Donald Trump says Mexicans are bringing rapists across the border, and the only solution is to deport them and build a wall to keep them out. He says Muslim-Americans should carry ID cards and register in a public directory. And, he says, Muslims who are currently outside of the United States should no longer be allowed in.
These controversial suggestions, among a slew of others, exemplify the Republican presidential candidate’s willingness to regularly “other” whichever minority group is most politically expedient at any given time — a tactic that polls show has become one of the billionaire businessman’s most successful campaign strategies.
For his many opponents, the method has offered an opportunity to disparage Trump as a modern-day fascist, drawing comparisons to the values of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini — and even the fictional character of Voldemort. It doesn’t help Trump’s case that his ex-wife claims he used to keep a book of Hitler’s speeches by his bedside.
But in an interview with Foreign Policy, Robert Paxton, author of The Anatomy of Fascism, said those who compare Trump to Mussolini or Hitler probably don’t know much about any of the men in question.
“Trump is perfectly OK about sounding like those people, because they all were hostile to foreigners; they all wanted aggressive foreign policy,” Paxton said in a phone interview Tuesday. “There are these surface similarities, but Trump is not really about to put all American teenagers into the Hitler Youth or Mussolini Wolf Cubs. That would make him very unpopular.”
Last week’s deadly gun attack in San Bernardino, California, carried out by a Muslim couple the FBI said Wednesday was radicalized, gave Trump the opportunity to out-Trump himself.
On Monday, he suggested that “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” is the only solution to preventing extremism. That angered even his fellow Republicans, prompting public criticism from party leaders and almost every other GOP presidential hopeful — even those who have trodden lightly around some of his inflammatory remarks to avoid becoming targets of his insults.
But Paxton said these provocative statements — no matter how reprehensible bystanders find them to be — represent individualism, an ideology that he said contradicts fascism.
“Fascism was a revolt against individualism, and what we have now is individualism run amok,” he said. “You can find lots of themes that they all share … but you can find those in places other than fascism, too.”
The historical context of the rise of Mussolini and Hitler put them at odds with Trump’s campaign. In Italy and Germany, the two dictators came to power at a time when their countries had been humiliated and weakened, and for them, fascism was the only way to return to glory. By contrast, Trump is running for president in what is arguably the most powerful and influential country in the world — despite his efforts to label America as a place that needs him to become “great again.”
Still, the urgent need for Americans who oppose Trump to in some way define his rhetoric leaves them searching for a historical character they know and despise. In that sense, Paxton said, Mussolini and Hitler are easy — if not entirely accurate — comparisons. “I think it’s a way of saying they’re terrible, but it doesn’t really match up and it confuses the issue,” he said.
Karl D. Qualls, who teaches history at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, echoed those sentiments.
“We pick out fascists and Nazis whenever we want to label someone, and I think that’s what’s going on again,” Qualls said in a phone call with FP. Although neither comparison is entirely accurate, Qualls called the references to Hitler even more of a stretch than those to Mussolini.
Hitler “choreographed every single thing that he did,” Qualls said. Trump, on the other hand, has argued that presidential candidates shouldn’t be allowed to use teleprompters in campaign speeches: “You don’t want a scripted president,” Trump said in August. “And you don’t want a politically correct president because it takes too much long — takes too much time.”
In that sense, Trump is “more like Mussolini, because Trump plays the buffoon,” Qualls said.
Comparing Trump to Hitler is particularly dangerous, Qualls added, because “it completely undermines any real knowledge of what happened in the Holocaust by blaming a single individual when there [were] tens of thousands who [were] complicit in it.”
At the same time, critics fear Trump speaks beyond the content of his statements and to the throngs of clapping, cheering supporters at his campaign events who have created scenes that, in turn, have been compared to public appearances by Hitler and Mussolini. As Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has expanded in recent weeks, social media campaigns have encouraged those listening to his suggestions to replace the word “Muslim” with “Jew” and ask themselves if they sound like a Nazi.
On Tuesday, the Telegraph published a quiz titled, “Who said it: Donald Trump or Adolf Hitler?” And the Philadelphia Daily News’ cover story Tuesday used an image of Trump raising his hand in a motion that looks like Hitler’s signature salute, with the headline: “The New Furor.”
But perhaps that can be explained just by some Americans’ desire to dismiss Trump’s statements as the ramblings of an evil person — one whom history would be better off forgetting.
“This is a way for people to find comfort in his statements, by saying, ‘It’s a madman doing this. It’s not a real human being; it’s a madman,’” Qualls said.
In Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors, there is a great scene where Allen’s character, Cliff, a filmmaker working on a movie about his pompous, egotistical brother-in-law Lester, shows his subject a preview of the much-anticipated documentary.
Lester becomes infuriated when a scene of him unabashedly screaming at his colleagues cuts away to an old video clip of Mussolini, using the same hand gestures and mannerisms. Lester fires Cliff, claiming the comparison is entirely inaccurate. “I don’t promote values that … deaden the sensibilities of a great democracy!” he shouts.
Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to take much offense to such a comparison.
On Tuesday, he double downed on his suggested ban on Muslims traveling to the United States.
“[It is] probably not politically correct,” he said. “But I. Don’t. Care.”
Photo credit: Matt Bors