In my other blog, I review Hitler: Ascent by Volker Ullrich. I’m now reading Downfall. I bought these books to help me understand how close to authoritarianism we in the U.S. were lurching under Trump. That may sound alarmist but the unprecedented attacks on the freedom of the press had me quite worried, as did the rampant misinfomation — disinformation to use the intelligence term — being thrown around. You might find it ludicrous to think that the first major democracy could self-destruct. It’s a rational concern. You just have to ask two questions:
1. Why not?
The why not is easy — history has examples. Democracies have fallen. Why would America be special? Once you get past that question, which for us Americans means shedding a lot of school-learned exceptionalism, you can look rationally at the how. And early 20th century Germany provides us with an avatar and a roadmap. The avatar is Adolf Hitler, the roadmap is his method of pushing legal boundaries and forming a coalition of fear and hatred. Hitler took advantage of historical jealousies, economic angst and fear of disruptors to the “ethnic-popular” culture to forge a legal path to dictatorship.
They have many similarities (see TOH1, TOH2), but is Trump America’s Hitler? No, I think not. Trump is as narcissistic as Hitler and also a dilettante, with ridiculous delusions of exceptionalism in just about every subject he stumbles upon. Examples? “I really get it,” Trump claimed of epidemiology, after a visit to the CDC. Yeah, sure. Hitler thought he was a military expert like Frederick the Great, but his decisions on the Russian Front led to the destruction of entire army groups. Trump was and still is effecting extreme damage to the democratic conventions which hold up the American system, but his very short attention span, thematic inconsistencies and overweening shortsightedness set him apart from Hitler. Hitler, though a self-serving and in some aspects a dilettante like Trump, had a single-minded vision for a racially and culturally ‘pure’ Germany which drove him to pursue long, difficult campaigns to upend the old order. I’d compare Hitler to Sauron, capable of changing the face of the (middle) Earth, and Trump to that kid in 4th grade who figured out how to disrupt the homeroom so effectively that no teaching got done. Except instead of homeroom, it’s my country.
The part that sends shivers down my spine are the many ways in which they are similar. Thank whatever gods you pray to Trump is as ineffective as he is.
Early life influences
In the introduction, Ullrich addresses his predecessor’s work and gives a few quick brushstrokes of the personality. Key to this discussion is Eberhard Jackel’s assertion that Hitler maintained a consistent world view (Ascent p. 3). That’s our first point of divergence of Trump and Hitler. Where Tump has played both sides for short-term personal gain/gratification (Trump as pro-abortion Democrat in the 90’s, pro-life Republican now), Hitler maintained his positions on a range of subjects and stuck to them.
Interestingly, like Trump (Drumpf), Hitler’s father (likely illegitimate, ibid, p.14) had a name-change in his past, from Schicklgruber to Hitler.
What about his foundation? A fourth child in a family where the first three died early, Hitler was spoiled by his mom, to his step-siblings detriment apparently. We hear of his success in the small village primary school, and the rude awakening he had at his urban secondary school (p. 20) where he failed math and natural science. “…Talented…not diligent” was one assessment.
Was Trump spoiled by his mom? Not really, she was an invalid of sorts, distant and had mental health challenges. Family life sounds fractured, with the kids set off against each other by the father, who was more involved in Trump’s case, though in a pathological way. As for diligence, Trump’s niece Mary would have us believe her uncle never passed a test on his own, getting into Wharton by having someone else take the SAT tests. Since he does not, as U.S. president, even bother to read his daily intelligence briefing, we can certainly say Trump is, like the young Hitler, not diligent at anything to do with ingesting information.
In his mid-teen years, Hitler the dropout spent his time drawing, painting, and wandering along the Danube (ibid, p. 23). His closest teenage friend disclosed what was behind the façade of this carefree era, describing a Hitler likely to “explode into anger” (ibid, p. 24). Later, after famously failing to get into the artistic Academy in Vienna, Hitler settled into a humble existence: living in a rooming house, painting commercially, hustling postcards on the side. He is said to have created over a thousand paintings, and they are credible. With no rich patron, it was his efforts as an artist which literally kept him alive. Later, Hitler joined the Army, fought, was famously wounded and gassed. After the war, he became ardent politically, and always boasted through his life of his extended political struggles (Mein Kamp, after all) along with the ‘old fighters’ of the NSDAP.
What was Trump doing in his teens? Again, from his niece, Trump was sent to a military school for “fighting, bullying, arguing with teachers.” No interlude of artistic retrospection or husting to make his daily bread, Trump always had his way paved for him. He was a millionaire at age 8, and all told, his dad bankrolled him for over a hundred forty million dollars to start his career. And that is likely the source of his greatest weakness: never required to overcome adversity, always had the money to buy his way in or sue his way out. Trump never built, through overcoming adversity, the sort of “iron will” that Hitler clearly had (to a pathological fault). As for military service? Trump’s famous ‘bone spurs’ kept him out of the draft, and his war was avoiding STDs at Studio 54. Really.
Trump certainly has single-mindedness, and (like Hitler) a high appetite for attending self-gratifying rallies as displayed during his 2020 campaign, but I would argue he has nowhere near the work ethic that Hitler had.
Take for example his behavior since the election, which he lost (and still does not accept). His reaction? He has withdrawn from public appearances. He has gone golfing nine times since the election, appearing at public events only four times as of this writing, and only answered questions (briefly) once. Meanwhile, he has been stewing in the White House tweeting. This when there are up to 2,000 Americans dying per day from COVID, the pandemic is out of control, with up to 90,000 hospitalized. And yeah, there is a country to run.
In contrast, Hitler was politically active for over a decade before his first successes. He survived a failed coup attempt, served his time and came back to lead his party. He helped build the largest party in the Reichstag, but suffered a failed Presidential election (1932) and still did not give up. Faced with failure at the polls, he was ruthless (and to be fair hardworking) enough to trick another minority (DNVP) party to essentially form a coalition government with himself as chancellor. (They thought they could ‘contain’ Hitler and the NSDAP. Obviously they failed.) Hitler was so bad because he did not give up, ever.
We read in Downfall that Hitler, faced with monumental failure in the Russian Front, spent most of his last three years in the Wolf’s Lair, his East Prussian outpost, reviewing situation reports, studying training and material reports and directing his generals. He worked. Ullrich recounts in Downfall how Hitler often surprised his generals with how much he knew of units, men, materiel, the military situation. He read reports. He was no less deluded than Trump, believing, as both men must, in their assured success (because failure was seen as annihilation). Hitler’s evil was deep–even in the depths of his defeat he took the time to direct the rounding up and gassing of 430,000 Hungarian Jews–but it took more than mendacious intent and overweening ambition for him to wreak such destruction., He worked at it. It is chilling to read of this man, like a world-eating crocodile, cold and unrelenting.
Trump is often portrayed as a toddler having a tantrum. He’s an awful man who, as Hitler did in Germany, has stoked division in this country to the point that we may be beyond a point of stability, and may face an inevitable slide towards authoritarianism. Trump could not claim the authoritarian’s throne he clearly seeks, he does not have the political skill or attention span to do it. Be glad.
If we are past the point of no return, it won’t be Trump who leads that final descent. It will be someone far savvier, more disciplined, who has real political chops and the subtlety to subvert our courts and sway a body politic to accept him as absolute leader. Anyone who doubts this just look at how the Republican party has enabled this man. And to what purpose? To avoid being ‘primaried.’ As if their picayune jobs as Representatives and Senators will mean anything once the real American Hitler takes power. (Doubt me? What use was the Reichstag after 1933?)
How does it happen? Easy. Very similar to the Weimar Germany playbook:
Take the presidency and at least the Senate so no one can be impeached and removed from office. Re-stoke the racial fires in the U.S., with the Justice Department leading the way: show restraint with white supremacist groups while repressing BLM, fail to follow up on civil rights violations against racial minorities–which will encourage more police violence. Once widespread protests and rioting break out, invoke the Insurrection Act, then martial law–because they are necessary for ‘law and order.’ At that point, it is done. Congress cannot undo these actions by the Executive, and the Justice Department will do nothing to stop illegal grabs of power because it is directed by the Executive (our constitutional flaw). There need be no more elections.
After 1933, the Reichstag was immaterial to German politics. It took a world war, tens of millions dead and a reconstituted West German state before the next real election in Germany. Think about that.
P.S. I am no fan of Hitler. His evil is well documented, and the death and destruction he wreaked deserves no approbation. Any ‘positive’ aspects of Hitler do have to be assessed to understand the phenomenon of his autocracy. Maintenance of our democracy requires constant vigilance, and the courage to face what we least want to.