Nicholas O’Shaughnessy is Professor of Communication at Queen Mary, University of London and currently Visiting Professor at King’s College London. His book Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand has just been published by Hurst in the UK and distributed by Oxford University Press in the USA.
Much has been made recently of alleged parallels between the authoritarian taint of current political events in the USA and the rise of European fascism in the inter-war period. One Oxford researcher, Dr Kevin Dutton, has even declared that Donald Trump exhibits ‘more psychopathic’ traits than Hitler. Is fascism arising from its mausoleum? Does the polarization in US society, and the recourse to demagoguery in the service of the retrieval of a better past, equate even superficially with the disintegration of the civic state in Europe in the twenties and thirties?
The first thing to say is that this is not all about Donald Trump. He represents merely the apex of a cultural trend and before he appeared there were movements and events that presaged his arrival. If Trump did not exist someone would have invented him. Secondly he is not a fascist even though there are some significant comparisons with the language of fascism—for example his notorious ‘snake’ anecdote (Muslims) parallels the Nazi -era der Sturmer children’s story of the snake (Jews).
However there definitely are similarities in communications method between the US today and the fascist era in Europe, and all draw from the same polemical- evangelical script.
This does not make the American right fascist, or Trump a Nazi. It does however point to the recrudescence of persuasion techniques associated with these things and long thought extinct. Now, today, it is the Obama campaign of 2008 with its idealism, its focus on the future, its co-opted hordes of youth and digital and social media projection that lies in the past. The old has become new for those who don’t remember, with malign consequences.
This candidate and the hold he has on millions of Americans did not emerge from nowhere. Trumpery is not self-created but the consequence of the polemicization of our political discourse arising out of the polarization of our political culture. And the paladins of this culture—Fox News, Sarah Palin, Anne Coulter, the Tea Party—inspire a great army of followers who decant their frustrations into cyberspace. The blogosphere shakes with their rage. In this it does indeed parallel Weimar Gemany. The Third Reich was also a culture war. It was not that a majority of Germans wanted Nazism, but they didn’t want democracy and there was no real political center left in Germany, just communist, socialist and fascist. Trumpery flourished in part because of Obama’s failure to sell a counter narrative and his drily intellectual approach to leadership—and similarly with Hitler’s Weimar predecessor Chancellor Heinrich Bruning, who rejected exhortations to use the media and give Germans a powerful story.
And in terms of evangelical methods there is an obvious parallel between Hitler’s use of the living theater of politics—the rhetorical assault before a live audience—and Trump’s dramaturgy. For Trump has revived the mass rally, eschewing until late in the day established methods of political marketing such as advertising, direct mail and so forth. He knows that the media will relay his polemical performances, heavy in denunciation, into every home. As did Hitler, who ensured that Germans were able to by a very cheap state produced radio (Volksempfaenger VE 301) that could only be tuned into the regime programs. For both men, the theatre of politics was just as important as the instrumentality. In the view of one respected academic, a Hitler rally in the early 30s was ‘well worth it’ for the entertainment value. Crowds thrill to Trump’s bullying bellicose manner; his playing to the gallery and demonization of opponents, his egocentric fictions; his huge lies which go so far beyond anything seen before in American politics—what he says is largely imaginary. Missing however in the conventional analysis of Trump is the element of self-parody, he is a pantomime villain exhaling bluster, a wizard of Oz. That is part of the show, part of the entertainment.
The key similarity is the emotional strategy and, specifically, the way in which both maestros of rhetoric exploited the primal emotions of Pride, Fear and Anger.
Emotion: Pride Firstly there is the manufacture of a benevolent, proud past which the current order has violated as expressed in the phrase, Make America Great Again. In fact the Nazis called their regime the Third Reich to commemorate its earlier incarnations—the first Reich, ie. Charlemagne and the so-called Holy Roman Empire, and the second Reich—the Germany that was united under Bismarck and terminated in 1918.
The slogan Make America Great Again is both the core rhetorical idea of the Trump campaign and also evokes the loss of the American dream. And, as with the Nazis, there is a truth buried amid the boundless morass of lies. The Versailles treaty was indeed a disgrace, as the Nazis consistently claimed; and it is also objectively the case that the material substance of the American idea is now elusive for many Americans.
Emotion: Fear Richard Hofstadter entitled his famous Harper’s Magazine essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (November 1964). But paranoia is energized by the notion of an existential threat, and this idea, this nightmare, is what Trump offers the American people—the notion of an American way that is threatened, that may face extinction, subverted from within by treacherous elites and alien cultural saboteurs and from without by foreign states stealing American jobs and markets. Indeed the kind of rhetorical intensity promoted by Trump simply would not be possible if the issues were pedestrian. A crisis has to be created: no man, said Goebbels, is willing to die for the eight-hour day. There has to be a great cause, the cause of national survival itself. For the Nazis of course that crisis was the manufactured existential threat from the “international Jews”—the notion that the German people were facing cultural and perhaps racial extinction. They promulgated this idea so vigorously that in the end they were projecting World War Two itself as primarily a war against the Jews who allegedly controlled the US, British and Soviet governments (in fact the Soviet Politburo had only one Jewish member).
Emotion: Anger And alongside the retrieval of past glory was the rhetorical sabotage of the existing regime—in the Nazi’s case, Weimar, and for right wing Republicans, the Obama presidency. In both cases the status quo was essentially portrayed as illegitimate—the Nazis with their dolchstosslegende, or legend of the stab in the back, the ‘betrayal’ of the 1918 armistice and the Versailles treaty by liberals and social democrats; in Obama’s case the onslaughts of the birthers, the claim that he was actually a Muslim and was educated in a madrassa and so forth.
Above all both of them mobilized a politics of grievance and recognized that grievance does not have to actually exist objectively—it can be talked into people. I have described Hitlerite rhetoric as a protracted, brattish whine. Grievances are imaginary as well as real. Thus “If I’m elected we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again” is a typically resonant piece of Trump oratory, but who is actually saying that we should no longer say Merry Christmas? It is a vigorous attack against a straw man.
Then there is the cruelty, deliberate norm violation in fact, unfortunately a feature of the Trump campaign and also a key method of Nazi electioneering as with Goebbels’s attacks on deputy Berlin police chief Bernard “Isidore” Weiss, a fine public servant insulted among other ways by the device of photomontage to make him appear degenerate. And listen to Trump: on Carly Fiorina’s appearance, on Megan Kelly. The climax of this ad hominem vitriol was to insult Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a dead Muslim soldier; jeer at Senator McCain for being taken prisoner in Vietnam; denigrate Judge Curiel’s Mexican parentage; and to grotesquely mimic the mannerisms of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski who has chronic joint disease. Alongside this serial creation of objects of hate is the legitimation of violent solutions to terrorism (torture them) and even to Hillary (Trump’s threatening reference to “the second amendment people”).
The second similarity lies in the manipulative tactics which both employed—the maneuvers, the panaceas, the frauds.
Tactic: Maneuver Another feature of both is their essential politicality. As a political party the Nazis were prepared to compromise and dissemble, for instance supporting the transport workers in the 1932 Berlin strike (losing much middle class support in the process) and refusing to join the Watch on the Rhine--the only party that did. (The “Watch on the Rhine’ was the attempted undermining of the post- WW1 occupation of the Rhineland/ Ruhr by allied troops, who were there for a total of fifteen years. It was opposed via passive resistance by Germans and their governments, with active sabotage by right wing German militias. This is why the Nazi refusal to join it is perplexing: indeed its principal martyr, Shalagater, was not a Nazi.) In the early days they tried to be all things to all men and have even been called a “catch-all party,” even issuing instructions that the swastika was not to be shown very much in highly middle class areas. The Nazis were, in fact, supremely cynical political salesmen on the march to power: “we don’t want high bread prices, we don’t want low bread prices, we don’t want bread prices to stay the same, we want National Socialist bread prices.” As for the anti-Semitism, that was not stressed in areas with no anti-Semitic tradition and in those cases other groups would be targeted (for example, Poles and Danes).
Trump similarly is definitely a politician and quite prepared to dump ideological baggage when it suits his political convenience, as when he modified his stance on the repatriation of migrants in late August 2016 as he pursued the more moderate Republican vote. He has been prepared to ditch policies that were getting in the way. Moreover although his support coalition includes Theocons—evangelical Christians—he is nothing if not bohemian, silent on the sexual revolution, or tentative, in everything from abortion to gay marriage to transgender rights.
Tactic: Panacea The offer is of a fix—in Hitler’s case, primarily to retrieve German pride and get revenge on those who had destroyed it, and conquer unemployment. The offer is of bold, simple solutions: Trump says build a wall, repatriate eleven million illegals, have a moratorium on Muslim immigration. And these resonate with many people. The offer, therefore, is a panacea. But it is framed by a nuance-free perspective that is coherent and easily comprehended: 37 percent of probable voters across the political spectrum support the moratorium.
Tactic: Fabrication And then there is the fabrication and the fiction. In a sense, lying to all of them was just a deeper form of truth. Trump merely invents: “Mexico must pay for the wall” or “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make us manufacturing non-competitive” are a co-creation of speaker and audience. Trump’s evangelical methodology, like that of the Nazis, does not make the mistake of asking for belief. Like them Trump is inviting his listeners to share a fantasy. They are neither stupid, credulous nor vulnerable—rather what we see is a joint production. And these fictions really become frauds, since the worldview offered is ludicrously bleak and falsifies reality—5 percent unemployment is not an economic disaster yet Republican rhetoric persists in portraying it as such.
But Donald is not Adolf
In fact there are many parallels between Trump and Hitler, which would explain their shared talent for outraging public opinion while simultaneously manipulating it. Thus Trump’s demagoguery is legitimated by a colossal fame in the USA that long predates his candidacy. His popular media profile via The Apprentice is huge and it is easy for the bien pensant class to forget this or underplay the critical role of familiarity. Like Hitler (who did not found the NSDAP but joined it and rapidly became its propaganda director) he had a long exposure to media and therefore training in it. And like Hitler he had never held political office before running for the highest one.
And both men, curiously, also theorized extensively about persuasion and its psychology—Hitler for the whole of chapter five in Mein Kampf, and Trump in the Art of the Deal: “The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.” And then again “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”
But Trump is not Hitler. Rather, he stands in a specifically American tradition of populism. In fact the historical roots are deep. The further origins of the populist right and Trumpery lie way back in American history and he represents merely the continuity, with modern accents, of these ancient conflicts. There are many ancestors—Father Charles Coughlin in the thirties, Governor Huey Long’s Every Man a King campaign, George Wallace and others stretching back to the Know-Nothings of the mid-nineteenth century. Then there is Senator McCarthy with whom Trump directly connects via his New York lawyer (the late) Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy’s assistant in the Army-McCarthy hearings and can be seen at his side in the old newsreels.
Nothing Trump does or says remotely justifies a serious comparison with the author of the Third Reich. The Nazi plans were always monstrous, and epic in scale—lebensraum in the East, necessitating the conquest of Russia, and secondly a judenrein Europe—originally conceived as deporting Jews to Madagascar and, when war frustrated this option, genocide. Violence underpinned everything the Nazis did and the propaganda state was merely the partner of the coercive state.
And even the comparison with Mussolini, though appealing, is inappropriate. Trump does not propose to imprison his political opponents or invade Ethiopia. There is no commonality of aims or ideology or ethics with the fascism that seemed at one point to usher in a new dark age made, in Winston Churchill’s words, “more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights perverted science.” The radicalization of Nazi rhetoric in the late nineteen-thirties becomes truly murderous—Look, there is the world’s enemy, the destroyer of civilizations, the parasite among the peoples, the son of Chaos, the incarnation of evil, the ferment of decomposition, the demon who brings about the degeneration of mankind (Dr. Josef Goebbels, Nuremberg, 1937). Ultimately this is not Donald Trump and should not be represented as such. It is an invocation to genocide and it is, quite literally, diabolical.
This article was originally published at History News Network