Facebook currently carries a large number of memes comparing Trump to Hitler. The trouble with this kind of unclear thinking is that it makes it more difficult to see what Trump really is and what he might or might not do.
Godwin’s law means that I have to pause here to make it unambiguously clear that I am horrified and sickened by Hitler and suspicious of Trump, so this blog is not a hagiography of either man. However, they are not two of a kind and it’s important to understand the differences.
Hitler was a military dictator. He came to power with the express intention of rebuilding Germany’s armed forces, overturning the Versailles treaty, and expanding Germany by military means at the expense of other countries. His power base was mainly paramilitary and later military.
Hitler won control of the Reichstag in the election of March 1933 mainly because of violence and intimidation by Nazis against other parties and because he used the excuse of the Reichstag fire the previous month to suppress the Communist party, one of his main election rivals.
This is the first difference between Hitler and Trump. Hitler gained power by violence and undemocratic suppression of rivals: Trump won the Republican Party nomination and won the Presidential election in a fair contest. It may have been ugly. It may have been divisive. It may even have been sickening at times. But it was not a paramilitary coup d’etat. If people had not voted for Trump, he would not be President today.
Once Hitler came to power, he consolidated his grip by dissolving the Reichstag and passing laws making himself dictator. It was from this act that all his later tyranny stemmed. Hitler (a former regular soldier and then member of the Freicorps) personally engaged in violence, participating in an armed coup attempt in 1923. He also had his rivals for power, Ernst Rohm and senior SA men, murdered to consolidate his position.
Because Trump came to power by peaceful democratic means and has no paramilitary power base, there is no mechanism by which he could dissolve or dominate Congress and so it is impossible for him to make himself dictator by abolishing Congress or using violence. This is the second difference between Hitler and Trump.
It is true that Trump has the constitutional power to sign Presidential decrees (Executive Orders) and this is one area where he is like Hitler. However, unlike Hitler, Trump is liable to have any Executive Order he signs overturned by the US Supreme Court if the Court thinks the order violates the US Constitution – something that has happened to several Presidents in the past.
In 1935, five orders made by Franklin Roosevelt were overturned. Harry Truman had his order to seize steel mills during a labour strike struck down in 1953, and Bill Clinton’s 1995 decree preventing the government from employing organisations that used strike-breakers was also overturned by the court.
There are checks and balances in the US system that would prevent Trump seizing power by decree, that were not present or ineffective in Germany. This is the third difference between Trump and Hitler.
Hitler was leader of a large and coherent political party, the Nazi party, which, at its peak had 8.5 million members. The central political premise of the Nazi party was that of the racial purity of the German people, and its central political aim was the extermination and removal from public life of Jews and other people it considered racially inferior.
Trump is a leading member of – but not the only leader of – the Republican party, a very broad church which does not have a single central political premise and is not racist in policy or political aim (the party was founded specifically to oppose slavery, which it abolished in 1865). What unites members of the party is a broadly right-wing, conservative, laissez faire approach to the economy.
Hitler commanded total loyalty and obedience from his party. Trump commands support from voters but far less from his own party. Hitler maintained himself in power through control of the party. Trump can only maintain himself as long as he has majority support from voters: when he loses that, he will also lose his grip on the Republican party. This is the fourth big difference between Hitler and Trump.
Hitler hated Jews for personal reasons and secretly plotted to murder the Jews of Europe – plans he later carried out in secret under cover of war. Trump has announced policies against Mexicans and Muslims but talk of “Nazi” policies towards them is mistaken. Trump’s antipathy is not based on racial discrimination.
Trump’s stated policy is to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing the border into the United States and to prevent possible terrorists from entering the country. These policies may be misconceived, they may be impossible to implement, they may be extremist, they may be repellent to many civilized people. But they are based on facts not prejudice. According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are currently around 11 million illegal immigrants in the US of which 6.5 million are Mexican, most claiming welfare payments. The majority of terrorist acts in and against the United States over the past twenty years have been committed by Muslims in the name of Jihad.
Hitler’s discriminatory policies were based on personal hatred of Jews and mistaken ideas on race. Trump’s discriminatory policies are a response to actions that he says are harmful to the interests of the US. By contrast Hitler was fixated on people he considered to be genetically inferior. This is the Fifth difference between Hitler and Trump.
The sixth major difference is that, in four years time, Trump will have to submit himself to election again and can be turned out of office by the people of the Unites States. Hitler made himself dictator for life.
The biggest difference of all, of course, is that Hitler started World War II, specifically to enlarge Germany by taking over much of Western Europe and attempting to take over the Soviet Union. His main aim here was to establish a new homeland in which the enlarged Germany people could thrive at the expense of other countries. Hitler wrote in detail in his autobiography how he was going to achieve this.
In Trump’s case, there is no hint of any overseas military adventures, or desire to expand American territory. On the contrary, Trump has expressed the desire to focus on domestic issues and improve relations with Russia – overtures to which there have already been welcoming noises from Moscow.
This is the last and biggest difference between Hitler and Trump: that Hitler expressly wanted war, while Trump expressly wants peace. Hitler was outward looking, Trump is inward looking.
There is one significant way in which Trump can be compared to Hitler and other demagogues of the twentieth century, such as Stalin and Mussolini, and that is his method of appealing to voters. He does not use diplomatic or political language nor does he make any attempt to appear statesmanlike in any traditional sense. He does not make academic or intellectual arguments. Instead he makes personal appeals directly to the people, over the heads of their traditional rulers of the educated middle classes.
He speaks in the plain, sometimes crude manner of a working man and is often coarse in speech and manner. People who heard Hitler speak reported that he spoke in a very similar way. Some people describe this as “rabble-rousing” – however, hearing themselves described as “rabble” by traditional politicians is one of the main reasons that so many working class people voted for Trump. Plain speaking has also been a trade mark of previous Presidents, such as Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.
Donald Trump has made many vile and cringe-making remarks about his fellow human beings of which, in my opinion, he should be ashamed. Amongst those shameful remarks, he also made some statements and promises that caused dismay among many liberals but which led a majority of his fellow Americans to vote for him. It is not possible yet to predict with any accuracy what Trump will do following inauguration, but it is possible to say some things with certainty.
Trump did not come to power by means of violence or paramilitary force. He did not seize power in a coup, he was elected. He has no mechanism to dismiss or override Congress. He can issue Presidential Orders but they can be struck down by the Supreme Court if they violate the constitution. He has threatened to discriminate against Mexicans and Muslims not from personal hatred but as a policy, based on his perception of past harm done to US interests by people belonging to these groups. He is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces but he has not once expressed any warlike sentiments and, on the contrary, has spoken of a desire for peace and prosperity at home.
In its most recent form, the attempt to identify Trump as another Hitler has taken the form “It didn’t start with the death camps – it started with attempts to control the media and silence critics” the implication being that Trump has already embarked on the same road as Hitler – albeit at an earlier stage – and that the holocaust is yet to come.
This attempt at comparison is also defective. Hitler was violent from the outset – he attempted an armed military coup in 1923. Trump has quarreled bitterly with the media but has made no attempt to control what the media publishes – nor would any such attempt be successful since it would require a change to the US Constitution.
A detailed examination of history shows that there is no basis for making a comparison between Trump and Hitler, and that those who make this comparison are both ignorant of the real historical facts and guilty of using fake political argument, instead of genuine rational discourse.