Sometimes stopping Hitler means seeing the Nazi inside ourselves.
It was April 1945. The Soviet army was on a tear across Eastern Europe. Its goal was the city of Berlin, the heart of Hitler’s crumbling empire. Waiting for them, in a concrete bunker 30 feet underground, was Hitler himself, the final remnants of his sanity dissolving into utter madness. He scurried from room to room, barking incoherent orders to imaginary armies and hoping in vain for a miracle to save him from the avenging allies.
The prospect of answering for his crimes was more than his fragile mind could bear. It overwhelmed his fear of death long enough for him to blow his brains out on April 30th, 1945, two days before Russian forces overwhelmed Berlin’s beleaguered defenders.
The Third Reich surrendered seven days later, closing one of history’s darkest chapters. But the story didn’t end there. In many ways it had just begun.
Did He Ever Really Die?
Shakespeare said that the evil men do lives after them. This is certainly true where Hitler is concerned. The scope of his atrocities was so vast that it has imbued him with a sort of virtual immortality. This fact, combined with humanity’s opportunistic nature, has inspired countless people to see Hitler in those around them, particularly in people they don’t like.
This tactic was so widespread by 1953 that noted author and philosopher Leo Strauss coined a term for it: reduction ad Hitlerum. In 1990 American author and attorney Mike Godwin proposed what is now called “Godwin’s law,” which says that comparisons to Hitler will become more common and less accurate as Internet usage expands.
The evidence has proven Godwin right so far. Republicans played the Hitler card against Bill Clinton. Democrats played it against George Bush. The Right used it against Barack Obama and now the Left is using it against Donald Trump.
Are these comparisons justified? Or do they trivialize the extent of Hitler’s atrocities? Do they make us more attuned to the dangers of fascism? Or do they dupe us into seeing Hitler in all the wrong places?
When the monster does reappear — as he surely will, sooner or later — will we recognize him? Or will he embed himself so deeply in our particular cause that we mistake him for our friend? The fate of countless millions could hinge on the answers to these questions.
To See Something, You Must First Know What You’re Looking for
Seeing Hitler everywhere is as useless as seeing him nowhere. Either way he gets a free pass to wreak havoc. With this in mind, let’s consider whether Trump really is a viable candidate for the next Nazi leader. Let’s start by taking a closer look at Hitler the historical character, as seen through the eyes of those who probed the darkest corners of his mind.
Making Sense of a Madman
The task facing American psychologist William Langer in 1943 was to get inside Hitler’s brain. He wanted to know what made it tick, so that the military might throw a monkey wrench into the works. The secret project was an ode to Sun Tzu’s admonition to “know thy enemy,” a form of psychological warfare scaled up for the modern era.
Dr. Langer poured himself into the mission, enlisting the help of distinguished professionals from across the country. Together these men pieced together the inner workings of Hitler’s psyche, presenting their report to the War Department in early 1944. The content of their research was later declassified and published by Basic Books in 1972 under the title The Mind of Adolf Hitler.
The efforts of Langer and his team were not perfect. He and his colleagues were trained in the classic psychoanalytic tradition. They acted accordingly, sometimes sounding more Freudian than Freud himself. Despite these limitations, they nonetheless distilled the essence of Hitler’s psyche into their report. They even predicted that Hitler would withdraw from public view and commit suicide, which is exactly what happened.
A key insight from the report suggests that Hitler’s conscience was warped early in life by his desperate need to win his father’s approval. The elder Hitler was viciously cruel, both to his son Adolf and to the child’s mother. The family’s household environment was filled with physical and psychological abuse.
To cope with this situation, Hitler began to emulate his psychopathic father, a phenomenon that psychologists refer to as “identification with the aggressor” or simply “Stockholm syndrome.” Essentially, Hitler escaped his father by becoming his father, stirring the sadistic brew which bent his mind towards absolute evil. He acted from those impulses throughout the rest of his life, becoming the beast he despised as a child.
Hitler’s childhood trauma does not excuse his actions, of course. The world is filled with abused children who don’t commit mass murder. But his life story does help us to understand why comparisons between him and Donald Trump don’t add up.
Trump was neither abused nor neglected as a child. To the contrary, he was indulged and doted over, a fact which probably explains his inflated ego and overblown self-confidence.
Hitler was a different man altogether. His goal was not to aggrandize an already inflated ego. It was to soothe a wounded self-image. He was not over-confident. To the contrary, he had no confidence at all. That is why he invented a character he called der fuhrer and compartmentalized it into a corner of his brain, letting it emerge whenever he felt insecure.
Trump’s brain simply doesn’t work the same way. He has no insecurities to pacify, no need for a fictitious superman to rescue him. He spends his days in a buoyant sense of perpetual optimism. Like most egotists, his self-adulation keeps him forever happy, even in the midst of setbacks. He merely reinterprets defeats as victories and rolls merrily along.
Trump is indeed a swaggering blowhard and an avowed egomaniac. But is he the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler? No. Such comparisons serve no one’s interests but Trump’s. Here’s why.
Trump has Made the Elitist Branch of the Left His Unwitting Partners
70 years ago the bulk of Democrats consisted of working people, common to the core and content to be so. They had calloused hands and wore hardhats. They punched a time clock, ate TV dinners, and chose beer over brandy. They lived in tidy working-class neighborhoods and sent their kids to state colleges, not Ivy League universities.
Those Democrats were, for the most part, people of faith. They prayed the Rosary, recited the Lord’s Prayer, or celebrated Passover, depending on their particular tradition. They never imagined their fellow party members looking down on them for their spirituality
Those Democrats were tolerant. They were perfectly willing to let their neighbor sleep in on Sundays, drink fine wine, or sleep with a same-sex partner. But they reserved the right to have their own opinions on those issues.
Those Democrats understood that free enterprise is essential for a thriving economy. They also understood that Capitalism will self-destruct without a reasonable degree of government oversight. They wanted to rein the rich man in. But they didn’t want to kick him out of his mansion or take away his yacht. They wanted equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.
Those Democrats understood that cops and soldiers are essential for a safe society. They decried police brutality but gave good officers a pat on the back. They were patriots but not nationalists. They saluted the flag and respected those who didn’t. They were the quintessential salt of the earth, the backbone upon which our nation’s prosperity is built.
Those Democrats are in short supply these days. They’ve either converted to the Republican Party or established themselves as disaffected independents. Trump learned how to harness their anger when plotting his rise to power. He studied their lingo. He learned their culture. He paid lip service to their values and tipped his hat to their God. He identified their points of pain and presented himself as the savior of their cause.
Give the Devil His Due
At this point, certain self-congratulatory people may be shrugging their shoulders and saying, “No surprise there. Christians and blue-collar whites are a bunch of inbred racist dolts. The sooner they disappear, the better off the rest of us will be.”
By entertaining those sentiments, these people are giving Donald Trump exactly what he wants. He won the presidency by appealing to working-class religious people, the ones to whom certain members of the Left enjoy feeling superior. Elitist progressives have labored long and hard to give Trump his carefully crafted narrative. They continue to do so, whenever they compare him to Hitler and his followers to Nazis.
Are there fascists among Trump’s supporters? Yes. But they make up only a tiny number of his supporters, just as Communists and anarchists make up a tiny number of Democrats. By failing to draw this crucial distinction, the elitist branch of the Left creates the conditions that made Trump’s election possible. He’s counting on their help to win reelection in 2020.
“Ridiculous!” some say in objection. “Trump’s nowhere near that smart!”
Yes, he is. Trump rose to the top of the food chain in the merciless worlds of high-stakes real estate and mass entertainment. He is now the most powerful person on earth. He has eluded every trap set for him. He laughs at his opponents.
He laughs at you.
That’s not the resume of a fool. It’s the approach of someone who is smart enough to play the role of a fool, goading us into underestimating him. It’s time for us to stop doing that. All of us must give the Devil his due. Otherwise we fall under his spell.
If Playing the Hitler Card Won’t Get Rid of Trump, Then What Will?
If politics was a magic show, then Trump would be Houdini. But magicians rely on misdirection and misperception to pull off their illusions. The same is true of Trump. Here are three ways to bring the curtain down on his act for good.
Step One: Stop Playing His Game
We live in a dumbed-down age in which style is valued over substance. We’re suckers for sound bites, sheep led by slogans. We’re the butt of your own joke, the victims of our own prosperity. We created devices that give us access to the collected knowledge of the entire human race. We use them to play games and obsess over celebrities.
We did this to ourselves. We created the shallow, vacuous, reality TV culture that made President Trump possible. He uses our short attention span to his long-term advantage. Try to beat him at his own game and he will come out on top every time.
So what do we do? We put away the deck of cards and pull out the chess board instead. We insist on substance when he tries to skirt past us with silly nonsense. We eat our supper before sampling our dessert, so in the end we can eat his lunch. Here’s how this strategy might play out in real life:
· If he brags about his healthcare plan, then ask for the details. “Show us your in-depth plan crafted by policy experts, so that all of us may read it. We’ll make the time.”
· If he says that immigrants are murdering Americans, then challenge him to provide the statistics. Ask him what he thinks of the immigrants who are living model lives and contributing to our society. Are they the exception to the rule?
· If he has a plan to revitalize our infrastructure, then ignore his latest tweet storm. Instead, invite him to present his proposals to the nation, so that we can discuss its merits line-by-line and page-by-page.
Illusions are, by definition, bereft of reality. Seeing past them means looking behind the curtain, peeking under the table, sticking around after the show is over. In doing so, we see that the tricks we once found so impressive are nothing but smoke and mirrors. They’re worthy of a chuckle and maybe even a little applause, but never our serious attention.
Trump must put up or shut up. We will gladly turn off our phones and take a seat while he prepares his case. In the meantime, we will not let his offhand remarks distract us from the business at hand. “Yeah, that’s cute, Donald. You compared her to a walrus. Ha ha. Now back to serious matters.”
Step Two: Put a Human Face on the Opposition
There have been countless autopsies performed on the 2016 election in the past three years. One of the most revealing analyses comes from the 2018 bestseller The Great Revolt. The authors of that excellent book combed the country talking to Trump voters. They let them speak for themselves.
In doing so, they discovered a diverse array of thoughts, opinions, and reasons for supporting Trump. They found mostly good-hearted, hard-working people, the type we would gladly call our neighbors.
Never did the authors encounter the stereotypical racist thug who’s stockpiling guns for the Apocalypse. But they did meet many decent folks who have been maliciously miscast in that way. Those good people resent the assault on their integrity and their intelligence, as well they should.
Their rightful resentment, aided and abetted by many on the Left, is the raw material from which Trump casts his rhetorical arsenal. The question for progressives is whether we will keep giving him what he wants or adopt a more rational strategy instead. We can start by asking” why do you feel that way,” instead of assuming we know the answer already.
Step Three: Take a Good Long Look in the Mirror
Nobody wants Hitler to return, not in any form. The last time he showed his face he slaughtered 60 million people, including thousands of his most devoted supporters. Like the Devil in the biblical book of Revelation, he must remain imprisoned for at least a thousand years, if we are to have any hope of achieving the long-sought Millennium.
Here’s the disagreeable thing about demons, though: they prefer the sunlit world of earth to the dismal pits of perdition. Like cancer cells, they’re masters of reinvention, which is why we rarely see them coming.
This means that the next Hitler might not call himself a fascist. He might call himself an anti-fascist. He might not speak in terms of blood and soil. He might appeal to economics or culture, or even diversity and tolerance (as he defines those terms, of course).
The new Hitler might preach ideological, rather than racial, purity. He might focus our hatred on a different group of victims: “it’s not those damn Jews, it’s those damn Muslims;” “it’s those damn atheists;” “it’s those damn Democrats.”
His pitch might also sound like this: “It’s those damn Christians. It’s those damn cops. It’s those damn Trump voters. They’re the problem. We must restrict their rights, silence their voices, erase them from our online communities. We must paint them all with the same brush. We must do these things NOW, if we want our good to triumph over their evil.” Sound familiar?
Sometimes stopping Hitler means seeing the Nazi inside ourselves. We must always remember that we are no different, and no better, than the German people of the 1920s and the 1930s. Trump’s enemies, and his supporters, are more alike than either is comfortable admitting. The line dividing “us” from “them” is microscopically narrow.
Our species evolved through a brutal struggle that stretched out over hundreds of millions of years. The instincts we acquired over those eons are hardwired into our brains. Hucksters of both the right- and left-wing variety are all too willing to exploit them, whether they’re driven by unlimited ego like Trump or subtle self-hatred like Hitler.
Turning a deaf ear to their appeals is never easy. It requires us to be as hard on ourselves as we sometimes are on others. It won’t make us feel good. It will give us no excuse to pat ourselves on the back. But it’s the only way we can ensure that Hitler remains a stain on our past, not a specter of our future.