With Donald Trump now sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America, many commentators have drawn comparisons between his polarising rise to power and the infamous emergence of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in interwar Germany. Some accuse this comparison of simply falling into Godwin’s law, which claims that if a debate goes on long enough one side will end up unjustifiably comparing the other to Hitler. The comparison, however, should not be dismissed out of hand.
Hitler and Trump both emerged in the wake of a dire economic meltdown by stoking a populist campaign of ethno-nationalism that channelled the grievances of disillusioned whites through a scapegoating of minorities and the promised return to a mythic past of national greatness. Both men, despite very different backgrounds, emerged from relative political obscurity to defeat their more established rivals through a raw and visceral speaking style that tapped into the existing grievances of their frustrated audiences.
While these similarities are as important as they are alarming, there are equally significant differences that should not be understated. The Weimar Republic was still only a fledgling democracy by the time the Nazi party came onto the scene, with widespread nostalgia for the autocratic regime of the Kaiser still prevalent in conservative circles. Politics were as often fought out in the streets as in the ballot box, with violent clashes between Communists and right-wing freikorps paramilitaries a common sight throughout the 1920s. Importantly, the very idea of democracy was still very much in contention, with many Germans seeing the Republic itself as an artificial construct imposed upon them by Social Democrats and liberals.
By contrast, although Trump rode to power atop a populist wave of anti-elitism and disaffection with mainstream politicians and the media, America’s democratic traditions, while deeply flawed in many respects, are both venerable and robust. The day after his inauguration, more than three million people took to the streets across the United States in a Women’s March that reached all seven continents, including Antarctica. This highly organised backlash was made possible by a long tradition of non-violent resistance in American history; from the suffragettes to the civil rights movement to anti-war protesters who railed against the invasions of Vietnam and Iraq.
This is not to downplay the monumental threat that Trump may pose to American democracy and human rights. The authoritarian style with which he ran his presidential campaign has not abated in the slightest since taking office. Recent proposals that include banning refugees from certain Muslim-majority countries, using federal agents to pacify Chicago and condoning the practice of waterboarding on suspected terrorists should indeed raise Orwellian red flags. So should presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway’s bizarre appeal to “alternative facts” in defence of Trump’s easily disprovable falsehoods.
Furthermore, the president’s inflammatory rhetoric has emboldened the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who have cloaked themselves beneath the more publically palatable label of the “alt right”. These groups have proven themselves to be more prominent and better organised than many would like to believe and should not be underestimated, particularly now that Trump’s policies and visceral tweets are creating an increasingly fertile environment for right-wing extremism.
It is nonetheless important to recognise that America has not yet slid into dictatorship. Channels do still exist for standing up to an administration that simply does not reflect the values or priorities of a majority of Americans, no matter what populist claims Trump might make.
Nazi Germany provides a tempting reference point, both because it is a familiar example to anyone vaguely familiar with European history and because many of Trump’s supporters have themselves drawn inspiration from the Third Reich. Such parallels are useful insofar as they highlight the gravity of America’s current political juncture, and reinforce the lesson that democracy cannot be taken for granted, even in a wealthy, cultured and prosperous country.
*Joseph McQuade  is doing a PhD in History on the transformation of laws of sedition into laws of 'terror' in both international and British imperial law from the beginning of the First World War until the end of the 1930s and the origins of terrorism as a legal category and a global idea. Picture credit: Wiki Commons.
- 2013 PhD History
- Trinity Hall
For my MA in History at Queen’s University, I worked on a research project which examined the ways in which British literary and governmental representations of political violence in Bengal sought to de-politicize the actions of anti-colonial revolutionaries. My PhD at Cambridge expands upon this research by examining the global scope of imperial networks of surveillance and Indian radical politics during the first half of the twentieth century. My research follows the transformation of laws of sedition into laws of 'terror' in both international and British imperial law from the beginning of the First World War until the end of the 1930s, with the intention of exploring the origins of terrorism as a legal category and a global idea.