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“The madness of the Chief…”


Two days before Christmas, 1943, Galeazzo Ciano sat in a jail cell in Verona, Italy, awaiting execution. A prisoner of the Nazis, his was a potent example of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”: Ciano had been Italy’s Foreign Minister for seven years, and was moreover Benito Mussolini’s son-in-law. As victory for the Axis slipped inexorably away, the Nazis and fascist Italy required scapegoats. Ciano, an ardent anti-Nazi, was conveniently sacrificed.

He had kept a Diary for many years; now, on Dec. 23, he made his Final Entry. With defeat in the war inevitable, and his own life now measured in days (he was shot on Jan. 11), it was only natural for Ciano to look back retrospectively and consider the route by which he, and Italy and Germany, had come to such a catastrophic end. At the center of his speculations, naturally, was the man he blamed for everything: the Fuhrer of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler.

Ciano had tried, even before the outbreak of World War II in September, 1939, to convince Hitler and Germany’s Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, not to allow war. It was a war, Ciano felt in his heart, the Axis could not win, and that would destroy European civilization. Ciano recounts a conversation he had with Ribbentrop just a month before war broke out.

“’Well, Ribbentrop,’ I asked, ‘what do you want? The Corridor or Danzig?’”

“’Not that any more,’” he said, gazing at me with his cold, metallic eyes. ‘We want war!’”

War is what they got. In remembering all this in the cold afterlight, Ciano reflected on the personality of Hitler, and how he had persuaded the richest, best-educated and most powerful nation in Europe, Germany, to adhere to his every wish. “The madness of the Chief had become the religion of his followers.”

“The madness of the Chief…”

Historians and psychologists will long continue to try to understand Hitler’s rise and iron grip on the German people. There may never be a satisfactory explanation. Probably there were as many explanations as there were Germans in 1939: 70 million; and probably many of those felt differently, at different moments in time. Therefore, the “explanation,” such as it is, can at best be only general in nature. So it is in America today, with regard to Donald J. Trump and his supporters.

That Trump is “mad” in a formal sense is hard to deny. (See my post from yesterday on Trump’s sociopathy.) His madness expresses itself in the same ways Hitler’s did: rage, vengeance, resentment, narcissism, megalomania. “The religion of his followers” is far more inexplicable. For followers to take up a new religion (which Trumpism is), something drastic has to have happened to them. In Germany’s case, it was a combination of factors: they had lost the First World War (a war they fully expected to win, and were told by their leaders they would win). They had suffered terribly during the Depression. They felt that all the other powers in Europe (especially Britain and France) hated them, for no good reason; this sense of being misunderstood reached an acute crisis when Hitler became Chancellor, in the winter of 1933, by appealing to Germans’ sense of grievance, and promising to relieve it.

The parallels between Hitler’s base and Trump’s are too stark to ignore. Trump’s supporters, like Hitler’s, feel they lost their war—in this case, not a physical war with another country, but a cultural war, based on a warped sense of Christian, “traditional” virtues. They live in an America in which abortion is legal and gay people can be married, and in which, moreover, white people like them are increasingly displaced by people of color. Their economic opportunities, like those of the Germans, are slipping away. Thus their sense of grievance. As Hitler became Germany’s leader against this backdrop in 1933, so did Trump become America’s leader in 2016/2017. He did this by appealing to his followers’ resentments and humiliation, and by promising to do something about it. And, in the same way Hitler’s followers believed him, and marched off the cliff with him, so have Trump’s followers believed him.

And so we get the new American religion: Trumpism. It’s not a real religion, of course, any more than Hitlerism was a real religion. Both movements are more accurately described as cults: Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple in Guyana is an apt example. But when does a cult become a religion? Christianity began as a cult, and a small one at that. So did Islam, and so did Judaism. When a cult gets big enough to organize itself through permanent institutions that outlive the Founder, it becomes a religion.

Trumpism is not yet a religion. But it is a proto-religion, a religion-in-the-making. Trump will not live much longer (the actuarial tables are against him), but we know that his children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, already have talked about succeeding him, in much the same way Trump’s BFF, Kim Jong Un, succeeded his father, who had succeeded his father, as the Dear Leader of North Korea. The Kim family has established a proto-religion that someday might become a full-fledged religion. The Trump family looks approvingly and longingly at the Kim model in North Korea (and at the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia) and wonders why the House of Trump should not become exactly the same thing in America. History, which is amoral, allows for that to happen. Only the will of the American people can prevent Trumpism from becoming a religion, but first we must crush it.

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