Friday, February 03, 2017

Why Trump Isn't Hitler And We Shouldn't Call Him So

Should we compare Trump to Hitler?

Hitler is a real historical figure, but he is also a symbol, something we invoke perhaps a bit too often. Anyone disagreeable in government is called Hitler, as well as any act which smacks of authoritarianism is quickly branded, 'like Hitler'. So, it is not a surprise that the spectre of Hitler has been invoked, as Trump is unleashed on America. What is surprising is that this discussion is getting serious, with Liberals writing detailed comparison why it may be so, and indeed, an assortment of angry Conservatives denying any resemblance.

Some of this Conservative case is easy to make. Contemporary America has nothing in common with Weimar Germany, at least at the surface. It has an evolved Republican tradition - the oldest in the world, in fact - and history of stable governments, and do not compare with the Republic that lasted for slightly more than a decade and regularly saw Chancellors come and go. Germany was blighted by economic crisis - the hyperinflation of 1923, the Great Depression and the deflation that followed - and the American woes are nothing comparable to what Germans experienced. The Weimar life was marked by pitched street battles between private militias and violence, and a violent coup, though a few attempts failed in the initial years of the Weimar and was deemed ineffective even by Hitler, was never an impossibility. There was the persistent Communist threat and overbearing presence of Communist USSR, which made the German middle classes queasy with democracy. And, finally, Hitler - at least when seen through the contemporary lense - was a madcap vagabond, an inflammatory public speaker but not much else, against Donald Trump the billionaire businessman.

One could indeed draw some parallels, like the economic crisis, the unspoken but real presence of violence in American cities, and the threat of Islamic terrorism that might have made some Middle Class people vote Trump, but these parallels would be really laboured and overdrawn. There were many things that one could do in the 1930s - like thinking gay people are abnormal or Jews are the scums of the earth, and pretend to show scientific justification for it - which one can not do any more, at least publicly. And, besides, that all those factors brought Hitler to power is also too simplistic a view: Hitler was elevated to Chancellorship through an extraordinary act of palace intrigue, by people who thought Hitler would be 'normalised' once in power and who was really working to advance their own career goals. In short, it was a historical accident, which was unpalatable to some, particularly the Communists, but no one saw that as a historical event as it turned out to be. And, when Hitler did go after the groups - Communists and Social Democrats first, then the 'degenerates', then the Catholics, then the Jews (with overlaps and many things inbetween, but focusing on one 'public enemy' at a time) - the other groups mostly stood aloof, and even applauded. Till, indeed, the Gestapo came for them. So, Hitler was a non-event - more precisely, Hitler was not called out as The Hitler when he was elected Chancellor. 

It is also important to realise the comparison with Hitler somewhat undermine the danger that Trump poses. Hitler was crazy but convinced that he was a man on a mission, the reincarnation of a German hero, and went about his terrible business with a righteous certainty that was mind-boggling. Trump on the other hand, is perfectly sane (despite all the ridiculous reports about his mental health) and cynical, though, admittedly, he surrounds himself with a few crazies of his own. He represents not the ancient German hero but the modern CEO, for whom the result matters and not the way, and for whom, power is a tool for personal advancement. And, add to that the realities of the United States - it is the most powerful country in the world and has the tools to enforce its will on anyone, something Germany could do only in Hitler's illusions. Trump is a far more dangerous leader than Hitler: He, as the American President has the ability to wreck the global order in a way a German Chancellor in the 1930s could not do (which Hitler ended up doing, but through stupidity and complicity of other leaders and countries), and could, like a CEO, can gamble his way to the precipice and then take everyone down with them.

And, this Trump-as-Hitler debate shows, if anything, how clueless the Liberal position has become. This comparison not only underplays the dangers, but also allows Trump some advantages. One could see this in the Conservative push-back in this debate. The Trump-as-Hitler metaphor has now been, conveniently, translated into Trump-vs-Hitler comparison, making Trump's actions look benign and the comparison outlandish. The nuances of hindsight, which apply to Hitler but exempt Trump, are important in assessing historical impact, and therefore, this is a false comparison that works in favour of Trump. Hence, for a completely different reason from those who are celebrating the victory of Mr Drumpf (that Trump is of German descent and his family name was Drumpf are obscure facts, but perhaps more plausible connection between Trump and German than the Hitler moniker), Trump should not be compared with Hitler but be called out for the dangers he poses on his own.




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