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Think Donald Trump is a joke candidate? That’s what they said about Hitler

Educated, worldly German observers in the early 1930s could not believe that such a man could triumph over cultural and political liberalism. And yet.

By Sasha Abramsky

“January 30: Hitler Chancellor. What, up to election on March 5, I called terror was a mild prelude. Now the business of 1918 is being exactly repeated, only under a different sign, under the swastika… On Saturday, the fourth, I heard a part of Hitler’s speech from Königsberg. The front of a hotel at the railway station, illuminated, a torchlight procession in front of it, torchbearers and swastika flag bearers on the balconies and loudspeakers. I understood only occasional words. But the tone! The unctuous bawling…” 

So wrote the scholar Victor Klemperer in his diary after the unfathomable had happened: Germany, a country that prided itself on its sophistication, its culture, its intellectual accomplishments, its vital engagement with the other great countries of the world, had allowed Hitler to achieve supreme power and had then ratified that power with an election that solidified the Nazi Party’s hold on the entire political process.

It had taken 15 years from the end of the Great War until the rise of Hitler in 1933. And during those years Germany went through some of its most liberal moments, with the Weimar Republic creating universal suffrage, witnessing a cultural flowering, embracing sexual freedoms and women’s emancipation, and providing liberal political figures such as Walther Rathenau – who would die by an assassin’s bullet in 1922 – a glorious, albeit brief, opportunity to reshape not just Germany but the broader European political system.

Yet under the surface, despite the apparent ascendancy of cultural and political liberalism in great urban centres such as Berlin, the country’s psyche was so damaged and its sense of victimhood so profound that, as it lurched from economic crisis to economic crisis, the middle fell out of the political process. By the late 1920s, it had degenerated into a series of savage street fights. By the early 1930s, fascist language – of Jews stabbing Germany in the back, of a Fifth Column, of the Iron Fist, of beating the shit out of enemies, of easy certainties in place of the complexities of modernity – and fascist understandings of history were coming to dominate the public discourse.

To the amazement of Klemperer and other educated, worldly, observers of the German scene, the ludicrous martinet figure of Hitler suddenly became a plausible political choice for millions of angry and fearful and resentful Germans.

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Are we witnessing a similar moment in the United States today, nearly fifteen years after the 9/11 terror attacks – a period of permanent war, of relentless terror scares and assaults in one country after the next at the hands of peculiarly bloodthirsty jihadist groups, of economic angst, of surveillance, and of massive global upheaval? After several years of the relatively liberal administration of Obama are we witnessing an unleashed backlash that could have incalculable consequences for America’s pre-eminent standing as a global democracy?

It is easy to dismiss Donald Trump as a barker or as a fool. Surely he can’t be elected politically savvy people say, with a slight, wavering question in their comment. Surely someone who proposes registering all Muslims, surveilling all mosques, and, now, barring all Muslims from entering the country will be laughed off the national stage.

Klemperer’s peers said the same about Hitler. It was inconceivable to them that the bilious author of Mein Kampf held mass appeal; and thus they missed, until it was too late, just how extraordinarily effective a demagogue he was, a man who peddled fear and tapped into a sense of pervasive insecurity, militaristic nationalism and rage, and who shamelessly utilised the Big Lie to build a political base.

Over the last few months, Trump has progressively ratcheted up his xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric, at each step of the way carefully moving his audience in a more extreme direction. In pacing his introduction of one ghastly proposal after the next, he has normalized the previously unthinkable and made a part of the political debate ideas that were, just weeks ago, considered far beyond the fringe. His latest outrage, calling for the country, in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attack, to bar access to all Muslim visitors is, surely, not an end point. It is, as was Hitler’s move to consolidate power and destroy enemies after the burning of the Reichstag, just one more stepping stone into the realm of demagoguery and rage-politics, one more frontal assault on the pluralist democracy he claims to be defending.

Words have consequences. Trump is stirring up mob hatreds, is riding a moment of fear as have the Front National in France in the jittery weeks following the Paris massacre. He is all-but-inciting his large crowds to violence. And in the days after the San Bernardino mass killing, he has fed a war-of-civilizations storyline beloved by Isis and al-Qaeda but one that any sober-minded public figure should shy away from in horror. In his evermore-toxic words bellowed forth to enthused crowds, one can see the ghosts of Brownshirts-past come alive; in his rhythms, one can hear the tinkle of breaking glass from Kristallnacht.

Germans in the heyday of the Weimar Republic would have had a hard time imagining that barely a few years later a man such as Hitler could be voted into power. And yet he was. It may be equally hard to imagine today that President Obama could be followed into the White House by Donald Trump – and to be honest I too have a hard time imagining it – and yet if terror attacks continue in this country, with Trump and Isis fuelling each other’s appeal the impossible becomes possible and the roadmap to electoral victory for as thuggish a man as Trump no longer looks entirely implausible.

Fascism doesn’t happen overnight. It is the end product of years and years of debased political rhetoric and an inflamed sense of victimhood. It happens when people have successfully been dehumanised by the apparatus of power; and it happens when good people, of which there are many, stay silent in the face of discrimination and violence. Over the last fifteen years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, we have seen the adoption of torture as state-sanctioned practice; we have seen the use of wholesale military interventions to solve complex problems from one country to the next; and we have seen the rise of Drone warfare, which reduces the death meted out by these machines to impersonal flashes on computer screens thousands of miles from the bloody scenes of the explosions.

In such an environment, Trumpian proposals, such as religion tests for those wanting to enter the country, are simply seen by many as an extension of the new and violent normal. Yet they aren’t normal, in any way, shape, or form. They are extreme, dangerous, and utterly anti-democratic.

There is nothing benign or humorous anymore in the Trump phenomenon. It is time, before he gains more traction with his obnoxious suggestions, for all political figures of good conscience, from the liberal left to the conservative right to stand up against him, unified in opposition to everything he represents. After all, history furnishes ample examples of what happens when race-and-religion-baiting demagogues triumph in national elections.

“Everything I considered un-German,” Klemperer wrote a month after those democracy-shattering elections in 1933, “brutality, injustice, hypocrisy, mass suggestion to the point of intoxication, all of it flourishes here.”


Now listen to Caroline Crampton, Barbara Speed and Jonn Elledge discuss Donald Trump, on this week’s New Statesman podcast…