country.” Indeed, every President does this, or tries to. As Americans, we want Americans to trust the values and direction of our country; and for the most part, we have succeeded in that goal. However, Americans have never been particularly “fanatical.” True, when we feel attacked–as we did after Pearl Harbor and, to a lesser extent, after Sept. 11–we are able to muster our vast resources and become a formidable foe to our opponents. But between these rare historical events, Americans shun fanaticism for the everyday pleasures of work, family, friendship and–one of our saving graces–a tendency to regard government with a properly amused cynicism.

We tend, too, to shun a view of our Presidents as “infallible,” possessing “God-given” powers of personality. In my reading of American history, I do not think we ever so treated a President. George Washington came closest to being revered in his lifetime, but he was wise enough to resist the offers of a Kingly throne, and to retire from public life, Cincinattus-like, after two terms of office. Since Washington, no President has ever dared, or would, to ask the American people to regard him as “infallible.”

Until now. We first understood this when Trump uttered his infamous Fifth Avenue remark, which surely was his way of implying that his supporters viewed him as infallible. After all, if you gun down innocent people at random, and your supporters don’t care, it can only be because they see you as some sort of god, who can do no wrong.

And this notion of infallibility–of the absolute leader, above all moral considerations, beyond the restrictions of decency, whose judgment stems from a “God-given” instinct that only he, and he alone, enjoys–is the closest, and most frightening, parallel between Hitler and Trump. Although I expect no one who reads this to pick up and read AJP Taylor’s little book, I hope that they–you–do. I promise that, every few pages, you will come across a quote, a historical fact, a bit of research, concerning Hitler and his rise, in which you could substitute the name of Trump and the social movement he both inspires and is the product of; and the words will make perfect sense. I wonder, in fact, if Trump himself has read this book–if not this book, then others about the rise of Hitler and nazism, especially the Goebbels’ diaries. He seems to have done his homework: his behavior perfectly echoes that of Hitler’s. We have, therefore, clear and horrible parallels between the rise of both of these men. We know about Hitler’s fall. We do not yet know about Donald Trump’s.



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