[Originally Published as a Facebook Note in August of 2016]
As Rosa and I toured Berlin’s Stiftung Topographie des Terrors the other day, we viewed the current main exhibition with both amazement and trepidation. This exhibition, “Berlin 1933–1945: Between Propaganda and Terror,” addresses National Socialist policy in Berlin and its consequences for the city and its population.
Mostly it shows how the National Socialists were able to gain a foothold in “red” Berlin and gradually establish the city as the political center of its leadership. It hits home. Mostly because from the exhibition it was very clear that German conservatives did not see Hitler as Hitler — they saw Hitler as Trump. Worse, the reasons these mostly good people devised to overcome their qualms and accept Hitler as the head of the government would sound very familiar to anyone following the 2016 Presidential campaign.
Like Hitler, Trump is a radical, authoritarian figure who lies outside the normal parameters of his country’s conservative constituents. The two men’s unexpected rise to power is worthy of thoughtful consideration. Why would traditional conservatives willingly hand power to a figure so dangerous that he threatened their own political and economic interests? Why, having failed in their halfhearted efforts to nominate an alternative candidate during the primaries, don’t they throw themselves behind a third-party candidacy, or defect outright to Hillary Clinton?
Why do so many of my conservative friends consider Trump the lesser rather than the greater evil?
Here in Germany there are many museums devoted to describing the political machinations which allowed Hitler to gain control of the chancellorship of Germany. As history records, in January 1933, the Nazi party’s vote share had begun to decline. This fringe party was undergoing a serious internal crisis. Falling fundraising efforts and dues, members drifting off, and other leaders questioning Hitler’s direction. A widely shared belief across the political spectrum here in Germany at the time held that Hitler would not and could not win the chancellorship, because Germany’s revered conservative president, Paul von Hindenburg, had long vowed to deny such a position to Hitler.
When you stop and consider things you can clearly see that Hindenburg and the German right viewed Hitler in strikingly similar terms to how Republican elites view Trump. They badly underestimated his fanaticism, which Hitler had downplayed in public. They failed to anticipate that Hitler would launch a total war and industrial-scale genocide. In fact, they did consider him a buffoon.
I recently read a document about Alfred Hugenberg, leader of the German-Nationals, who at that time deemed the Nazis “little better than a rabble, with dangerously radical social and economic notions,” while Hindenburg considered Hitler qualified to head the postal ministry at best. Hitler, in their eyes, was “not a serious man, unfit to govern, a classless buffoon.” His appeal, the German elite believed, came from his outsider status, which allowed him to posture against the political system and make extravagant promises to his followers that would never be tested against reality.
What’s more, Hitler’s explicit contempt for democracy made even the authoritarian German right nervous about entrusting him with power.
Is any of this sounding familiar?
It should. As I said before, the German conservatives did not see Hitler as Hitler — they saw Hitler as Trump.
When you walk the history of the run up to Nazi Germany here on the ground, you come to appreciate that the parties complicit did not really apprehend the extent of their actions and inactions. Until it was too late that is. We cannot allow ourselves to just dismiss these comparisons because we don’t like Clinton or we don’t want to “minimize” the evil that was Hitler through comparisons to Trump.
Hitler’s ascent required complicated intrigue. Conservatives in Germany at that time believed they had parliamentary leverage that would restrain Hitler. Enormous faith was placed in the power of this leverage. Save for the final two days, as we learn. Then, the rumor of an impending military coup rushed the timetable, and the once-crucial terms of Hitler’s chancellorship became forgotten details, discarded in a mad rush.
I wonder how long Trump will stick to Paul Ryan’s economic plan if elected. If you are a Trump supporter, you need to seriously ask yourself how much you are willing to sacrifice just to not have Hillary Clinton in the White House. As a supporter of Libertarian candidates Gary Johnson and Bill Weld I have to ask myself a similar question, how much am I willing to risk to vote my conscience as opposed to casting a Vote against Trump.
Republican leaders may feel like they can endorse Trump now. In seeking to avoid the potential consequences of alienating pro-Trump constituents, can they really be secure in the knowledge that he is likely to lose? It probably does not feel to Trump’s less than enthusiastic endorsers that they are actually helping to make him president.
If Trump’s polls improve, the pressure for Republicans to support him will only grow. There is, realistically, little opportunity for Republicans to stop Trump once they have jumped aboard. Through Election Day, a Trump presidency will be a mere hypothetical. Afterward, if it happens, the sucky reality will descend all at once.
That reality is unnerving to me.
Trump’s admiration for iron fisted dictators, not only in Ba’athist Iraq but Russia, China, and North Korea, is the ideological lodestar of his long history of political musings. Over the years, Trump has internal tacking duels between traditional left and traditional right positions on health care, abortion, taxes, and even the issues currently central to his campaign, like immigration and trade. And while that is worrisome enough in terms of understanding what we will get in terms of his future positions on these issues, there is something even more worrisome. He has never wavered from his foundational belief that strong leaders are those who crush their enemies without restraint.
Whatever norms or bounds that we think limit the damage a president could inflict are likely to be exceeded if that president is Trump. To our Republicans friends and leaders who publicly endorse Trump because he probably won’t win: you may be making a mistake of historic scale. To our Republican friends and leaders who endorse Trump because they want him to be President of The United States I would ask you to reconsider. Historical precedent suggests it is the wise thing to do.
If you can’t vote for Hillary Clinton, vote for Johnson/Weld. Or, vote for yourself. Or stay home. Just don’t be part of any effort that would see Donald Trump as our next president.
[Special Note: to my Jewish friends who might find this comparison of Trump and Hitler disturbing. It has been a source of some consternation in the Jewish community as of late. I understand these concerns, really, I do. I hope you can feel mine. I’ve been on a tour de force on the topic of the rise of Nazi Germany and I assure you the comparison is not frivolous nor without merit. It does not in any way trivialize the evil that was Hitler, rather it brings to light the potential for evil and disaster that exists whenever enough people seek to elect a despot to high office.]