Let’s Actually Compare Trump to Hitler

Hitler’s appeal was more Trumpian than they teach you in history class.

(Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

You know exactly what “sheriff’s star” means.

Donald Trump’s supporters and opponents have been battling for months over whether the presumptive Republican nominee’s rise, which came on a tide of malice toward every racial, religious, and ethnic group you can think of, makes him like Hitler. One of his latest victims (it can be hard to keep track) is the Jewish community, which saw an anti-Semitic image from a white supremacist message board tweeted out by the campaign with all its implications intact and then shoddily, lazily replaced and recast as a circle — no, as a sheriff’s star — no, as a fun, harmless shape like the one on the cover of the Frozen sticker book.

Both his critics and his apologists have invoked the Holocaust over this saga, but nobody contests what he’s said: There’s too much evidence for that. The fault line is what he actually means by it. But both his supporters and opponents are accepting a bad premise — that the image of Hitler Americans are taught in history class—that is, a literally incomprehensible, fully formed creature of evil—is the one everyone should be comparing him to. That Hitler never existed, and to think of Hitler as a cartoon villain rather than a subtle, persuasive, and above all patient manipulator of his followers is to miss both Hitler’s appeal and Trump’s danger.

Take Melania. Her husband isn’t Hitler, she insists, because “he wants to help America. He wants to unite people. They think he doesn’t but he does. Even with the Muslims, it’s temporary.”

Melania doesn’t realize it, but she’s parroting the language of some of Hitler’s earliest supporters. In his 1948 book The Language of the Third Reich, German-Jewish professor Victor Klemperer remembers an argument with one of his former students during Hitler’s ascent: “All this fuss and bother about the Jews is only there for propaganda purposes. You wait, when Hitler is at the helm he’ll be far too busy to insult the Jews.”

It might be that Hitler’s appeal is too disturbing, or too overwritten by years of hindsight, to be anything but glossed over.

The idea that Hitler ever set out to divide his country or hurt his people (that is, the Aryan ones), and that those same people would knowingly and willingly go along with their own destruction, is a perspective that can only come from knowing that the Nazis lost the war and left their cities as smoking piles of rubble. It’s a retrospective view nobody had at the time.

Where does this perspective come from? For one, Hitler’s speeches aren’t often translated for the students first learning about him. Every World War II documentary that plays in American high school history classes has the same footage in the same order: A man yells incomprehensibly at a crowd, everybody salutes, and then the camera cuts sharply to German tanks rolling over Polish fields. But Hitler didn’t start by barking at massive crowds — he started with years of soothing justification, validation, and manipulation of growing numbers of Germans and of the language itself.

It might be that Hitler’s appeal is too disturbing, or too overwritten by years of hindsight, to be anything but glossed over. Jonathan Chait argues that Trump’s similarity to Hitler comes from his ability to play his country’s myopic and advantage-seeking conservative party for all it was worth. But his article focuses mainly on the highest-level machinations by political elites and takes for granted that Hitler was a savant at mobilizing mass support without exploring what made him that way. He leaves Melania’s argument, that the similarity to Hitler lives and dies on Trump’s secret, Hitlerian desire to destroy and kill everything he can reach, unchallenged.

In fact, that Hitlerian desire wasn’t even the way Hitler came to power. He played on hatred and ethnic resentment from the start, to be sure, but his original message wasn’t “exterminate the Jews,” it was “deport the foreigners.” Well into his political ascendancy, Hitler’s final solution to the Jewish problem was the Madagascar Project, a scheme to take all the Jews in Europe and forcibly relocate them to the African island of Madagascar, which many Germans falsely believed was where the Jews came from in the first place. This project came in many forms, including a plan to deport the Jews to Lublin, Poland instead of Madagascar, but the message was always clear: Get rid of the foreigners, keep Germany German. And it wasn’t a bait-and-switch to hoodwink those on the fence while opening death camps: In the early days of the Reich even Hitler’s most gung-ho supporters, the officials of his government, bragged to the Jews that their future lay in Madagascar.

Whether or not Hitler, in his mind, ever truly intended to go through with the Madagascar Project is moot: What he said, and the popular narrative he created around himself, convinced his supporters of the value deportation and the acceptability of violence toward the soon-to-be-deported long before he started on the Final Solution we know about. And narrative is the most important comparison we have — from The Art of the Deal to The Apprentice to the present day, Trump is a creature of the popular culture he creates for himself, and in the absence of any actual, actionable evidence of what he thinks or feels it is the yardstick he’s given people to judge him.

Hitler’s speeches and propaganda, and their subtle manipulation, justification, and validation of his hate, are mostly left as un-translated gibberish to English-speaking ears, a small part of a story much more focused on the heroism and sacrifice of the Allied forces.

But his message is alive and well in Germany’s pop culture, and it literally looks like Trump: Er Ist Wieder Da (“Look Who’s Back”) is a 2014, Borat-style movie premised on Adolf Hitler miraculously re-appearing in modern Berlin and speaking, unscripted, with actual Germans. The film is available on Netflix and does Americans the service of parroting Hitler’s messages back to modern people with English subtitles — messages like the system being rigged against “real” Germans, the danger and criminality of foreigners, and the right of German people to shout down and threaten those that disagree with them.

The response among the Germans being interviewed, surprisingly, is positive — too positive. According to a review, the film’s producers asked director David Wnendt “to include more negative reactions [to Hitler] in the film, but they couldn’t — only two people responded negatively to Hitler during 300 hours or so of filming.” Those positive reactions were not just amusement, either: “In one particularly worrying scene, Hitler is easily able to persuade a group of soccer fans to attack another actor making anti-German comments. Wnendt said the crew had not expected it to happen so easily and had to step in to help.”

The film consists mostly of unscripted episodes, but the scripted portion revolves around the Fuhrer getting a reality show.

One of Hitler’s most famous lines, mentioned in both 1948’s The Language of the Third Reich and 2014’s Er Ist Wieder Da, was his announcement of Nazi Germany’s hostile invasion of Poland: “Since 5:45 A.M. we have been returning the fire, and from now on bombs will be met by bombs.” The choice of words couches even what Americans have learned as bald aggression as an act of self-defense.

That shamelessness, to make a lie so huge it must be the truth, is Hitler’s power. It is the single biggest, and perhaps the only important similarity between the Nazis and Trump, who has long since shrugged off the annoying influence of facts.

Ultimately, Trump is probably not competent enough to become a leader like end-stage Hitler. Perhaps the saving grace of his campaign is that it is just too lazy to be truly evil: It is so chaotic, so obsessed with validating its worldview to itself, that it hasn’t spent the requisite time and money to convince others.

That shamelessness, to make a lie so huge it must be the truth, is Hitler’s power.

But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t, and that doesn’t mean past movements like it haven’t. The source of Trump’s opponents’ disdain for the man and those who follow him is that they see where his language leads while disowning the valid, justified populist rage that permitted it in the first place. His apologists are outraged that their frustrations are being dismissed while simultaneously disowning their current rhetoric’s blood-soaked history. Both of these are only possible because each side reduces the other to something hateful, hateable, and simple, while the true, complicated viciousness that really empowers demagogues still slithers underneath.

Defending his father-in-law after an open letter by a Jewish employee of his newspaper called him out on his silence, member of Trump’s inner-circle Jared Kushner responded, “If even the slightest infraction against what the speech police have deemed correct speech is instantly shouted down with taunts of ‘racist’ then what is left to condemn the actual racists? What do we call the people who won’t hire minorities or beat others up for their religion?” The answer to that question is “racists.” We call them racists because they submit to a worldview that normalizes violence, and which slowly normalizes greater violence. Trump may or may not be a racist in his heart, or a sexist, or an anti-Semite, but he is in his actions. And he is not the first.