If we are to believe that Donald Trump has used the same tactics that Adolf Hitler used, then we must also believe that Americans today are largely similar to the Germans then. Frankly, the comparison does not work.
In his 2019 book When at Times the Mob Is Swayed: A Citizen’s Guide to Defending Our Republic, Burt Neuborne, a Civil Rights attorney and law professor, is careful to distinguish between the person of Trump and the person of Hitler. As noted in a lengthy article by Steven Rosenfeld, “The author repeatedly says his goal is not ‘equating’ the men — as ‘it trivializes Hitler’s obscene crimes to compare them to Trump’s often pathetic foibles.’” (Since the book was released in August 2019, we can now better evaluate its arguments.)
Neuborne, however, does accept the claim made in divorce filings by Trump’s first wife that Trump “kept and studied a book translating and annotating Adolf Hitler’s pre-World War II speeches in a locked bedside cabinet.”
And, he writes, “Watching Trump work his crowds . . . I see a dangerously manipulative narcissist unleashing the demagogic spells that he learned from studying Hitler’s speeches — spells that he cannot control and that are capable of eroding the fabric of American democracy. You see, we’ve seen what these rhetorical techniques can do. Much of Trump’s rhetoric — as a candidate and in office — mirrors the strategies, even the language, used by Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s to erode German democracy.”
Putting aside the claim about Trump’s alleged study of Hitler’s pre-World War II speeches – I have not heard this before and cannot verify or refute it – Neuborne is not the first academic to compare Trump’s methodology to that of Hitler.
I devoted a whole chapter in Evangelicals at the Crossroads: Will We Pass the Trump Test? to the International Bonhoeffer Society’s call for Christians to abandon their support of Trump. They too pointed to dangerous, alleged parallels between our era and that of Hitler.
Another chapter in the book was titled, “The Cult of Trump or Trump Derangement Syndrome,” and there I addressed the question of whether there really was a cult-like devotion to Trump, even among (or especially among) Christian conservatives.
In all candor, some of that devotion is scary, in keeping with Trump’s (in)famous line that he could shoot someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters.
Trump does know how to push the right buttons, and I find it amazing (and quite disconcerting) when his supporters seem oblivious to his obvious flaws. (To cite one example, a Christian Trump supporter recently challenged me to cite a single lie that Trump ever told. She was convinced that never once did he stretch the truth.)
That’s why, as a two-time Trump voter, I have continued to ask the question if the relationship between Trump and Christian conservatives is a match made in heaven or a marriage with hell.
At the same time, should Trump abandon his pro-life stance or his pro-religious freedoms stance, to give just two examples, most of these same supporters would abandon him in a heartbeat. Christian supporters of Trump cannot fairly be compared to the Nazis.
More specifically, Hitler was elected Chancellor in 1933, which would be the equivalent of Trump’s election in 2016.
But already in 1933, as pointed out by Eric Metaxas in his biography of Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Krause (leader of the pro-Nazi “Christians) “demanded that the German church must once and for all divest itself of every hint of Jewishness.” And, “The Old Testament would be first, ‘with its Jewish money morality and its tales of cattle merchants and pimps!’”
Indeed, “Krause also mocked ‘the theology of the Rabbi Paul with its scapegoats and inferiority complex,’ and then he mocked the symbol of the cross, ‘a ridiculous, debilitating remnant of Judaism, unacceptable to National Socialists!’”
Could you imagine how long it would take for Christian conservatives to utterly condemn such a statement were it made on behalf of Trump today? Could you imagine how quickly they would run from Trump should he support those sentiments?
By 1935, the oppressive, antisemitic, Nuremberg Laws were set in place, and there was very little Christian resistance. And by 1938, after Hitler annexed Austria in a brazen act of military expansionism, some “Christian” leaders were giddy with excitement, making fresh commitments to the Führer. They swore an oath of loyalty both to Christ and to Hitler.
To be sure, there are Christians today who state plainly, “If you are not for Trump, you are not for Jesus.” Such sentiments are dangerous in the extreme.
But the fact is that Trump has not done anything remotely resembling what Hitler was already doing several years into his reign. That’s why I referenced Krause’s antisemitic speech from 1933, the Nuremberg Laws from 1935, and the 1938 oath to Hitler after an act of military aggression.
No true comparison can be made between these draconian acts and anything in the Trump administration, let alone something that would be supported en masse by Christian Trump supporters.
First on the list of Neuborne’s chapter featuring 20 comparisons is the fact that neither Hitler nor Trump were elected by a majority of the populace. But that becomes irrelevant when we note that, four years later, in 2020, a majority once again did not vote for Trump, indicating that America is hardly fertile soil for a Hitler-like takeover.
Second on the list is that, “Both found direct communication channels to their base.” But where were the equivalents to virtually all the mainstream media of the day coming against Hitler, forcing him to rely primarily on his direct communication? And how long would Hitler’s Germany have tolerated such mainstream media resistance? (This ties in with #6, “They relentlessly attack mainstream media.” Again, I ask, to what extent did anti-Hitler media dominate the press and radio waves even four years after he came to power?)
To be sure, there are some valid comparison, including (but not limited to) “4. Both relentlessly demonize opponents. 5. They unceasingly attack objective truth. 8. Their lies blur reality — and supporters spread them.”
But, on closer examination, the comparisons are embarrassing. For example, “12. They embraced mass detention and deportations,” as if anything Trump has ever said or done could compare in the slightest to the horrors of the Holocaust. Comparisons like this are unworthy or refutation.
It is true, then, that Trump has utilized some techniques that other powerful leaders, like Hitler, used in the past. (Whether this comes naturally to Trump or whether he has studied these techniques is a different subject.) And it is true that quite a few of his supporters show an unhealthy loyalty to him.
But America today is not pre-Holocaust Nazi Germany, nor can Trump’s Christian conservative supporters be compared with the pro-Nazi Christians.
Unfortunately, to the extent those on the left compare Trump to Hitler and his followers to Nazis, they become part of the very cycle of hate they claim to reject.
A little self-reflection on all sides, coupled with a dialing down of the rhetoric, would help the whole nation.