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No, America is not succumbing to fascism

Portland police take control of the streets after

Portland police take control of the streets after making arrests on the scene of the nightly protests at a Portland police precinct on Sunday in Portland, Ore. Credit: AP/Paula Bronstein

With every police beating of demonstrators, every right wing armed counter-demonstration, every undermining of the electoral process and every handing down of an unconstitutional executive order or abuse of — like the White House being the backdrop for the Republican National Convention — some people legitimately worry that our country is slipping into fascism. They are right to be concerned, as it can happen here. Yet so far, the debate has largely bypassed the on-the-ground facts of historical fascism in power, and in particular its most notorious case: Nazi Germany.

The hallmarks of Nazi rule in the first years after the seizure of power were consensus, persecution and coercion, achieved through national consolidation, the marginalization of minorities and the incarceration of political opponents.

An examination of these fundamental issues shows that four years into the Trump administration, the United States, far from slipping into this kind of fascism, is a study in contrasts.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power with by far the largest majority backing of any fascist dictator in the 1930s. Within a year, the Nazis transformed a moribund democracy into a dictatorship that was genuinely popular. Hitler beat down the unemployment rate, tore up the despised Treaty of Versailles and remade the German Army into a feared fighting force. Four years into the regime, most Germans were applauding. W.E.B. Du Bois, the brilliant African American sociologist, pegged Hitler's support at 90% when he visited the country in the summer of 1936. It was, no doubt, an overestimation — but a revealing one.

How did German institutions and society come to support the most notorious of fascist dictators? One powerful answer is in the process of national consolidation, or Gleichschaltung ("put into the same gear"). Within a few years, the whole panoply of German schools, unions, churches, student organizations and governmental agencies (including the armed forces) came under the dictatorship's sway. The process was extremely swift, taking at most a few years. As a mix of true believers in Nazism and career opportunists emerged in leading positions in institutions, they aligned their organizations with the goals of the regime, and eagerly purged those members who did not, or could not, go along. As a result, civil society was quickly gutted, and spaces for resistance soon evaporated.

In concrete terms, this meant that generals did not issue public rebuke. Universities were not centers of resistance. Teachers of children were not enraged by the leader of the country lying. Journalists did not ask searing questions or publish critical reports. Judges did not countermand Hitler's directives, and lawyers did not, as a rule, bring suit against the government. Crucially, individual states, which had their own police forces and armories, did not use their power to resist. At the local level, individuals sometimes snubbed government actions, like the boycott of Jewish stores in April 1933. But by 1935, such resistance was less conspicuous, and by the time of the November Pogrom ("Kristallnacht") of 1938, it had gone largely silent.

The contrast could not be starker with the United States today. In the United States, there is no national consolidation, and civil society is not unified but is instead starkly divided. One sector of the society supports the Trump government, while the other engages in vigorous and open resistance to it. As a consequence, universities have remained sites of debate and criticism, schools still teach that evidence is required for truth-telling, journalists still demand answers of the government and courts of law (despite politicization) remain jealous of their independence. Even generals, retired and active, have used public forums to voice their opposition to Trump directives. Far from caving to a program of national consolidation, a new and surprisingly robust independence has emerged in state and city governments, and the COVID-19 crisis has given it confidence.

Another key difference is in the treatment of minorities. In Nazi Germany, the broad-based antipathy directed at Jews, Communists and a number of other groups had the effect of galvanizing the national community against these groups. It created a German "we" against those defined as outside the national community. Moreover, the battery of anti-Semitic legislation in the first four years of the Third Reich was relentless. Literally hundreds of decrees, acts and proclamations at the federal, state and municipal levels, revealed a concentrated multilayered targeting of defined minority groups.

The United States does not have its equivalent. The Trump administration targets minorities, advances racism and condones political and racist violence. But people are fighting back against police violence and for racial justice. Black Lives Matter has reemerged as a major force in American society and politics. Parents — Black, White and brown — are out on the streets, and so too are war veterans.

Institutions are also reacting. States, local governments, businesses, universities and sports teams have responded to Black Lives Matter criticism of offensive monuments and symbols by taking some down and hiding others, or by opening a debate on state and local memory cultures. Democrats, and, if the Lincoln Project is any guide, some Republicans are saying "this is not who we are" in response to the administration's attempt to direct national animosity against Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, Jews or the LGBTQ community. Even as Trump's policies continue to take their toll on many of these groups, resistance, across a wide spectrum, remains tenacious.

Coercion made this type of protest and institutional reaction unthinkable in Germany in 1933. From the start, the Nazis erected prisons and concentration camps specifically for the purpose of incarcerating Communists, Socialists and others who opposed them or whom they deemed inferior. It is true that there is government surveillance of BLM activists and that some protesters have disappeared, and this is a dangerous red flag. Yet the dimensions are altogether different. In the first two months of National Socialist rule, the Nazis arrested and put into "protective custody" close to 50,000 people, most of them left-wing opponents. By the spring of 1934, close to 100,000 opponents of the regime had already experienced Hitler's prisons and camps. By 1939, the Nazis incarcerated, humiliated and tortured hundreds of thousands of Germans in these camps, murdering thousands of them.

Proponents of the fascism analogy argue that the United States, like Nazi Germany in its first years, is a carceral state, with a significant percentage of its population in prison. According to the World Prison Brief, the United States has the worst incarceration rate in the world, edging out El Salvador and Turkmenistan.

Yet compared to Nazi Germany, there is an obvious and salient difference. In the United States, Democrats are not in jail because they are Democrats and critical journalists are not languishing in prisons because of what they wrote. To be sure, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection trample on due process, and detention centers perpetrate deplorable human rights abuses against migrants. But the people, including children, who are detained, are not there because of their political views. We are right to be outraged by both the state of our prison system and the cruelties of our detention centers. And yet they are different kinds of things than Hitler's concentration camp system.

One can well understand why demonstrators in the heat of conflict hurl the fascist epithet at a government that acts like a police state. But the fundamental points of comparison are not the same. And in fact, the truth of Trump is tawdrier than the fascist analogy allows. He is a 21st-century authoritarian populist with little else in mind than how to win the next election, how to stay in power, how to glorify himself and those around him and how to repay his friends and punish his enemies. Taking leave of the fascism analogy, and seeing Trump for who he is allows us to see that sending "stormtroopers" to our cities is basically Trump searching for a spectacle that allows him to play the hero who restores order.

Defeating Trumpism requires a persistent commitment to strengthening the social and political power of American civil society, because that is what makes the United States different from Nazi Germany.

Walser Smith, the Martha Rivers Ingram professor of history at Vanderbilt University, is the author of "Germany. A Nation in its time. Before, During, and after Nationalism, 1500-2000." This piece was written for The Washington Post.