A Talk by Mel Lipman, HUUmanist Forum, August 27, 2017
The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrated his 98th birthday a few months ago. In 2007, after we learned that we were lied to by our government regarding Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”, he wrote a poem called “Pity the Nation”. Unfortunately, that poem has become even more timely today, ten years later. He wrote:
“Pity the nation whose people are sheep, and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced,
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice,
except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh pity the people who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.”
The writer, H.L. Mencken, predicted Donald Trump in 1920 when he cynically wrote, : “As democracy is perfected, the office represents more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
I first contemplated this talk when I started thinking about the similarities between Trump and Hitler’s rise to power. But the more I read, the more convinced I became that Trump in not a Hitler—but his rise in power could be dangerously similar to the rise in power of many past dictators.
No, Trump is not Hitler and our American Republic in the early 21st century is not the German Weimar republic in the 1930s. Still, one shouldn’t deny that there are similarities in which historical antecedents can be instructive, not because, in this case, Trump is analogous to Hitler, but because the underlying political dynamics of Trumpism may be analogous to those of Hitler.
That being said, there are a number of parallels between Hitler in the 1920s and 30s and Trump today. Like Hitler, Trump has developed a cult of personality. He has done this by using the same tricks Hitler did. Today, the Republican party, which may have originally been embarassed by Trump’s bad manners, has eagerly lined up behind him, just as German conservatives who despised Hitler, wound up embracing him. About 20 years ago, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote a book entitled Hitler’s Willing Executioners, about those who enabled Hitler. The Republican party is today becoming Trump’s “willing executioner”.
Both Hitler and Trump proclaimed their countries to be “losers”, offered themselves as the sole solution to the crises, and pledged a return to the glories of an imagined golden past. Hitler promised a great “renewal” in Germany, Trump to “make America great again”. Both men defied old norms and invented unprecedented ways of waging their political campaigns. Both men developed a charismatic relationship with their “base” that centered on large rallies. Both emphasized their “outsider” status and railed against the establishment, privileged elites, and corrupt special interests. And both men benefited from being seriously underestimated by experts and rivals.
Before his rise to power, Hitler was not a professional politician. He was an “outsider” like Trump. But Hitler had a great deal of charisma, a sense of what people feared, and a grasp of what they wanted to hear. Trump has similar traits and he uses many of the same tactics Hitler used.
Hitler said, “The receptivity of masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but the power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points, and you must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan”.
Trump, like Hitler, is a showman who knows how to appeal to emotions by using and repeating simple words with loaded meanings: “Make America Great Again!” “Build That Wall” “Lock Her Up!
Hitler said, “The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.” Hitler told lies so sincerely and so often that people either believed they were true or stopped caring (as long as it didn’t directly hurt them). To Trump, as to Hitler, winning is all, and lying is second nature. Oddly, he even lies about doing something everyone can still see, such as mocking a disabled reporter.
Trump uses Twitter the way Hitler used the radio. Hitler gave passionate, emotional speeches whose content was remarkably similar to Trump’s: dark visions of his country’s decay due to inept leadership and bad deals with other countries; assertions of his people’s innate superiority and their god-given right to rule the world; emotional promises to make the country great again and calls to rid the country of social unrest by getting rid of those he blames for causing it. To Trump it’s the Mexican rapists and the Muslim terrorists. To Hitler it was the Jews.
Trump’s use of mass rallies is nothing new either. Hitler also liked using rallies, because by doing so, he could put on a show, bypass the media, and reinforce his cult of personality. Hitler disliked giving interviews, because he said his words were “too easily distorted”. Trump regularly calls the media “dishonest” and has suggested that libel laws be changed to make it easier to sue media outlets and journalists. He rarely lets journalists interview him and he hates press conferences. In his tweets, he praises journalists who are “nice” to him and chafes at the “unfairness” and “dishonesty” of those who criticize him.
So there are some similarities between Trump and Hitler and if history teaches us anything it is that we must pay attention to these similarities. But despite these similarities, Hitler was Hitler and Trump is Trump. Trump may be something like Hitler, but he is more like a pop-culture parody of Hitler—The “Heil Honey, I’m Home!” version of Hitler—created to entertain an audience that understands this is mostly a joke but isn’t quite sure where the shtick ends and the mass murder begins.
Does the point that Hitler was a theatrical, manipulative genius with uncanny political instincts, who was consistently underestimated by his opponents until it was too late, prove that Trump is just like Hitler? Of course not! What it suggests is that Trump is something like Hitler, and that the type of authoritarian personality—or non personality, in both of these cases—who rises to the top when a democracy collapses, conforms to a general pattern. The parallels between Trump and Hitler are at once superficial—because they are different men, in sharply different historical contexts—and profound because the underlying pattern is so similar and so disturbing.
We must pay attention to what happened in Germany in the 1930s and not allow the same thing to happen in the US.
One of the reasons why the radical right was able to overcome the conservatives back in the 1930’s was that the conservatives did not understand the threat. Nazis in Germany had some popular support, but they would not have been able to change regimes without the connivance or the passivity of conservatives. If Republicans do not wish to be remembered like the German conservatives of the 1930’s, they had better find their courage fast.
We have a strong constitution that, in the past has prevented our government from becoming autocratic. But so did many other countries. It happens fast by appearing not to be happening—and before you realize it, it’s over. Mistrust is one of the key factors in making it happen. We have to have trust in our rule of law and our trust in it must not erode. We cannot accept “alternative facts”.
Europe in the 1930’s is regarded by some people today as a great period. There is nostalgia by some to make America like it was in the 1930s when Charles Lindbergh expressed his admiration for Hitler and coined the slogan “America First”. This became the name of a committee that sought to prevent the US from opposing Nazi Germany. The current president’s strategic adviser (Steve Bannon) promises policies that will be “as exciting as the 1930’s”.
There is a pattern in history. And it CAN happen here.
Here are some of the patterns of Fascism that may be recognizable today—First there is a fetishizing of those with power (businessmen, police, big landowners, the military). There is a romanticized understanding of the past that’s used to bludgeon the present. There is a habit of imposing collective guilt on certain minorities for the crimes and mistakes of individuals. And Fascism places a paranoid emphasis on national and military sovereignty.
We are told that fascism now couldn’t be as sinister as it was in Nazi Germany. But already there are frightened whispers about the need for “internment” of Muslim “terrorists”, and Hispanic immigrants are at this very moment locked up (out of sight, out of mind?)–they are locked up in detention centers. WW II era fascism, as it saw itself, was saving civilization by reverting to barbarism. That same siege mentality is creeping back into prevalence today.
Mislaid blind trust in our government can be similar to the very mistake that some German Jews made about Hitler after the Nazis had formed a government.
On February 2, 1933, a leading newspaper for German Jews published an editorial expressing this mislaid trust. It wrote:
“We do not subscribe to the view that Mr. Hitler and his friends, now finally
in possession of the power they have so long desired, will implement the proposals circulating in Nazi newspapers;
they will not suddenly deprive German Jews of their constitutional rights, nor enclose them in ghettos, nor subject them to the jealous and murderous impulses of the mob. They cannot do this because a number of crucial factors hold powers in check…”
The newspaper that wrote that editorial was shut down several years later by the Nazi government.
We must do whatever we can as individuals to preserve our free press, because without it, our democracy will not survive. To insure the continuation of American democracy, we must have freedom of the press. Once Hitler imposed martial law, he and his party took steps to begin silencing all opposition. But it was when Hitler shut down the free press that democracy died in Germany.
A party emboldened by a favorable election result or motivated by ideology, or both, might change the system from within. The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.
In Nazi Germany in 1933, people wore lapel pins that said “YES” during the elections and referendum that confirmed the one party state. In Austria in 1938, people who had not previously been Nazis began to wear Swastika pins. What might seem like a gesture of pride can be a source of exclusion. In the Europe of the 1930’s and 1940’s some people chose to wear Swastikas, and then others had to wear yellow or pink stars.
If lawyers in Nazi Germany had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities.
A few months ago Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General, was fired by Trump after instructing her department not to defend the president’s controversial “travel ban” against legal challenges. At the Nuremburg trials after WWII, we said that government officials should not have followed orders they believed were unlawful. Replacing officials who refuse to follow unlawful orders is another step towards blatant fascism.
What happens in the next four years will depend heavily on whether Trump is right or wrong about how little Americans care about their democracy. If they surprise him, they can restrain him.
In 1944, US Vice President Henry A. Wallace wrote an article for the NY Times entitled The Danger of American Fascism. The article described a breed of super-nationalists who pursue political power by deceiving Americans and playing to their fears, while only being interested in protecting their own wealth and privilege.
Wallace warned about the hucksters spouting populist themes but manipulating people to achieve the opposite. He wrote,
“They pretend to be on the side of ordinary working people, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, but at the same time, they distrust democracy because it stands for equal opportunity. They invariably put money and power ahead of human beings. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. They also claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They need scapegoats and harbor an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations.”
Wallace also acknowledged the great difference between American fascists and other countries’ murderous authoritarians. “The American breed doesn’t need violence” he said, Lying to the people is so much easier. They “poison channels of public information. Their problem is never how best to present truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving them more money or power”.
Thus might lying about unprecedented high crime rates legitimize a police state. Lying about immigrants being rapists and terrorists might justify a huge border wall as well as mass expulsions and religion based immigration bans. Lying about millions of illegal votes might excuse suppression of voting by disfavored groups.
Donald Trump has warmly welcomed despots to the White House, suggested that reporters who publish classified information should be jailed, and may have obstructed justice by firing the man leading the investigation into possible collusion between Trump and the Russian government. The first six months of this presidency underscore the necessity of the checks and balances that the Founders wrote into our Constitution and the importance of the institutions of democracy that have evolved over time.
The often debated question, “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” is not the right question. Perhaps a better question about Trump is not “What is he?” but “What will he do to us?”
Trump may wish he were a total dictator, but this is still a democracy. Lies can work during campaigns but at some point, when you try to govern, reality has a way of intruding. Eventually, the truth will become known. Let’s hope it’s before another world war and before we lose our democracy.
Trump has the power to start and/or escalate wars at will, and war is a time-tested method of distraction. He still has control over a vast nuclear arsenal. The current scandal with Russia’s election meddling is yet another glaring indication that Trump and his people are more than comfortable engaging in shady dealings behind closed doors. Plus, in the event of a terrorist attack, real or imagined, Trump has astonishing police powers at his disposal. None of us can accurately guess what he’s capable of as president.
This is not alarmism. This is enlightened self-interest. Fear and vigilance are highly appropriate responses at this juncture. More than at any point since January, Donald Trump is, right now, the most dangerous man in the world.
But even if this nightmarish presidency were to end tomorrow, the political conditions that produced it, and which are producing replicas around the world will remain to be confronted. With US Vice-President Mike Pence or speaker of the house Paul Ryan waiting in the wings, and a Democratic party establishment also enmeshed with the billionaire class, the world we need won’t be won just by replacing the current occupant of the Oval Office.
We believe we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like the present: when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of statehouses. The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with the society at large, and several that are generally unpopular—and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.
Unfortunately, as long as there are pro-Trump majorities in the House and Senate, there will be no real congressional oversight and no brake on an out-of-control president’s excesses.
One of the reasons why the radical right was able to overcome the conservatives back in the 1930’s was that the conservatives did not understand the threat. Nazis in Germany had some popular support, but they would not have been able to change regimes without the connivance or the passivity of conservatives. If Republicans do not wish to be remembered like the German conservatives of the 1930’s, they had better find their courage.
Will our institutions continue to protect us? Possibly, if we maintain them and don’t let them be eroded.
We must not let outrage fatigue numb us to the moral bankruptcy and gross incompetence of the Trump administration.
In her best-selling new book, No is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning The World We Need, Naomi Klein says that instead of wallowing in despair, we have a unique opportunity to build a much more just and humane world than we have ever seen before—provided we fight not only what we’re against but what we’re for. The “vote for us because we’re not Trump” strategy that lost the Democrats the election last year doesn’t propose anything inspiring to energize the millions of Americans who don’t vote and didn’t vote. We either have to fight for the soul of a major party or start a third party. We have to stay grounded so we don’t burn out.
This is no time to lower our defenses or sit on the sidelines. With an increasingly erratic president and members of his own party who refuse to act as a check on his power, it is we, the people, who must serve that function to protect democracy—at town halls, rallies, and ultimately at the ballot box.
Let me close by saying that we are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the US that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.
Mel Lipman, Past President, American Humanist Association