It didn’t take long for the comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler to shift from prescient to unabashed overkill. On the internet, where even the most thoughtful and intelligent individuals can fall into the trap of dangerous exaggeration, this is wont to happen. Soon enough, those walking in lockstep with Trump were able to turn the argument on its face, making the (not entirely unfounded) claim that liberals would call anyone who disagreed with their opinions a Nazi. Now, anyone who deigns to flicker a hint of similarity between Trump and the fascist poster boys sends eyes rolling into the back of conservative heads.
To some degree, this is a good thing. Not every person who threatens freedom is a Nazi, and the term itself, which was once held in reserve for the most vile among us, is now habitually slung as political mud. At the same time, this rhetorical flip against loosely-defined Nazi shaming stymies reasonable and wholly legitimate comparisons between the 45th president of the United States and the most infamous dictator in world history.
There isn’t much cause for arguing the fact that both men stoked and rode a wave of strident nationalism to power; this fact has been bolded, underscored, and italicized by nearly every left-leaning political pundit and writer in the known Twitterverse. The tenor of Trump’s campaign was at times strikingly hateful, overwhelmingly angry, and downright apocalyptic, all of which played to a base whose disgruntled feelings of economic disenfranchisement and political underrepresentation had simmered to a steady boil.
Trump offered himself as the solution, stating during his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that he alone could fix America’s problems–a scheme that writer Peter Ross Range explains may as well have been lifted straight from Hitler’s playbook.
“The main thing that Hitler was offering to the German people during his rise to power was himself,” Range tells BTRtoday. “He mentioned this or that policy, this or that economic approach, but Hitler was the solution.”
Range has written extensively about Hitler’s rise to power—his book “1924: The Year That Made Hitler” was published in 2016, and he’s currently working on a follow-up that chronicles the man’s rise to power from 1925 to 1933. He’s also worked as a foreign correspondent in Germany for Time Magazine, as well as a White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. In his eyes, the most potent similarity to Hitler’s tactics is Trump’s antagonization of the mainstream media, which has been a facet of his campaign from the very beginning.
“There are similarities to Trump there, yes (see: angered population, profound change, weak majority), but there’s one thing the president faces that Hitler did not have to deal with: the sturdiness of American democracy.”
“This was a theme with Hitler throughout all the years of his rise to power, and put into effect soon after he took power in 1933,” Range explains. “Within months, Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, had begun slamming shackles on the press all over Germany in what they called ‘Gleichschaltung,’ which means coordination or putting everyone on the same page. So those echoes are strong right now.”
Just last week, Trump called the news media the “enemy” of the American people, words never before uttered into a microphone or in any sort of public setting by a sitting president of the United States. The comments—which he attempted to walk back in an exclusive interview with Breitbart—replicated the open sentiments of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, whose disdain for the press runs deep and is well documented.
Now for some context. Trump and Bannon are waging an overt war on America’s traditional news media and have been since last summer, and anyone who follows the news knows it. A modern form of Gleichschaltung, while theoretically possible, will be identified and beaten back with the full fervor of the First Amendment-wielding reporters, journalists, and pundits who rightly value their position as a democratic pillar. In that case, history should serve us well.
And while the current United States of America is far from utopia, Hitler’s Germany was a disparate country shamed by the shadow and sanctions left behind in the wake of World War I. It was the blight of Europe, bottom of the barrel, and thus ripe for major, radical political change. Hitler’s path to power wasn’t exactly that of a rocket to the moon, either—after the failed Beer Hall Putsch and his subsequent imprisonment, he and the Nazis saw depressingly low percentages in German elections for years. During these down years, the party built up its base, honed its reach in different areas of the country, and eventually became the most popular party in Germany through electoral plurality.
There are similarities to Trump there, yes (see: angered population, profound change, weak majority), but there’s one thing the president faces that Hitler did not have to deal with: the sturdiness of American democracy.
The American democratic system was built, in part, to deal with situations like this. That’s not to say Thomas Jefferson and James Madison predicted the irrational ego and brazen ignorance of Trump specifically, but of the likely possibility that the power of the presidency could become too great. The checks and balances between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government were designed to prevent the consolidation of power into one person’s hands.
Unfortunately, that’s happened anyway, and it’s not Trump’s doing—the power of the president has grown steadily over the course of American history, and some historians, most notably Arthur Schlesinger, would argue it has superseded its intended constitutional limits. The growth of the “imperial presidency” was further expedited after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and pushed ever wider by presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In short, occupants on all sides of the political spectrum are to blame for this constitutional disservice.
“The balance of power we now rely upon was tilted from the start; it’s a question now of how much further it can be tipped.”
What that leaves us with today is a narcissist with authoritarian tendencies occupying the most powerful version of the presidency our nation has ever experienced. The checks and balances still exist, of course, but given the president’s power to issue executive orders that can range from simple to scary, they’re far less formidable. Perhaps that’s what makes Trump’s early autocratic actions and talk all the more frightening.
BTRtoday asked Range if there was a tipping point, a proverbial canary in the coal mine that should let people know that things were going too far, that Trump might be existentially threatening American democracy as we know it. His answer, while troubling, didn’t come as a shock.
“The statement he’s made about the press being the enemy of the people is that line,” Range said. “That has real overtones of the Nazis, of the fascists in Italy. If you can create a huge boogeyman like that for the people to hate, and then delegitimize not only the media, but information and a fact-based information system, that puts democracy on shaky legs.”
In other words, depending on who you ask, we’re already there. Despite his worries, however, Range cautions against rash overreaction to the new administration, and maintains trust in the American system of government to keep Trump in check.
“I’m not ready to blow the apocalyptic whistle yet,” Range said. “I’ve had friends from around the world who have sent emails, even right after the election, saying ‘don’t be so pessimistic, American democracy is so robust.’ I believe in this robustness. But, we’ve seen it chipped away at and threatened in ways we never imagined over the past few weeks.”
This is surely welcome news to the voters who wanted Donald Trump to shake up Washington, and equally troubling to those who see him as the fundamentally wrong person to do just that. The balance of power we now rely upon was tilted from the start; it’s a question now of how much further it can be tipped.