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Trump/Hitler comparisons are overstated. How did Hitler actually consolidate power?

- November 22, 2016
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on March 11 in St. Louis. (Seth Perlman/AP)

During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, a number of editorials compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. As Trump assembled his transition team, another round of articles likened his new chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, to Hitler’s propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels.

What do I as a German think about these comparisons? While Godwin’s Law tells us that any sufficiently long discussion will produce a Hitler analogy, this one cannot be shrugged off. Using it lightly is massively inappropriate, but ignoring real warning signs could lead to history repeating itself. Therefore, we need to take a closer look.

The comparison is certainly overdrawn if we consider how the two men came to power. Unlike Hitler, Trump never tried to seize power by force; he has not spent a decade calling for violence against entire peoples and nations; and he does not speak of building an empire beyond America’s shores.

Therefore, the Trump-Hitler comparison should not be a political argument about today. Nobody remembers Hitler because he was appointed chancellor in 1933, but we do remember and condemn what he did afterward. So I suggest using history to focus our attention on specific things that Trump must not do in the years ahead.

Using history as a guide

For the Trump-Hitler comparison to hold, the Trump administration would have to consolidate its power as the Nazis did starting in 1933. Nazi policies concentrated on building a cohesive national majority, to unite “ethnic” Germans against Jews, foreigners, homosexuals, political critics and other minority groups. The contemporary analogy would be Trump actively pitting white Christian America against minorities in the years ahead.

The Nazis used at least four tools to accomplish their goals:

1) Scapegoating was a Nazi maneuver to blame minority groups for policy failures and the weak economy. Trump has blamed foreigners and minorities for taking away jobs and killing Americans, but we need to see if this rhetoric from the campaign trail continues once he takes office.

Moreover, Nazi ideologues drew connections between their adversaries: to them, Marxists were essentially Jews, and Jews were connected to big money, so they alleged a global conspiracy against “racial” Germans — the “Jüdisch-Bolschewistische Weltverschwörung.” The equivalent today — an invented conspiracy of Trump’s domestic critics, minorities and international adversaries — would be a clear parallel and warning sign.

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2) Media co-optation (“Gleichschaltung”) proceeded in two steps in Nazi Germany: extending ideological command over the media where possible and shutting down those media outlets Hitler could not control.

In the United States today, this type of autocratic control would be virtually impossible, though attempts at censorship are imaginable. Trump has had openly hostile relations with major newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post, and threatened legal action during the campaign.

The role of social media in the election points to future possible points of contention. One factor that contributed in some part to Trump’s victory was propaganda containing false but factual-sounding statements that discredited Hillary Clinton on social media.

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Facebook has announced that it will do more fact-checking on trending stories. Mass-media technology has changed dramatically since the 1930s — and Trump has no legal basis to shut down critical outlets. But legal quarrels between his administration, the media and social networks would be a red flag, and a threat to the First Amendment.

3) Paramilitary organizations were also part of the Nazi effort to boost national-majority cohesion. The “Sturmabteilung” (SA) violently attacked and intimidated adversaries, most notably on “Kristallnacht” in 1938, when they carried out large-scale attacks on Jews and political opponents.

Thus far, the president-elect’s reaction to post-election racial violence and harassment has been a call to “stop it!” Trump rejected an endorsement from a KKK-linked newspaper before the election, but continued praise from former KKK leader David Duke leaves many Americans concerned about the potential for a rise in SA-type activities. Even more alarming would be any indication that the U.S. government would tolerate violence or racial intimidation from white supremacist groups.

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While the SA controlled the streets, the Hitler Youth indoctrinated young generations, and the government required all young Germans to participate in labor activities (such as road-building for the autobahn) from 1935 onward.

Americans in general are not fond of government-run organizations, but there is one scenario that could theoretically materialize after 2016. Should Trump insist on rebuilding America’s highways and bridges while keeping low-cost foreign labor out, a government-subsidized labor service could be a way to increase cohesion among his constituents. A combination of government-tolerated violent acts by right-wing extremists and government-controlled labor service would add weight to the comparison.

4) Emergency laws came about in Germany after the 1933 arson attack on the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament). Hitler used the threat of terrorism and foreign aggression to justify sweeping autocratic policies, including the 1933 Enabling Act (which let the government issue laws without the Reichstag). Similarly, the Reichstag Fire Decree in 1933 gave Hitler the power to suspend most Germans’ political and individual rights, effectively outlawing opposition parties.

Changing the U.S. Constitution to abolish elections and remove freedom of speech is hardly imaginable. The United States has an uninterrupted democratic history, while Hitler was able to tap into nostalgia for the times under the last German emperor.

But the United States has had similar measures in place since Sept. 11, 2001, which have boosted government surveillance while limiting checks and balances on domestic policing and the use of military force. The Snowden revelations show that U.S. agencies routinely process information on millions of Americans, for instance.

Covert operations and drone strikes in many countries rely on a 2001 U.S. law, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. There would be reason for concern if Trump extended secret policing at home and escalated wars abroad without congressional approval.

So is the comparison useful? I believe it can be, as long as people are willing to keep their minds open, but also their eyes and ears. Pointing to parallels in Trump’s past is not a convincing argument, as the new president’s policy priorities could be entirely different next year. But using the analogy of Hitler and Trump to chart what must not happen next can be useful.

Barring clear moves on any of these four scenarios, Trump could still commit to regrettable policies, but laying the building blocks of fascist rule would not be among them.

Sebastian Schutte is a Marie Curie fellow at the Zukunftskolleg and the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz in Germany.