How Hitler’s Rise to Power Explains Why Republicans Accept Donald Trump

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tags: Hitler, election 2016, Trump



Jonathan Chait is a journalist at New York Magazine.

... Hitler’s Thirty Days to Power, by the historian Henry Ashby Turner, describes the political machinations that allowed Hitler to seize the chancellorship of Germany. (I stole the idea to read it from Matthew Yglesias, via Twitter.) In January 1933, the Nazi party’s vote share had begun to decline, and its party was undergoing a serious internal crisis, with dues falling, members drifting off, and other leaders questioning Hitler’s direction. A widely shared belief across the political spectrum at the time held that Hitler would not and could not win the chancellorship, because Germany’s revered conservative president, Paul von Hindenburg, had long vowed to deny such a position to Hitler.

Hindenburg and the German right viewed Hitler in strikingly similar terms to how Republican elites view Trump. Yes, they badly underestimated his fanaticism, which Hitler had downplayed in public. While they failed to anticipate that Hitler would launch a total war and industrial-scale genocide, they did consider him a buffoon. Alfred Hugenberg, leader of the German-Nationals, deemed the Nazis “little better than a rabble, with dangerously radical social and economic notions,” writes Turner. Hindenburg considered Hitler qualified to head the postal ministry at best. Hitler, in their eyes, was not a serious man, unfit to govern, a classless buffoon. His appeal, the German elite believed, came from his outsider status, which allowed him to posture against the political system and make extravagant promises to his followers that would never be tested against reality. What’s more, Hitler’s explicit contempt for democracy made even the authoritarian German right nervous about entrusting him with power.

All this is to say that German conservatives did not see Hitler as Hitler — they saw Hitler as Trump. And the reasons they devised to overcome their qualms and accept him as the head of the government would ring familiar to followers of the 2016 campaign. They believed the responsibility of governing would tame Hitler, and that his beliefs were amorphous and could be shaped by advisers once in office. They respected his populist appeal and believed it could serve their own ends. (Hugenberg, writes Turner, “recognized that [the Nazis] were far more successful than his party in mobilizing mass support and hoped to harness their movement to destroy the republic and establish a rightist authoritarian regime.”) Their myopic concern with specifics of their policy agenda overcame their general sense of unease. (One right-wing landowner was “hopeful of relief measures by a Hitler cabinet for the depressed agriculture of the east,” and thus concluded “the army and the forces of conservatism would suffice to prevent a one-party Nazi dictatorship.”) Think of the supply-siderssupporting Trump in the hope he can enact major tax cuts, or the social conservatives enthused about his list of potential judges, and you’ll have a picture of the thought process.

There is one more parallel between the events of 1933 and the events of 2016: Most of the complicit parties (the main exception being the scheming Franz von Papen) did not fully apprehend the extent of their actions until it was too late. In Germany, Hitler’s ascent required complicated intrigue, the upshot of which was that conservatives believed they had parliamentary leverage that would restrain Hitler. They placed enormous faith in the power of this leverage, until the final two days, when the rumor of an impending military coup rushed their timetable, and the once-crucial terms of Hitler’s chancellorship became forgotten details, discarded in a mad rush. ...




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