We must no longer dismiss the threat posed to American democracy by recent changes in the White House. We face a very real circumstance that the United States will change radically for the worse, not just in years or even months, but perhaps in weeks or days. Some have suggested that we are looking at a repeat of 1933 Germany.
Trump and Hitler. Donald Trump bears no resemblance to Adolf Hitler. Hitler grew up in low middle class status and received no help pursuing his dream of becoming an artist. Hitler served in combat in World War I and returned to a nation offering few prospects for employment. He rose quickly in the ranks of the tiny National Socialist German Workers’ Party. And while in prison for inciting open rebellion against the government, Hitler wrote his own magnum opus Mein Kampf without the benefit of ghost writers.
One can certainly not debate the vast difference in polished delivery and presentation between the leaders; nor the fanatical love held by millions toward Hitler, especially as his leadership lifted Germany like a phoenix from the ashes of the Great Depression and from the emasculation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Republican Party and the Nazi Party. The Republican Party possesses a long history of shared political control in America, as one of the two undisputed leaders of our two-party system for most of the past two centuries. Third parties come and go – and the Republicans certainly changed – but the Republican Party survived and remains a major American political party. The Nazi Party, on the other hand, was born out of the defeat in World War I. The movement attracted returning soldiers with its nationalist message and represented an utterly insignificant force in German politics.
The two parties do, however, share dominant principles – anti-Communism and populist appeal. Both parties also share a willingness to espouse racist, homophobic, misogynist, ablist, and anti-immigrant positions. And yet, from its inception Nazism was a people’s movement of the lower classes and the disenfranchised. Republicanism has, at various times, attracted populist support, but perhaps more accurately reflects a party catering to the agenda of the wealthy and of middle class conservatives.
Nazism and “Trumpism.” Both Hitler and Trump reached out to a similar base – the disenfranchised majority. Many Germans felt victimized by foreign influences that threatened the health and well being of the German people. Many also held groups within Germany accountable for some of their hardships – most particularly, the Jews. Germans wearied of the Weimar Republic and the rules of enforced democracy that ran counter to traditional German values. They welcomed a call to return to a better, purer time of the German volk, proud of its traditions and unafraid to flex its muscles on the global stage.
Trump largely spoke to white, lower middle class Americans who felt unrewarded for their hard work and unappreciated for their “traditional” American values. Many supporters of Trumpism hold a wide variety of minority groups to blame for the ills facing our nation. Specifically, however, Trump supporters direct the greatest animosity towards immigrants, and most particularly toward Mexican and Muslim immigrants. Regardless of their infeasibility and almost certain illegality, the wall on the Mexican border and the Muslim ban stoked the fires of Trumpism and now lead the way in Trump’s executive actions. Trump supporters hearken back to a time when America was “great,” before creeping liberalism eroded core Constitutional freedoms and historically religious (read “Christian”) moral standards.
Whether this comparison holds true will depend on whether Trump follows through on his promises. Even then, the comparison is strained. Nazism saved a nation with a decimated economy stripped of its military and facing crippling reparations. Despite Trump’s claims to the contrary, America’s economy is healthy and its people maintain a high standard of living.
So, Trump is no Hitler. The Grand Old Party is not the Nazis. And while Trumpism bears disturbing similarities to Nazism, Trumpism seems far too chaotic and incompetent to accomplish its grandiose goals. Also, the American people are not so desperately compelled to completely discard the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. That leaves one last comparison.
Democracy or Fascism? Author Robert Paxton provides this definition of Fascism.
Fascism is a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.
Any sane and rational person, upon reading this definition and observing Trump’s rhetoric and first actions as President, would be justified in feeling true terror.
Could this really happen? The United States makes mistakes just like any other nation. But for more than two centuries, this nation carried the banners of freedom and democracy and stood as a model form of government in defense of rights and liberty. Are we seriously discussing some dystopian future America capable of the kinds of unspeakable cruelty we associate with the world’s worst tyrants? Surely such a vision cannot possibly come to pass here in the 21st century.
Why not? The recent Women’s March wasn’t the first assemblage of thousands of people on our nation’s capital. In the 1920’s, fifty thousand Klansmen proudly and unashamedly paraded on the same ground. Trump is not the first American to envision himself as Führer. In 1939, 22,000 Nazi Americans filled Madison Square Garden in New York City to hear Fritz Julius Kuhn, the Bundesführer of the German American Bund. The German people possessed no monopoly on wrongly incarcerating enemies during wartime, or exterminating undesirables who stood in their way of nationalist expansion. In point of fact, Hitler praised America’s genocide of indigenous peoples, citing it as a model for similar cleansings.
So let’s dispel any illusions that Americans are somehow immune to the behaviors normalized while Fascism ruled Germany. In normal times, when presented against strong political options, Fascism seems too extreme, too radical a choice for most populations. But when the existing parties show weakness, room exists for Fascism to seem not only possible, but even desirable. American history shows us that whenever the mainstream parties fail to reach the majority of people, extremist movements will arise to fill the void.
Imagine the history books 50 years from now. Researchers will talk about the birth of the Tea Party movement, with its radical rhetoric and simplistic message of patriotism and libertarianism. In less than a decade (much like the National Socialist German Workers’ Party), this fringe element went from wearing ridiculous tri-corner hats to completely dismantling the mainstream Republican Party. The Tea Party blew open a hole wide enough to allow consideration of a Presidential candidate who, in saner times, would never have emerged from the starting blocks. Our grandchildren will read accounts of the rise of Trumpism and the impact his political philosophy had on America.
Or, perhaps not. Instead, our grandchildren will about a great resistance movement that stood up against Fascist forces and restored America to its true greatness. And in the center of this resistance will reside people of faith, like the Unitarian Universalists whom I serve. Present at every rally, challenging every assault on the democratic process, hounding unprincipled politicians, we will proclaim proudly and publicly our commitment to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, whether that person is Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQIA, or female, regardless of their ability, age, or socioeconomic status.
Why do I believe this? Because there is another common element shared by successful Fascist regimes – the lack of people of faith willing to fight and sacrifice for what is morally right. Fascism thrives when churches fail to shelter the oppressed, to stand beside the persecuted, to act with conscience, and to protect our planet. Whether you attend a church, mosque, or synagogue; whether you follow Buddhist, Hindu, or Pagan teachings; if you reserve your faith for the wonders of the unknown universe, then you can be part of this faith movement. Few other institutions can successfully resist Fascist regimes, such as academia, labor, and the press. When those institutions falter, the movement of the faithful must be willing to call the truth the truth and to call alternative facts lies.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from a Nazi prison, “Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?” I say, yes. So long as we affirm our principles of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, we will find the strength to resist. So long as we commit to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we will find the will to be remorselessly honest. And so long as we recognize and respect truth and protest lies, we will reclaim the simple and straightforward American ideal of freedom and liberty for all.