Since the start of this year’s most unusual presidential campaign, I have given dozens of election-themed talks to audiences ranging from senior citizens to high-school students. During the Q&A period after my lectures, a version of one question is almost always asked: “Is Trump Hitler?”
The first time this happened, during a talk I gave last fall, the question was posed by a former State Department Foreign Service officer who went on to suggest we were experiencing what the Weimer Republic went through before the rise of Nazi Germany. I don’t remember my response, but I do know the question caught me by surprise. As it became apparent that Trump was going to secure the Republican nomination, however, the question was asked more frequently, and not just by my audience members. National pundits got into the act as well. Andrew Sullivan warned that Trump, and his “neo-Fascist movement” was an “extinction-level event.” In his survey of Trump’s rise, Robert Kagan explained that, “This is how fascism comes to America.” Trump was, Peter Steinfels summarized, “the semi-fascist candidate.” Eventually, Trump’s wife Melania felt compelled to publicly rebut the accusation: “We know the truth. He’s not Hitler,” she insisted in an interview with Dujour magazine “He wants to help America. He wants to unite people. They think he doesn’t but he does.” It did little good. Responding to Melania, the New Yorker’s Adam Gropnik replied, “He’s not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn’t. But then Hitler wasn’t Hitler—until he was.”
Until he was. That’s the key element to this Trump-is-Hitler argument. Initially, as I began to anticipate this question after my lectures, I would try to point to the many ways that Trump is not Hitler – he hasn’t organized a putsch, or written about the need for living space, or expressed a desire to exterminate people, for instance. Nor is the United States much like post-World War I Germany, a country with little experience with parliamentary democracy. And there’s that cultural argument as well, if you believe that line of reasoning. (I’m skeptical.) Invariably, the comeback is, “Well, he isn’t Hitler yet! But wait until he takes power…..”
After a time, I realized that the questioners didn’t really want to hear my answer. They were already convinced Trump IS Hitler. Nothing I can say would dissuade them from that belief. And so now, when I am asked if I believe Trump is Hitler, my response is: “I don’t know. Is Bernie Sanders Mao?” That usually flummoxes them long enough for me to move on to the next question.
Now, I don’t actually believe Sanders is Mao. Not yet. But who knows what will happen if he somehow captures the Democratic nomination? If the choice is Sanders or Trump, it’s not inconceivable that come November a majority of voters will choose Sanders. And then what? Anyone who has been assaulted by Bernie Bros on social media understands that his supporters are willing to do most anything to further his cause. In this regard, the death threats and near-riot from Sanders’ supporters in Nevada may just be a preview of things to come!
If Mao…er…Sanders does take power, the first victim is likely to be the First Amendment. Already we are seeing free speech come under assault on our college campuses under the guise of furthering “diversity.” A generation of young students – most of them Bernie supporters – is embracing this type of mind control without a moment’s hesitation. First they took our Halloween costumes, and we did nothing. Next…..
Say goodbye to a free press as well. President Sanders is almost certain to push for a state-run media organization. After all, Sanders’ supporters routinely rail against the “corporate media”. Under the Sandersista regime, our children will grow up watching “Sanders Street.”
And it won’t stop there. Bernie will undoubtedly push for a sizable increase in the government-controlled social welfare state as well. But where will that expansion end? Remember, it’s a small step from government-run health care to government-run reeducation camps!
“Sure,” you say. “But Bernie’s only attacking the 1%. The remaining 99% have nothing to worry about!” Yes, but who is to say he will stop there? Pretty soon it will be the 5%, then 10%, and then…. . You can see how it ends. Within a few years we will all be toting our little Bernie books, getting Bernie haircuts and gesticulating wildly while we mansplain socialist doctrine to the masses.
Far-fetched? Perhaps. But by the time the tanks roll through Middlebury square, and I’m marched off with my fellow political scientists to work the marijuana fields, it’s too late.
Is Trump Hitler? I have a better question: Is Bernie Mao?!
It’s an interesting point, but I think that a key difference is that while Bernie is indeed pushing for some degree of socialist change, I’ve never seen indication that he didn’t respect our political norms, institutions or established constitutional limitations. I’m not even certain that Trump even has a firm grasp on what a President actually does or can do, but his comments thus far seemingly indicate that he has little use for things such as norms or constraints, which is alarming given the power of such things to a large extent rests with our common agreement that they exist and need to be respected.
Trump’s more a (proto)Mussolini that a Hitler anyway in my amateur view.
I agree that that is an important distinction. Whether you share Bernie’s policy views or not, he at least has a track record of working within our constitutionally-based system of shared powers. Trump has no such record and, as you note, it is not entirely clear that he understands the limits on presidential power, and why they exist. One need not believe he is Hitler – or Mussolini – to understand why many view a potential Trump presidency with a great deal of trepidation.
On the serious side, Bernie and the Bernie bros do cause me some concern. They seem poised to step down the path taken by the Republican Party. There you have a party where virtually everyone agrees on goals and more or less on policy, but they will fight each other to the point of paralysis over who is the purist and the most steadfast in their refusal to compromise (with each other, much less with the opposition). It may be a far cry from dictatorship, but I’m not sure it’s a healthy direction.
Scott – I think this is Clinton’s worry: that Bernie’s followers are so wedded to their candidate, and their ideological purity, that they would rather risk a Trump presidency than vote for her. In the end I suspect most Sanders’ supporters will come around to her, particularly if he signals that he’s backing her, which I think he will do eventually. But they may do so holding their noses.