Trump is Not Hitler: How the Misuse of History Distorts the Present as Well as the Past

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0


In the period beginning with Donald J. Trump’s announcement in spring 2015 that he would run for president and ending with his surprise win last November, Trump roused a great deal of distaste and hostility by his racist and a bigoted statements particularly against Mexicans , women, and the disabled. He also refused to reject an endorsement by the KKK, claiming he did not really know what they were about. Of course, while Trump’s ivory tower is rather tall, we can be sure he knows about the KKK. In any event, the distaste and hostility were fully justified, even if he did not, you know, mean it. After all, as others have noted, Trump is either a racist and bigot or merely a very cynical manipulator who believes it perfectly okay to use racism and bigotry to leverage a few extra votes. Alternatively, and more likely, he is somewhere in between.

Whatever the case may be, he is not Hitler, an equation already common enough among progressives and others on the left or among anti-authoritarians of all stripes to encourage countless rejoinders, such as this one. We all have our virtue-pants on; we would like to think we are ready this time around, having missed fascism’s first rise. Therefore, no one wants to be caught off guard and miss the New Hitler. However, again, Trump is not Hitler; and saying he is may only guarantee we miss what is actually happening in the United States.

Anyway, why is Trump not Hitler? Before turning to that, however, it is important to point out that if an outright version of fascism develops in the United States, it might happen in the obvious ways we expect—a Hitler-like personality heading a fascist party festooned in the predictable fascist regalia and ideology. Yet, we should not be surprised if it does not happen like that at all, ever. Instead, an entirely new form of authoritarianism may develop. If it does, it will necessarily grow out of features and circumstances unique to the United States. To the frayed Romantics, tired liberals, and Right Marxists who puttered around Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, we would do well to remember fascism was a rather new and somewhat unexpected phenomenon. Certainly, some saw the dangers, but others did not. The New York Times pooh-poohed the idea Hitler could possibly be serious. Why? The fascists seemed fresh. Where did this thing come from? Arguably, there was a hint of the fascism-to-come in the French Second Empire. Still, would Germans who noticed these matters have been wise to say Hitler was the new Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte? Probably not. Such comparisons are probably never instructive. And comparisons cut both ways, too. The negative, and faulty, mobilization of Hitler to explain Trump itself mirrors the Nazis’ positive, but faulty, association of themselves and their ideas with the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche—that is, both instances drum up history fraudulently and therefore not towards understanding, but to political ends.

Trump is not Hitler. Trump is not Hitler because he is not the undisputed head of an explicitly fascist party, with an explicitly fascist ideology. The Republican Party, for all its significant faults from the point of view of the left and others, is not fascist. Incidentally, the GOP is plainly not all that enamored of Donald Trump, either. Some heavy hitters in the party, like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, are fully on board the “Russia Hacked Us” story, despite the flaky evidence. McCain has also energetically rejected Trump’s proposal to improve relations with Russia. Another reason Trump is not Hitler is—we can safely predict right now—there will not be an Enabling Act, the 1933 law passed in Germany by Nazi coercion to give the Party leader the right to legislate without democratic interference or objection. Despite these things, and for some apparent good reason, others have necessarily made comparisons to Hitler or fascism, some implicitly, others less so.

The editor of The Federalist, a politically and culturally conservative outlet that does not subscribe to fascist or alt-right views, worried in late 2015 whether Trump would lead a “a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right.” The alt-right certainly hoped and believed he would. They arguably had real basis for supposing he might, given his plainly bigoted statements during the campaign. However, Trump threw the alt-right under the bus the first post-election chance he got. The occasion followed a real display of fascist sentiment by the would-be leader of the alt-right, Richard Spencer. You may recall Spencer led conference attendees in a stiff-armed salute accompanied with shouts of “Hail, Trump!” Spencer, however, later expressed his disappointment when Trump promptly “disavow[ed] the [alt-right] movement.” Of course, Hitler never disavowed the fascist movement after his party’s electoral and parliamentary manipulations put him in power; quite the contrary.

Inversely to The Federalist, historian Fedja Buric rejects the Hitler-as-Trump comparison. Why? Because we should “beware of historical analogies and generally eschew them…particularly when it comes to an ideology that during World War II caused the deaths of 60 million human beings.” Further, he writes, the “oversaturation of our discourse with Hitler comparisons is not only exasperating for any historian, but is offensive to the memory of Hitler’s many victims…” All good points. So what does Buric suggest instead? He opts for comparing Trump to Mussolini, as if introducing a novel exasperating comparison is any more helpful. In any event, Buric lists a few, rather generic similarities between Trump and Mussolini, similarities that could apply to many American leaders as easily as foreign authoritarians. Why not compare Trump to H. Ross Perot or countless other American politicians and candidates who expressed contempt for democratic process in favor of executive action? Because however informative that might be, it would not be scary enough, that is why. Of course, Buric is careful with the comparison and lists all the ways in which Trump is not like Mussolini–which calls into question why he thought the comparison was useful in the first place. In fact, it calls into question why any comparison is useful. Maybe what we need to do is figure out Trump and the political moment rather than look for any comparisons. That might actually lead to discovery and insight. Because while looking for patterns is literally natural for human beings, it does not mean it always proves helpful to settle on an apparent one.

It is also worth noting that comparisons of Trump with Hitler are not as popular in Germany as they are in the U.S. The Washington Post quotes German historian Thomas Weber on this matter. Weber, echoing Buric to a point, says there are two reasons Germans do not lightly compare anyone to Hitler. One, because such comparisons diminish the crimes of the Nazis, and two, they signal “the end of serious factual conversation, and the beginning of an ideological mud-bath.” But if Trump is not Hitler, what is he?

Trump is an American, to put it simply. Of course, we need a little more than that. Certainly, a New Yorker is one good place to start if you want to know what Trump is. On Quora, Jim Ryan answered the question, “Why do residents of New York Hate Donald Trump so much?” “Simple: because we know him,” he wrote. “We’ve watched his low-class act for too long. We scanned his soul with our hard-won schmuck radar and he’s failed—repeatedly…Trump is the human equivalent of those counterfeit Rolex watches they try and sell you on Canal Street: glitzy on the outside, cheap and defective on the inside.” He is those things, and there is no telling really, what he has in store for Americans aside from a nationwide version of what he was for New York. He is a schmuck and a con, but he is not Hitler. Phil Sandifer does not compare him to Hitler, either. Rather, he compares him simply to a generic “rich idiot” that is all too common in the “Atlantic northeast.” These types ooze conceit and vacuity. “Their favorite movie is The Godfather, but they don’t have the patience for Part II.” In contrast, Hitler believed.

Historian Nikos Evangelos also rejects the idea Trump is Hitler and told me that while men of similar personality to Hitler may seek and gain power, “how it plays out depends on context and historical conjuncture. Germany produced Hitler,” he said, “not vice-versa.” That is, even if Trump’s personality compared with Hitler’s, the context and historical conjunction do not compare. As for who produced whom, America produced Trump, and what we need to look at is the producer, not the product. Trump represents the culmination of the neoliberal ideology, embraced by both Obama and Clinton and nearly every other mainstream politician or thinker. As Evangelos puts it: “Trump was born rich. He is a symptom of the U.S. ruling class, and was celebrated as a wonderful symbol of American success right up until it looked like he could win.” He is the poster-boy of neoliberalism, of individualism, not fascist collectivism. He personifies the very American attitude, particularly prevalent in the last number of decades, “that your value on the market is your virtue as a person. You’re a winner or a loser, and either way it’s your choice.”

One last reason Trump is not Hitler, nor Mussolini: he is not nearly as articulate and well read as they. In that sense alone, judgment is in their favor. Trump is like most of us, even on our best days: barely literate, by choice if not capacity.

Perhaps the biggest reason we should not compare Trump to Hitler is not that his spokesmodel Kelley Anne Conway might threaten us with legal retaliation, but because it encourages us to be inattentive to the actual historical moment. The contingencies of history, as it unfolds in front of us, do not wait on those trying to fit the square pegs of the past into the round holes of the present. We should learn from distant history. However, we should probably learn first from the immediate past and present. And what is the present?

Arguably, US leaders that are decidedly not considered new Hitlers have and are carrying out or implementing actual, substantively fascist-like actions and policies. For instance, the Obama Administration has repeatedly reaffirmed a law allowing for the “indefinite detention [of Americans] without charge or trial.” How might Trump use that? Additionally, the Obama Administration, when Clinton was Secretary of State, leveraged fake news about imminent massacres by the Libyan government to destroy the country, overthrow its leader, and leave it at the mercy of rightwing terrorists. Nazis were hanged for doing similar things. In general, in fact, Obama helped to expand the power of the executive in war making through actions related to Libya and Syria at the expense Congress’s prerogative and responsibility. Obama has now bequeathed this arguably Hitlerian power to Trump, too. How does one fit Trump and Obama and Clinton into a Hitler comparison? Or, is it dumb to try?

Speaking of Clinton, we might do well to examine some of what is happening regarding the “Russia Hacked Us” story and the thinking, or lack of thinking, which underpins it. It is telling that the Trump-Hitler comparisons more or less coexist in time with the CIA’s Russia Hacked Us story. This is important because the latter inflates the plausibility of the former. However, the latter is flaky at best and certainly compares unfavorably with the Iraqi WMD deceit of 2002-3. How does the Trump-as-Hitler narrative itself encourage the development of an actual authoritarian moment in the United States? Well, propagandizing about another nation to manipulate the public in circumstances that could lead to a serious increase of tensions, if not war, is thoroughly authoritarian. Trump-as-Hitler serves a Hitler-like deceit. Recently, even before the inauguration, and in the midst of the Russia Hacked Us frenzy, we have witnessed the spectacle of Congressman John Lewis saying the Trump presidency is illegitimate and Rosie O’Donnell telling us she would accept the imposition of martial law to prevent Trump being sworn in. Those are startlingly authoritarian attitudes implying or pushing startlingly authoritarian measures. What Americans who make such comparisons may not realize is that the relevant manipulators (CIA, elite media, etc.) are more likely to cite a dictator from the past (Hitler) as a useful trope rather than to invent a generic bogeyman from scratch. Not only that, such manipulators will cite the dictator from the past as they carry out manipulations (the Russia Hacked US story) purported to be in reply to the subject of the trope (in this case, Trump) in ways alleged to be opposed to rather than in harmony with the methods of the dictator cited. It is not the first time this has been done. I mentioned the Iraqi WMD story from thirteen years ago. Moreover, we are the purest naïfs every time they do it. Surely, this time they are not lying, right?

There are other, more philosophical, reasons to object to the comparison. For instance, despite notions to the contrary, history does not repeat itself; though, it does rhyme (a phrase falsely attributed to Mark Twain). Yet, if we are not attuned to the poetry, we will not understand what we can learn from the past and why it both relates and does not relate to the present. While we are looking for obvious parallels, such as Trump = Hitler (not true), we miss less obvious rhymes: Clinton is neoliberal and neocon and Obama facilitated permanent detention and endless drone wars and those are the kind of authoritarian and destructive things we need to pay attention to. In addition, to repeat what I said above, the new version of authoritarianism arising in your midst will use old tropes (like Hitler) to smooth its own way to power, to continue and enhance its power, or merely for everyday maintenance sort of deceits.

Still, the comparison seems alluring because it seems to do what historians have implored us to do, learn from the past. Arguably, comparing Trump to Hitler may look like a case of heeding the wisdom of George Santayana, who said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Comparing Trump to Hitler is, we are to believe, a case of remembering the past so as not to repeat it. However, it is worth considering the full measure of Santayana’s words: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Comparing Trump to Hitler fails to retain understanding of the past even as it references it. The comparison compounds this failure with a failure to understand the present. I would reject Santayana’s disparaging reference to “savages,” but I would think it undoubtedly fair to say Trump-Hitler comparisons may, to the surprise of some, suggest our “infancy is perpetual.”

If we want to pay attention to history, rather than merely virtue-signal that we are, why not give some attention first to the history of the United States, particularly the history, say, of the last fifty years when neoliberalism went from swear word to  virtual watchword (if not explicitly)? This period tells us more about Trump and his rise than do grainy images of goose-stepping Nazis. As my historian friend, Evangelos points out, assuming for the moment Trump’s personality matches Hitler’s, “It’s more important that the U.S. in 2016 is not at all like Germany in 1932, than whether or not a particular personality type has come to power.” That is what it looks like to understand the past and the present.

Ron Leighton is studying history at California State University, Fullerton.