Even before the election, critics had been drawing comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler.
They’ve pointed to Trump’s promise to ban Muslims, deport millions of immigrants, crack down on the press and “make America great again.”
Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Daniel Ziblatt (@dziblatt), professor of government at Harvard University and author of the forthcoming book “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Modern Democracy in Europe,” about Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s Germany, and whether the comparisons between Trump and Hitler are fair or unnecessarily inflammatory.
On the conditions for Hitler’s rise
“There are a couple of really important conditions that gave rise to the emergence of Hilter as a political leader and then also how he took power. One of the key things that one has to keep in mind is that Germany has just lost the World War I, and millions of people have died — four percent of the population — way beyond anything that the United States experienced. So there was a sense of trauma in the population, and then this coupled with the economic crisis that came several years later. These were the conditions under which these kind of appeals that Hitler made really found mass following.”
“So the Great Depression came in 1929. So this was a series economic shock. But I think one of the things that’s also important to keep in mind is that the rise of Hitler wasn’t driven just by war and economics. There was a set of political pre-conditions, in a way the immune system of the German political system was already lowered, I would argue, before 1929.”
On the differences between Trump and Hitler
“Certainly the comparison is, in some sense, very inflammatory, so someone has to really work as one thinks about this in a very careful way. The first thing to do is to think about the differences, because there are substantial differences. Number one is as I said, the wartime trauma that something Germany experienced in 1918 that the U.S. didn’t experience then and certainly is not experiencing now. The second major difference, I would say, was that the U.S. is a much older democracy and a much older country than Germany was in 1920s and 1930s. And we know of course that Germany was a new democracy in 1918, but we sometimes forget that Germany was actually a relative new country, only being founded in 1871, so 50 years earlier — really a brand new country. In this sense, American democracy is certainly more robust than Germany democracy was at that point. And a third big difference that I think we just have to put on the table is the kind of nature and scale of the challenge was greater. In some sense, Adolf Hitler and fascism in general was a kind of very coherent attempt to overturn democratic political systems. Populists today — I think Donald Trump counts as a populist along with Marine Le Pen in France and the UKIP Party in Great Britain. These are all populist movements.
“I think that the populist in some sense kind of represent a kind of low-grade fever of democracy in a sense that there’s a kind of latent problem in democracy. And this can sometimes break out and be a serious crisis of democracy. But there’s no real effort to overturn democracy by contemporary populists. So in that sense, the challenges are not as significant. That being said, I think there are some real similarities that one should point to, though.”
On the emergence of right-wing populism
“I would emphasize two main points, I guess. One that in both instances … I think the rise of this kind of right-wing populism emerges as conservative parties fall apart. So there’s sometimes a kind of fantasy of maybe social democrats and liberals, that as conservatives party fall apart, this will mean triumph for social democracy and liberal parties. But in fact, what happens when conservatism falls apart, you get this kind of language, you get this kind of movement and you get this kind of politics. The second point is that all of these is a response to a perceived dysfunction in the political system. And so this is another commonality I guess. … So there’s a kind of long-term slow decay often people point to in the American political system, congressional dysfunction, the rise of the executive orders, and there’s this perception that a single individual needs to step in to kind of solve problems. So I think institutional dysfunction … gives rise to kind of this temptation to have a single leader solve all of our problems for us.”
On the “dilemma of conservatism”
“This is exactly the dilemma that somebody likes myself faces. I’ve been writing a book on conservative parties throughout history, and I guess the way I think about this is that conservatism itself, in some ways, contains a dilemma, which is that it can sometimes degenerate into right-wing populism. The form that the right-wing populism takes varies, certainly, and in some instances it can kind of veer out of control into a kind of fascism and that’s much more dangerous. In the contemporary setting of the United States and Western Europe, we’re not facing that kind of challenge. But we are seeing the same dynamic in the sense that we’re seeing conservative parties degenerating — declining appeal, declining organization — and this kind of populism pops up in its wake. So being alert to the differences as well as the similarities is I think really something very important for all of us to do.”