Is Donald Trump fascist?
The knee-jerk reaction by his opponents makes this an easy answer: yes. He has made borderline racist comments about Mexicans, black people, Muslims, and as the recently leaked 2005 Access Hollywood recordings have made all but clear, is an appalling sexist as well (although this was pretty obvious back when he said he would date his own daughter who by his own admission is “a piece of ass”). But his defenders would cringe at the idea that he is an American Hitler. Hitler, after all, killed 6 million Jews (among millions of others) and launched a world war. Yes, Trump is a bully, a sleazeball, and a demagogue and seems to not care much about institutions as evidenced by his wanting to jail Hillary Clinton. But there is a pretty big gap between that and genocide. It’s kick the foreigners out, not murder them (at least yet).
Furthermore, even many people who dislike Trump feel uneasy by the fascist/Nazi/Hitler comparison. Godwin’s Law, for example, famously affirms that “as an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or Nazis approaches 1”. Indeed, the left (and also the right) uses comparisons to fascism, Nazism, and genocide to such an extent that in many cases they have pretty much lost their value. It is an argumentative cop out for the simple reason that nobody in the history of humanity has been as bad as Hitler (except possibly Stalin or Mao but they mostly killed their own people which seemingly carries less of a stigma). Trump is not even in power yet, and he has not started a world war or a genocide.
Although Godwin’s Law has its merit, I feel in this particular case it is a very weak defense of what Trump would be willing to do and how far his supporters would be willing to follow. And there’s one very easy thought experiment to find that out. Just ask yourself the following two questions:
Would Trump have behaved any different to Hitler had he been in Hitler’s position in 1933-45?
Would Trump’s supporters have behaved any different to Hitler’s in 1933-45?
The thought experiment
I am convinced that the answer two those two questions is no. That is a terrifying thought. Let’s remember for a moment that although the Nazis were guilty of violence and intimidation long before they came into power, it was really only after 1933 that their reign of terror began in earnest. At a recent visit to the Nobel museum in Oslo, I read on the history of Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German communist party (KPD) who came third in the November 1932 elections, the last free elections before the Nazis seized power in January 1933. Thälmann contested one more election, the one on March 5th 1933 albeit only on paper: he was arrested by the Gestapo just two days earlier and would remain in solitary confinement for 11 years until shot by a firing squad at Buchenwald in 1944. If Trump and his supporters’ calls of “lock her up” bring chills to your spine, just think what would be Hillary’s fate if she had been Trump’s defeated rival in 1930s Germany.
Recalling Mein Kampf, it must be said that despite all the horrible things written in it, killing Jews was actually not one of them although he certainly hinted at the possibility – albeit with more of an air of wishful thinking rather than an actual policy proposal (remember, he was a political nobody at the time and in jail). The murder of Jews was not systematic until the panzers rolled into Poland in September 1939. The Final Solution itself – the industrialized genocide of Jews in specialized death camps – did not actually begin until after the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 where it was first outlined. Most of the deaths in the camps then took place in 1943-44.
The fundamental difference between Trump and Hitler is that Trump would be in power in a country with (for all its recent gridlock in Congress) far more stable institutions and checks and balances, which he would struggle mightily to overcome. Hitler came to power in January 1933 and the Nazis quickly took over the Weimar Republic’s shambolic democracy, turning it almost immediately into an authoritarian regime (just a few months later the Nazis outlawed all other parties). It is almost impossible to imagine Hitler achieving the same in 2016 USA which is the fallacy in denying the Trump-Hitler comparison; he is being judged before coming to power whereas Hitler is being judged 12 years afterwards, including six in wartime, and not while he was still campaigning. But what if a German-speaking Trump had replaced Hitler in Weimar Germany and gotten to power at the same time as Adolf did? Does anyone have any single reason to believe that this Trump would not have done the same as Hitler? This is the real Trump fascist thought experiment and he passes it with flying colors.
It’s not just Trump, it’s his supporters
If your next reaction is well, maybe Trump is batshit crazy and dangerous but ordinary Americans would not accept him doing what Hitler did, well, it might surprise you that many of the perpetrators of the holocaust were actually pretty ordinary people, far less radical than the Confederate flag waving southerner or alt-right reactionary that goes mental during a Trump rally. Don’t believe me? Then you need to hear the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101.
In the seminal work Ordinary Men, historian Christopher R. Browning researched the history of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, part of the Orderpolitzei tasked with keeping order in the occupied territories during World War II. RPB 101 seemed innocuous enough: it was composed almost entirely by “middle-aged family men of working- and lower-middle-class background” from the city of Hamburg, too old to serve in the army and with only a few that were actually card-carrying members of the Nazi party. In other words, they were ordinary Germans. These were not fanatical SS men or youths who had grown up under Nazism and whose worldview had already been poisoned by anti-Semitic hatred, if anything they were part of the social class least likely to be Nazis. These ordinary Germans in the space of two years would be responsible for the deaths of 38,000 Jews and the deportation of 45,000 to the Treblinka death camp. At no point was any of them forced to commit murder: all members of the 500-strong unit were given the option to opt out of killing civilians and yet only 13 did so: “Trapp then made an extraordinary offer to his battalion: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out. Trapp paused, and after some moments, one man stepped forward. The captain of 3rd company, enraged that one of his men had broken ranks, began to berate the man. The major told the captain to hold his tongue. Then ten or twelve other men stepped forward as well. They turned in their rifles and were told to await a further assignment from the major.”
Browning gives various reasons to why the majority opted in, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been forced to do anything against their will: peer pressure, camaraderie, unwillingness to disappoint their superiors, etc. Despite the fact that the comparative damage is a world apart, the exact same impulses that push a reluctant teenager to pick on the class nerd at the behest of the jocks were used by these initially reluctant Germans to slaughter a human being. It is also telling that the main reason given by the few opt outers was not ethics but physical revulsion toward the act of killing, and that it took less than 24 hours after their first mass killing in the Polish town of Józefów before members of RPB 101 started making jokes about “eating the brains of slaughtered Jews” Browning concludes with a chilling thought: “Within virtually every social collective, the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior and sets the moral norms. If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?”
Now let’s turn to Trump supporters. The New York Times recently released some of the behind the scenes comments made at Trump rallies by his supporters. Here’s some:
Build the wall! Fuck those dirty beaners!
Fuck Islam! Fuck ‘em!
Fuck that nigger! [Obama]
Get out of here you fag!
Bitch! Fuck you Hillary! Tramp! Hang the bitch!
Trump the bitch! Kill her!
If you seriously don’t think these Oakley-wearing, steroid- and opioid-infused rednecks wouldn’t murder black people, Muslims or Hispanics and throw them in a ditch if told that this would make their country great again and that there would be no consequences for doing so, you have a very benign view of humanity. This orgiastic festival of hate which is a Trump rally is quite possibly something never seen on this scale in the West since, well, Hitler. And let’s not forget Hitler promised much of the same as Trump is now: a recovery from economic stagnation, order and authority, vilification of non-natives, and the demagogic belief that only one man can make the nation great again. There was no talk of mass murder or genocide in 1932. No talk of a world war.
The reverse Trump fascist experiment
If you’re still not convinced, I ask you to do one final thought experiment. Rather than imagine if Trump and his supporters time traveled into 1933 and would behave the same, imagine if Hitler and his supporters from the 1930s would take the same time warp into present day USA. I think even they might be a bit too civilized for the madness that is Trumpland. I can’t possibly imagine Herr Adolf spending a presidential debate arguing incessantly about someone’s e-mails or having to defend his acts of sexual deviance. Yes, there’d be rage, thuggery, and even violence. But a part of me thinks that as bad as it could be, it would be at least one shade less vulgar than under the Donald. And if Hitler knew that he wasn’t in a weak, crumbling democracy like the Weimar Republic that he couldn’t instantly turn into a dictatorship, he may have toned down his rhetoric even further to accommodate a reality that Trump is oblivious to.
So in conclusion, is Trump fascist? Sorry Godwin, but the answer is undoubtedly yes.
And is he worse than Hitler? Possible even that as well.