Trump and Hitler: A Historical View

The president’s totalitarianism has been constrained by U.S. institutions


By George Howland Jr.

There’s been some loose talk lately comparing President Donald J. Trump to Adolf Hitler.

First, Christine Todd Whitman, who previously served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Republican governor of New Jersey, tweeted that Hitler “has nothing” on Trump. “Hitler took a long time to get where he was and he had to do a lot of other things. Trump is going much faster,” Whitman told New York NBC affiliate Channel 4, on Oct. 16.

Yesterday, Oct. 20, on MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation,” Beto O’Rourke, a former Democratic U.S. Representative and a presidential candidate, talked about Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. O’Rourke said, “Outside of Nazi Germany, it is hard for me to find another modern democracy that had the audacity to say something like this and then this idea from Goebbels and Hitler that the bigger the lie and the more often you repeat it, the more likely people are to believe it. That is Donald Trump to a T.”

If we are going to be able to defeat Trump, we need to be clear about what is going on in our country. Much to my surprise, Trump’s efforts to subvert democracy and civil society have been defeated on many fronts. By contrast, Hitler quickly dismantled Germany’s constitution and destroyed the nation’s democratic institutions.

Trump’s vile anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric is far from being unique among modern democracies. In fact, such hate speech is being currently employed by far-right leaders throughout Europe, many of whom predate Trump.

Hitler, Trump, civil society and democracy

While there is no telling what Trump might have done if left unchecked, our constitutional balance of powers and our nation’s robust civil society have successfully restrained him. Compare Trump’s scorecard to Hitler’s.

On Jan. 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. On February 27, Germany’s parliament building was burned down (historians are still arguing over who committed this crime). The next day, despite being a minority in parliament, the Nazis were able to pass the Reichstag (parliament) Fire Decree that allowed Hitler to rule by his own emergency regulations. On March 23, parliament suspended the German constitution, allowing Hitler an even freer hand. From that point forward, German democracy was completely dead, Hitler ruled the country by dictatorship.

In Trump’s first two years in office, with Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, couldn’t even repeal Obamacare, much less suspend the constitution. In the 2018 election, Democrats won back the House. Trump and the Republicans did not even attempt to stop the transfer of power.

The Democratic House has been a check on Trump’s power. It has successfully thwarted Trump’s legislative agenda.

The House is also conducting an impeachment investigation. Trump has fulminated against the investigation and stonewalled by denying the House witnesses and documents, but he has been unable to stop it. Trump’s stonewalling, which may be obstruction of justice, is now being tested in the courts.

Currently, Trump’s judicial appointments have the greatest potential for doing long-term harm to the nation. He has already appointed two Supreme Court justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat is imperiled by her health. At the same time, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been appointing federal judges faster than a turtle eats a fly.

If the Supreme Court upholds Trump’s stonewalling of the House’s impeachment inquiry, our democracy is deeply imperiled. It is, however, no sure thing that Trump’s claim of executive privilege will be found constitutional. While it seems likely (and terrifying) that the Supreme Court will whittle away abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights, the separation of powers may survive.

Hitler had a different approach to the courts. On March 21, 1933, he established new emergency Special Courts across the country. First, the courts targeted political opposition to the German government—activities as mundane as “malicious gossip” and “verbal attacks” were deemed criminal activities. By 1934, the Special Courts had expanded their jurisdiction to include criticism—private or public—against the Nazi Party itself.

The media and Trump’s European allies

By October 1933, Hitler had, in all but name, eliminated Germany’s free press. Political newspapers run by opposing parties, including the Social Democrats and Communists, had their offices and printing presses destroyed. The Nazi’s Propaganda Ministry dictated daily the allowed content of the remaining newspapers. If the Ministry encountered any resistance, newspaper employees could be arrested or sent to concentration camps.

During the Trump presidency, the American mainstream media has admirably fulfilled its role as a watchdog on government. The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC and many other news outlets have aggressively sought out the truth. A few examples: media has exposed Trump’s corrupt self-dealing, his inhumane actions against immigrants and refugees, and his constant lying.

While O’Rourke is unaware of such blatant falsehoods committed by leaders of other modern democracies, let me help him out.

The latest rise of authoritarian populism began in Europe and has been taking place for decades. In “Cultural Backlash,” by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglerhart, the authors identify 50 authoritarian populist political parties that are currently active in Europe. These parties’ leaders rule, or have ruled, Hungary (Viktor Orban), Italy (Silvio Berlusconi), Poland (Andrzej Duda) and the Czech Republic (Andrej Babis). Eight other parties have entered ruling government coalitions including in Austria (Freedom Party led by Jorg Haider), Norway (Norwegian Progress Party) and Switzerland (Swiss People’s Party). (Good news today, it appears Swiss voters have swept the People’s Party out of office.)

These parties spew of a stream of hateful, racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric. These lies, repeatedly constantly, make up the very basis of their political identity. These politicians whip up hate not only against Muslims, but also Romani, Africans and Jews.

Trump has got plenty of company on the world stage.

After nearly three years, Trump has committed many horrendous attacks on democracy and our most vulnerable residents. He has not yet, however, destroyed democracy or the rule of law.

In less than a year, Hitler became an absolute dictator and began his slaughter of millions.


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