Thursday, August 16, 2018

Trump and Hitler - a balanced comparison

I have been a comparative historian for my whole career.  My first book (bottom of list, at right) compared the policies of Germany, Britain and France towards Eastern Europe during the 1930s.  My third book, Politics and War, compared four different eras of general war in history.  Proper comparisons, in my opinion, illustrate both similarities and differences between nations, or between eras, or between individuals.  In comparing the political trajectory, style, goals, and impact of Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump in their first year in office, I am certainly not (NOT!!) suggesting that Trump intends to unleash a world war or send millions of people to their deaths, neither of which I believe.  The two men took power in very different eras and their accession to power has had very different effects in their two nations.  They think very differently, and only one of them led a huge movement loyal only to himself, or fundamentally altered his nation's system of government in his first few months in office. Yet there are similarities in their world views--and chilling similarities in some of the policies of their respective governments in their first years in office.  We can, in short, learn something from the comparison.

To illustrate the differences in the minds of these two men--and some similarities and differences in how they saw their historical role--I have decided to use a speech that Hitler delivered to the Reichstag on January 30, 1937, summarizing the results of his first four years in office.  Donald Trump, of course, has not yet had the opportunity to deliver a corresponding speech, and it is far from certain that he will ever get the chance to do so.  I looked for a similar speech by Hitler delivered in 1934 or 1935 but I could not find one--his major speeches in those years tended to deal with a single issue of foreign policy, and do not seem to have included this kind of general survey.  Yet it will become clear, I think, that there are profound similarities, as well as differences, between the ways the two men saw or see their historical impact, even though Trump does not yet enjoy the security in power that Hitler had in 1937.

Hitler began by characterizing the situation which led to his seizure of power.  In the years before 1933, he pointed out, Germany had experienced constant changes of government. "All these Cabinet reconstructions brought some positive advantage only to the actors who took part in the play; but the results were almost always quite negative as far as the interests of the people were concerned," he said.   Those words call to mind Trump's campaign attacks on both parties for their shared guilt in reaching bad trade deals, allowing US allies to take advantage of them, and failing to deal with illegal immigration.  But Hitler went much further.  The accession of himself and the Nazi Party to power was not enough; the whole parliamentary system, a foreign intrusion into Germany, had had to be abolished to bring real change, "even at the sacrifice of life and blood."  And indeed, by August 1934--the comparable point in his chancellorship to where Trump's presidency stands today--that change had taken place.  The Reichstag had surrendered its powers much earlier and huge legal and institutional changes had taken place.  Nothing like that has taken place in the United States, obviously, nor is anything like that about to happen.  Trump did not bring a new party into power behind him, he seized control of an old one, and he has now brought it very firmly under his own control and entered into a firm alliance with it.  Hitler and his acolytes were genuine revolutionaries in a revolutionary age.  Trump is not. 

Continuing, Hitler described the National Socialist revolution as an almost bloodless one, and accused international opinion of applying a double standard, since it seemed less disturbed by the very bloody revolutionary conflict now taking place in Spain.  But when he turned to the specific nature of the National Socialist revolution, he used words that have not, and will not, come from Trump's mouth.  "The main plank in the National Socialist program," he said," is to abolish the liberalistic concept of the individual and the Marxist concept of humanity and to substitute therefore the folk community, rooted in the soil and bound together by the bond of its common blood."  "There is one error which cannot be remedied once men have made it," he continued, "namely the failure to recognize the importance of conserving the blood and the race free from intermixture and thereby the racial aspect and character which are God's gift and God's handiwork."  And like his contemporaries Josef Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler believed that his ideology would reshape the future of the world.  "I can prophesy here that, just as the knowledge that the earth moves around the sun led to a revolutionary alternation in the general world-picture, so the blood-and-race doctrine of the National Socialist Movement will bring about a revolutionary change in our knowledge and therewith a radical reconstruction of the picture which human history gives us of the past and will also change the course of that history in the future," he said.

The breadth of Hitler's world view, and its revolutionary character, becomes even clearer as he goes on.  "A regime of order and discipline," he said, had replaced parliamentary democracy in just three months back in 1933, and National Socialism was replacing class differences with natural selection.  All power lay with the German people, whose representative was the Nazi Party, which now controlled legislative and executive authority.  A new economic system, he argued (with more conviction than actual evidence), would treat all Germans fairly.  But National Socialism would refuse "to allow the members of a foreign race to wield an influence over our political, intellectual, or cultural life," or "to accord to the members of a foreign race any predominant position in our national economic system."  There is really no analog for these passages in Trump's rhetoric either.  His Administration--and the whole Republican Party--believe wholeheartedly in economic freedom and the power of capitalism, both of which they are managing to increase.

Like Trump today, Hitler in this speech spent a good deal of time congratulating himself on Germany's economic progress since his accession to power.  Trump, of course, came into office after a long period of economic expansion, which has continued through his first 18 months in office.  Hitler came into office when recovery from a catastrophic depression had just begun,. and accelerated that recovery with big programs of public works (infrastructure!) and rearmament.  Both men, in making these claims, ignored unpleasant realities.  In the United States, wages have remained almost stagnant throughout the post-2009 expansion.  In Germany people were back at work, but because of rigid controls on foreign trade, basic foodstuffs like butter were often in short supply and even bread had to be adulterated because of a shortage of grain.  

What is most noteworthy reading Hitler's speech, however, is the almost complete absence of the kind of combative rhetoric that flows from Trump's keyboard almost daily on Twitter.  Because Hitler had eliminated political opposition in his first few months in office, he does not have to spend any time talking generally, much less specifically, about domestic enemies, except for the vague references to those who do not belong to the national community.  International Communism is the main threat he sees on the horizon.  Hitler and the Nazis had railed ceaselessly against Communists, Socialists, and the politicians of the Weimar Republic in the years before they took power, using the same kind of abusive rhetoric, oversimplification, and outright falsification that Trump and his private propaganda ministry at Fox News use today.  Lesser propagandists continued to refer vaguely to internal or external enemies to explain problems even in the mid-1930s. But Hitler could not afford to be above all that because his position was completely secure.  That represents the biggest difference between his rhetoric and Trump's.

Trump, to put it bluntly has remained in full campaign mode, and seems incapable of behaving in any other way.  He makes a steady stream of absurd accusations against Democrats--that they favor open borders, want to abolish ICE (a few have made that proposal, of course), raise taxes, weaken our national defense, etc., etc. etc.  He is pursuing an ongoing flame war with the press--but probably doing less than the Nixon Administration to actually try to control what it prints.   He also has become completely obsessed with Robert Mueller's investigation for which there was obviously no parallel in Nazi Germany.  He constantly attacks leading figures in various walks of life who have criticized him.  It is not too much to suggest, I think, that while Hitler was genuinely obsessed with the idea of history as a struggle among different races, Trump sees it (and life itself) as an atavistic struggle among individuals, in which everyone else is out to get him, the one indispensable man.  Trump doesn't care very much about principles or institutions, only about his own wealth, power, and prestige.  That, I think, probably makes him a much less capable political leaders, but also makes him much less dangerous to his nation and the world at large.  And I can't help wondering how successful Trump might be if he confined his tweets to a drumbeat of self-congratulation extolling the country's enormous progress under his leadership, without the constant personal attacks.  Fortunately, perhaps, it doesn't look as if that experiment will ever be run.

In one respect, it seems, Trump would have liked to extend his authority in a more dictatorial manner. Not once, but twice, we have learned, he has ordered that Robert Mueller be fired.  He and Fox News (led by Sean Hannity, whom one journalist recently described as Trump's de facto chief of staff) have been preparing their supporters for that step for months and their rhetoric has been accelerating.  I think there is a good chance that Trump will fire Rod Rosenstein and Mueller after Judge Kavanagh has been confirmed.  That would essentially complete the Gleichschaltung, or "coordination," of the Justice Department--the same process that Hitler and the Nazis carried out throughout the German government in their first year or so in office. But that will not prevent him, probably, from losing the House of Representatives, and with subpoena power, the Democrats will be able to fight the propaganda war to a standstill.  The fate of the Trump Administration will remain in the hands of the American electorate.  

To say that Trump is not Hitler is not to slight the seriousness of the situation in which the United States and the world find themselves today.  His election represented a complete breakdown of our political order, one that had disconnected more than half of our registered voters from both of the two major political parties.  Trump and the Republicans are dismantling what was left of the Progressive era and the New Deal and paving the way for new and even greater inequality.  These are serous ills--but they are not the ills of the 1930s.  Totalitarianism threatened absolute government authority over every aspect of our life. We are now threatened by the opposite--the lack of any effective government authority, especially over economic life.  That is a very different disease that needs different remedies.

There is, however, another aspect of Trump Administration policy that does resemble early Nazi Germany.  In both cases, the government identified, and began in various ways to persecute, a minority onto which it tried to channel popular hostility.  In Germany in the early 1930s that minority was Jews.  Today that minority is illegal immigrants.

The Jewish community in Germany in 1933 numbered about half a million people, or less than 1% of the total population of about 65 million.  It had been declining in numbers thanks in part to assimilation, and it had only secured full political rights in the 1860s, and broke some additional employment barriers after the First World War.  After taking power the Nazis quickly organized a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, but had to back off somewhat because of hostile foreign reaction.   The Jews were largely excluded from academia, the civil service and many professions in the first few years of the Nazi regime and the 1935 Nuremberg laws gave them a special status.
 The goal of Nazi policy at least through 1938, if not longer, was to encourage Jews to leave Germany--albeit without any of their wealth--and about 25% of the German Jewish population had done so by the late 1930s.  Their problem was that there were so few other countries who would accept them in any large numbers.  The Nazis actually encouraged Zionism,. but the British in the late 1930s were trying to curb Jewish immigration to Palestine to pacify the Arab population, rather than to encourage it.  Although the specific origins of the Final Solution remain controversial, the bulk of the evidence suggested to me, when I wrote Politics and War in the 1980s that it was not until after war had begun that the murder of the whole Jewish population of Europe began to be discussed.

Jews had of course been the single biggest focus of hostile Nazi propaganda before the seizure of power.  It is not unfair to say that illegal immigrants played the same role for Donald Trump, beginning with his comments about Mexican immigrants when he announced his campaign.  The inability of our national government to give legal status to immigrants that our economy plainly heeds has led to a political and human rights crisis.   Our 11 million illegal immigrants--a much larger minority, more than 3%, of our population, than the German Jews in 1933--are in a sense an easier target because American law has traditionally given such people so few rights.  They are liable to deportation, and the Obama Administration had deported about 2.5 million of them in eight years.  What has only recently come to light--notably in an Atlantic article by Franklin Foer--is that ideologues at the White House (led by Stephen Miller) and at ICE, supported by Attorney General Sessions, are using a variety of tactics to arrest, intimidate and deport more illegal immigrants so as to convince more of them to leave, just as the Nazis did the Jews in the years before the Second World War.  They have also made it much harder for Central Americans and others to immigrate legally by narrowing the grounds for asylum, so that domestic violence and gang violence no longer entitle refugees to enter the US.  Like so many of the key developments in our national life today, this one, Foer shows, dates back to the Bush Administration, which created ICE and introduced a more hostile attitude towards immigrants after 9/11.  If the Congress were doing its job it would be holding hearings to learn more about the ideology behind these policies and their long-term goals, but Congressional Republicans stand solidly behind the President.

Every great crisis or Fourth Turning raises the issue of the composition of the national community.  In the United States, immigration was also controversial before the Civil War, but slave labor replaced immigrant labor as a political issue during the 1850s, and the war redefined the national community to include former slaves and German and Irish immigrants.  Southern and Eastern European immigration was very controversial from the 1880s through the 1910s, and was severely limited in 1924, but the Second World War made Italians, Poles, and Jews full citizens in their fellows' eyes as well, and led to the most intense phase of the civil rights movement.  Immigration restrictions loosened again in 1965 and immigration has again changed the character of the United States--but the great common task that might bring us together is lacking.  In my opinion, the older Republican political leadership has refused to pass immigration reform mainly because they do not want to add millions of new voters to the rolls.  Trump and his people seem to have even bigger goals than that, but we don't yet know what they are.

It is a sad commentary that a democratically elected American government is following in the footsteps of a European dictatorship 80 years ago and trying to drive a substantial portion out of the country.  It is equally sad that the Democratic opposition is focusing on only the most extreme aspects of this policy, such as DACA status and the separation of families at the border.  We desperately need to make citizens of our permanent residents.  I do not think this administration will attempt to claim dictatorial powers, but our present laws allow it to wreak a great deal of human hardship upon a vulnerable population--and that is what it is doing.






2 comments:

Ed Boyle said...

I think of Trump in comparison to Hitler or say Napoleon as the leader of a premier global power in a serious decline phase from its peak taken over by an unstable outsider with extreme ambition and nothing to lose.

I am an amateur painting with a broad brush. You are a professional historian used to finding exact quotes. Lots of amateurs generalize much too much outside their fields, even phds in physics for example who think they are smart. However one can only hold so much in one's head at once and theorizing is like making art or music. It must simply flow intuitively. If one starts from a preordained thesis and then spends hours collating evidence one will not discover truth. One should keep reading from various directions and trust one's gut, the muse in ancient Greece.

I think that the drive of national disorder, left vs. right, plutocrats against the people, are driving the USA to solve their deep psychological narrative at the cost of others, Russophobia, Iran sanctions, yellow peril tariffs to keep China from reemergence to global superpower of precolonial days. The white race, 'The West'as we know it, Christendom of middle ages fighting Islam, Orthodox vs.. catholic in middle ages, all of this is at stake. Euro-American decline to a 3rd world insignificance. USA economy has declined from 27% of global GDP to 18% since China/East bloc entry into economy. After WWII it was 50%. With 10 in foreseeable future and ever smaller proportion of global population one can't dictate global policies unilaterally. Others fund the deficit, the DOD which threatens them.

If Trump makes as big a difference by upsetting the global order like Napoleon(aristocratic Europe) or Hitler(colonial imperialism from Europe) is a good question. US troop presence abroad, USD hegemony are unsustainable. A drawdown would allow USA to focus on national needs, healthcare, education, infrastructure, manufacturing competitively. The plutocracy deceives itself that it can maintain a global power strannglehold. This is suicidal. Trump only seems insane, like a normal person walking into the insane asylum trying to restore order. Things have gone too far too long and noone notices what normal is except rank outsiders like Trump. So a professional historian trained in the system his whole life like yourself, journalists, politicians, financial experts remain blind to fundamental reality like people dancing on the deck of the Titanic as it sunk or Nero fiddling whle Rome burned.

Gloucon X said...

Let’s see if we can think outside the box a bit here and bring some seemingly disparate concepts together. We’ve got an immigration policy designed to divide us. We’ve got an entrenched two-party political system whose economic policies of the last several decades have produced massively increased inequality. Looks to me like “the great common task” American elites is to divide us and facilitate a society of extremes of wealth and poverty. Now, what do we call a country that has extremes of wealth and poverty? We call it a third-world country, or on our side of the Atlantic, a banana republic.

“Trump and the Republicans are dismantling what was left of the Progressive era and the New Deal and paving the way for new and even greater inequality...Immigration restrictions loosened again in 1965 and immigration has again changed the character of the United States--but the great common task that might bring us together is lacking.”

I certainly do see a great common task here by people who would wish to establish a plutocracy: Let’s change the character of the United States into one that accepts greater inequality as a natural and good thing, something that should be as accepted and as unnoticed as a sunrise. It certainly helps our cause if can we import massive numbers of people from places where long-term entrenched poverty is an accepted way of life and where democracy is not respected.