By Michael E. Norris
Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, drew attention recently when, echoing comments made by others, he made the comparison of the governance of President Donald Trump to that of the German dictator and mass murderer Adolph Hitler.
Sanford explicitly told Newsweek magazine that he was not “likening Trump to Hitler,” but nonetheless cautioned Americans not to accept “easy promises” from leaders of any kind. This is not a new warning — to paraphrase Madison, men in power must always be mistrusted to some degree – but we Americans seem to have short memories.
“[I]nevitably a strong man comes along and offers easy promises,” Sanford told Newsweek. “He says that he can take care of it for us. People desperate for a change accept his offer. They have to give up a few freedoms in the equation to get more security. It doesn’t work out so well, as (Friedrich von) Hayek’s book (The Road to Serfdom, 1944) in this instance (explains) the rise of Hitler in post-WWI German history.
“I want to be clear and explicit that I am not likening Trump to Hitler,” said Sanford. “But the forces at play could lead to a future Hitler-like character if we don’t watch out. It must be remembered that another thing that Benjamin Franklin said was that he who trades his freedom for security, deserves neither. Indeed, how true.”
Sanford was actually being reasonably generous in his assessment of Trump; some leaders have been more direct.
A Georgia Democratic congressman repeatedly compared President Trump to Adolf Hitler during a fiery speech at a Baptist church in Atlanta.
The Atlanta NAACP posted video online of Rep. Hank Johnson’s speech comparing the president to the Nazi leader responsible for the killing of 6 million Jews during World War II and many millions more, including gypsies, gays, Catholics, dissidents, and the handicapped – the latter being the first target of the Third Reich’s mass-killing machinery.
“Much like how Hitler took over the Nazi party, Trump has taken over the Republican Party,” Johnson said.
At another point, Johnson said, “Hitler was accepting of violence towards the achievement of political objectives. Trump encouraged violence against protesters at his rallies.”
Prominent psychiatrists and other mental-health specialists have made similar observations.
“Trump is not Adolph Hitler, but shares many of Hitler’s disorders, addiction to lies, and appeal to wounded followers through the dehumanization of target groups,” Jeffrey D. Sachs, PhD, wrote in the forward to the second edition of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, in which more than three dozen psychiatrists and other mental-health experts assess the current incumbent.
Some Trump supporters have opposed comparisons of Trump to Hitler in this sense, as put by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz: “To compare the American political system to anything that happened in the Holocaust is just outrageous.”
Dershowitz is correct, but that is not the comparison being made in this column. Here, we compare strategies used by Hitler and his henchmen in cementing his dictatorship and leading the world into war.
Christopher Browning, a prolific Holocaust researcher who has shown how ordinary individuals became willing instruments of mass murder, has also drawn comparisons between the rise of Hitler and the current situation in America.
In a report for Vox, writer Zach Beauchamp shows how Browning drew the following similarities: “America first” foreign policy, using media (Fox) as a propaganda organ, and the way in which actions, or the lack thereof, by Senate Majority Leader Mitchell McConnell of Kentucky resemble those of Paul von Hindenburg, the German Weimar president who appointed Hitler the chancellor of Germany in 1933, and, thus, set the stage for the tragedy that followed.
“McConnell, in Browning’s eyes, is doing something similar – taking whatever actions he can to attain power, including breaking the system for judicial nominations and empowering a dangerous demagogue under the delusion that he can be fully controlled,” Beauchamp writes.
Students have asked me, from time to time, if I think “we will have another Hitler.” My answer is that the question should not be “if” but “when.” In fact, it has already happened. A commonly cited example is that of Pol Pot, Cambodia’s communist leader who was ultimately charged with killing about a fourth of his nation’s citizens — between 1.5 and 3 million people in the late 1970s – and died under house arrest in 1998.
Current leaders – Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, for example — and aspiring leaders, such as Marine le Pen in France, also use political tactics similar to those of the Nazi dictator, most especially their blaming immigrants or racial and ethnic minorities for their nations’ “troubles.”
Here are 10 ways in which the governance of President Donald Trump and former German dictator Adolph Hitler, both whom gained office as representatives of a minority of their nations’ voting populations, are similar:
Anti-intellectualism and opposition to science
Despite the relatively large number of high-ranking Nazis who had doctorates and Germany’s general reputation historically as a center for serious scholarship, Hitler referred to the Enlightenment and industrialization as “a disaster.” Hitler had a library, but it was filled mostly with racist garbage. Trump is a climate-change denier who reportedly does not read books. The two were skilled in some areas of politics, including artful persuasion. Scott Adams, creator of “Dilbert,” has called Trump a “master persuader” in his analysis of why Trump won in 2016. Of course, his victory did not rest on truth, as is well-known now. Similarly, Hitler masterfully used half-truths and lies, most notably on racial issues, to drum up enough support to win the chancellorship, which set the stage for dictatorship and war. As Hett wrote in his analysis of why a republic gave way to autocracy in 1920s Germany, “The key to understanding why many Germans supported him lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational factual world. … Millions of Germans retreated into conspiracy theories: that (for example) a ‘stab in the back’ … not straight-forward military defeat, had ended (World War I); or that they were beset by conspiratorial cliques of communists, capitalists, Jews, and Freemasons.” The Nazis caused people to believe things “that were verifiably untrue.” Hitler “routinely voiced scorn for intellectuals and experts.” Peter Drucker, an American who would later achieve fame as a business management expert, declared, as Hett noted, that “Nazism had succeeded not because people believed its messages, but in spite of the fact that they did not.” Hitler cleverly appealed to youth by portraying Nazism as a way around the slavish business of reading and studying. “The young man who … only studies philosophy and in a time like this buries himself behind his books or sits at home by the fire, he is no German youth!” Hitler said in a speech cited by Laurence Rees.
Portray minorities as a threat
While Trump has targeted illegal immigrants as a source of crime that necessitates a “wall,” Hitler cited the “Jewish problem” as the root of Germany’s issues A to Z — everything from being the cause of World War I to unsanitary hygiene. In this respect, Hitler, who once aspired to be a painter, played artfully on centuries’ worth of deeply embedded European anti-Semitism, contrasting it with Ayran legends, myths, and icons. When Walter Rathenau, German foreign minister, was shot in 1922, as noted by Rees, Heinrich Himmler, who as SS leader ran the death camps, wrote, “I’m glad … he was a villain.”
Hitler’s sad history here is known so well that it virtually need not be repeated; suffice it to say, he and his party routinely used violence against opponents and anyone else they did not like, culminating in genocide. This practice began at least a decade before he became a dictator. In 1922, for example, he took about 800 of his stormtroopers to Coburg for a confrontation with its liberal groups, as Rees noted. Trump, similarly, has, in his boy-like fashion, encouraged supporters to do the same. As William Saletan of Slate reported, “Trump has been testing the GOP’s tolerance for demagoguery that explicitly promotes brutality.” And so far, Republicans seem willing to go along. Trump has repeatedly invited his supporters to beat up protesters at his rallies. Initially, he implied that the protesters brought this on themselves by disrupting the rallies. But now he’s endorsing violence against people who simply ask questions. Last year in Montana, Greg Gianforte, a Republican candidate for Congress and Trump supporter, assaulted a reporter, Ben Jacobs, who was asking the candidate about health care. Gianforte “ ‘grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands, slammed him into the ground,’ and began punching him,’ according to a Fox News correspondent who witnessed the attack.” Numerous other media outlets have reported Trump’s propensity for encouraging people to act out in support of him.
Encourage divisiveness and chaos in society
Just as Trump has encouraged voters to consider Washington a “swamp,” so, too, did Hitler, though a minority leader, cast the democratic Weimar government of Hindenburg as a threat, especially in light of Germany’s defeat in World War I. “Defenders of the (Weimar) Republic often seemed like little more than defenders of a corrupt system … Opponents of democracy … could look like they were operating on higher moral ground,” Hett wrote. Quite obviously, the corruption-tainted Trump administration has disproven this assertion, but for Weimar Germany “it was a short step from this contempt for ‘the system’ to the belief that a providential leader could lift the nation out of its soulless dead end.” The Nazi movement, Rees noted, “thrived on calamity.”
Invoke emergency powers
Trump, who seems intimidated by the constitutional separation of powers, has been threatening to declare a “national emergency” regarding the situation on the U.S.-Mexico border in order to be able to use American money to build a wall. It is well-known that no such “emergency” exists; therefore, the premise of his argument for a U.S.-funded wall is invalid. His argument is part and parcel of a false alternate reality that seems to exist only in his own mind but, which, nevertheless, may rouse all or part of his die-hard supporters. Similarly, Hitler used emergency power to expand his authority. In Germany, shortly after the burning of the Berlin building of the Reichstag (Congress), Hitler had President Hindenburg sign a decree suspending civil liberties, thus establishing for dictatorship. This decree, wrote Hett, “was the legal basis for all the arrests and deportations, for the concentration camps, and the infamous secret police, the Gestapo.”
Create a non-existent “problem” and then offer a solution
Trump has tried to make the Mexican border look like a problem by, for example, unnecessarily dispatching U.S. troops to the area and separating members of immigrant families. Two Texas sheriffs, whose counties border the longest individual segments of the border, declared, following Trump’s border visit to drum up support for a wall, that the president’s portrait of the situation there is wrong, according to the Texas Observer. Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra said crime rates in his county are at record lows. Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson, who supervises the largest county in Texas, said the area is “very, very safe.” His efforts to create crises where they don’t exist has been a constant of his administration since he declared, in his inaugural speech, that America is in a state of “carnage.” Similarly, for Hitler, false crises included, most notably, eastern border “issues.” The concept of the “German East” goes back to the Teutonic knights of the Middle Ages. Hitler used it skillfully to convince Germans that they needed “lebensraum” (living space) that he argued would be made up of areas populated by ethnic Germans in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and other locations. Death camps in Poland and elsewhere were part of the “lebensraum” strategy to clean out current residents and replace them with Germans. Hitler argued disassociatively that Germany had an historic right to control these areas. Thus, for Nazis, it was a “problem” as long as Germany could not control them and that formed the rationale for the Anschluss, the dismantling of Czechoslovakia, and the invasions of Poland and Russia.
Encourage the idea of a culture war
In 1920s Germany, this consisted mainly of controversies over, as Hett put it, “the newer forms of art and literature: socially critical theater, novels that dealt with frankly with sex, Expressionist painting” and “newer forms of media, such as films and mass-circulation newspapers.” In Trump’s America, the thrice-divorced former Democrat likes to encourage opposition to abortion rights and support for so-called “religious liberty” groups that want to break down the constitutional separation of church and state. In addition, Trump likes to pit urban Americans versus those living in rural areas, where he always goes to give rally speeches. All major cities opposed his presidency in November 2016; his strengths lie in flyover country. “The Nazi electorate,” Hett wrote, “was essentially a coalition of Protestants from rural areas.”
Quite obviously, Hitler was a notorious liar; his book, Mein Kampf, written while he was imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government, is a perfect example. He asserted, in fact, that, as Hett put it, “the less honest a political message, the better.” Trump lack of fealty to the truth is, by now, legend. Several media outlets have put his lies or misstatements at over 8,000 – the most famous of which was, of course, his assertion that President Obama had not been born in the United States and was, therefore, not qualified for the White House. He only retracted it after years of criticism. Although Weimar Germany was well on the road to recovery from the effects of World War I by 1925, Hitler continued to insist on an “ongoing ‘German collapse.’ ”
Deceive your supporters
Trump, the non-stop candidate, insists he speaks for ordinary Americans – in his efforts to save jobs, for example – and yet does nothing of the kind. He is an elitist of the first order; anyone who has strolled through Trump Tower in New York can see that plainly. Hitler, similarly, offered to speak for ordinary Germans allegedly mistreated by the Weimar government, but, in Mein Kamp, wrote for all to read a decade before he became dictator that “the mass of the people are lazy and cowardly.” His use of simple verbal tricks to replace complex policy discussions was standard. Trump does the same thing – reducing complicated border issues, for example, to the need for a “wall.”
Trump appealed to blue-collar workers in battleground states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, by saying he would make American companies stay in America and would end unfair trade practices with China, Mexico, and Canada. Similarly, Hitler and other Nazi leaders “all declared their solidarity with the workers and portrayed themselves as their benefactors.” In practice, however, things worked out quite differently. As recounted by Bernt Engelman, who lived through the Third Reich and served in the German Air Force as a radioman, “There was the Law for the Organization of National Labor of January 1934, which dubbed the entrepreneurs ‘leaders of industry’ and the workers and salaried employees their ‘followers.’ According to the ‘Fuhrer principle,’ the entrepreneurs were therefore ‘sole masters in their realms of activity,’ to whom their employees owed ‘absolute fealty.’ There was no longer such a thing as a works council, no youth representation, no forum for workers’ participation.” It is well-known that Nazi leadership worked hand-in-glove with the major corporations of the day, including IG Farben, the oven manufacturer, and IBM, whose punch cards ended up as records of Nazi victims. Analogously, Trump emerged, fairly soon into his first term, as a defender of corporate interests, and managed to win passage of a massive tax cut, generally beneficial to them and the top 1 percent of U.S. earners.
Attack the judiciary.
Both Hitler and Trump criticize the courts. As Hett noted, “judges, lawyers, and the law were among the things Hitler most despised, and his regime was one long assault on the rationality, predictability, and integrity of the law.” The dictator was so unhappy with the courts that he created one – People’s Supreme Court – that he could control by firing judges whose rulings he did not like. Similarly, Trump has been able to establish a conservative majority on the Supreme Court and would like to hire an attorney general with whom he agrees. His firing of FBI Director James Comey was all a part of his campaign to substitute personal preference for the rule of law.
SOURCES DRAWN ON FOR THIS ESSAY
Scott Adams, Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter (Portfolio, 2017, 304 pages).
Zach Beauchamp, “A leading Holocaust historian just seriously compared the US to Nazi Germany,” Vox, Oct 5, 2018.
Christopher Browning, “The Suffocation of Democracy,” The New York Review of Books, Oct. 25, 2018.
Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt, Auschwitz (Norton, 2008, 479 pages)
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Vintage, 1997, 656 pages).
Kate Groetzinger, “Texas Border Sheriffs: There is No Crisis and We Don’t Want Trump’s Wall,” Texas Observer, Jan. 24, 2019.
Benjamin Carter Hett, The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise To Power and the Downfall of the ‘Weimar Republic” (Henry Holt, 2018, 280 pages)
Bandy Lee, M.D., The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (St. Martin’s Press, 2019, 475 pages)
Laurence Rees, The Holocaust: A New History (PublicAffairs, 2017, 552 pages)
William Saletan, “Trump Is Celebrating Violence and Nationalism at His Rallies,” Slate, Oct. 23, 2018.
Michael E. Norris, PhD, is the founder and editor of Between the Coasts. He is also the author of Reinventing the Administrative State (University Press of America, 2000), an analysis of bureaucratic reform efforts during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and Undue Process: Taking the Law Out of Law Enforcement (Cognella Academic Press, 2018), which analyses constitutional questions about the use of private security.