Maybe Donald Trump isn’t Hitler, but I think he’s got potential


[The above public art piece showed up in Atlanta this past December, shortly after Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”]

For the most part, I try not to suggest that anyone – even those whom I truly despise – are, “like Hitler.” As tempting as it might be to invoke the name of the fascist leader, it’s been my experience that it rarely goes well when such comparisons are made. When someone, for instance, says to a member of their local Historic District Commission, “Thanks a lot Hitler,” in response to being told that he can’t paint his house a certain shade of yellow, it’s rarely followed by the others present saying thoughtfully to one another, “You know, that guy has a really good point.” No, usually when you invoke the name of Hitler, it just ends up making you look like a dumbass who knows very little about history.

So, as a rule, whenever I feel myself tempted to make the analogy, I ask myself this simple question. “Did the person I’m about to compare to Hitler ever actually engage in genocide, or at least attempt it in some substantive way?” And, if the answer is no, I look for a more fitting analogy.

But when Donald Trump started to gain traction with Republican voters by employing authoritarian rhetoric and scapegoating minority groups, it got me wondering… Does someone actually have to engage in genocide to be “like Hitler”?

“Is it ever fitting,” I’ve begun to wonder, “to suggest that someone has the potential to become another Hitler?” And, if the answer is yes, but does is do more harm than good to make that comparison?

Up until now, I’ve fought the urge to compare Trump to Hitler… Sure, people are being roughed up at his rallies, and he’s talking about cracking down on free speech, and he’s spewing what could be deemed hate speech, referring to all undocumented Mexican workers in our country, for instance, as rapists and drug dealers, but, I tell myself, it’s likely just political theater, the work of a brilliant showman who knows, from years of working in the media, what it takes to get elected by the American voters of today, with their short attention spans and pathological need to be entertained. It’s all about ratings, I tell myself, and not about reality… The Trump campaign is to politics, I tell myself, what reality television is to actual reality. It’s a highly edited version of real life, projected onto a funhouse mirror for the purposes of amusement. It’s not something, in other words, to be taken seriously… And eventually, I thought, most people would figure that out.

But then Trump kept winning. And not just winning, but winning big.

The more fantastical his statements, the higher he’d surge in the ratings. He’d say that, if elected, he’d build us “the most beautiful wall (we’d) ever seen” across our southern border, and his poll numbers would jump. Then, a few days later, he’d tell us that it wouldn’t cost us a dime, as he’d force the Mexicans to pay for all 1,989 miles of it, and his poll numbers would jump even higher. Sure, people who know about such things came forward to say it would be impossible for any number of reasons, not the least of which being that Mexican leaders have said that they wouldn’t contribute a single dollar, but apparently that didn’t make a difference. We’d moved beyond facts. The reality of the wall didn’t matter. What mattered was that Trump had found a way to communicate with people about the very complicated issue of immigration in a very simple, concrete way. He painted a mental image of a wall. He created a shorthand way to convey to people where he stood. All he had to say was, “wall,” and people understood that it was the Mexicans who were dragging our country down, and that Trump was just the kind of no-nonsense leader who would stand up to them.

Trump, I think it’s clear, never intended to build an actual wall. He may, as far as I know, even be OK with an open border. That’s not what this was about, I told myself. This was about marketing him as a candidate to a population that is increasingly fearful and looking for easy solutions. “If elected,” I told myself, “there’s even a pretty good likelihood that he’ll govern as a centrist.” What we’re watching, after all, wasn’t reality. Trump wasn’t Hitler so much a P.T. Barnum.

So, that’s where I was on the matter until last night when someone shared the following with me. It’s a clip from a November 20, 1922 article in the New York Times titled “New Popular Idol Rises in Bavaria,” about a charismatic new politician who almost surely didn’t mean what he was saying, but just talking in shorthand in order to advance his political career. And it’s making me realize that perhaps the analogy that we discussed earlier isn’t altogether unwarranted.


Does this prove that Trump is the world’s next Hitler? Absolutely not. I just find it interesting that people – or at least this one journalist back in the 1920s – thought about Hitler then the same way that I do about Trump today, like he’s a not really genuine in his opinions, but merely saying what he knows will break through the noise and resonate with a population that feels as though they’re in decline. And it makes me think that maybe the analogy is deserved.

For what it’s worth, just as I was writing this, I saw the following from author Ted McClelland, whom we’ve spoken with here before. [McClellan, as you may recall, coined the phrase Michissippi.]

I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but comparing him to Hitler is really overblown. I read John Toland’s biography of Hitler, and one of the conclusions I drew was that there could never be an American Hitler. This country is too diverse for the ethno-nationalist appeals that Hitler used to unite Germany. We’re a nation based on ideals, not tribal identity and language. And our tradition of Anglo-Saxon democracy is very different from the authoritarianism that was a feature of German culture. So stop warning that Trump is going to put people in gas chambers. American democracy is, and always will be, more powerful than any one man.

I hope he’s right, and I expect that he is, but one does wonder if, with so much uncertainty in the world, and America’s middle class being squeezed to the point of disappearance, that people might gravitate toward a leader that offers up a simple message like “Make America Great Again,” and the comfort that comes along with knowing that our suffering isn’t our fault so much as it the fault of the Mexicans and the Muslims. One hopes that, whoever runs against Trump wins decisively, and we can put this chapter of American history behind us. Until we do, however, the question of whether or not America could have a Hitler of its own is going to stay with me.

As Louis C.K. just recently said, “Do you think they saw the shit coming? Hitler was just some hilarious and refreshing dude with a weird comb over who would say anything at all.

Whatever happens, let’s be clear as to where all of this started. As Democracy for America founder Jim Dean told us yesterday, this happened because the Republicans made a deal with the Devil several years ago, implementing a so-called “Southern Strategy” that courted southern racists who had fled the Democratic party as it evolved to embrace civil rights. The Republicans played with fire for years, taking the votes of the uneducated and angry, while attempting to keep them at arms length. They knew that it was wrong, but they thought they could control the fanatical wing, which, over the years, became their base. By 1980, when Ronald Reagan, standing just a few miles from where civil rights activists were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi, talked of “states rights”, the fuse had been lit. And now that those chickens are finally coming home to roost, they’re helpless to stop it.

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  1. Anonymous
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that I’d say Hitler and Trump are identical, but as a result of watching this election cycle I have a better appreciation for what happened in Germany.

  2. Elf
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    I cannot find the video right now, but Obama said something interesting a few days ago when asked about Trump. He said that his policy positions were essentially indistinguishable from the those of his fellow Republican candidates.

  3. 734
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    The problem I have with comparing Trump to Hitler is that it makes Cruz appear more palatable, when I think that he would be even worse.

  4. Eel
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Because Hitler only had one ball, it’s likely his cock looked more yuge

  5. Peter Larson
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    This is why we need someone like Sanders, to give power to government so that the people are no longer able to elect leaders like Trump.

    When power is in the hands of the people, dangerous individuals like Trump and Hitler are able to rise.

    That’s a joke.

  6. Lynne
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Sanders has any policies which would take the power away from the people. I might argue that the average person has much more control over government than they do over private corporations so when Sanders gives more power to the government, he is giving more power to the people, assuming of course that whatever service it is he proposes the government do was previously done by either noone or by large corporations. I know that even though the private sector is supposed to give us all so much freedom, I don’t feel it when I am dealing with my health insurance company.

  7. Brian Little
    Posted March 9, 2016 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    As you touched on, I think it matters which Hitler we’re comparing him to. Hitler 1943 is unfair. Hitler early 1930s, is rather apt. After all, if we’re supposed to learn from history so we don’t make the same mistakes, waiting until we have concentration camps will be too late.

  8. Posted March 9, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading a book called The Garden of Beasts. It is not terribly well written or fast paced, but it does give a peek into 1933 Germany. One of the key things was what I am calling in my head the “snitch game”. You literally never knew who was snitching to the government. So I could pass Mark on the street and say, “Jesus Christ but Hitler is an asshole” and the next thing I know BOOM jackboots at my door. People started doing what they called the “German Glance”–you would look around you to see who was around. Was the guy at the last street corner at this corner, too? Was someone eavesdropping? Who was around and listening, ready to tell?

    That is where I think Americans will draw the line. I remember they wanted to have some sort of snitch line back after 9/11 and we were like, “no.” I really don’t see us going there. Then again, I never saw us voting for Trump so clearly I am not good at this.

  9. Posted March 9, 2016 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Way back in the day I remember going to see a few short plays by Bertolt Brecht with my old friend Peter Larson. We were just kids. It would have been over 25 years ago now. I remember that one of the plays was about a husband and wife trying to have a conversation about politics without their children hearing. They were afraid that they might be reported. Chilling stuff.

  10. John Galt
    Posted March 10, 2016 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    There’s no one to blame for the rise of Trump but Obama.

  11. Meta
    Posted March 10, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    The President disagrees, Mr. Galt.

    From Think Progress:

    Barack Obama just crushed the argument that he’s to blame for the rise of Donald Trump.
    “I have been blamed by Republicans for a lot of things, but being blamed for their primaries and who they’re selecting for their party is novel,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Canadian Prime Minter Justin Trudeau Thursday.

    “I don’t think that I was the one to prompt questions about my birth certificate… I don’t remember saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you ask me about that?’” Obama said “Why don’t you, you know, question whether I’m American or whether I’m loyal or whether I have America’s best interests at heart. Those aren’t things that were prompted by any actions of mine. And so what you’re seeing within the Republican party is to some degree all those efforts over a course of time, creating an environment where somebody like a Donald Trump can thrive.”

    Read more:

  12. anonymous
    Posted March 10, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Bobby Jindal disagrees, Mr. Obama.

    From a write-up about his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal titled “President Obama Created Donald Trump”.

    “After seven years of the cool, weak and endlessly nuanced ‘no drama Obama,’ voters are looking for a strong leader who speaks in short, declarative sentences,” the former Republican candidate continued. “Middle-class incomes are stagnant, and radical Islam is on the march across the Middle East. No wonder voters are responding to someone who promises to make America great again. You can draw a straight line between a president who dismisses domestic terrorist attacks as incidents of workplace violence and a candidate who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country.

    “Mr. Obama likes to bemoan the increasing partisan divides across the country, as if he were merely a passive observer at best and a victim at worst,” Mr. Jindal wrote.

    “Uncharacteristically, the president is being too modest. He has created the very rancor he now rails against.

  13. Rat
    Posted March 10, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Watch this video of a black man being wrestled to the ground by police officers at a Trump rally after being sucker punched by a white man, and tell me that the Hitler metaphor isn’t apt.

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