By Thomas Weber
Throughout the American election campaign, journalist Ron Rosenbaum resisted media requests to draw parallels between Donald Trump and the subject of his 1998 bestseller Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil. Yet everything has changed for Rosenbaum since the day of Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America. In a recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, he urged his readers to look at the striking similarities of Hitler and Trump in power.
In his ‘Against Normalization‘ essay, Rosenbaum boldly claims that Trump’s playbook is Hitler’s Mein Kampf, arguing that both Trump and Hitler excel at the tactic of “giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown” as “a secret technique” to control their opponents.
Rosenbaum’s article is but the most prominent voice among a flurry of warnings that unless unusual action is taken against the new President, American democracy will falter and the U.S. will be ruled by Trump, the Dictator. According to the warnings, people fail to appreciate the unique danger Donald Trump’s presidency poses in the same way that people underestimated Hitler in the year that he came to power, thinking Hitler would turn out to be just another German Chancellor. In recent weeks, the message ‘Don’t normalize Trump or America will experience its very own 1933”’has become the new favorite Hitler analogy in the public sphere. It is, however, an analogy that is deeply flawed and enters the discourse at a potentially considerable political price.
One of the fundamental flaws with the West’s new favorite Hitler analogy is recycled, used at other times by similar political discourse in relation twentieth century’s most prominent dictator. They run roughshod over the intentions of the leaders against whom action is sought. For instance, Hitler analogies that focus on Western appeasement during the Munich Conference of 1938 regularly treat all leaders against whom military action is favored as Hitler reincarnates, when in reality, their intentions and mindsets, however harmful, are often not Hitlerian at all. The peril with analogies of this kind is that they do not provide us with tools with which to discriminate between leaders who are Hitlerian and those who are not.
That many commentators underestimated Hitler in 1933 simply does not mean that analysts must be wrong if they cast doubt in the notion that the election of any given new populist leader will likely lead to German-style democratic breakdown. In reality, emerging populist leaders in democratic states who express disdain for the established rulebook of their countries come in many different forms and shapes, even if they are all dangerous. The ‘Don’t normalize Donald Trump – Hitler 1933’ analogy only works if its proponents can demonstrate that Trump’s goals and character, as well as America’s current political condition, are closer to that of Hitler’s Germany than, for example, Italy’s former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
Indeed both Rosenbaum’s essay and a much talked about New York Times article by Michiko Kakutani attempted to provide evidence for the proposition that Trump should be compared to Hitler, rather than, for example, to Berlusconi. Both refer to attributes which Trump’s critics often associate with the new President to describe Hitler. Whereas Rosenbaum’s central claim is that Hitler “play[ed] the fool, the Chaplinesque clown” in order to trick people into believing that he was buffoon, Kakutani suggests that the leader of Nazi Germany staged himself as a dunderhead. However, in reality, there is zero evidence that Hitler ever sought to present himself for tactical gain as a Charlie Chaplin-like figure.
Similarly, since Rosenbaum puts himself in the tradition of the ‘Lesson of Munich’ analogy based on appeasement in 1938, he tries to tell his story as a new ‘Lesson of Munich’ by using demonstrably incorrect facts. The new ‘Lesson of Munich’ focuses on how the German media and public should have responded to Hitler’s beer hall putsch of 1923. He argues that the putsch may well not have ended in “a firefight on the bridge to the city centre”, if Hitler had not diverted the forerunner of the SS to target the anti-Nazi Munich Post newspaper. Its journalists, Rosenbaum writes, “were the only ones [before 1933] who had figured out just how sinister Hitler and the Nazis were.”
Every single fact of Rosenbaum’s claim is wrong: There was no firefight on a bridge. Nor did Hitler’s decision to target the Munich Post have anything to do with the failure of his coup d’étât. Furthermore, legions of newspapers fought against Hitler in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Comparisons between Hitler and Trump that focus on the goals of the two men are dangerous for another reason too: they increase the likelihood that we take our eyes off the structural similarities between the way the fabric of democracy has been undermined in the United States and in Weimar Germany; or they may result in the electorate paying insufficient attention to the similarities in the style of the demagoguery of Hitler, Trump, and other strongmen of the past and present. Overstated Hitler-Trump comparisons act as a smokescreen, as they conceal from vision the very worrying parallels between the great crisis of liberalism of the post-1873 world – a crisis that would ultimately give birth to both left-wing and right-wing extremism – and the post-2008 world.
In addition, there is the ‘crying wolf’ danger with ‘Don’t normalize Donald Trump – Hitler 1933’ analogies. If Hitler analogies are overplayed, nobody will pay enough attention to warnings about the emergence of new Hitlerian leaders, when they really should and have to be made. A perfect case in point is that of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Here we have a leader who explicitly named Hitler’s Germany as a successful example of how a state can be transformed into a strong presidential system. Here we also have a leader who, in recent months, has been using the Nazi playbook from 1933 to implement his vision of a new Turkey. And yet the world preoccupies itself with often facile Hitler-Trump comparisons rather than paying attention to Turkey’s president.
Finally, ‘Don’t normalize Donald Trump – Hitler 1933’ analogies are a distraction from the very real challenges that Trump himself poses. Things are unlikely to be fine merely because Trump is not Hitler 2.0. Even in a state with much stronger checks and balances than early-1930s Germany, a reckless, thin-skinned narcissist as the commander-in-chief – even if he has the best of attentions – has the potential to do permanent damage to his country and to unsettle the international order. As the Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have been arguing, “the guardrails protecting American democracy are no longer as secure” with Trump undermining the norms of what is acceptable in American political life. This, they argue, could prove fatal if America faced a sudden existential crisis.
Ultimately, ‘Don’t normalise Trump – Hitler 1933’ analogies establish a false binary. To state ‘Trump is not Hitler’ does not normalize Trump, nor is it to underestimate the challenges due during his administration. Quite to the contrary, if we apply historical analogies with care and precision, and forgo facile, over-the-top Hitler-Trump comparisons, we will be able to identify and respond to the threat the new President poses to America and the rest of the world, rather than establish what was wrong with Adolf Hitler.