In Friedrich Meinecke’s The German Catastrophe, published in 1946, the German historian tried to reckon with the disaster that had befallen his country.
Meinecke had some difficulty acknowledging that the Second World War was Germany’s own doing. He wrote that in the “actions and character” of the war’s instigator, Adolf Hitler, “there lay something foreign to us Germans”. Later, he added that the German people “were not fundamentally diseased with criminal sentiments but were only suffering for a while… from poison administered to [them]”.
I was reminded of Meinecke’s book as I read accounts of the hair-raising Republican National Convention this past week. Chip Franklin, a talk show host, tweeted an open call for followers to, “Name something in common with the US now and early Nazi German[y], then pass it on.” (3,600 people weighed in.) Mikko Alanne, a screenwriter, compared the Republican platform of support for Donald Trump and little else to the Nazi oath of allegiance to Hitler. Several speakers at the conference itself were compared to fascists, including Donald Jr’s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle.
Just as Meinecke failed to fully acknowledge that Germany bore full responsibility for Hitler and his war, American liberals comparing Trump with the Führer is a way to externalise responsibility for the failings of a country they no longer recognise. After all, if Trump is like Hitler then he is the very definition of a foreign outsider.
The reality is that right-wing extremism mutates to fit the specificities of time and place. The United States in 2020 is not the same as Germany in 1933. Trump is dangerous, racist, and unquestionably anti-democratic. His supporters draw from a legacy of brutal white supremacy that stretches back to the post-Reconstruction terror waged for close to a century on African-Americans in the Southern states. Trump himself traffics in unsubtle racism and glorifies and encourages violence. Still, he is not Hitler, and to draw parallels between the two men is not only to cheapen the memory of the victims of Nazism, but to critically misunderstand the threat Trump poses to the US and the world.
Ernst Fraenkel, the German jurist who emigrated to the US in 1939, argued that Nazi Germany comprised two distinct and parallel states: the “normative” and the “prerogative”. The normative state consisted of the legal remnants of the Weimar Republic: its constitution, the rule of law, up to a point, and the traditional civil service. The prerogative state, by contrast, consisted of the parallel institutions of the party, where the only law was the word of the Führer and the interests of the people, as interpreted by the party.
The two states were in constant struggle, a curious marriage that gave rise to what the historian of fascism Robert Paxton termed the regime’s “bizarre mixture of legalism and arbitrary violence”. The Nazi Party had its own foreign policy office, paramilitary force and party court. Early on, the normative state’s police force was put under party control; by 1938, the Foreign Office had been too. Simultaneously, party institutions such as the SS grew in power, acting mostly outside of the normative state’s legal regime.
None of this applies to Trump’s America. There are no parallel party structures competing with the normative state, even if Trump has elicited the loyalty of previously sceptical conservatives, an essential precondition of fascism taking root. There are no concentration camps for political opponents, though the internment of migrant families is a moral outrage. Some of his supporters have taken it upon themselves to act as extralegal paramilitaries, such as the suspect in the fatal shooting of two Black Lives Matter protesters this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin. They are dangerous – but they are different to the organised party militias that marauded around early 1930s Europe.
Flippant, ahistorical comparisons with the 1930s misunderstand how rapidly Weimar Germany slid into totalitarianism. Dachau concentration camp opened in March 1933, two months after Hitler took power. Germany was declared a one-party state in July that year. The anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were passed in 1935.
David Runciman, a political scientist, argues in his book How Democracy Ends that the material conditions that led to 1930s fascism no longer exist in wealthy societies: “Our societies are too different – too affluent, too elderly, too networked – and our collective historical knowledge of what went wrong then is too entrenched.” As Runciman writes, the danger is not that the US is like Nazi Germany. It is that US democracy is being eroded in new and unfamiliar ways that do not perfectly match the 1930s.
American democracy is being undermined. Trump officials used the White House and taxpayer funding during the RNC, defying both norms and laws, according to House Democrats who have opened an investigation. In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for president, Trump said to those Americans who disagree with him, “We’re here, and they’re not.” The taunt was not exactly a sign of a functioning government operating under the rule of law.
Much as Meinecke could not grasp that Hitler was a uniquely German phenomenon, Americans who compare Trump to Hitler fail to understand that Trump fits his time and place. If the collapse of American democracy comes, it will not parallel the 1933 Enabling Act. It will fit the American context, the American here and now – and it will be the responsibility of Americans.