While commentators have increasingly likened Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler as a convenient condemnation—others assure us that we (Americans) are better than that. So far there are, in fact, some instructive points of comparison, most significantly in the relationship between these men and their followers, as well as in the compromises that established political leaders are willing to make with these two men, under the assumption that they will be able to control them once they reach office.
Like those who helped Hitler to power, politicians and operatives have decided that they can harness Trump to their own purposes. Polls consistently show that two-thirds or more of Americans have a negative impression of Trump. But he still could become our next president as Republican politicians and operatives help maneuver him into power.
In September 1930, as the Nazis surged in the polls to become Germany’s second-largest party, German President Paul von Hindenburg was confronted with how to handle Hitler, founder and leader of the Nazis. Gen. Hindenburg initially scorned Hitler as a “Bohemian Corporal,” in reference to his Austrian origins and lowly rank in World War I.
But Hitler benefited from Weimar’s polarized political atmosphere, fed by the national loss of prestige and power in World War I, now greatly exacerbated by the Great Depression, and illustrated acutely by the continuing popularity of the German Communist Party. With the election of July 1932, the Nazis formed Germany’s most popular party, and conservatives convinced Hindenburg to appoint Hitler chancellor, amusing themselves with the belief that they would soon push him into a corner so hard he would squeak.
The United States is not now facing a “Weimar moment,” because the sense of crisis is not nearly as palpable and widespread as it was in Weimar Germany. Trump also does not seem driven like Hitler to slip history itself into a straightjacket cut to his own ideology, and his criminal cunning is less acute. Still, if helped into power by a combination of mass popularity and political operatives hoping to help themselves, Trump could do massive harm to democracy, considering his racist demagoguery, unbridled self-confidence, and authoritarian hostility toward a free press, to name just a few factors. His newly pronounced conditions for defending NATO allies could signal a willingness to make a deal with Putin about political spheres of influence.
Like Hitler, Trump likes to promote the image of a great leader that no one has to question. Many, eager to believe in an easy solution, appear eager to embrace it. Both encouraged a direct popular dependency on a man rather than a system or constitution. Both have encouraged unity at the expense of outsiders. Both have issued a license for the crowds to unite in feeling like they can set their emotions free from social constraints. “I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump’s book says. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do … People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” At his stadium-size rallies, supporters unite in signaling to Trump’s bullyboys that someone in the crowd doesn’t belong. “Trust me, they are not good people,” Trump says as the outsider is carted off. His supporters also respond to Trump’s invectives against the press by unleashing their own pent up fury.
In the ’30s, such a symbiotic relationship between a growing number of Germans and their leader proved to be the bedrock foundation of Hitler’s power, a relationship of the masses to their great leader that served as the foundation of Germany’s crimes. Coming to power by promising to make Germany great again, Hitler convinced more and more Germans to yield to him as a spectacular Leader. Then he drew them further and further into collaboration with the crimes resulting from his racism, a process that continued to develop a sense of insider-belonging and a new sense of power for his followers.
The countless predictions that this or that impolitic comment would lead to Trump’s demise, followed by overconfidence that Trump will certainly lose the coming election, overlook the eagerness of voters to maintain the image of a leader they wish for. There are strong forces in this country against Trump such as Hitler did not face. Yet history shows that the more people come together in the belief that they have found an urgently needed super-politician to bail them out, the harder it becomes to stop others from joining the bandwagon.
As Weimar warns, constitutional protections can crumble in the face of majorities amassed by a demagogue. Sure Trump is a racist, but the fundamental threat in his use of racism to incite the crowds, illustrated in his case attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel, is the possibility of gathering popular support sufficient to abrade the constitution and its balance of powers. Hitler had also aimed to remake law according to the will of his “racial” German people, once they followed him unquestioningly.
The more Trump wins, the more people once reluctant to support him will want to attach themselves to him—like the established Trump enablers who hope to use him. It is, however, unlikely that they will be able to exercise any more control over him, should Trump continue to whip up his crowds with the help of the presidential bully pulpit.
Nathan Stoltzfus is the Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University and the author of Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany.