No one compares to Adolf Hitler. He was incomparably evil. Nothing in American politics compares to Nazism. Nothing, not now – and hopefully never!
And yet, I am grateful to Donald Trump because he has made my job of explaining the rise of Nazism and political support for Hitler so much easier.
Permit me to explain:
When I would tell my students that many of Hitler’s supporters did not regard themselves as antisemites or racists, they would look at me quizzically. “How could they not?” they ask. After all, Hitler made secret of his anti-Semitism. He spoke of it openly, directly and repeatedly. He did not use dog whistles but said what he meant and meant what he said.
When I would mention that many did not believe that he would carry out what he had been saying, they were skeptical. After all, he had repeated his threats against the Jews time and again, how could they believe that once in office he would not follow through?
When we would learn that some of his voters were put off by his antisemitism but liked other parts of his platform such as his strong nationalism, his return to national pride, his attacks on the ineffective Weimar Republic and their leaders, his anger at German humiliation with the defeat of World War I and the foreign imposition of the Versailles Treaty. They craved his projection of strength and decisiveness after what many had viewed as ineffective leadership from the German political class, My students would protest. But he was antisemitic and racist. And you are telling me that his supporters did not regard that as disqualifying? They roll their eyes when I tell them that had he not been an antisemite he might have gotten even more support.
When I would mention that Hitler came to power with a minority of seats in a coalition Cabinet and his political partners assured one another and the President that once in office he would be forced to moderate and move toward the center. They would whisper: “he knows nothing and we are men of experience, seasoned, reasoned, disciplined and informed, we can control the man and force him to bend to our will. They would look skeptically at me. Given what they know happened shortly after Hitler took office, they wondered: how could they be so sure, how could they be misguided?
When I would describe the reasoning of Germany’s Conservative political leadership: better to bring this angry man and his angry hordes inside the tent looking outward that outside the tent continually raging, they would throw up their hands in frustration: how could they be so naïve as to imagine that the rage would not continue and once in power become institutionalized, bureaucratized, legalized? Couldn’t they understand that power would only embolden them and that such power would only entice them to use it effectively and cruelly?
And finally, when I would say that no one in his inner circle could stand up to Hitler, could tell him to stop and cut it out, change direction or that Germany did not have, at least not after the Emergency Decrees of March 1933 have the checks and balances and the separation of powers that restrained the exercise of power. I would show them two pictures, one of Hitler receiving a briefing from his Generals in 1939 — when the wars were proceeding well for Germany he listened attentively to what they were telling him — and another in 1942 when Hitler was making decision after decision that would bring them to defeat, the Generals listened obediently to what he was instructing them. My students would ask timidly, did the man have no friends, could no one tell him the truth?
Again Hitler was Hitler and Trump is Trump. No equivalence is possible. Trump does not have a coherent vision positive or negative to implement. He only has himself and his sense of self-aggrandizement.
And yet now my students now will have much easier time understanding that while everyone hears Trumps tirades against Muslims and Hispanics, Mexicans in particular, his promises of exclusion and deportation, for many that simply is not disqualifying.
They do not regard themselves as racists and could not imagine themselves to be and are uncomfortable if not distraught by his racism but other aspects of his program appeals to them: America First, the “lousy” trade deals, the reversal of globalization, the restoration of American greatness, the hatred of the political class – Washington that evil, awful place – and the promise of American jobs.
My students will now be able to see first-hand how the wise men of Germany could be so mistaken. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan condemned the Republican nominee’s statements about an Indiana born Federal Judge as racist and speaks with rightful respect about Gold Star mothers and fathers who children died in the service of our nation. He is not in favor of excluding Muslims or deporting Mexicans and yet supports his party’s nominee because Trump will advance Conservative causes and appoint a Conservative Supreme Court. I do not know what he is feeling in his heart of hearts but if I judge by his actions, I presume that he believes he and not Trump can set the agenda, the Republican controlled House of Representatives and the Senate can moderate Trump and negate the racist and un-American aspects of his agenda.
I have no such confidence. I suspect that the Presidential nominee of the Republican Party believes that he will bend the Ryans and McConnells to his will just as he broke 15 other candidates for President and made the toughest of them Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey appear like a lap dog, taking scraps off the master’s table.
While I have no confidence in Republican leadership who are deluding themselves and the nation with the notion that they will triumph in a contest of ideas; and while I am appalled by the so-called “religious leaders” who want to make the nation more Christian – Jesus preached a gospel of compassion and human dignity, gratitude and grace, he reached out to the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the dispossessed — while they support a man who is the embodiment of values antithetical to religiosity. ,
I do have confidence in the American people who, no matter how angry, will reject the politics of exclusion and bigotry and vote for inclusion and decency. I pray that I am not deceiving myself,
Let me conclude with a story: many years ago Steven Spielberg and I met with a man who spent the meeting telling Spielberg how important he was. When the meeting concluded and we stepped outside Spielberg turned to me and said:
“What was that about?”
“He wanted to tell you how important he was,” I answered.
He said: “I know he was important, otherwise I could not have met with him.”
I said: “he has a big ego.”
Steven corrected me immediately. “No, he has a small ego in need of enlargement. I have a big ego and need not enlarge it at another’s expense.”
I keep remembering that story whenever I hear Trump speak of size of hands, of private parts, of height and or fortune. Only a man with a small ego in need of enlargement would become obsessed by size.
Beware of such man and most especially so such man preaching such a philosophy.