The English historian Richard Evans is one of the foremost experts on Germany history writing in English. In fact, he wrote by far the most thorough and important book on the death penalty in Germany. In English. It had to be translated into German. You would think a German might have been interested enough in the subject, but no, an Englishman had to step in.
Evans is also an expert on the Third Reich, having written many readable books on the subject. Isaac Chotiner of Slate interviews him about Trump. Chotiner starts out with the important note that "America is not Germany, and this is not 1938, let alone 1933." He then asks Evans for his observations about the commonalities between Trump and authoritarian leaders:
Isaac Chotiner: What do you make of Trump as a leader in these early days, and how would you compare it to the way other authoritarians have started their time in power?
Richard Evans: When you look at President Trump’s statements, I’m afraid you do see echoes, and they are very alarming. For example, the stigmatization of minorities. First of all, the Trump White House failed to mention the Jews in its statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day. And that is very worrying because the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews was not just a genocide; it had a special quality, because Hitler and the Nazis regarded the Jews as an existential threat to Germany. They used hyperbolic and exaggerated language about Jews. If the Jews were not killed, the Nazis said, they would destroy Germany completely, whereas other groups that the Nazis stigmatized, discriminated against, and indeed murdered, like the handicapped, were only to be gotten out of the way. If you look at the language the Trump team has been using about Islamic extremist jihadis, it is exactly the same: They are an existential threat to America. They will defeat, dominate, and destroy America. That is a very extreme kind of language and a very disturbing echo.
I think if you look at Hitler’s seizure of power, which happened between his appointment in January 1933 and the summer of 1933, it was achieved by two means. One is by legal, or pseudolegal, means, and there he had to rush legislation past the national parliament in order to give him supreme power to make laws. These laws included, in the end, setting up a one-party state, and also closing down oppositional newspapers, and so on. And of course Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was an inveterate and incorrigible liar. He was an inventor of news. And he also was very strongly attacked in the liberal and left-wing press and threatened to shut it down, and in the end he actually did. Or he took it over.
The other one is violence on the streets. That is a particular characteristic of fascism and Nazism, after World War I had really got people used to violence and military bands roaming the street beating up their opponents. That is obviously not happening in America today. I think anyone who wanted to destroy America, American democracy, and American institutions is going to use the power of the state to do so. They won’t have their own private armies. That, I think, is a difference.
Again, if you look at the courts, that’s one of the most interesting aspects of what Trump has been doing. He clearly has a contempt for the courts and the law, which echoes that of the Nazis very, very clearly. The courts and the law enforcement agencies did stand up to Hitler. A very famous example is, later in 1933, the trial of the people who Hitler had alleged had burned down the Reichstag earlier in the year. The courts acquitted all but one of them, thus completely undermining Hitler’s claim that the communists started the fire. Hitler then bypassed the courts. He set up a parallel system of justice, the so-called special courts and the people’s courts. In the end, the courts knuckled under, but it was quite a fight.
Although I was surprised, reading your books, at how some courts kept independence longer than I would have thought.
Yes, some in the judiciary were conservative, but they did have respect for the law and institutions of the law, and for the constitution as well.
There has been a debate in the press and among progressives about whether, crudely speaking, the guy is a buffoon and crazy and has no plan, or whether he is canny and smart and has a real plan for authoritarianism. Was this debate similar to ones about Hitler, once he came to power?
Absolutely, yes. Many people thought that Hitler was a buffoon. He was a joke. He wasn’t taken seriously. Alternatively, they thought that he could calm down when he assumed the responsibilities of office. That was a very common belief about Hitler. There is a major difference in the sense that Trump speaks off the cuff in a very unguarded, spontaneous way. I think that’s true with his tweets. Hitler very carefully prepared all his speeches. They might seem spontaneous, but they were carefully prepared....
Was Hitler capable of talking about something other than himself for an extended period of time?
Yeah, he went on about the Jews.
I know you are being slightly sarcastic, but I do think that is an interesting difference.
You drew a comparison between Islam now and the Jews. Trump himself could not sit and talk about Islam for more than 30 seconds. He can bring it up in a speech, and then he will start talking about himself.
Yeah. But Hitler did bring everything back to himself. His standard speech begins with his own partly fabricated life story, where he basically was poor, and he was different. He got his identity in the war fighting for Germany. Germany instead collapsed. He rebuilt Germany and so on. It does go back to himself. When you look at his rambling and incoherent table talk, which was recorded during the war at lunchtime and dinner times by his entourage or written down, there again it’s quite narcissistic. He’s constantly talking about himself, or he’s laying down the law about all kinds of subjects of one sort or another. He’s got quite an obsessive personality, as I say. He talked in his public utterances a lot about the Jews and how he thought they’d destroyed Germany and they were going to destroy the world unless he organized Germany against it. But I would say he did have quite a lengthy attention span. He could concentrate and focus on things.
Yeah, OK. That’s one difference. That’s good.
He could certainly concentrate.
Or, to put it another way: Trump is no Hitler. He's much dumber.
I think Evans has it about right. As I've written before, America's political institutions are quite strong enough to resist any attempts to undermine them, even if Trump were to attempt this. And despite much hyperventilating commentary, he's not. Every President has blasted the press and uncooperative judges at one time or another -- the only difference is that Trump does so publicly, in crude and childish terms. I am fairly confident Trump will crash and burn before his first four years are up, and the consequences might be sobering indeed. But he's not going to turn America into a police state.