The perils of comparing Trump to twentieth-century dictators

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tags: fascism, Trump



Jeet Heer is a senior editor at the New Republic who has published in a wide array of journals including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and VQR.

Like many people around the world, Yale historian Timothy Snyder responded to the election of Donald Trump by fuming on social media. “Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” he lamented in a Facebook post on November 15. Drawing on his field of expertise—Europe in the era of Stalin and Hitler—Snyder went on to offer 20 “lessons” for how to resist a dictatorship. His post went viral, amassing more than 13,000 likes. He has now expanded that post into On Tyranny, a curious mixture of historical anecdotes and self-help bromides, premised on the idea that America is at the dawn of a tyrannical age, and that the past offers clues for resistance.

The ominous overtones of his project closely match the public mood of recent months. After Trump’s win, dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here sprang to the top of best-seller lists, and Americans discovered a newfound interest in theorists of dictatorship and authoritarianism. Warning of NSA surveillance, Snyder reminds us that Hannah Arendt, who fled Nazi Germany, defined totalitarianism as “the erasure of the difference between private and public life.” In The New Yorker, Alex Ross argued that “the Frankfurt School knew Trump was coming.” Arendt and Theodor Adorno are now discussed not as relics of the last century and its horrors, but as seers whose works speak afresh to our moment....

Historical analogies are tools if they are used carefully; when they come too easily, they can be dangerous. To compare Trump to Hitler and Stalin rather than to Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan is to nurture a reassuring myth that Trump is un-American. This is a consoling fantasy, since it implies that Trump doesn’t have deep roots in the American experience; if we simply get rid of Trump, all will be well. It’s a way of turning the current political tragedy into a fairy tale, in which a scary monster threatens us, but once he is quickly vanquished, normality is restored, as if it had all been a bad dream.

In truth, there is nothing foreign or even original about Trump’s politics. America is not just the land of immigrants but also the land of nativism, a worldview that the children and grandchildren of immigrants often adopt as a way of moving up the social ladder themselves. Trump’s father was arrested at a Ku Klux Klan march and, in his career as a landlord, he was sued by the government for discriminating against black people. Beyond his family heritage, Trump came of age in a period when politicians in both the South and North rose to power on the backlash against the civil rights movement.

From George Wallace and Richard Nixon, Trump learned the language of “law and order” as a racist dog whistle; from Charles Lindbergh, the popularity of the slogan “America First”; from his mentor Roy Cohn, the effectiveness of smearing opponents; from General George Patton—or the version of him in the George C. Scott film—the appeal of roughneck militarism; from Ross Perot, the potency of complaining about free trade and freeloading allies; from Pat Buchanan, the strength of nativism. In sum, Trump’s ideology is not something new, but the repackaging of older forms of American xenophobia and authoritarianism.




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