Trump’s Brownshirt and Incitement to violence: A view from HistoryRoundup
tags: Nazism, authoritarianism, Donald Trump, paramilitaries
Dr. Waitman Wade Beorn is a Senior Lecturer in History at Northumbria University in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK.
The guns have come out. Or, as President Trump tweeted, “when the looting starts the shooting starts.” This comment earned him a Twitter condemnation for “glorifying violence.” When I lived in Charlottesville in 2017 during the Unite the Right rally, I was frankly surprised that the heavily armed right-wing militias that showed did not fire on counter-protesters. There, Trump’s signalling of support for extremism occurred after the fact, when he claimed that there “good people on both sides.” Despite the murder of Heather Heyer by an extremist, it seemed that the line between street fighting and more serious vigilante armed violence held. It appears that we have now well and truly crossed that boundary as well.
In the context of protests across the United States in the wake of police killings, some of those self-styled militia have begun to pull the trigger. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, a 17-year old gunman shot three people, killing two. The vigilante, Kyle Rittenhouse, appears to have responded to a call from a local militia group asking “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend our city tonight from evil thugs?” Another would-be vigilante and US Marine veteran who came into the city that night stated ominously that, “Ain’t nothing being done. We’re the only ones. Three thousand of us are armed and ready.” Other right-wing groups such as the so-called “boogaloo bois” have already been charged with a variety of crimes and violent plots. And Trump continues to signal encouragement for these dangerous and extra-legal groups, refusing to condemn them, has actively expressed support for alleged murderer, Rittenhouse. While simultaneously endorsing this extra-legal organized violence, Trump takes no responsibility for the violence and, instead, is campaigning on a platform of what one columnist has called “the promise of law and order without the rule of law.”
What does this portend for the future and, in particular, for the upcoming elections? As an historian, I often look to the past for clues. My thoughts turn to Germany. Not the Germany of the official Nazi state. Not the Germany of dictatorship and mass-propaganda. Not the Germany of World War II and the Holocaust which might seem more alien to us today. Instead, we should consider a time of economic crisis and fiery political battles that spilled into the streets. It was also a time of looming elections in the early 1930s.
After his failed coup attempt in 1923, Adolf Hitler had concluded that he could only come to power legitimately within the legal framework of the government, through the ballot box. His National Socialist party conducted political campaigns and promoted candidates for public offices. Behind the scenes, however, Hitler and the Nazis realized that a “legal” strategy needed to be helped along by just the right amount of violence. His brown-shirted stormtroopers, the SA, were just the tool for this. The SA began as part para-military fraternity, part political muscle. The brownshirts battled communist extremists in the streets and attempted to influence politics. The organization took its cues, of course, from Hitler. Control was often loose, however, as the brownshirts, many of whom were veterans of the Free Corps paramilitary groups, were always itching for a fight. But, after his failed coup, Hitler attempted to walk the tightrope between the image of the Nazi party as a legitimate political organization and the pragmatic use of SA violence against party enemies. In order to appeal to conservative and more moderate voters, he could not be seen as fomenting or supporting lawlessness.
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