Is anyone else heartbroken and equally fascinated by what’s happening in America right now? The removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 13 August sparked demonstrations which culminated in the tragic death of a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer.
But had it not been for Trump’s subsequent statement, then perhaps Heather’s death and these demonstrations could have been recorded as a local (though tragic) event. Heather may have been seen as “just one more casualty” in a long violent history between right-wing nationalists nostalgic about the old South, and everyone else that enthusiastically excludes themselves from that label.
But then President Donald Trump condemned the violence at a white supremacist rally “on many sides.”
“On many sides”……? Huh?
It’s been remarkable to watch the visceral uproar following Trump’s trivializing remarks. Scheduled “Free Speech” demonstrations in Boston last weekend were overwhelmed with counter demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. At the base of Trump Tower in NYC another 1,000 protesters shouted “Black Lives Matter,” while various sand-filled white dump trucks were positioned as a barricade. And comedian Tina Fey devoured an entire sheet cake:
Even other world leaders unequivocally condemned the white supremacists. In Germany, where any Nazi salutes, gatherings or symbols are illegal (even arresting tourists who flout the law), politicians have tweeted their dismay.
Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, tweeted: “One must denounce Nazis definitively. What Trump is doing is inflammatory. Whoever trivializes violence & hate betrays western values.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the events in Charlottesvile “absolutely repulsive.” And former Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, tweeted: “In Nazism, anti-Semitism and racism there are never two equal sides — only one side is evil. Period.”
And some of the strongest voices of all are those of Holocaust survivors and veterans of the Second World War. These brave people are standing up against any revival of the same racist intolerance they experienced in 1930s Germany.
But are today’s racial clashes in the US actually echoing the same sentiments of Nazi Germany? Is Trump the new Hitler? Are Muslims and refugees the new Jews? Is World War III around the corner? Or is this all just a bunch of short-lived hype that will shortly disappear?
Professor Richard J. Evans (my favourite historian and eminent Cambridge scholar) was interviewed by Slate magazine shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Well before the events of Charlottesville, Prof. Evans suggested that some parallels can be drawn between Trump and Hitler’s early days in power. I will now elaborate on three points my biggest intellectual crush raised:
1. The stigmatization of minorities.
Hitler despised those he deemed non-German. Although Hitler was a notorious anti-Semite, his prejudice towards Jews also extended to Bolshevists and progressive liberals who endorsed the Weimar Republic. Importantly, a strong right-wing community supported Hitler, which blamed Germany’s defeat in WWI upon the socialists, communists and Jews that had back-stabbed them on the homefront. Anti-Semitic newspapers and anti-Jewish clubs were commonplace in prewar Germany.
And, once you combine this common hatred with a socially-acceptable belief in “scientifically-measurable” progression and eugenics (which was studied in numerous universities since Darwin coined the idea of “evolution”), then it’s not difficult to see how even the most civilized of societies – which Germany was in the 20th century – could believe that one race was superior to another. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws solidified the legal persecution of Jews on the basis of “race” and by 1939, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars in public, moved into ghettos and eventually exterminated in concentration camps. Notably, this stigmatization was also experienced by other minorities, such as the disabled, homosexuals, political opponents, criminals, Roma/Gypsies, black people, religious groups…
Today’s America is obviously a far cry from outright genocide, but stigmatization of minorities still exists. For example, Trump’s travel ban imposed against people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, as well as all refugees caused huge controversy last February. Trump claimed he was protecting American borders from Muslim extremists, despite the fact that only three refugees in American history (Cubans in the 1970s) were ever convicted of terrorism.
Trump’s attempts to reverse Obamacare could also be perceived as a stigmatizing the poorer segments of American society who cannot afford private healthcare. The ongoing struggle of the #BlackLivesMatter black-community against state violence and discrimination is still speaking out against various Trump policies (although the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin which sparked the movement occurred before Trump took office). Also, the Trump administration announced last month that transgendered individuals would be banned from serving in the US military. Even some of the most conservative Republicans and retired military generals have denounced the policy.
2. Not adhering to conventions of normal political life.
Although the Nazi party won 37% of the vote through an entirely democratic and legitimate political process, Hitler’s almost immediately changed German laws to create a one-party state. Although historians cannot agree over who exactly burnt down the Reichstag – Germany’s parliament – afterwards Hitler enacted emergency measures which allowed him to suspend German citizens’ rights, including habeas corpus, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone. Hitler never reinstated these rights during the Third Reich. This was, again, in the name of protecting German citizens from domestic terrorism. In June 1934, Hitler also violently eliminated about 100 rivals in a violent purge called “Night of the Long Knives.” Then, after President Hindenberg’s death in August 1934, Hitler merged the presidency with the chancellorship. Incredibly, Hitler consolidated his power and created a violent dictatorship in less than two years.
What about Trump’s adherence to normal political life? Trump’s administration has passed more Executive Orders than any other president since Roosevelt, but many of these orders are politically insignificant (such as designating buildings or naming people to certain positions). However, the controversies surrounding Trump, especially with regard to Russia hacking the US elections and the dramatic resignation (dismissal?) of FBI Director James Comey, throw doubt on Trump’s ability to “adhere to normal political life.” What about Trump barring certain journalists from the White House press room? Or the appointment of his daughter Ivanka Trump, and husband, Jared Kushner, as “special advisors” and even representing the US government at the latest international G20 conference? Or the fact that less than a year into the job, some seven high ranking officials were either sacked or resigned from the Trump administration?
3. Spurning international agreements.
A month after Hitler came to power, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations. He argued that the Disarmament Conference did not allow it military parity with the Western nations (meaning that Hitler wanted to rearm and the Allies wouldn’t let him). Hitler obviously would not agree to any international policy that would limit Germany’s autonomy. He continued to flout international laws by annexing Austria and invading the Sudetenland without any hassle from the French, British or Soviets. Well, not until he invaded Poland.
Trump’s isolationist policies (if we can call them that) echo the goal of many historic politicians (Hitler included) who wished to put the needs of the nation before any obligations towards the international community. “America First” is Trump’s slogan which seeks to revive the exhausted American coffers by tightening federal budgets with more domestic investment (for example, by slashing diplomacy and development funding by a 32%). Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement which nearly 200 countries signed in December 2015 in an effort to combat global warming and help poorer countries adapt to an already-changed planet. Similarly, however, Britain has left the European Union so perhaps isolationism is a growing economic model in an increasingly globalized world. But by spurning such international agreements, Trump appears as an antithesis to the incredible global action by the US in the last 3 years: stopping the Ebola epidemic, rallying more than 65 partners to fight ISIS, and leading those same 200 countries to forge this historic climate change agreement in the first place! Barack is probably on a beach somewhere, shaking his head…
Although the words of caution from Holocaust survivors are obviously crucial warnings during such social upheaval, I’m not convinced that Hitler’s Germany and Trump’s America are synonymous. But perhaps I’m being cynical. Prof. Evans claimed there is one big difference between Hitler and Trump: while Hitler’s speeches and policies were exceptionally well-practiced, focused and deliberate, Trump’s tweets and policies are spontaneous, erratic and unguarded. This implies that Trump is not single-mindedly achieving some ultimate vision, but leisurely and arrogantly deciding grand policies without much foresight. As comedian Frankie Boyle quips, “Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book.”
The good news? The violence from the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville followed by Trump’s trivializing comments has forced Americans everywhere to defend their most basic national values, whatever they perceive them to be.
Trump may not be the voice for Americans everywhere – he certainly struggles to reflect the mood of the country – but at the very least he’s forcing Americans to have a conversation, a confrontation, of what it means to be American. He’s the proverbial trickster. A rousing ringleader. The grand master of controversy. The court jester who masquerades and provokes. The words that spill out of his mouth are not intricately prearranged, but reckless, and thus easier to destroy.
Fortunately, the greatest difference between 1930s Germany and today’s America is the lack of political violence by its leader. Whereas Hitler mobilized his Sturmabteilung brown-shirt henchmen to beat up political opponents in the streets, Trump has no such organized paramilitary government wing. Instead, Prof. Evans argues, political violence has taken the form of tweets and trolling, poisoning our political discourse.
But at the same time (and with the greatest respect, Prof. Evans!), Twitter, Facebook and other social media also allow everyone – Trump included – a political voice and online presence to confront ideas, create communities and mobilize politics. Smart phones allow people to record events like Charlottesville, so that those who promote hatred and bigotry are exposed. Modern communications certainly attracts trollers and hackers, but the brutal political violence that typified Nazi Germany is not what one experiences when they open their laptop, check their news, and write their blog. Thankfully.