Some time ago PBS broadcast a series on the rise of Hitler. I recorded several of the episodes and watched the 1933-1934 episode again last night when Hitler had his best friend, Ernst Rohm, leader of the Storm Troopers, executed as part of his final consolidation of power when scores of his followers whom he perceived as threats to his power were killed in what came to be known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” What struck me most about the series—and especially the portrait presented in the Night of the Long Knives episode—was how similar Hitler was compared to Trump in terms of personality. He was egotistical, narcissist, obsessed with power and without a conscience. Murdering to achieve a goal was not an issue. The day following the Night of the Long Knives, he hosted an elaborate cocktail party for his top lieutenants, all sycophants. The PBS episode noted that hardly a word was spoken at the joyous gala about the executions that had occurred the preceding day.
You may argue that the comparison is not fair because Trump as far as we know never actually murdered anyone. Yes, but still….
Another similarity that came out of the episode was how divided Germany was before Hitler came into power—Communists, Socialists, intellectuals, business people, professionals, the elite establishment, the army, and the alienated working class–all vying for power and at each other’s throats. Germany was in chaos in the 1920s and early 30s . Inflation was in the triple digits. Many were jobless. Few felt safe or secure. Hitler’s appeal was that he promised stability for the country, and he promised retribution. He would save the country from its dominance by the elites and the rich, from instability, from sky rocketing inflation, from fuzzy-headed intellectuals, and from the Communist revolutionaries. He would make Germany “great again.” He promised that those who had suffered most would get even—a populist message that resonated among the workers and many in the lower and middle class who had been hurt most by the Great Recession and Germany’s post war humiliation.
The result was that Hitler drew support from people who were mesmerized by his charismatic leadership and by his message and who became his loyal devotees, enthusiastic to do his bidding. Some have observed that his most ardent followers were like a cult. They became Hitler’s “base” and supported him at all costs. The base intimidated many in government and politics and people suspected of not being loyal to Hitler. While his base probably never totaled more than 40% of the population, it was strong enough to cause ordinary citizens and people of good will to to remain silent on the sidelines.
You may argue that no, the divisions in Germany were far more pronounced than they are in our divided country, and in the U.S. the opposition to Trump remains strong, thanks in part to a free press and the rule of law. Yes, this is true, but still…
And finally, there was Hitler’s unifying message: make Germany great again and get rid of all those who were not of the pure race, the Aryans. “Making Germany pure again” was the third leg of the stool and was Hitler’s most compelling, unifying message. In a zero sum game, there are winners and losers; and for Germany to become truly great again, the winners had to rid the country of the losers—gypsies, homosexuals, handicapped people and, most of all, Jews.
You may argue that nothing like this could ever happen in the U.S. You are right that what happened in Germany was far worse than anything that has happened under Trump, but still….
The anti-immigration message of Trump is a major reason for Trump’s popularity and appeal. And ripping children away from their parents as they sought legal asylum in the U.S. has intimations of what was happening in Germany in the 1930s.
Yes, it could happen here.
But it didn’t, and that is the big story as 2020 mercifully begins to fade into history. We dodged the bullet. Who knows what would have happened if Trump’s effort to overturn the election results had been successful?
Think of the many what ifs. What if the elected officials in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia had caved, including the many Republicans who stood firm in certifying a fair election? What if the judges, including many appointed by a Republican president, had allowed the bogus lawsuits to proceed? What if the three Trump appointees on the Supreme Court had voted in Trump’s favor and persuaded others appointed by Republican Presidents to do so as well –as Trump had assumed they would–and thrown out the election results in these battleground states that Trump lost? If any of these actions had occurred, it would be a different story. We would be facing disaster.
But the dam held. Our institutions and checks and balances did what they were supposed to do. The guard rails worked. Courageous people stood up for what is right. The rule of law won.
But the fight is not over. Over 100 Republican elected representatives—”ReTrumplicans”?– in the House and Senate weighed in in support of Trump to nullify the votes needed so that Trump could win in the battleground states . States attorneys general from red states all over the country also supported the effort to allow state legislatures controlled by Republicans to appoint electors who would vote for Trump even though the popular vote was for Biden. Republicans supporting Trump are pointing to two more dates when they will have a chance to reverse the election outcome—Monday, December 14, when the electoral votes for president are cast and Wednesday, January 6, when they are officially certified. And Trump still is tweeting that not only did he win by the largest margin in U.S. history and had the election stolen, he—not Biden—will be sworn in at high noon on January 20. Over 70% of Republicans echo Trump’s mantra that the election was stolen. Trump’s hard-core base is incensed. Some are armed and ready. Just last night thousands of Trump supporters led by the Proud Boys marched in downtown Washington, resulting in dozens of arrests, fist fights with onlookers, and at least four stabbings.
We won this battle. The war is far from over.