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How Two Demagogues Inspired Their Followers

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The parallels between the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and that of Donald J. Trump have been widely noted. A new book by James M. Longo, Hitler and the Habsburgs: The Führer’s Vendetta Against the Austrian Royals (Diversion Books, 2018) brings out similarities as well as differences. As in 21stcentury America, economic and political troubles clouded the judgment of many Germans and other peoples in the 1920s and 1930s. Across the Continent, as Longo says, people “searched for a leader, a savior, a dictator to rescue them from their economic and political woes. Hitler believed he was that man.” The aspiring Führer spoke only German but proved himself  “a chameleon able to articulate the unspoken emotional language of his listeners.”

Wealthy industrialists secretly financed Hitler’s rise to power after 1924. For unemployed workers  he promised full employment;   for the  forgotten German, he pledged respect. Hitler won financial support and many followers, but he craved legitimacy and political power to make his vision a reality. In public Hitler met with enthusiastic crowds. Behind closed doors he beguiled wealthy monarchists. One-third of German’s ancient nobility joined his Nazi Party, while many others supported him through their silence.  President Trump also craves symbols of legitimacy and seeks to destroy any sign that he was not duly and freely elected.

The insightful American journalist Dorothy Thompson interviewed Hitler and described him  as an “agitator of genius….the most golden tongued of demagogues.” She advised her readers: “Don’t bother about the fact that what he says, read the next day in cold news print, is usually plain nonsense.” To understand what was happening,  “You must imagine the crowds he addresses: Little people. Weighted with a feeling of inferiority.” Appeals to their racial pride were “the cheapest form of self-exaltation.” If one was debt, if one had not made a success in life, there was still the consolation that one belonged to the master race.

Hitler was explicit that Germans are a superior race ordained to conquer  the earth. Trump does not go so far in glorifying his own race, but he hints at its superiority and the need to expel aliens from United States soil. Trump denies he is a racist, but gives his followers every reason to despise people of color—from the Obama family to the Latinos walking northward to the Muslims seeking safe refuge from war and ideological fanaticism. Trump’s suggestions that Obama was born in Africa expressed his racist syndrome.

Hitler’s personal life and his policies, like those of Donald Trump, should have been anathema to serious religious believers. But Hitler tried to silence his critics and unite his followers by  uniting independent Lutheran churches in a “Protestant Reich Church.” An ardent Nazi, Ludwig Müller became its presiding bishop.  He vetted Lutheran clergy to ensure they were “politically reliable” that is, accepted the superiority of the Aryan race.  This tactic anticipated Trump’s appointment of Matthew G. Whitaker to be Acting Attorney General in November 2018.  A few years earlier, when Whitaker campaigned for the Senate, he courted the anti-abortion, evangelical Christian vote, saying at one candidate’s forum that he would scrutinize nominees for federal judge to ensure they had a “biblical view of justice.” Both Hitler and Trump appointed wolves to guard the hen house.

In August 2017 Whitaker wrote that “Mueller’s investigation of Trump is going too far.” He asserted that the Special Counsel had overstepped the boundaries of his inquiry when he began looking into the Trump family’s finances. This would be a “red line” that Mr. Mueller should not cross, warning that it would render the investigation a “witch hunt”—a favorite reproach of the president.

Like the United States under Trump, Germany in the 1930s had its version of sanctuary cities where the Führer’s dictates did not reach. Hitler’s “Eagle Nest” at Berchtesgaden played a role like Trump’s Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach.  Trump did not lay out his plans in a book like Mein Kampf, but his Art of the Deal, written  largely by Tony Schwartz, revealed his self-centered transactionalism. Hitler bragged that he was the greatest German of all time; Trump, more modestly, claimed only to be one of the greatest U.S. presidents.

Following the November 2018 elections, Paul Krugman blogged that  “Trump isn’t a dictator, much as he might wish he were. He can tell federal officials not to talk–but he can’t tell private citizens, including fired prosecutors, not to testify when called by Congress. His defensive wall has been breached, bigly.” With Democrats controlling the House of Representatives, “Trump can’t really kill the [Special Counsel’s] inquiry–because now people with subpoena power can call Mueller and colleagues for testimony, and get the facts out anyway.”  Now, “Trump is going to find out what the word ‘oversight’ means. He’s had a very cushy two years with a unified government at his beck and call. Now he’s going to find out what politics is really about.”

Unlike Germany in the 1930s, the political institutions of the United States continued in the Trump era to offer bulwarks against a would-be despot. More than half the U.S. citizenry had an unfavorable opinion of Trump. By contrast, as Ian Kershaw put it in Der Spiegel Online (January 30, 2008), “betweenthe death of Hindenburg in August 1934 and the expansion into Austria and the Sudetenland four years later,  Hitler was indeed successful in gaining the backing of the vast majority of the German people, something of immeasurable importance for the disastrous course of German policy ahead.” In the United States the 2016 and 2018 elections showed that less than half of American voters supported Trump and his policies. The president’s golden tongue might not save him from the revelations still to come of his financial and other transgressions.

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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