Comparisons of Trump to Hitler either seem ludicrous or perfectly on target depending on your political leanings, but do the two leaders really share any similarities?
It seems that the era of our 45th President, the era of Trump, is marked thus far by invective. Some on the hard right (including President Trump himself) have spewed vitriol against immigrants, Muslims and anyone who disagrees with them. (I’ve seen this last one first-hand, and I’m sure you have too, automatically labeled part of the “NeverTrump” crowd if you disagree with even one thing he’s done). While much the same can also be said about some on the hard left, only against different targets: Republicans, any Trump supporters, gun ownership, the rich.
Some call it “the politics of fear,” and that really isn’t too far off the mark although, I’d argue, “loathing” should also be added in that description. Make no mistake, both sides engage in “the politics of fear and loathing” in using dog whistle-style rhetoric, prompting their base to loathe and also fear whatever target. This isn’t just endemic to Democrats or Republicans, so-called “conservatives” or so-called “liberals. Both sides do it, and, if you’re like me and Citizen Truth, you’re equally exhausted by the extremes of both sides that seem to be delving further and further down this paranoid and hate-filled rabbit hole every single day.
What’s With the Trump – Hitler Comparisons?
In the midst of the politics of fear and loathing, one of the most oft-repeated bits of vituperation is undoubtedly that President Trump is somehow equal to Adolf Hitler (or really insert your pick of authoritarian leader here). This, by the way, is not new. The accusation of “the President is Hitler!” was leveled repeatedly at President George W. Bush by the left, and repeatedly at President Obama by the right. So, it’s not at all new that it’s leveled at President Trump today, and neither side is innocent of abusing the comparison.
Still, reflexively the hard right cries “reductio ad Hitlerum, libtard!” to any accusation of Trump being Hitler, and there is some truth to the comparison being fallacious when it is intended as a comparison to a straw man of one of Trump’s actual positions or actual actions as Commander in Chief. This is further true of Bush and Obama as well.
In short, when the left conflates and confuses Trump’s actual record or actions to make the comparison more tenable, it becomes a fallacy. Probably the deepest and most lasting examples of this kind of conflation was Hillary Clinton’s now infamous comment calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” despite the fact that many supported Mr. Trump not because of a crazy alt-right or xenophobic agenda, but rather because of his promises on more emotionally innocuous but nevertheless powerful issues like trade deals, relaxing government control over their daily lives through his promise to “drain the swamp,” or because of the flaws in many areas of Clinton’s campaign strategy. The Washington Post has pointed out that the left does no one any favors when they exaggerate Trump’s claims or record in an op-ed here.
At the same time, the hard left shakes their firsts in the air screaming “right on!” to any and all comparisons between Trump and history’s unequivocally authoritarian jackasses, like Hitler, Mao, Mussolini (to be clear Trump’s rhetoric on the press kind of follows the Mussolini mold), Franco, or Stalin (the press as “enemy of the people” actually originated with Stalin).
Is the Trump – Hitler Comparison Reasonable?
Between the reactions on the right and the reactions on the left, where does that leave moderates and independents with no ideological dog in this fight? What should we make of the comparisons between Trump and the authoritarians, specifically Hitler?
Any examination here needs to be fair and merely looking at the facts of both men’s careers in politics. Furthermore, it does no one a service to just ignore every single accusation of this. America was founded upon a relatively ruthless skepticism about power that has (arguably) served us well thus far in our history, even if that history was sometimes messy as is often the case if we want real and true individual liberty. So, not every accusation should be reflexively tossed out, precisely because we want to keep the skepticism necessary to check the power of any man (or woman) who may wield the power of the presidency, no matter who that man (or woman) may be.
Trump vs Hitler “Hero Worship”
Which gets into one somewhat valid comparison between Trump and Hitler—the hero worship. If you’re like me, you’ve experienced that part first-hand with Trump: raise even a valid objection of one of Trump’s policies like the tariffs in his trade war, and you get branded a secret “leftist” and “anti-Trump” even when you agree with other policies of his like the tax cuts, deregulation or the “right to try.” To be clear, this isn’t every supporter of the president, but only the most hardened who seem to have a disproportionately loud voice when looking at their real numbers.
You can see the hero worship further in action by looking at any of President Trump’s many rallies as president or even as a candidate. How he can work the crowds into a frenzy is both a testament to his quintessential essence as a performer and to the unquestioning and adoring mindset he creates in some of his supporters, a variable that gets all the more important with the attempted lone wolf terror attacks of the “MAGA Bomber” (who is on video at a Trump rally). He is an obvious example of the pitfalls of hero worship; Donald Trump did not make him crazy and violent, but there can be no doubt that some of Trump’s more extreme rhetoric (like calling media “enemies of the people”) doesn’t help things.
Yet, does this dynamic of hero worship really jibe with the hero worship surrounding Hitler? While, yes, Hitler also liked his rallies and knew how to whip crowds into a frenzy for his purposes, Nazi rallies in the Third Reich held a different purpose and dynamic from Trump’s rallies in America now.
First, the Nazis explicitly used German mythology and religious symbolism in the planning and execution of their rallies. This symbology had a very definite end: getting people to see the state (the ephemeral “German Volk”) as their god and Hitler as God’s only ambassador.
Second, Hitler’s rallies and his speeches all showed an absolutely neurotic level of planning. Hitler himself even had a photographer who followed him everywhere to take still photos of the Fuhrer in action during a speech, that he may study his gestures and mannerisms and refine them in later speeches.
Trump, in contrast, arguably operates both his rallies and many of his speeches much more off the cuff and extemporaneously. The man is basically defined by his “unpredictability” as he himself has pointed out. Thus, in that regard, he is Hitler’s opposite—not at all a compulsive planner.
Trump and Hitler’s Similar Drive For Masculinity
Probably the most valid point of convergence between Trump and Hitler is the “ubermensch” or “over man” (alternatively “super man” or “strong man”) persona both sought to project. Both Hitler and Trump exhibit a deep drive to define masculinity for their respective bases, with Hitler being explicitly influenced by Nietzsche‘s “ubermensch” or “superman” toward that end.
This can be seen in Trump in his assorted emphases on his body parts. Look at his bragging about the size of his penis. Look at his insane preoccupation with his supposedly “small hands” after Spy Magazine called him “a short-fingered vulgarian” in the late 1980s. Spy’s ex-editor says he still on occasion gets pictures of Trump from Trump with his hand circled in gold Sharpie and “See? Not so short!” written on the picture. One can even look at the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape as an example of what Trump likely believes on some level is a trait of the ubermensch.
This can also be seen in Trump’s seeming affinity with dictators like Putin or the Philippines’ Duterte. He finds it easy to get close with these types of rulers because he believes they are their country’s ubermensch, and he admires how they can “get things done,” apparently even if that means at the end of gun, as it does with all authoritarian strong men.
Not Hitler, But Still Dangerous?
Even though other policy comparisons between Trump and Hitler may not be very valid right now, the more psychological parallels, especially in their affinity for the ubermensch and need to project the same, may be all the more dangerous. We may not have a true authoritarian now, but we may be breeding one.
Still, the worst from that will only happen if we lose our skepticism about power and our fundamental fairness in examining facts. That will only happen if we allow ourselves as a culture to be ruled by hero worship and the politics of fear and loathing.