You can hear the bass drum pounding away as you read the headline of Paul Krugman’s latest New York Times editorial: “How Republics End.”Hitler, Franco and Mussolini, the other Big Three, the degenerate offspring of the 1920s and 1930, they are the list to which Krugman proposes to add President-elect Donald Trump. Krugman is just the latest to call Trump the next great fascist. Comparing him to Hitler has become a parlor game on the Left. Sporcle, a popular website of trivia quizzes, even created a new distraction: they provide a quote, you guess who said it, Trump or Hitler. And, indeed, according to Krugman, “it takes willful blindness not to see the parallels between the rise of fascism and our current political nightmare.”
We can characterize “fascism” as ultra-nationalist, populist and authoritarian incited by calls for mass participation in extreme violence. Key to the Hitler mythos is the story of a scary leader who became a tyrannical monster; he did not invade Poland in 1933.
This story of his spiraling trajectory has engendered a vigilance to catch the scary leader before he becomes the tyrannical monster. It is the implicit anxiety that fascism is a slippery slope. Laws to stop immigration today can be the first step in a succession of policies descending into genocide tomorrow. This anxiety fuels the desire, however hastily, to hunt and ferret out latent fascists.
And Trump can be scary. He likes to play the tough guy. His glorifying himself as the anti-politician of “outsider populism” while surrounded by jeering fans recalls fascists before him.
He lies, cheats and steals. He threatens women, Mexicans and Muslims. As one Northwestern University psychologist concluded, Trump exhibits troubling signs of “narcissism, disagreeableness, [and] grandiosity.” But Trump’s “grandiosity” is small fry compared to Hitler’s. In his declaration of war on the U.S. in 1941, Hitler ranted that “Providence…entrusted [him] with the leadership in a historic conflict…determining the next five hundred or one thousand years, not only of…German history, but also of…the entire world’s.”
Trump has not called for ending democracy, not promoted international conquest, not glorified mass violence. He has not set up paramilitary ranks of goose-stepping goons elaborately uniformed in crisp regalia. Trump’s regalia amounts to mis-measured ties and a little red hat. As the German historian Thomas Weber argues, the defining difference between the two leaders is that “for Hitler, every compromise…was a rotten compromise… For Trump, ultimately a compromise is what you do.” So that Trump has no master plan. The Art of the Deal is no Mein Kampf. The Hitler analogy leads to characterizing Trump as a singular phenomenon of enormous power when in fact he is a small man with small hands. His beefs are petty. His thoughts are contradictory and confused. His grand strategy is non-existent.
At the center of the nightmare of a fascist America is the notion of an unprecedented illiberal descent. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of American history, resting on the recalcitrant myth of a democratic immaculate conception in which the United States was born a “perfect union.” Yet American liberty has been an evolutionary process of amendment and error, steps toward a more liberal democracy like the Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, Women’s Suffrage and gay marriage, interrupted by major illiberal steps back like the Alien and Sedition Acts, nullification, Jim Crow, Japanese internment and Abu Ghraib. Trump’s proposal of “banning Muslims” would fit comfortably on this latter list, devastating the lives of countless refugees. But it would not signal Krugman’s end to the Republic.
German fascism rose in the 1920 and 1930s out of specific, historic and economic conditions that Krugman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, has somehow forgotten. Aside from the weak and ineffectual Weimar Republic of the interwar years, Germany lacked a democratic tradition from which to draw stability, norms and custom. It was devastated by its defeat in the Great War. It lost a generation of men. It owed exorbitant war debts and reparations. Economic crises, hyperinflation, rage and suffering threatened to pull Germany apart. It was then that the Great Depression hit. By 1931, the Republic was “virtually bankrupt.” Time and again, the seeds of fascism of the likes of Hitler, of Mussolini, of Putin, have proven to be desperation and humiliation on a massive, national scale with no democratic tradition for succor.
Is the American economy suffering a “breakdown of Weimarian dimensions?” Critically, we are not in the major depression-like conditions out of which, without exception, fascism has historically grown. We have a rich democratic tradition. This year there were healthy marches of protestors in the hundreds. And instead of violent riots, the great upheaval in our democratic order amounted to seven faithless electors (out of 538) changing their votes.
We have a rich history of fearing fascism. No one wishes to be the next Lindbergh or Chamberlain whistling in the wind as the next Hitler heils his way to power. Loudly and regularly, Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were all accused of fascism. But there are dangers in throwing around the moniker. It suggests in one’s opponents an “intolerable barbarity” that when coopted by radical movements, as the historian Theodore Draper argues, provides “an implicit license to use any weapons and any methods to overthrow it.” It is a call to arms, the kind of dangerous hyperbole found in fake news. And, on other the extreme, as William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote, “if everybody is a son of a bitch, then a son of a bitch becomes a pretty routine thing.” With every comparison, “Hitler becomes a little less the definitive evil.”
There are real fascists in the world. But we must call a spade a spade, not a knife. Trump poses a danger due to his shallow and inconsistent thinking. His craving for populist approval, his longing for flattery, leaves Trump vulnerable. He has proven to be easily swayed, It is terribly troubling that one day Trump and Putin call each other “friends” and the next for a nuclear arms race. The relationship and Russia must remain under firm scrutiny. But Putin has blood on his hands. Trump has frosting from this morning’s chocolate éclair.