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History can teach us many lessons about Donald Trump and his rise to power. As shown by his deeds, words and policies, Trump is an authoritarian and a demagogue who has, so far, been restrained by America’s weakened democratic institutions and norms. Trump has repeatedly shown contempt for America’s cosmopolitan, pluralistic multiracial democracy. He and his supporters would smash that order and a create a new one based upon white racial authoritarianism (as well as naked plutocracy) if, and when, they have the opportunity to do so.
Learning lessons from history about the present requires a keen appreciation of context. The model of authoritarianism that Donald Trump, the Republican Party, their allies and voters represent will fit the cultural and political norms and institutions of the United States. This usurpation of American democracy will be both similar to and different from what took place in other countries and at other times.
In all, history’s lessons must be learned carefully, and applied with even more care if we are to make better sense of the present and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, as well as resurgent reactionary right-wing movements around the world.
What lessons do the fall of German democracy after World War I and the rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler hold for the United States in the age of Trump? What role does an assault on democratic norms and traditions play in the rise of fascist and authoritarian movements? In what ways are “traditional” Republican elites like Mitch McConnell responsible for an “outsider” such as Donald Trump taking power? Is dissent being criminalized in the United States by Trump and his followers? What is “illiberal democracy,” and how will it do the work of authoritarianism in the U.S. and elsewhere? Is Trump a fascist, or is he better described using another label?
In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Christopher R. Browning. He is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. He is the author of several books, including the most recent “Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp.” Browning is also the author of the recent and widely-read essay “The Suffocation of Democracy,” which appeared both online and in the Oct. 25 edition of The New York Review of Books.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Authoritarian leaders like Donald Trump can cause widespread pain and confusion to the public. As a historian and expert on Nazi Germany, how are you feeling? What were your first reactions to Donald Trump’s rise to power?
The first reaction was frustration. We are caught in a situation where none of our previous political experiences as a country when democracy was functioning well, albeit far from perfectly, equipped us to deal with this situation. I sensed that it would be a tyranny of the majority which would create this type of crisis. This is why, of course, we have the Bill of Rights and other checks on power. But what we really have now with Donald Trump and the Republican Party is a tyranny of the minority, where gerrymandering, voter repression and the Electoral College give a minority of the population a majority vote even when they don’t have control of the presidency or the House and Senate. Demographic shifts, geography and cultural divides are a perfect storm for minority rule by the Republicans in the United States.
The second feeling is bewilderment. As a rational thinker, someone who believes in the Enlightenment project and liberal democratic norms, I assumed that the truth and basic facts were a type of sunshine. If you put enough of this light out there for the public, they would make good decisions. But now, with Trump and his enablers, systemic serial lying is rewarded. The very notion that there are facts and discernible truths are being rejected by a good percentage of the American people. We are stuck in a situation where President Trump’s spokespeople say things like, “Well, we have alternate facts,” or “The truth evolves,” or “The truth is not true.” Basically, the truth has become utterly instrumental to close to half the population.
Moreover, they delight in the capacity of the president to openly lie. Everyone knows he’s lying. Sometimes it’s totally gratuitous, it doesn’t even serve any purpose. But the very act that he lies with a swagger and so boldly makes Trump attractive. to them. That breaks all the rules about how democracies are supposed to function. Ultimately, the fact that intentional, obvious lying has a political reward just stunned me.
How do we dig ourselves out of the hole? The next two elections are absolutely crucial. 2020 is critical. I don’t think we are past the point of return for trying to correct things and fix America’s democracy, but we certainly are getting perilously close to the point of no return.
What are some immediate parallels between the failure of democracy in mid-20th-century Germany and other parts of Europe and what is occurring at present in the United States with Donald Trump?
What went wrong post-World War I in Germany is instructive, but it is not an exact parallel for what is happening today in America with Donald Trump. One thing that is clear, however, is that if people do not accept the ground rules by which democracy operates, and winning at all costs and incivility become the norm, then things fall apart. There has to be an acceptance of the norms and rules, and a sense of obligation to one another and the democracy, by the broader political community. We see that falling apart with political polarization now. And that was true in the 1930s with the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in Europe and elsewhere.
A respect for informal rules and norms are essential for a healthy democracy. Donald Trump, Republican elites such as Mitch McConnell and others on the right have no respect for America’s democratic traditions and institutions.
Donald Trump takes pride in breaking the norms. It validates his self-image. He does this with impunity. What’s so disheartening is of course that the Republican establishment has totally backed him. They see no cause for alarm. Aside from high-profile former Republican commentators who now work for MSNBC and a small number of “Never Trumpers,” most Republicans have been very loyal to Donald Trump. That is very disturbing for what it suggests about the health of the country’s democracy.
How does Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court reflect this dynamic?
This was all put into motion by what happened when the Republicans took away President Obama’s opportunity to have Merrick Garland on the Supreme Court. The precedent is clear: The president nominates and Congress gives advice and consent. What happened with Kavanaugh is a function of how the Republicans usurped tradition. What happened to Garland was a coup of sorts, a coup against the United States Constitution.
German right-wing elites believed they could control Hitler, that he would be a tool for their agenda. Is that a fair parallel with what has happened with Donald Trump and “traditional” Republican elites?
The history of Adolf Hitler is the history of his underestimation. Certainly key in that was the way Hindenburg [the German president who appointed Hitler as chancellor] underestimated him. The conservative elites who allied with Hitler mistakenly thought that they would control the government. Hitler was installed by popular support but it was them, the elites, who would really be calling the shots. Of course that was a absolutely fatal miscalculation.
Why did this happen with Trump? He is very uninformed and does not want to learn anything. Yet Donald Trump has a political instinct for how to arouse grievance and resentment. Trump also knows how to frame issues in terms of making oneself into a victim. Trump may not know much of anything about the specifics of public policy or the issues, but he certainly does have an uncanny instincts for the jugular.
Another parallel exists between the Nazis’ skillful use of propaganda and state-sponsored media and Trump and the Republican Party’s relationship with Fox News.
Fox News is a privatized ministry of propaganda. Under the Nazis, Joseph Goebbels was a key adviser to Hitler. They conversed a great deal. In a sense, Sean Hannity and Donald Trump have that same relationship. It is symbiotic but it also works both ways, where Fox News is not just Trump’s personal news outlet and propaganda arm but Trump also gets his inspiration from watching Fox News. It is a very circular relationship.
Donald Trump has established concentration camps to hold black and brown immigrants and refugees from Latin and South America. He has unleashed ICE enforcers to intimidate, harass and terrorize whole communities. There are frightening historical precedents with the Nazis and their security forces. What type of person would want to work for a group such as ICE?
Until recently, ICE performed various functions such as dealing with international bank fraud and international drug smuggling. These are things that one would consider very normal and indeed necessary. Just as before 1932 or 1933, the German police were considered very professional. Unfortunately, the last people to resist the establishment of a police state are going to be the police. An authoritarian regime gives the police greater powers than they had before. That type of government also elevates the police into having a kind of autonomy where they are not hampered by checks and controls.
Certain personalities are attracted to these types of jobs, and then the behavior becomes normalized. There are audios and videos of ICE enforcers and others taking glee and pleasure in abusing people — including children. This sadism and cruelty is being normalized within that organization and among their defenders.
Attention is always focused first and primarily on those cases where there appears to be sadism or gratuitous cruelty. Usually on closer examination, it turns out that those statistically are not the majority of interactions. But the problem is that those outliers — those sadists and others who revel in the cruelty — have inordinate influence when they’re empowered. One of the things we know about the Nazis is how individuals and organizations adapted to roles and expectations. When there are different expectations about behavior and rewards and your colleagues’ behavior, you can change behavior quite significantly. I am not denying that there are people who engage in sadistic behavior in law enforcement and other parts of the security apparatus, but the problem is much more systemic.
Is Donald Trump a “fascist” or, as I have often described him, a “proto-fascist” or “American fascist”? Is such language accurate or helpful?
I think that calling Trump a “fascist” takes our eye off the ball. I’m a little hesitant to use that language. Once Hitler got the dictatorship, he then purposely waged wars of conquest and carried out genocide. This was his true historical significance. Hitler had a goal where he was going to remake the world in his own ideological vision. I do not think we have that with Trump.
We are at a point now in the United States with Donald Trump where democracy is beleaguered. But it is in the form of a new kind of authoritarianism, what I call “illiberal democracy,” where the whole system does not need to be changed entirely. You don’t need a vast army of secret police. You don’t need concentration camps. You don’t need to lock up all your opponents. Now, in America or other liberal democracies, if an enemy of democracy or a would-be authoritarian manages to tweak the electoral system, infiltrate and stop the judiciary, control information and pollute the public discourse against truth — using language such as “fake news” — people basically lose faith.
The fig leaf of democratic appearance is preserved. Elections are held but the opponents have no chance of winning. If the standard threshold for an assault on democracy and authoritarianism is set at Adolf Hitler then we are all failing to see how much damage can be done to democracy without getting anywhere near that level. Our guard is lowered because in so many ways Trump isn’t anything like Hitler. Yet that does not mean there is not a clear and present danger of another sort to American democracy. Donald Trump is certainly an authoritarian threat. White supremacy is part of this threat as well. But Donald Trump is not what I would call a totalitarian or genocidal threat. Ultimately, I don’t think that Hitler as dictator is the right template or the right model for understanding Trump and lot of these other regimes that we’re dealing with today around the world.
A belief in social democracy and the common good is also central for preserving a health democracy. As in Germany after World War I and through the rise of the Nazis, those values and institutions have been weakened in the United States.
This reflects a wider collapse of the social contract. There was a period, certainly after the Great Depression and World War II, where there was a sense of community and also a feeling that labor and management had to share the gains of productivity. We all had a stake in a rising tide lifting all boats. But by the 1970s a very different ethos took over, where wealth was to be maximized for the few, labor was put under siege, and by the end of this transformation government was made into the problem, not the solution. We reverted to an image of America where a notion of a social contract and the common good was discredited. The decline of labor in the United States is one reflection of that wider cultural collapse.
Another way that Trump and his allies are assaulting democracy is by criminalizing dissent. This is critically important if we are to resist what Donald Trump represents and fix the damage he and his allies are doing to the country.
Trump did say that those people in Congress who didn’t stand for his State of the Union speech were traitors. Such a statement reflects an idea that if you don’t support Trump then you are not paying homage to the king. Trump has a type of monarchical self-image. Now, for Trump and his enablers and partners, Democrats and other protesters are a “mob.” Protest is somehow mob rule and Trump, the Republicans and his media find ways of presenting democratic protest so that it feeds into fear. Instead of repressing protests, Trump and his allies have found ways to exploit and package it for their own political advantage.
Protests are also a way for Trump and other authoritarian leaders in this new type of politics to keep their own base in line. For example, one Republican senator after another followed Trump’s lead and said things like “we fought off mob rule,” or “we weren’t intimidated by the mob.” Again, Hitler would not have tolerated protests. But in this new style of very insidious politics, we are less aware of the dangers. Authoritarian control can exist in the United States or elsewhere, using that strategy, without carrying out the drastic measures of suppression that the 1930s dictatorships used.
In this moment with Donald Trump and the rise of anti-democratic forces and values in this country and elsewhere, what gives you hope? And what causes the most worry or fear?
The hope is that Donald Trump, by playing so much to his base, will energize Democrats and independents. There are so many groups that Donald Trump has disparaged and insulted. If they can come together as a coalition and keep it together then Trump’s opponents can win the next two elections. I think that will be absolutely crucial. That will still leave the American people and the world with really difficult problems. Even if Trump is removed from power, how do we reverse global warming? What about reversing worsening income and wealth inequality? What do we do about more inflamed divisions in the country in terms of class, race and gender? These problems are not going to be easy to heal. Nonetheless, the first step is to win the next two elections.
What scares me the most is the significant number of Americans who form Trump’s base and are not going to abandon him. Factor in apathy among other Americans and then Democrats and liberals and progressives are not going to win the next two very crucial elections. My other worry is that the Democrats do not have leadership. No one person has emerged yet with the status necessary to challenge Donald Trump.