Trump and the “H” Word: Tragedy, Farce and “Farce Majeure”
Why comparisons of Donald Trump and his minions to those of Adolf Hitler can be both deeply unsettling, and yet all too appropriate
- Trump, like Hitler, considers himself as master of "new" media and "image" manipulation.
- Trump, like Hitler, appeals to the prejudices of those who harbor those feelings no matter what the realities of life.
- Trump’s similarity to Hitler’s attitude before 1940 (before he became “Hitler”) is striking.
- Hitler tapped the fears and prejudices of a nation truly in social, economic and spiritual despair.
- Under Hitler, no one dared whisper the moral equivalent of a modern Facebook post or Tweet.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel reportedly quipped that “All great world-historic facts and personages appear twice.” To which Marx added in 1852: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
Comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler in any way nearly always produces howls of outrage from both his supporters and serious students of history. And their objections are often all too valid.
The Second World War in general — and the Holocaust in particular — have Hitler’s name, and those of his henchmen, shorthand terms for absolute evil.
Trump does not rise (or better said, fall) to those levels. Moreover, the United States in 2016 is nothing like Germany during the rise of and fall of Nazism.
Not where Germany was
The United States is arguably a mature democracy and demonstrably the most powerful economic and military power on the face of the earth. Unlike Germany, we have not faced:
- The loss of millions of young men in a World War, followed by a violent revolution
- A pandemic that killed more young people than the war
- A punitive peace and the creation of new countries on our borders, often comprising territories that once belonged to us and ruled by peoples with good reasons to hate us
- Occupation by foreign troops, the reduction of our own army to 100,000 men with no aircraft, navy or heavy weapons
- An inflation that made our currency worthless; followed by the Great Depression on a scale that made the American experience seem like a mild downturn.
Nor do our political parties have their own armies, a record of government-aided bloody suppression of their opponents and later pitched battles against each other in the streets.
That said, why would anyone draw such an analogy?
Hitler’s not-so unusual views
It is worthwhile to recall that Hitler himself — for all his despotism, even his demonic character — did not become the “Hitler” we know now until well into his tenure as Führer.
During his rise to power, Hitler’s views were not all that unusual. His fiery promises to turn murderous hatreds into laws and deeds were, sadly, all too “normal.” Such “ideals” were on display not only in other European countries, but here in the United States as well at the time.
Even in a world of similar madmen, no one took him — and his cohorts of the failed and desperate — seriously.
Fear mongering tactics
When he first turned rhetoric into serious action, in the “Beer Hall Putsch” of November 1923, he was captured, tried, convicted and jailed.
His career was “over” — or so everybody believed. With the help of a real writer, he spent his time in prison writing a book that’s still in print.
He re-emerged almost as a side-effect of a Great Depression: the eruption of a festering malaise that had been partially suppressed by the “roaring 1920s.” This malaise was kicked once more into high gear by the onset of the Great Depression.
Hitler tapped the fears and mean-spirited prejudices of a nation truly in social, economic and spiritual despair.
Making Germany “Great Again”?
Trump tries to do the same. He appeals to the fears and mean-spirited prejudices of Americans who harbor those prejudices and fears no matter what the realities of life. Trump tries to convince as many others as he can that they should be truly afraid.
Hitler and his minions, like Trump and his minions, considered themselves masters of “new” media and “image” manipulation.
Hitler loved “radio” and was arguably the first politician in history with his own airplane and film-maker.
Mass rallies were Hitler’s forte
Though not religious himself, the nominally Roman Catholic Hitler was a master at tapping religious prejudices. He did so, most notably, by appealing to the pervasive anti-semitsm of Germany’s Roman Catholic South and the Rhineland as well as the Protestant Christian North.
Hitler also knew where women “belonged” — in church, in the kitchen and dedicated to caring for children. The same was true for gay people and others considered “un-German.”
Up until the war and the implementation of the “Final Solution,” arrests, round-ups, “concentration” and deportation were instruments of choice for Hitler’s version of “Making Germany German Again.”
“Undesirables” — including not only Jews, but Slavs and blacks — were damned as criminals and rapists, and considered sources of disease.
Germany’s traditional “conservatives” believed that the military would serve on as a reliable “check” on Hitler. Instead, every serving soldier swore an oath of personal allegiance and pledged themselves to follow Hitler’s personal orders. These orders were then deemed to supersede all other German and international law.
Torture and murder were thus made not only “legal” but a test of an officer’s patriotism and honor.
The few who had the courage to resist are now considered national heroes. And there were always those perfectly willing to follow illegal orders. To them, it did not matter much whether they acted out of fear, out of misplaced group “loyalty,” out of tradition — or simply because they agreed with them.
Political enemies were first mocked, then demonized as threats to the very fabric of the nation.
Narcissism was de rigueur. Personal insult of the “Leader” was neither tolerated face to face, nor later tolerated in private.
By the end, no one dared whisper the moral equivalent of a modern Facebook post or Tweet.
Trump is not there yet
Trump is not Hitler, nor are his cronies modern Streichers, Goebbels, Himmlers and Görings. But the similarities of their creeds, attitudes and behaviors to those of Hitler before 1940 (before he became “Hitler”) are striking.
Hegel and Marx thought history moved ever forward — from thesis, to antithesis, to a synthesis from which the process began anew.
My fear is that history is, instead, cyclical and that we may well be moving from an Hegelian tragedy to a farce, to tragedy again, on a scale heretofore unimagined.