A shorter version of this article was published in The Hill on Jan 1, 2016.
You can hear the bass drum pounding away as you read the headline of Paul Krugman’s latest New York Times editorial: “How Republics End.” Hitler, Franco and Mussolini. Here we have the other Big Three, the degenerate offspring of the 1920s and 1930s, and the list to which Krugman proposes to add President-elect Donald Trump. “What’s about to happen here is populist style, with a heavy racist component, wedded to oligarch-friendly, middle-class destroying policy,” Krugman tweets. “This is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes…but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac,” adds Robert Kagan in the Washington Post. For shorthand, we can define the ideology of fascism as ultra-nationalist, populist, anti-political and authoritarian incited by calls for mass participation in extreme violence. And, indeed, according to Krugman, “it takes willful blindness not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.”
Krugman is just the latest to call Trump the next great fascist. Comparing Trump to Hitler has become a parlor game on the Left with the likes of Ken Burns, Angela Davis, Louis C.K., Bill Maher and SNL and some Republicans including Glenn Beck and the former Governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, joining in. When Trump began asking crowds to raise their hands to swear oaths of loyalty, the quasi-“Seig Heil” had the Huffington Post immediately decrying the similarity between a “Trump Rally… [and] a Scene from Nazi Germany.” Sporcle, a popular website of trivia quizzes, even created a new distraction: they provide a quote, and you guess who said it, Trump or Hitler. The billionaire’s rise has even created a renaissance in political cartoons:
No doubt the name-calling springs from genuine fear. Key to the Hitler mythos is the story of a scary leader who became a tyrannical monster. Hitler did not invade Poland in 1933. He did not open concentration camps on his first day in office. He began his Chancellorship with only 43.9% of the seats in the Reichstag. Never a savory sort, Hitler nonetheless descended into the horror we know now only over time. This spiraling trajectory has engendered a fear and a vigilance to catch the scary leader before he becomes the tyrannical monster.
This model of gradual degeneration lies at the heart of the parable of “First they came for the [insert minority], and I did not speak out…” It is the implicit anxiety that fascism is a slippery slope. We must be on guard to spot the illiberal canary. Laws to stop immigration today can be the first step in a succession of policies descending into genocide tomorrow. This anxiety fuels the desire, however hastily, to hunt and ferret out the latent fascists before they commandeer uncontrollable power and reveal themselves as fiends. It was the story of Sinclair Lewis’s wildly popular (and sarcastically titled) 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here in which fascism arises in America when a demagogic Democratic Senator degenerates into a brutal, totalitarian president.
And Trump can be scary. He likes to play the tough guy. His glorifying of himself as the anti-politician of “outsider populism” while surrounded by jeering fans recalls fascists before him. He lies, cheats and steals. He threatens women, Mexicans and Muslims. As one Northwestern University psychologist concluded in The Atlantic, Trump exhibits troubling signs of “narcissism, disagreeableness, [and] grandiosity.” But Trump’s “grandiosity” is small fry compared to Hitler’s. In his declaration of war on the United States in December 1941, Hitler ranted that “Providence[, itself, had…] entrusted [him] with the leadership in a historic conflict that will be decisive in determining the next five hundred or one thousand years, not only of our German history, but also of the history of Europe and even of the entire world.” Playing the Hitler card can provide a momentary flush of relief by denigrating the frightening new commander-in-chief as the unctuous symbol of evil incarnate. But Trump is no Hitler, even if it is fun to say.
Trump has not called for an end to democracy. He has not promoted international conquest. He does not glorify mass violence. He has not set up paramilitary ranks of goose-stepping goons elaborately uniformed in crisp regalia. Trump’s regalia has amounted to mis-measured ties and a little red hat. As the German historian Thomas Weber argues, the defining difference between the two leaders is that “for Hitler, every compromise…was a rotten compromise… For Trump, ultimately a compromise is what you do.” So that Trump has no master plan. The Art of the Deal is no Mein Kampf.
At the center of the nightmare of a fascist America is the notion of an unprecedented illiberal descent. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of American history. It rests on the recalcitrant myth (often unconscious) of a democratic immaculate conception in which the United States was born a “perfect union” when, with their signing of the Constitution, the Forefathers created a fully formed nation of equality, freedom and justice under the law. Creeping fascism, it is feared, now threatens this most cherished of political experiments.
Yet American liberty has been an evolutionary process of amendment and error, of steps toward more and more liberal democracy like the Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, Women’s Suffrage and gay marriage, interrupted by major illiberal steps back like the Alien and Sedition Acts, nullification, Jim Crow, Japanese internment and Abu Ghraib. Trump’s proposal of “banning Muslims” would fit comfortably on this latter list. It would devastate the lives of countless refugees while promoting a policy of bigotry against a select group of people. It would be an American tragedy demanding swift appeal. It would be a stain. But it would not signal Krugman’s end to the Republic.
The problem with throwing around the word fascism is that it immediately connotes historical meaning beyond the strict definition engineered by political scientists. As the historian Theodore Draper wrote, “we may be told that…fascism has nothing to do with German concentration camps, the German dictator, a mass fascist party, and all the
rest. But the word is shocking and frightening precisely because it is historically linked to concentration camps, dictators, and all they imply.”
German fascism rose in the 1920 and 1930s out of specific, historic and economic conditions that Krugman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, has somehow forgotten. Aside from the weak and ineffectual Weimar Republic in the period between World War I and the rise of the Nazis, Germany completely lacked a democratic tradition from which to draw stability, norms and custom. The land and its people were devastated by their defeat in the Great War. They lost a generation of men. Their economy was sunk by exorbitant war debts and reparations. And even as many celebrated the wide-open milieu of avant-garde art and the creation of their first social welfare state, the fracturing of the Weimar Republic—the economic crises, hyperinflation, rage and suffering—threatened to pull Germany apart. Over and above that, it was then that the Great Depression hit. By 1931, the Republic was “virtually bankrupt.” In his first radio address to the German people, in February 1933, Hitler decried the German’s historic humiliation in losing World War I. A brooding Führer focused his ire on the misfortune of the “starving industrial proletariat [who] have become unemployed in their millions, while the whole middle and artisan class ha[s] been made paupers.”
Vladimir Putin did not rise because his face just screams cult-of-personality. He followed in the long Russian authoritarian tradition of Tsars and General Secretaries. He grabbed inordinate, undemocratic power from a state in collapse, one that suffered from decades of Soviet terror and misrule, from the humiliating loss of the Cold War, its loss of status as a world power, the loss of wealth and resources from its dissolved empire, a “lost decade” in the 1990s with empty store shelves, desperate peasants and runaway inflation. Putin capitalized on the disappointment over the drunken, corrupt face of Russian democracy, Boris Yeltsin. He capitalized literally with the rise of a new oligarchic class funded by oil. The seeds of fascism of the likes of Putin, of the likes of Hitler, are desperation and humiliation. It is desperation on a massive, national scale with no democratic tradition for succor.
In the heyday of fascism, like during the Red Scares, fears ran high that Hitler’s ideology would infiltrate the American body politic. Fascist movements like the Black Legion, Sentinels of America, Silver Shirts and Free Society of Teutonia “murdered, flogged, and bombed” their way through the 1930s. Famous and respected figures like the poet Ezra Pound, Joseph Kennedy, the billionaire publisher of yellow journalism William Randolph Hearst and the immensely popular hard-right-radio host Father Coughlin, an anti-Communist and rabidly anti-Semitic Catholic priest, proved to be Nazi-sympathizers. The threat, it appeared, had jumped the Atlantic Ocean. “SPREAD OF FASCISM REPORTED IN WEST,” in 1936 the New York Times sounded the alarm.
During these years of fascist power in Europe, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was himself accused of leading a fascist vanguard. In the pages of the Saturday Evening Post and at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the former president Herbert Hoover warned that the New Deal was an attempt at a “fascist” takeover and for it, he received “wild cheering” and the “greatest ovation [he had] ever [been] given.”
Hoover was far from alone. With the creation of “a centralized Government of unlimited power,” the Governor of Ohio and vice presidential candidate John W. Bricker warned that Roosevelt had “adopted the basic doctrines of Nazism and Fascism.” An ardent opponent of big government spending, the historically influential Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote of the “unpalatable truth” behind Roosevelt’s policies: “that it is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating.”
The fascist takeover never occurred. In the United States, democratic values triumphed over the Axes’ ideological appeal. And after the defeat of fascism in World War II, Americans turned to Communism as the next great threat internationally. Their anxiety was drawn to a new group of subversives. Now it was Reds that needed the ferreting. But the fear of a rising tide of fascism did not die with Hitler in his bunker.
In the Nixon era during the seemingly endless war in Vietnam, as the economy struggled, the debate resurfaced in force over whether the United States was “destined to suffer the fate of Weimer Germany.” Young 60’s protestors proclaimed the Vietnamese war effort a fascist endeavor. Civil rights leaders compared Nixon’s relations with African Americans to the Führer’s treatment of the Jews. In the Times Krugman compares the United States today to the fall of the Roman Empire. In the Times, forty-five years ago, another economist, the prominent libertarian Murray N. Rothbard wrote a similar column, declaring Nixon “our Caesar in the White House.” As Nixon took the US off the gold standard and implemented a wage-price freeze, “on August 15, 1971,” Rothbard wrote, “fascism came to America.” Even the highest authority of dissent condoned the comparison as Nixon’s presidential opponent, Sen. George McGovern, made it a habit of equating the two.
A “liberal caricature” of President Ronald Reagan routinely painted him as a “fascist buffoon.” But it was only after the arduous election of 2000 finally settled with George W. Bush finally ascendant to the White House that the accusations of fascism really flew again: over Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, John Ashcroft even Condoleeza Rice. Michael Moore wrote that the “Patriot Act [wa]s as un-American as Mein Kampf.” Left-wing websites lit up with the comparison. Bush was “routinely portrayed as a Nazi…with a Hitler mustache” while it became commonplace to find “T- shirts with Bush’s name spelled with [the ‘S’ exchanged for] a swastika,” noted the right-wing columnist Rich Lowry. The billionaire George Soros, a major contributor to liberal causes and a survivor of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, drew a direct parallel.“When [he] hear[d] Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ Soros said that “it remind[ed him] of the Germans.”
We have a rich history of fearing fascism. We have seen the cruelty and devastation it can wrought. No one wishes to be the next Lindbergh or Chamberlain whistling in the wind as the next Hitler heils his way to power. Vigilance against Trump’s undemocratic proclivities is vital. But we must also correctly diagnose the problem. Is the American economy suffering a “breakdown of Weimarian dimensions?” Critically, we are not in the major depression-like conditions out of which, without exception, fascism has historically grown. We have a rich democratic tradition. This year there were healthy marches of protestors in the hundreds on both sides. And instead of violent riots, the great upheaval in our democratic order amounted to seven faithless electors (out of 538) changing their votes. We have suffered no grand humiliation (aside from a handful of Rick Perry’s costumed performances on Dancing with the Stars.)
The Democrats must see Trump for what he is. The Hitler analogy leads to the characterization of Trump as a singular phenomenon of enormous power when in fact he is a small man with small hands.His beefs are petty. His thoughts are contradictory and confused. He has stumbled into power. His grand strategy is non-existent.
And there is a danger in throwing around the moniker of fascism. It suggests in one’s opponents an “intolerable barbarity” that when coopted by radical individuals or movements, as Draper argues, provides “an implicit license to use any weapons and any methods to overthrow it.” The power in the word is the reason that America’s foreign revolutionary enemies use the term to rally their people against the United States. It is a call to arms. It is the kind of dangerous hyperbole found in fake news.
“Back in the 1960s, when not-quite-grown-up children began to refer to policemen as pigs and to their fathers as Nazis, both pigs and Nazis lost a little of their toxic heft,” wrote William F. Buckley, Jr. “If everybody is a son of a bitch, then a son of a bitch becomes a pretty routine thing.” With every comparison, Buckley explained, “Hitler becomes a little less the definitive evil.” He becomes just a step more normalized.
There are real fascists in the world. But we must call a spade a spade, not a knife. Trump poses a danger due to his shallow and inconsistent thinking. His craving for populist approval, his longing for flattery, leaves Trump vulnerable. He has proven to be easily swayed. It is terribly troubling that one day Trump and Putin call each other “friends” and the next for a nuclear arms race. The relationship and Russia must remain under firm scrutiny. But Putin has blood on his hands. Trump has frosting from this morning’s chocolate éclair.
– Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD