Flash forward some 90 years and you can hear echoes of Hitler’s Frankfurt address in the persistent messaging of Donald Trump.
One of the few foreign correspondents to be granted personal access to Adolph Hitler and his inner circle in the dark winter of 1933 was Welsh journalist Garreth Jones. Assigned by his home paper, the Western Mail, to cover Hitler’s push to absolute power, Jones accompanied the newly appointed chancellor and his entourage to Frankfurt for a massive political rally that was held on March 2 of 1933.
Jones’ eyewitness account of the event is bone-chilling because it looks so much like what we are seeing today at Trump rallies.
“For eight hours, the biggest hall in Germany has been packed with 25,000 people for whom Hitler is the savior of his nation,” Jones began his story. “They are waiting, tense with national fervor... I have never seen such a mass of people; such a display of flags up to the top of the high roof, such deafening roars. It is primitive, mass worship.”
Trump’s fixation on Hitlerian imagery, memes and tropes is not an accident. The orange-haired demagogue has had a longstanding fascination with Hitler.
Then Hitler took the stage to a “roar of applause and the thumping and the blare of a military band and the thud of marching feet.” Hitler, Jones observed, “is… a master in repeating [his] leitmotiv in many varied forms, and the leitmotiv is: ‘The republican regime in Germany has betrayed you. Our day of retribution has come.’”
The rally closed with Hitler’s pledge to “complete the work which I began 14 years ago as an unknown soldier, for which I have struggled as leader of the party, and for which I stand today as Chancellor of Germany. We shall do our duty.”
“Again,” Jones wrote, “the hall resounds.”
Three weeks later, Hitler secured passage of the Enabling Act, bringing the Weimar Republic effectively to an end.
Flash forward some 90 years and you can hear echoes of Hitler’s Frankfurt address in the persistent messaging of Donald Trump. Speaking at the ultra-right Faith and Freedom Coalition’s 14th annual “Road to the Majority” conference in Washington, D.C. on June 24, the former president proclaimed:
In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.
Trump delivered a similar message earlier in June, telling an audience of enraptured supporters in Columbus, Georgia, that he was being persecuted by federal and state prosecutors. He insisted that the “deep state” was also out to get those who followed him. “In the end,” Trump complained, “they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you—and I’m just standing in their way.” This was the usual stuff of Trumpian spectacle. In a rambling tirade delivered on Veterans Day in New Hampshire, Trump vowed to “root out… the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
Trump’s fixation on Hitlerian imagery, memes and tropes is not an accident. The orange-haired demagogue has had a longstanding fascination with Hitler. According to a 1990 Vanity Fair article, Trump’s first wife Ivana, who died last year, told her divorce attorney that the former president kept a compilation of Hitler’s speeches in a cabinet by his bed. Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender remarked on Trump’s interest in Hitler in his book on the 2020 presidential campaign, Finally We Did Win This Election. Bender writes that Trump told his then-chief of staff Gen. John Kelly during a 2018 trip to Europe that “Hitler did a lot of good things,” particularly for the German economy. (Trump vehemently denied Bender’s account.)
The cult-like bond between the movement leader and his most ardent followers, a bond characterized by pledges of mutual aid, threats of revenge, and shared delusions of victimization, is one of the bedrock features of fascism. This was graphically illustrated by the ascent to power of the two pillars of 20th-century fascism, Hitler and Bennito Mussolini, whose personal style Trump is often said to emulate.
“Mussolini put his hands on his hips, thrust his chest, jutted his lower jaw,” Jonathan Blitzer wrote in a 2016 New Yorker article that profiled the work of New York University history professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat, one of the foremost authorities on fascism.
“It’s all about showing that he cannot be contained,” Ben-Ghiat told Blitzer. “It was the same with Mussolini.”
If he is reelected next year, Trump could make the January 6 coup attempt look mild.
“I’ve been studying cult leaders for a hundred years’ worth of them,” said Ben-Ghiat in an appearance on Democracy Now last June. Trump “has all the signs. He is not a conventional politician of either the Democratic or Republican [Party]… He is a cult leader. And the GOP has long been… submissive to him. He put them under an authoritarian discipline, and then he made them complicit. And this is what corrupt, violent authoritarians do. They make you part of their crimes.”
As I have written before in this column, fascism is an emotionally loaded and often misapplied term. But if understood correctly, it can never be dismissed as a vestige of the past. As a form of political behavior, discourse, and ideology, Trump and the MAGA movement are clearly fascist. There is no longer room for debate.
Fascism has deep roots in the United States, from the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, to the rise of the German-American Bund in the 1930s, to the ascendance of Depression-era demagogues, and, fast-forward almost a century, the election of Trump in 2016.
There’s a long-running class factor in the current of American fascism. University of London professor Sarah Churchwell’s June 2020 essay in The New York Review of Books exactly nails it when she quotes rabbi Stephen Wise: “The America of power and wealth is an America which needs fascism.”
Churchwell’s essay, fittingly titled, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Here,” offers a working definition of fascism. She notes that while fascist movements differ from nation to nation, they are united by “conspicuous features [that] are recognizably shared.” These include:
“[N]ostalgia for a purer, mythic, often rural past; cults of tradition and cultural regeneration; paramilitary groups; the delegitimizing of political opponents and demonization of critics; the universalizing of some groups as authentically national, while dehumanizing all other groups; hostility to intellectualism and attacks on a free press; anti-modernism; fetishized patriarchal masculinity; and a distressed sense of victimhood and collective grievance. Fascist mythologies often incorporate a notion of cleansing, an exclusionary defense against racial or cultural contamination, and related eugenicist preferences for certain ‘bloodlines’ over others.”
If he is reelected next year, Trump could make the January 6 coup attempt look mild. The Washington Post and Politicohave reported that Trump and his allies on the extreme right hope to transform the federal government into a virtual presidential dictatorship. Trump and his allies, states Politico, are “collecting the ingredients and refining the recipe for an authoritarian regime.”
The fear is that Trump will invoke the Insurrection Act on his first day in office to deploy the military. This vision of horror includes Trump in the Oval Office using his immense power to quash civil unrest and dismantle civil service protections for government workers in order to secure their loyalty. And all this while weaponizing the Justice Department to do his bidding.
The New York Times warns that a second Trump term will be especially dire for undocumented immigrants, with mass arrests and the construction of detention camps on a scale not seen since the racist “Operation Wetback” of the Eisenhower era. The Times also reported that Trump plans to cancel the visas of foreign students who participated in anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations.
Fascism thrives in moments of widespread social anxiety and moral panic, when large segments of the population are persuaded that liberal democracy no longer serves their interests. We are living in such a moment now. The urgency we face cannot be understated.