Social media provides a window into how our friends, neighbors and acquaintances view the world that wasn’t present when Hitler rose to power. One of the best, and, at the same time, most terrible things about the current political situation in America is that it provides a glimpse of our community that did not exist in times past. And while social media is often justifiably blamed for exacerbating how lies, distortions, and false narratives are shared and adopted in support of those promulgating nefarious agendas, it can also play a highly positive role in debunking falsehoods, in uniting people together in positive directions, and in understanding whom within our circle of friends and acquaintances does not support the basic democratic ideals that have traditionally united us as Americans.
As a 6th grade student nearly half a century ago, I remember learning lessons from World War II. The familiar adage that “all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent” became expressed through the ode written by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller. He described the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group (See: ‘First They Came’: The Poem of the Protests):
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Our lesson also taught that what had happened in Germany could happen again, and that it could even happen in America. And my classroom lesson predicted that if another authoritarian rose to seek power by moving us from democracy towards fascism, 70%+ of the populace would not speak out and object, and a non-trivial segment of the population would actually actively support him (or her).
As a 12 year old in the early 1970s, I was incredulous to believe that people would remain silent and that such a thing could ever happen again, with the world having witnessed what happened during World War II in Europe. I was full of questions: Was this prediction really true? Who were those people who would be silent or would actively subvert democracy? Were some of them my friends and neighbors? How could we tell who those people were?
Today, because of social media, I finally have answers to many of those questions.
Is Trump like Hitler? How is America’s support of Trump like Germany’s support of Hitler?
While many similarities between Trump and Hitler can be drawn, what is happening today in America isn’t genocide and the aim isn’t extermination (See: It’s Not the Holocaust). Hitler’s objective was world domination and “purification.” Hitler was a mass murderer who aspired to take over the world for the glory of the Fatherland. Unlike today’s America, which has a reasonably strong economy and low unemployment, Hitler came to power in the wake of Germany’s loss during World War I. The Treaty of Versailles leveled reparations on Germany and the ensuing depression had caused incredible hardship throughout Europe. Hitler promoted established German values of hard work, honour, and a strong military.
Many of the Germans saw Hitler as a saviour and ignored his racist views. Hitler’s racism and persecution was focused primarily on “infestation” from Jews along with Roma (Gypsies), Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Afro-Germans, political dissidents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people with disabilities, homosexuals, along with various other “asocials and non-conformists.” Trump’s animus seems to be primarily focused on Muslims, Mexicans and refugees who he claims are trying to “infest” America. In both cases, fear-mongering against minorities was/is used as a way to motivate followers.
In his recent book “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic,” Benjamin Carter Hett provides an insightful account of how the Nazi Party came to power and how the failures of the Weimar Republic and the shortsightedness of German politicians allowed it to happen. He notes:
“Alongside the viciousness of much of German politics in the Weimar years was an incongruous innocence: few people could imagine the worst possibilities. A civilized nation could not possibly vote for Hitler, some had thought. When he became chancellor nonetheless, millions expected his time in office to be short and ineffectual. Germany was a notoriously law-abiding as well as cultured land. How could a German government systematically brutalize its own people? German Jews were highly assimilated and patriotic. Many refused to leave their homeland, even as things got worse and worse. “I am German and am waiting for the Germans to come back; they have gone to ground somewhere,” Victor Klemberer worte in his diary – he was the son of a rabbi and a veteran of the First World War who chose to stay, and miraculously survived.
“Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shootings of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last months of the Second World War. It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”
While Trump’s patterns of force do in some respects follow those of Hitler, it is also helpful to understand his similarities to Benito Mussolini and Kaiser Wilhelm II. And Trump’s ultimate objectives seem aligned towards transforming America into a Trump-led mafia-esque criminal oligarchy with Orwellian overtones… more like Putin’s Russia than like Hitler’s Germany. As Hitler biographer Volker Ullrich accurately pointed out in The Atlantic (See: Seeing Hitler Everywhere):
“If the case of Hitler teaches us anything, it’s how swiftly democracy can be dismantled, when political institutions fail and civil society is too weak to compensate. The results can be catastrophic.”
Perhaps the greatest insights to be learned come from looking at how America and the world are responding to Trump’s atrocities as compared to how Germany and the world responded to Hitler’s. We are, in fact, witnessing attempts at the ongoing dismantling of America’s democracy. And, astounding as it might be, many in America do seem to be quite fine with that indeed, either through active complicity or through blissful ignorance.
Trump’s Patterns of Force
Trump is focused on self-aggrandizement and enriching himself and those close to him. He has, in the process, established himself as perhaps the most successful con artist in the history of America. As The Atlantic’s David Frum has pointed out many times before me, there is no evidence to support the notion that Trump has any real skill in dealmaking with powerful counter-parties. But there is great evidence that he is skilled at duping gullible victims. He has spent his entire life doing it.
Trump is extraordinarily talented at identifying things in society that are broken, dysfunctional, or unjust and then instilling fear in others of what will happen if the issue is not addressed. He will typically choose topics for which core problems truly exist (immigration, health care, education, tax reform, international relations with various allies and adversaries, the decline of waning industries like coal or steel), and then he will embellish his story with plentiful untruths to further exaggerate fear. He then uses the fear he creates to call for changes that typically make the situation even worse while fulfilling his own corrupt objectives. This is often done at the further expense and injury of those who were damaged by the initial injustices he used to justify his actions in the first place.
The mark of a good con artist is getting his victims to believe he is helping them. Trump is exceptionally skilled at doing this. (For his very recent use of this tactic, see: The Kim Con: Trump isn’t trying to win over North Korea’s leader. He’s using him to win over you.) He is well aware that many in America do not have the intelligence or education to see through his veneer of falsehoods and half-truths, and takes advantage of it continually. (Trump’s support is more complex than this to be sure… see my earlier articles: The 10 Reasons People Still Support Donald Trump; and Narcissism, Codependency, Gaslighting, Reality Distortion Fields and The American Presidency.)
Both Trump and Hitler employ(ed) similar tactics of fostering hatred, distortion, and diversion, particularly aimed at minorities, to attempt to motivate people through fear, to move towards illiberalism, to expand personal power, and, in Trump’s case, to attempt to divert attention from past and ongoing criminal acts. In his attempts at diversion, Trump is waging a war on the rule of law here at home, and pushing us towards senseless war abroad. It is not remotely outside the realm of possibility that Trump’s attempts at diversion will end up costing many thousands of lives, or even hundreds of thousands. Both Trump and Hitler use(d) fear mongering, racial hatred, gaslighting and paranoia to motivate others to do terrible things… just one example of so many would be putting the Jews into concentration camps in World War II, or telling present-day parents seeking asylum at the border that they are taking their children to a bath… and then putting those children into cages at detention centers and separating them from their parents, perhaps permanently.
The irony of Trump’s slogan MAGA: “Make America Great Again” is, of course, that it seems to be the exact opposite of what Trump, via his actual actions, is trying to achieve. He advocates and implements fiscal and environmental policies on an ongoing basis which can only have dire and ruinous long term consequences for America. He and his cabinet persistently work to undermine civil rights, civil liberties, voting rights, immigration, and public education.
When Trump states that he is putting an end to America being a laughing stock for the rest of the world, the irony of course is that America’s image as seen by the rest of the free world is sinking to depths never seen before. Our allies are laughing at him for constantly acting the buffoon, and our adversaries are laughing at him for being a rube whom they find easy advantage over. His continued use of projection and creation of alternative realities leads to an ongoing stream of absurdities… for example, the many falsehoods Trump and his followers continually espouse about The Clinton Foundation, which is highly rated by independent watchdog groups that rate charitable organizations, contrasts greatly with his follower’s lack of criticism of The Trump Foundation, which appears to be a fraud in every material respect (See: The Disastrous Legal Implications of the Trump Foundation’s Activities).
As Ruth Ben-Ghiat so aptly pointed out recently in The Washington Post (See: When investigators threatened his power, he declared himself dictator):
““He speaks and his people sit up at attention,” Trump recently said of North Korean dictator Kim Jung-un. “I want my people to do the same.” It is indeed high time for Americans to sit up and listen carefully when the president tells them what he would like to do to expand his authority, whether it is removing limits on his time to govern, censoring the media or putting his political opponents in jail. We can’t protect our republic if we don’t take seriously those who threaten it, especially when they behave in such a chillingly similar fashion to those who have destroyed democracy in the past.”
Mind control expert Steven Hassan, who wrote the book “Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults, and Beliefs,” has noted that a cult leader “wants everyone to merge into their definition of reality.” Trump has clearly succeeded in doing this with a non-trivial segment of American society, as the rest of the world looks on with incredulousness.
Assaults on the Electoral Process
Adolf Hitler used the burning of the Reichstag (parliament) building in Berlin in 1933 as a pretext to seize authoritarian power. Will Trump attempt to do something similar?
The evidence is overwhelming that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election, and did so with a strong bias towards Trump’s election. It is also clear from Special Counsel Mueller’s recent court filings that Russia is continuing, on an ongoing basis, to attempt to tamper in America’s elections. Trump in the past encouraged Russia’s election meddling, and the current Trump administration not only is taking no action to prevent such meddling in the future, it seems to sponsor efforts aimed at preventing those who are more likely to be liberal from voting in future elections, while promulgating false narratives about voter fraud that have no basis in reality. (See: America Is Under Attack and the President Doesn’t Care; There’s Nothing to Stop the 2018 Elections From Being Hacked; and Russia will hack again, it will be worse, and we’re nothing close to ready.)
The Trump Administration has already contended in court that the President has the power to do anything he desires when national security is at stake, without the need for, and regardless of, judicial or Congressional concurrence. Trump’s ongoing praise of dictators who embrace the use of force to hold power, and who disdain free elections, is chilling. This comes in the context of a world in which Mueller’s investigation, along with many other ongoing challenges to Trump’s abuse of power, are extremely likely to result in serious criminal and civil actions against Trump and his family. If the Democrats gain control of the House in 2019 they will have the subpoena power to bring many more transgressions to public light. While prevailing legal opinion is that Trump is unlikely to be able to be indicted while he remains President, once he is out of office he will almost certainly be subject to civil and criminal actions that could be financially ruinous and incarcerate him for the remainder of his life… so he has a strong vested interest in remaining President indefinitely.
In this context, it leaves little doubt that Trump will not willfully relinquish power. Ever. There is a good chance Trump will be impeached by the House in 2019 if the Democrats take control, but the odds that enough Republicans in the Senate will support his subsequent removal from office don’t appear to be terribly strong, regardless of the strength of Mueller’s findings into his criminal acts. Trump might then create or exacerbate a world crisis in order to attempt to suspend the 2020 presidential election. Or he might let the election occur, doing everything possible to support interference and bias in the election in his favor. If he still loses, it is not unlikely that he would call the election unfair and refuse to recognize the results. All of these possibilities surely seem absurd on the surface… yet lessons from history, as well as from Trump’s first 18 months in office, reminded us that they most certainly are not.
What Social Media Tells Us About Our Friends and Acquaintances
About one third of the German people (the Social Democrats and Communists) were strongly opposed to Hitler. Another third of the people, the National Socialists, were strongly supportive of Hitler. The remaining third of the people oscillated between relief over a stable government and dislike of the means Hitler used to achieve a stable government. Trump’s support seems similarly divided, along somewhat different lines.
Because so many do in fact speak out on social media about political issues, we now pretty much *know* that the 70% number I was given as a child was not unreasonable… perhaps not quite 70%, but certainly a significant segment of society. Trump’s core base seems to encompass about one third of the American public. There is another third of society that seems to “go with the flow.” When Trump is gone from power, many will claim they were against him all along, but until that happens, they will do little to nothing to challenge what he does, and often in fact reinforce his gaslighting tactics. As Desmond Tutu once observed: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” The final third of society seems willing to stand strongly against Trump’s actions and objectives.
For some, choosing to not speak out about political horrors on social media is a personal choice… one that I respect. There are other ways that some people choose to fight wrongfulness, and for some people, professional circumstances make engaging in public political commentary problematic.
I see others (far too few) who use social media to set a positive example in upholding core values; to speak truth to lies and evil; to express themselves with dignity, confidence, and courage; and to consistently go high when others go low. (See: The Antidote to Trump Is Decency.) They live by the credo that Adam Gopnik recently expressed in The New Yorker: “As a matter of both morals and practice, you do not change bad beliefs best by placating those who hold them. You change them by refusing to placate those who hold them. You change them by relentlessly challenging them until enough people become ashamed of holding the bad beliefs.” And as David Frum recently pointed out: “If your child is feverishly ill, it can be very fatiguing to take care of her — but it’s what you do.” And “if your country is ill, you have the same responsibility.”
We further know who much of that segment of society are who would not have objected to Hitler, because we see them fail to object when Trump does very similar things… and as dreadful as it seems to admit it, we have great insight into that segment of society who would have likely have supported the Holocaust by being agents to help have the Jews exterminated.
We know this because we see them actively and passively voice support of the ongoing horrors of today. On a frequent basis, I see some of my acquaintances use social media to do things like:
- express outrage towards black football players bending a knee;
- shame an adult film actress;
- bemoan Nancy Pelosi’s “bitch-face;”
- defend the separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents at the border as an act of “upholding the law“;
- express outrage over something ridiculous uttered by a liberal comedian or celebrity;
- repeat obvious falsehoods and highly distorted gaslighting and false-equivalency messages;
- or continue to rage in whataboutism about Obama or Clinton…
all the while remaining silent or even praising Trump each time he does something that they have in the past criticized Obama or Clinton for doing… while also failing to utter a word about:
- the ongoing undermining and destruction of the rule of law and the very most basic and fundamental tenets and institutions of our democracy;
- the alienation and antagonization of the United States from its western allies while cozying up to and expressing admiration of brutal dictators;
- POTUS’s daily barrage of blatant, persistent, and repeated lies, about matters large and small, in an effort to create malignant alternative realities;
- Trump’s corrupt use of his presidential power of the pardon to reward those who have committed the kind of crimes he, and those close to him, are committing on an ongoing basis; or to reward celebrities with whom he is enamored; or to speculate that he will pardon himself and those close to him for crimes against the United States; or as a reward for the refusal of those close to him to cooperate with investigations into such crimes;
- the President’s ongoing expressions of racism, his inciting of division and hate, and his avowed history as a sexual predator;
- Trump’s continued use of the office of the presidency to enrich himself and his family, in ways and magnitudes never seen before, in conjunction with major conflicts of interest affecting himself, his family, and his cabinet;
- and the ongoing actions of our Commander-in-Chief consistent with his being beholden to, and under undue influence of, a hostile foreign power.
When I see these things happening, I know I am looking at those who would have actively or passively supported Hitler’s agenda. That’s because this is fundamentally not about the policy divisions between right and left or between Democrats and Republicans… it is about the division between those who embrace democracy and those who embrace demagogic authoritarianism.
Some of these people are our friends, family, business colleagues and neighbors. In the very best possible light, we now see them as living in an alternative reality, significantly detached from the empirical world. In the worst possible light, we see them living by a value system that seems utterly reprehensible and directly adverse and hostile to our desire to live in a world centered on truth, justice and the American way. It is the kind of thing that once seen, can never be unseen. Our ability to interact and share trust with these people, knowing what we now know, is forever changed.
I find it both enlightening and deeply horrifying on a daily basis.
There is a quote circulating now on social media, sometimes attributed to a Bob Nicols, that seems to have originated in late 2016. It reads in part:
“I will never think any less of any person who has different views than me because some of the most beautiful, inspirational people I know will disagree with what I believe all day long, but at the end of the day, they are still that beautiful, inspirational person I have always known them as. Don’t think less of people because some of their beliefs don’t align with yours, and don’t lose quality people in your life because you choose hate over love.”
We can and should respect the first amendment rights of others with whom we disagree. We can recognize that these people might love their children and take positive roles in their community. Tolerance for opposing viewpoints is important. Yet, there are reasonable limits. Sometimes it is necessary and appropriate to respect someone’s right to free speech without respecting the morality of the person expressing the speech. For example, most of us would agree that it is okay to feel disdain towards someone who advocates committing murder or abusing a child.
One has to ask… were the people who showed support for or remained silent while Hitler and Mussolini rose to power “beautiful, inspirational people?” History surely does not regard them as such. Should we consider the people today who actively or passively support malignant authoritarianism in America “beautiful, inspirational people,” even if they seem “good people” in some other aspects of their lives? Are these really the kind of “quality people” we want to have in our lives? How much tolerance do we owe towards those who support the destruction of many of our most basic democratic principles? Is refusing to placate those who hold bad beliefs “choosing hate over love” or is it actually “choosing love over hate?” These are fair questions for each of us to ask.
So I ask you now, dear reader, to ask yourself… Are you afraid to speak out, like those were in Germany in the 1930s? Would you be scared to share this article on your social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) for fear of how those in your network who embrace demagogic authoritarianism might think or react? (If you are not afraid, then do it now. Please!)
Making a difference in the long term requires using our collective voice to not just speak out once, but to do so persistently, even if it means sometimes sounding like a broken record. Because the alternative is to allow others in our social network to believe that Trump’s ongoing assaults on reality, morality and legality have become normalized and acceptable.
If people fail to persist in speaking out now, en masse, as they failed to do in Germany in the 1930s, then history will surely repeat, the dominoes will fall, and Trump, like Hitler, will prevail.
Democracy will fail in America, and then across much of the rest of the free world. Our children will inherit an age of darkness, without a foundation of freedom, science or reason.
Or we in America can find our collective voice, and with the help of social media along with a strong turnout at the polls this November, the mistakes of Germany in the 1930s might be avoided.
The choice is yours.
Addendum added July 1, 2018:
I love this graphic… it so quickly sums up so much of what I explained above (I don’t know who created it, but I found it via the “Snowflakes” Facebook profile) :
Please also see my comments in the feedback section below for a list of additional specific actions you can take to help, as well as additional references I have found showing the analogies between 1930s Germany and present day America.
Added October 6, 2018:
Added July 19, 2019: