Beware of Another Reichstag Fire
As various commentators compare President Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, a flurry of responses has claimed that this is an inappropriate comparison because the Nazi regime murdered millions of men, women and children. It is important to remember, however, that when Hitler came to power in 1933, he did not begin with murder. His regime first sought to “encourage emigration” as a means of ridding Germany of the Jews and turned to genocide only when these efforts “failed.” One important motive for studying genocide is to be able to recognize early warning signs so that atrocities might be prevented rather than waiting for them to happen.
As a scholar of the Holocaust, I frequently teach about the Nazi rise to power and the attributes of authoritarian regimes. Such attributes include: a rise to power which is nationalist in nature, with calls to restore the nation to greatness or making reference to a mythic great past; racist or anti-foreign rhetoric; violence or the threat of violence; attacks on the free press and the promulgation of propaganda; marches or rallies to reinforce group cohesion; quashing of political opponents and democratic institutions after rising to power; and stripping away civil liberties. There is often an assumption made by existing elites that the radical leader will normalize once in power, but this normalization does not happen. What I just described were the attributes of Hitler’s rise to power, Mussolini’s rise to power, and the rise to power of a number of other authoritarian leaders as well.
What is disturbing to scholars of the Holocaust and genocide is that this also describes President Trump’s actual activities. His slogans, such as “Make America Great Again” or “American First,” and other nationalist rhetoric align with rhetoric historically espoused by authoritarian leaders. “America First” not only has American Nazi historical roots, but it is eerily close to Hitler’s slogan “Deutschland über Alles!” (Germany Above All.) In terms of exhibition of racist and anti-foreign sentiment, President Trump’s attacks on Muslims and Latinos particularly Mexicans, have been pronounced. He has tried to ban foreigners from seven Muslim nations from coming to the United States and taken an aggressive approach toward deporting undocumented immigrants, while calling for a wall between the United States and Mexico. His rhetoric toward Muslims, Latinos, and immigrants includes claims that they are the source of crime and terrorism. This enables the president to attack Muslims and Latinos under the cover of protecting national security or crime prevention.
The president made numerous threats during his campaign predicting violence and revolution if he were not elected. Since coming to power, he has encouraged shows of force, including escalation of aggressive policing, and expressed a desire to display the country’s power with military armaments in the streets of the capital during his inauguration. A cabinet member recently alluded to the possible need for a rapid increase in the number of prisons.
At the same time, Trump’s attacks on the free press have been extreme, including describing the news media as the “enemy of the people,” and excluding several major media outlets from White House briefings. This control of which media outlets have access to administration news conferences and willfully delegitimizing news sources by calling stories he disagrees with “fake news” creates an atmosphere that encourages propaganda and erodes government transparency.
The president’s immediate declaration of his candidacy for 2020 enables him to hold rallies under the pretense of campaigning for a second term. These rallies also serve to reinforce the notion of the Trump’s popularity.
Since taking office, Trump has raged against his political opponents, democracy and civil liberties. He has attacked the judiciary, particularly when it serves as a check on his authority. He has bypassed Congress, using executive orders to make drastic changes in policy. His cabinet has revoked protections for transgender students. He has attempted to ban Muslims from seven countries from coming to the United States and suggested mass deportations. And he has championed the use of torture. This is just a short list of attributes of authoritarian regimes that also characterize the Trump administration.
For most scholars, it is not difficult to see how, in the current climate, with a president whose activities closely parallel those of historic authoritarian leaders, a single crisis might be used to solidify authoritarian power. Trump has repeatedly warned against a terrorist attack that might be perpetrated by an undocumented immigrant. For Hitler, it was the Reichstag fire on Feb. 27, 1933, that led to his political opponents being incarcerated in Dachau.