You’d have to be deaf not to hear whispers afield comparing Donald Trump with Italy’s Benito Mussolini or even Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
But can and should those whispers be spoken aloud, much less be put into print?
Americans are properly conditioned to reject such talk straightaway, with faux or genuine outrage, whenever it arises. One should never equate a political opponent with the 20th Century fascists, particularly Hitler. The enormity of their crimes has no equal, and to do so risks demeaning the memory of their victims.
But while we should not, and truly cannot, equate a current figure with the murderous Axis leaders, it would be intellectually dishonest and irresponsible not to compare their early rise with the rise of America’s emerging populist demagogue.
Students of Weimar Republic Germany (1919-1933) will describe a badly demoralized and destabilized nation between the end of World War I and the election of Hitler as German chancellor. Splintered forces of the internationalist left and nationalist right fought for the German soul — and ultimately for power. In the earliest years of the Republic, conditions in Germany were deplorable, of a type never experienced in the U.S. — not during the depths of the Great Depression and certainly not now.
In 1919, the German deutschmark traded at 4.3 to the dollar. By early 1923, the exchange rate reached 7,000 deutschmark to the dollar. By Thanksgiving of that year, three weeks after Hitler first tried to seize power in his infamous Beer Hall Putsch, it took 4.2 trillion deutschmark to equal one dollar. Workers fought for and won the right to be paid twice a day (before inflation could render their wages useless) and to have breaks in which to spend the money. Wheelbarrows were employed to carry deutschmark from places of employment to bakeries for a single loaf of bread.
Germany stabilized somewhat in the Roaring ‘20s, but following the U.S. stock market crash in October 1929, it plummeted back into recession, despair, and, increasingly, anger.
Despite all that, Hitler’s National Socialist Party failed to garner much more than ridicule and scorn in its early years. Its elaborate and martial costumes and parades were openly mocked, even as its anti-Semitism was excused by many as merely politicking.
In 1928, what became known as the Nazi Party captured just 12 of the 326 seats in the German Reichstag, coming in fifth among the five major competing parties. Five years later, with the nation’s economy in shambles, it achieved a plurality of 196 seats.
It would be the last time Germany would see an election until 1949.
Mussolini’s rise, which preceded Hitler’s by a decade, served as the blueprint for the Austrian demagogue’s march to power. Like Hitler, Mussolini returned to a chaotic and sclerotic Italy after serving in The Great War and immediately set about experimenting with political philosophies and propaganda techniques that would win him power.
Mussolini did not initially scapegoat the Jews as the cause for national instability. He inherited that from Hitler later. But like Hitler, he called for a radical overthrow of the establishment, using tales of lost national glory, fear of outside and internal threats, particularly from the socialist political left, and promises of fantastical future success to galvanize support. Both also used highly orchestrated theatrics and disciplined messaging campaigns to mesmerize audiences. Hitler, always the aspiring artist and architect, personally designed uniforms, flagstaffs and party symbols late into his nights.
Red and white #MakeAmericaGreatAgain hats hardly compare. And the increasingly raucous Trump rallies are nothing like Nuremberg. But the underlying tactics and rhetoric used at Trump forums eerily align with the messages of yesteryear: They play to deep economic anxieties, scapegoating and making wild promises of future prosperity and glory to draw people in. And like past figures, Trump shamelessly promotes himself as a magical strongman who can succeed where all others have failed.
In no way should any of this imply that Donald Trump is a fascist, much less a Nazi. But it is fair to say he has fascist tendencies. Unapologetically retweeting Mussolini quotes doesn’t help his defense.
Where I think we should draw the strongest comparisons between where we are now and where Italy and Germany were almost a century ago, though, is not so much in the principals involved but in their supporters, particularly those who should know better.
Any non-Jew who has read or watched much about Weimar Germany or pre-Mussolini Italy has to have asked himself the question, “Could they have gotten me?” Under those economic conditions, and without the hindsight of what would later occur, could the fascists have drawn me in circa 1923 or ’33?
Of course, we all answer “no.”
But with conditions in America today roughly a zillion times better than they were in Italy and Germany of those years, we see roughly a third of the Republican electorate willing to wildly gamble with another of history’s demagogues.
Far worse, we are witnessing established national leaders like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions signing aboard with a candidate who pledges to abandon the Geneva Convention, expropriate foreign oil, ban Muslim immigration in the United States and institute an international trade war, among other things. This with virtually zero inflation, (low) economic growth and relative calm on the streets.
Each time I see another public figure sign on with Trump, I find it impossible not to make a private mental note: Yep. They would’ve gotten him.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.