Germans saluting the head of Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, during a birthday celebration.

Germans cheer Adolf Hitler on his 51st birthaday as he stands on the balcony of the Reich Chancellory.

(Photo: Bettman / via Getty Images)

Trump's Similarities to Hitler Prove It Certainly Could 'Happen Here'

There are few Americans alive today who remember Hitler, and for most of us the details of his rise to power are lost to the mists of time. But Donald Trump is bringing it all back to us with a fresh, stark splash of reality.

The Nazis in America are now “out.” This morning, former Republican Joe Scarborough explicitly compared Trump and his followers to Hitler and his Brownshirts on national television. They’re here.

At the same time, America’s richest man is retweeting antisemitism, rightwing influencers and radio/TV hosts are blaming “Jews and liberals” for the “invasion” of “illegals” to “replace white people,” and the entire GOP is embracing candidates and legislators who encourage hate and call for violence.

Are there parallels between the MAGA takeover of the GOP and the Nazi takeover of the German right in the 1930s?

It began with a national humiliation: defeat in war. For Germany, it was WWI; for America is was two wars George W. Bush and Dick Cheney lied us into as part of their 2004 “wartime president” re-election strategy (which had worked so well for Nixon with Vietnam in 1972 and Reagan with Grenada in 1984).

Hitler fought in WWI but later blamed Germany’s defeat on the nation being “stabbed in the back” by liberal Jews, their fellow travelers, and incompetent German military leadership.

We’ve been sliding down this slippery slope toward unaccountable fascism for several decades, and this coming year will stand at the threshold of an entirely new form of American government that could mean the end of the American experiment.

Trump cheered on Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but later lied and claimed he’d opposed the war. Both blamed the nation’s humiliation on the incompetence or evil of their political enemies.

The economic crisis caused by America’s Republican Great Depression had gone worldwide and Hitler used the gutting of the German middle class (made worse by the punishing Treaty of Versailles) as a campaign issue, promising to restore economic good times.

Trump pointed to the damage forty years of neoliberalism had done to the American middle class and promised to restore blue-collar prosperity. Hitler promised he would “make Germany great again”; Trump campaigned on the slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

Both tried to overthrow their governments by violence and failed, Hitler in a Bavarian beer hall and Trump on January 6th. Both then turned to legal means to seize control of their nations.

Hitler’s scapegoats were Jews, gays, and liberals. “There are only two possibilities,” he told a Munich crowd in 1922. “Either victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew.”

He promised “I will get rid of the ‘communist vermin’,” “I will take care of the ‘enemy within’,” “Jews and migrants are poisoning Aryan blood,” and “One people, one nation, one leader.”

Trump’s scapegoats were Blacks, Muslims, immigrants, and liberals.

He said he will “root out” “communists … and radical left thugs that live like vermin”; he would destroy “the threat from within”; migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country”; and that under Trump’s leadership America will become “One people, one family, one glorious nation.”

Hitler called the press the Lügenpresse or “lying press.” Trump quoted Stalin, calling our news agencies and reporters “the enemy of the people.”

Both exploited religion and religious believers. Hitler proclaimed a “New Christianity” for Germany and encouraged fundamentalist factions within both the Catholic and Protestant faiths.

Every member of the Germany army got a belt-buckle inscribed with Gott Mit Uns (God is with us).

Trump embraced rightwing Catholics and evangelical Protestants and, like the German churches in 1933, has been lionized by their leaders.

Hitler made alliances with other autocrats (Mussolini, Franco, and Tojo) and conspired with them to take over much of the planet. Trump disrespected our NATO and European allies and embraced the murderous dictator of Saudi Arabia, the psychopathic leader of Russia, and the absolute tyrant who runs North Korea.

Both Hitler and Trump had an “inciting incident” that became the touchstone for their rise to illegitimate levels of power.

For Hitler it was the burning of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, by a mentally ill Dutchman. For Trump it is his claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him and the martyrdom of his supporters after their attempted coup on January 6th.

Hitler embraced rightwing Bavarian street gangs and brawlers, organizing them into a volunteer militia who called themselves the Brownshirts (Hitler called them the Sturm Abeilung or Storm Division).

Trump embraces rightwing militia groups and motorcycle gangs, and implicitly praises his followers when they attack people like Paul Pelosi, election workers, and prosecutors and judges who are attempting to hold him accountable for his criminal behavior.

While Trump has mostly focused his public hate campaigns against racial and religious minorities, behind the scenes he and his administration had worked hand-in-glove with anti-gay fanatics like Mike Johnson to limit the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.

His administration opposed the Equality Act, saying it would “undermine parental and conscience rights.” More than a third (36%) of his judicial nominees had previously expressed “bias and bigotry towards queer people.” His administration filed briefs in the landmark Bostock case before the Supreme Court, claiming that civil rights laws don’t protect LGBTQ+ people.

His Department of Health and Human Services ended Obama-era medical protections for queer people. His Secretary of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, took apart regulations protecting transgender kids in public schools. His HUD Secretary, Ben Carson, proposed new rules allowing shelters to turn away homeless queer people at a time when one-in-five homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+.

German Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem begins with, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.” But, in fact, first Hitler came for queer people.

A year before Nazis began attacking union leaders and socialists, a full five years before attacking Jewish-owned stores on Kristallnacht, the Nazis came for the trans people at the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin.

In 1930, the Institute had pioneered the first gender-affirming surgery in modern Europe. It’s director, Magnus Hirschfeld, had compiled the largest library of books and scientific papers on the LGBTQ+ spectrum in the world and was internationally recognized in the field of sexual and gender studies.

Being gay, lesbian, or trans was widely tolerated in Germany, at least in the big cities, when Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, and the German queer community was his first explicit target. Within weeks, the Nazis began a campaign to demonize queer people — with especially vitriolic attacks on trans people — across German media.

German states put into law bans on gender-affirming care, drag shows, and any sort of “public display of deviance,” enforcing a long-moribund German law, Paragraph 175, first put into the nation’s penal code in 1871, that outlawed homosexuality. Books and magazines telling stories of gay men and lesbians were removed from schools and libraries.

Thus, a mere five months after Hitler came to power, on May 6, 1933, Nazis showed up at the Institute and hauled over 20,000 books and manuscripts about gender and sexuality out in the street to burn, creating a massive bonfire. It was the first major Nazi book-burning and was celebrated with newsreels played in theaters across the nation. It wouldn’t be the last: soon it spread to the libraries and public high schools.

Hitler couldn’t have risen to power without the support of the largest outlets in German media. Some treated him as “just another politician,” normalizing his fascist rhetoric. Others openly supported him.

The conservative elite of Germany, particularly Fritz Thyssen, Hjalmar Schacht, and Gustav Krupp were early supporters of Hitler, as he promised to crush the German labor movement and cut their taxes.

Without the support of rightwing billionaires funding Cambridge Analytica and Trump’s campaign he never would have won the electoral college in 2016.

Hitler couldn’t have risen to power without the support of the largest outlets in German media. Some treated him as “just another politician,” normalizing his fascist rhetoric. Others openly supported him.

After his failed beer hall putsch, he was legally banned from public speaking and mass rallies but, in 1930, German media mogul Alfred Hugenberg — a rightwing billionaire who owned two of the largest national newspapers and had considerable influence over radio — joined forces with Hitler and relentlessly promoted him, much like the Murdoch media empire and 1,500 billionaire-owned rightwing radio stations across the country helped bring Trump to power in 2016 and still promote him every day.

Hitler’s first major seizure of dictatorial power was his use of the Weimar law Article 48 which, during a time of crisis, empowered the nation’s leader to suspend due process and habeas corpus, turn the army’s guns on people deemed insurrectionists, and arrest people without charges or trial.

Its American equivalents are the State of Emergency Declaration and the Insurrection Act, both of which Trump has promised to invoke in his first days in office if he’s re-elected in 2024.

Once Hitler had seized full control of the German government, he set about changing the nation’s laws to replace democracy with autocracy. His enablers in the German Parliament passed the “Enabling Act” that gave Hitler’s cabinet the power to write and implement their own laws.

Trump promises to use the theoretical “unitary executive” powers rightwing groups claim the president holds, but has never used in our history, to have his new cabinet rewrite many of our nation’s laws.

Hitler followed the Enabling Act, six months later, with the Act for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service which authorized him to gut the German Civil Service and replace career bureaucrats with toadies loyal exclusively to him. It was the end of any semblance of resistance to the Nazis or preservation of democracy within the new German government.

In his last three weeks in office, Trump issued an executive order called Schedule F that ended Civil Service protections for around 50,000 of America’s top government officials, including the senior levels of every federal agency, so he could replace them all with political appointees (Biden reversed it). The Heritage Foundation is reportedly now vetting over 50,000 people to fill these ranks if Trump is reelected and, as promised, reinstates Schedule F.

The last bastion of resistance to Hitler within the German government was the judiciary, and Hitler altered the German Civil Service Code in January 1937, giving his cabinet the power to remove any judges from office who were deemed “non-compliant” with “Nazi laws or principles.”

When Judge Jon Tigar of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Trump’s new rules barring people from receiving asylum in 2018, Trump attacked Tigar as “a disgrace” and “an Obama judge.” He added that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is “really something we have to take a look at because it’s not fair,” adding, “That’s not law. Every case that gets filed in the Ninth Circuit we get beaten.”

Because the German Supreme Court was still, from time to time, ruling against Hitler’s Gleichschaltung or Nazification of the German government and legal code, and he had no easy legal mechanism to pack the court or term-limit the justices, in 1934 he created an entirely new court to replace it, which he called the People’s Court.

Trump packed the US Supreme Court with rightwing ideologues, many of whom are heavily beholden to oligarchs and industries aligned with Trump and the GOP. If they continue to go along with him — and there’s little to indicate they won’t — he won’t need to create a new court.

When Hitler took over the country in 1933, the military leadership was wary of him and his plans. While they shared many of his conservative views about social issues, most still held a strong loyalty to the German constitution.

It took him the better part of two years, with heavy support from his Brownshirts (who he’d by then integrated into the military) to purge the senior levels of the Army and replace them with Nazi loyalists.

The night before January 6th, newly-elected Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville joined Trump’s sons to help organize the coup planned for the next day. As the Alabama Political Reporter newspaper reported at the time:

“The night before the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville and the then-director of the Republican Attorneys General Association met with then-President Donald Trump’s sons and close advisers, according to a social media post by a Nebraska Republican who at the time was a Trump administration appointee.
“Charles W. Herbster, who was then the national chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Advisory Committee in Trump’s administration, in a Facebook post at 8:33 p.m. on Jan. 5 said that he was standing ‘in the private residence of the President at Trump International with the following patriots who are joining me in a battle for justice and truth.’ …
“Among the attendees, according to Herbster’s post, were Tuberville, former RAGA director Adam Piper, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, adviser Peter Navarro, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and 2016 deputy campaign manager David Bossie.”

Tuberville is now holding open the top ranks of the US military, presumably so if Trump is reelected he can pack our armed forces with people who won’t defy his orders when he demands they seize voting machines and fire live ammunition at the inevitable protestors.

When Hitler took power in 1933, he quickly began mass arrests of illegal immigrants, gypsies, union activists, liberal commentators and reporters, and (as noted earlier) queer people. To house this exploding prison population, he first took over a defunct munitions factory in Dachau; within a few years there were over a hundred of these camps where “criminals” were “concentrated and separated from society.” He called them concentration camps.

The New York Timesreports that Trump is planning to “build huge camps to detain people,” and “to get around any refusal by Congress to appropriate the necessary funds, Mr. Trump would redirect money in the military budget.”

How many people? “Millions” writes the Times. And not just immigrants: Trump is planning to send his enemies to them, too.

Will he succeed in getting around Congress? He did the last time, with money to build his wall taken from military housing.

So far, that’s as bad as it gets: what he has already promised. But these are early days.

Hitler was unbothered by the deaths of German citizens, and was enthusiastic about the deaths of those he considered his enemies.

On April 7, 2020 all three TV networks, The New York Times and The Washington Post all lead with the breaking story that Black people were dying at about twice the rate of white people from Covid. The Times headline, for example, read: “Black Americans Bear the Brunt as Deaths Climb.”

A month earlier Trump had shut down the country, but when this report came out he and Kushner did an immediate turnabout, demanding that mostly minority “essential workers” get back to work.

As an “expert” member of Jared Kushner’s team of young, unqualified volunteers supervising the administration’s PPE response noted to Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban:

“The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy.”

It was, after all, exclusively Blue States that were then hit hard by the virus: Washington, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. And there was an election coming in just a few months.

Trump even invoked the Defense Production Act and issued an Executive Order requiring mostly minority slaughterhouse and meatpacking employees go back to work. It led to a half-million unnecessary American deaths and to this day neither Trump nor Kushner have ever apologized.

In the final years of the Third Reich, Hitler authorized his “final solution to the Jewish problem” that included building death camps in countries outside Germany to methodically exterminate millions of people. These were different from the hundreds of prisons and concentration camps he’d built within Germany for “criminals and undesirables,” although at those camps people were often worked to death or slaughtered when the war started going south.

So far, Trump and his people haven’t suggested the need for death camps in America, although Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott seem particularly eager to see immigrants die either from razor wire or gunshot.

But, then, the Nazis never officially announced their external death camps either; like Bush’s criminal “black sites” overseas where hundreds of innocent Afghans and Iraqis were tortured, often to death, they figured they’d never be found out.

There are few Americans alive today who remember Hitler, and for most of us the details of his rise to power are lost to the mists of time. But Donald Trump is bringing it all back to us with a fresh, stark splash of reality.

When I lived in Germany I worked with several Germans who had been in the Hitler Youth. One met Hitler. Another, Armin Lehmann, became a dear friend over the years and wrote a book about his experience as the 16-year-old courier who handed Hitler the news the war was lost and stood outside Hitler’s bunker room as he committed suicide.

They were good people, children at the time really, and were (they’ve all died within the last two decades) haunted by their experience.

It can happen here.

We’ve been sliding down this slippery slope toward unaccountable fascism for several decades, and this coming year will stand at the threshold of an entirely new form of American government that could mean the end of the American experiment.

To the extent that our Constitution is still intact, the choice for our democracy to rise or fall will be in our hands.

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