Nitwits and Racist Thugs


I know my reader(s) may be bored by easy or trite comparisons of Trump to Hitler, particularly when such comparisons are made by people who don’t know much about history. However, serious historians have begun to make this connection, and that is cause for concern.

I spent most of yesterday reading Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (1998), a fascinating study of the many explanations that have been offered for the rise and maintenance of the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945. Scholars (and cranks) have been arguing ever since 1945 about how Hitler got away with mass murder, not to mention wrecking most of Europe before he was stopped by the Allied armies.

Historians divide Hitler explainers into two broad groups: functionalists and intentionalists. Intentionalists, obviously, believe that Hitler and his minions devised a detailed program that they nearly succeeded in carrying out: to conquer most of eastern Europe for Germany and, in the process, to kill every Jew they could get their hands on. Functionalists, on the other hand, paint with a broader brush, suggesting that the German people (and sometimes the peoples of other countries) were complicit in allowing the Holocaust and other atrocities to happen. This complicity is usually explained by antisemitism, but I think it might also be due to non-ideological and more basic human traits such as greed, or, more generously, fear.

Rosenbaum is an unapologetic intentionalist. He makes a strong argument that Hitler had decided upon the so-called “Final Solution” very early on, perhaps as early as 1918. He cites recorded remarks from 1922 where “Hitler spoke of hanging Jews from lampposts until he exterminated them all” (378-79). Holocaust deniers like David Irving point out that nobody has ever found indisputable evidence that Hitler actually gave the order for the Final Solution, but Rosenbaum assembles enough evidence to convince me that Hitler’s aim from the get-go was to wipe out all the Jews he could find. (I’m not sure why Irving is so determined to protect Hitler by assigning blame to his minions. But then, reflecting for a moment on Trump’s supporters, I see the same dynamic at work, as in “Dear Leader can do no wrong.”)

This morning as I was reading reviews of Rosenbaum’s book I came across an essay he published in the Los Angeles Review of Books earlier this year, wherein he makes the connection between Hitler’s “esoteric” thought and Trump’s rhetoric. Here is Rosenbaum:

“But after the election, things changed. Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German. Now is the time for a much closer inspection of the tactics and strategy that brought off this spectacular distortion of American values. . . .What I want to suggest is an actual comparison with Hitler that deserves thought. It’s what you might call the secret technique, a kind of rhetorical control that both Hitler and Trump used on their opponents, especially the media. . . . The playbook is Mein Kampf.” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/normalization-lesson-munich-post).

Trump apparently claimed at one point that he had a copy of Mein Kampf by his bedside. That does not mean, of course, that he actually read the book, or even that he was telling the truth about possessing it. In this analysis Rosenbaum displays rather more respect for Trump’s intellect and vision than I am willing to grant. Nevertheless I respect his explanation:

“Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman. The Weimar establishment didn’t know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They ‘normalized’ him. . . . And so they allowed him and his party back onto the electoral lists, the beginning of the end.” Later on, Rosenbaum characterizes this move as the most disastrous political decision of the twentieth century.
I’m sure that Rosenbaum intends his readers to apply the image of the “Chaplinesque clown” (if not the “sleeping serpent”) to Trump. In any case these images aptly describe the various masks that propelled Trump into office. And even though most of his followers are not exactly original thinkers (Rosenbaum calls Trump supporters “nitwit racist thug antisemites”), some of his minions are smart enough to make use of Trump as a handy idiot if, indeed, he is as dim as he seems to be.
Thinking along these lines, I can’t get Rosenbaum’s line out of my mind:  “democracy destroying itself democratically.”

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