If there are any Trump supporters reading this, I urgently advise you, before you read any farther, to place across both knees a large book like Gray’s Anatomy or the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, because I can guarantee that at some point, your knee will jerk, which could cause you to kick your coffee table over or result in a shoe flying off your foot and through your TV screen. There … you have been warned. (You might also reflexively shout in a Terminator or Robbie-the-Robot voice “Godwin’s Law … Godwin’s Law … Godwin’s Law”, but unless you disturb your neighbors, no harm / no foul.) Why? Because this “Skeptic’s” column is about parallels, which I insist are neither gratuitous nor imaginary nor fictitious, between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. I would also recommend that you take to heart Davi Barker’s admonition about Godwin’s Law (boldface added): Mike Godwin’s original intention [in initially articulating Godwin’s law] was to curb gratuitous comparisons to Nazis so that valid comparisons could retain their explanatory and cautionary power. It was never intended to be invoked as a complete ban on such comparisons. I spent the better part of the time between 2005 and 2007 – long before Donald Trump rose to prominence -- reading, some would say obsessively, almost nothing except material about the history of Weimar Germany between 1918 and 1933. My conclusion? Mark Twain was right: history does not repeat, but it sometimes rhymes. Following is a case in point:
Like all authoritarian demagogues in history, both Trump and Hitler displayed great finesse in taking problems that were genuine – and that aroused the anger and fear of great segments of their fellow citizens – and leveraging these issues so as to gain and to increase their political power. (So did leaders of The Terror during the French Revolution. So did the Bolsheviks who led the Russian Revolution of 1917. Examples could be multiplied many times over.) In the case of Hitler, these issues included catastrophic levels of unemployment, much of it resulting from the mustering-out of former soldiers at the end of the War who were entering an already-depressed and jobless economy; national humiliation over the terms of the Treaty of Versailles; and hyper-inflation of German currency. (Regarding the latter, I highly recommend Adam Fergusson’s economic horror story When Money Dies: The Nightmare of Deficit Spending, Devaluation, and Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany. Also Frederick Taylor's The Downfall of Money: Germany's Hyperinflation and the Destruction of the Middle Class. Speaking of hyperinflation as one of Germany's most urgent problems, the latter book records the breathtaking fact that, in the autumn of 1923, it took 2 trillion German marks to buy a single American dollar. Most of the hyperinflation was over by the time Hitler took office in 1933, but public confidence in the financial system was still shaken.) There was also the political instability of the German nation, which had only been a tenuously unified political entity since the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-72. (Prime example: whether Bavaria would remain in Germany or declare independent statehood was a serious question in the Weimar era.) The list goes on, but the critical point to note is that all these were grave problems, none were made up, none were exaggerated, and all demanded a solution. Fast forward to the US in 2016. Equally grave issues for us are immigration and border control, income inequality, climate change, and globalist trade agreements that primarily benefit the “elite-ist” of the elite. These are no less real for the United States of 2016 than hyperinflation and mass unemployment were for Weimar Germany in the (plus / minus) 1920s.
But the real virtuosity of both Trump and Hitler vis a vis their respective problem-sets was not merely recognizing the reality of the challenges, but in (a) selecting which challenges to foreground in their campaigns and political rhetoric, and (b) in proposing solutions that their respective followers would be likely, usually on purely emotional grounds, to support most enthusiastically. In both cases, the decision as to which problems to emphasize was determined by what I call the “twisted-knickers criterion” (TKC): which problems / challenges are the ones most likely to get your supporters’ knickers in a twist? A contemporary example, China is very adept at keeping its national currency artificially weak, relative to the dollar, so that Chinese exports are quite cheap, relative to their American strong-dollar counterparts. This problem is equally real, arguably equally serious and no less worthy of attention. But how many pairs of knickers are twisted by the thought of artificial Chinese currency manipulation? Except for the intimate apparel of tenured professors of economics, essentially none. But manufacturing jobs being offshored because of cheap labor abroad … the TKC coefficient of that issue is off the charts. Ditto border security in an age of international terror. With Hitler, the no-less-real problems were mass unemployment, the Versailles humiliation, and rising street violence at political rallies – all with very high TKC coefficients.
The TKC coefficient is critical because it is the key to the psychological leverage needed to motivate your supporters. In principle, using the TKC coefficient is simplicity itself: you echo back to your followers the very solutions that seem most obvious to them. Not to you. To them. You validate their solutions to these high-energy issues by telling your followers what they want to hear. Unemployment? Scrap the Versailles limits on German armaments and start rebuilding the old Prussian military. (This must be, and was, done very discreetly, very sub rosa.) Start Volkswagen (which Hitler did). Political unrest at rallies? Send in your own brownshirt cadre and bust some heads. (This was a solution also advocated by Trump early in his campaign. He even vowed to pay legal expenses.) Are Jews unfairly monopolizing the professions, academe, and high finance? Pass the Nuremberg Laws. (For 500 years, Christian Europe had punished Jews by prohibiting Jews from practicing most professions except money-lending. So after 25 generations, of course they were good at it as a community, especially when you couple that with the pre-existing affinity for academics so integral to Jewish life and culture. Jews were blamed for being good at one of the few professions the Church allowed them to practice! See Goetz Aly’s excellent study Why the Germans? Why the Jews?) Of course, as H. L. Mencken once caustically asserted, “For every problem there is a solution which is simple, clean and wrong.” But if you are Hitler or Trump and really want to amass raw political power, you never – absolutely never – want to quote Mencken out loud. Rather the whole point is just the opposite: to validate. You validate your supporters by validating their solutions, no matter how unrealistic and unworkable those solutions may be. (Later, you may have to gently renege on some of these solutions, just as Trump seems to be doing re the border wall by having the American taxpayer pay the initial bill while vaguely promising that Mexico will reimburse the up-front cost -- which Mexico continues to stoutly aver it will never do. But if you are suave and smooth about it, your followers will not be discomfited, because they are still subsisting on the raw energy you gave them by validating them in the first place. After feeling ignored and slighted for so long, the least fillip of validation starts you jonesing for more! Very like getting someone hooked on crystal meth.) Take people who are frightened, angry, and insecure; affirm their fear, anger, and insecurity; validate them by validating their solutions … and you can surf their insecurities and fears all the way to the Berlin Reichschancellery – and the Oval Office. Never underestimate the power of raw fear coupled with unconditional positive regard. I've been there -- a number of years ago -- and done that. And I can tell you it makes you neither dumb nor a brute. Just human. From The Art of the Deal:
The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.
That is a lesson progressives have learned, if at all, only in the abstract. We sure are no damn good at actually practicing it. When was the last time you -- or I, for all that -- actually talked to a red-State, conservative-evangelical, born-again-Christian Trump supporter one-on-one in a friendly tone without inducing in them the suspicion that you were condescending to talk to them to ridicule their conservatism and / or their religious beliefs? Barack Obama was probably better at it than most of us, certainly better at it than I am. Remember the "beer summit" with President Obama, VP Biden, Prof. Gates, and the Cambridge cop who arrested him? Classic Obama. And yet even Mr. Obama once in a great while could be supercilious like the stereotypical New England liberal-elitist Harvard grad. Remember his remark, during an interview, about certain segments of voters ... wink! wink! ... being hung up (my term) on "God, guns, and gays" (his term)? And I have lost count of how often Bill Maher -- bless his heart ... I love the guy! -- has characterized Christianity as a belief in (Bill's term) "talking snakes". As much as I like Bill, I must say I agree wholeheartedly with Anthony Bourdain's revulsion at that tendency to stereotype-through-ridicule. We do that a lot, and I know all too personally well how hard a habit it is to break.
But we'd better break it. Either that or sign up for Pilate's classes in stiff-arm saluting and goose-stepping.
James R. Cowles
Weimar Million mark note ... Reichsbankdirektorium ... Public domain
Adolf Hitler ... Bundesarchiv Bild ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany
Donald Trump ... Joint Congressional Inauguration Committee ... Public domain
Italian fascist flag ... Artist unknown ... Public domain