An expert view on Trump's Hitlerian rhetoric
Steven Levitsky, author of "How Democracies Die," on comparisons between today’s US and Germany in the 1930s.
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As we recently unpacked in Public Notice, it’s undeniable that Donald Trump has lately been leaning into Nazi-style rhetoric — especially with his comments about immigrants “poisoning the blood of our country” and his political foes being “vermin.”
It’s troubling stuff to be sure, but the Trump-Hitler comparisons can still seem a bit much. Hitler, after all, was responsible for the murder of millions of people. Trump did a lot of harm his first term and probably would be even worse the second time around, but it doesn’t feel totally appropriate to mention him in the same breath, even if both their political movements stem from racist, anti-democratic ideologies.
To get expert insight into key similarities and differences between Trump and Hitler, Public Notice contributor Thor Benson connected with Steven Levitsky, professor of political science at Harvard and co-author of the acclaimed 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” which focused on Trump’s presidency and what Americans can learn from the rise of authoritarian leaders in other countries.
Levitsky told us that while he thinks Trump-Hitler comparisons are generally exaggerated, there are some important parallels between MAGA and Nazism. He said the normalization of Trump’s rhetoric is taking the country down a dark path.
“What concerns me most when I hear Trump’s use of terms like ‘vermin’ and ‘poisoning the blood of the country’ is the lack of reaction to it,” Levitsky said. “The fact that both voters and the establishment — most importantly Republicans themselves — all just shrug. That worries the hell out of me.”
“Sometimes I think Trump is like a kid testing to see how far he can go. Can he read directly out of Mein Kampf?”
A transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Are the comparisons between Trump’s rhetoric and Hitler’s appropriate?
I’m not one of those who thinks that fascism or anything like it is around the corner in the United States, and so calling Trump a Hitler-like figure or calling his party a Nazi-like movement would be greatly exaggerated. But there are a couple things to worry about.
First of all, this discourse of dehumanizing certain groups in society is a necessary condition for repression — for authoritarianism. That’s not to say that Trump would engage in the kind of behavior that Hitler did or anything remotely like it, but it’s never a positive or healthy thing for a diverse society like the United States to have leaders using language dehumanizing opponents, particularly minorities or other vulnerable groups.
Trump has always done that. It’s not new. In that sense, he’s done something many, many autocrats — including Hitler — have done very effectively and purposefully. He’s sounded like Hitler a fair number of times now, and I have no idea whether he’s purposefully using Hitler’s language. I tend to doubt it, but it’s now happened enough times that one has to at least ask the question: What the hell is he doing?
Are we possibly too cautious about making these kinds of comparisons?
In recent years — and I think this is a consequence of social media — we tend to use exaggerated comparisons and exaggerated terms to describe our rivals. So if you’re on the right, everyone on the left is a communist. If you’re on the left, everyone on the right is a fascist.
It’s gotten to a point where not only is it absurd, but it’s really debilitating to any kind of public debate. We should be really careful. Exaggeration destroys credibility. It limits our ability to have any kind of conversation or debate. I think a lot of journalists are rightly cautious about that.
We have to be very specific and careful and measured in how we draw these comparisons, but at this point Trump has become sufficiently authoritarian and some of the Trumpist movement’s rhetoric has become sufficiently extreme and violent that it’s not inappropriate, in some contexts, to make comparisons to fascism. That’s not to say Trump is going to bring fascism to the United States, but there are some parallels, and I think we should make them.
I wonder if being too cautious could enable terrible things to happen because we didn’t call it out before it was too late.
My strategy over the years has been to be more specific. If certain figures are endorsing or promoting or condoning violence, say that. If they are anti-democratic, say that. Name it specifically. In general, I’ve used the term “authoritarianism.” Trump is clearly an authoritarian figure, and I think his party increasingly has also abandoned democracy, but that strangely doesn’t seem to move a lot of people.
What concerns me most when I hear Trump’s use of terms like “vermin” and “poisoning the blood of the country” is the lack of reaction to it. The fact that both voters and the establishment — most importantly Republicans themselves — all just shrug. That worries the hell out of me. I’s become increasingly clear since the 2020 election that a lot of Americans and an overwhelming majority of Republicans will tolerate a lot more than we thought five, 10, or 15 years ago.
The red line for this society, and particularly the red line for Republican leaders, is way, way more advanced than most of us suspected. Sometimes I think Trump is like a kid testing to see how far he can go. Can he read directly out of Mein Kampf? I have no idea what drives Trump to say these things, but we keep accepting it. That’s what worries me.
Are there some similarities between Germany in the early 1930s and America today?
There are more differences than similarities. Germany was coming out of a humiliating military defeat and extraordinary economic crisis. Germany, unlike the United States, had a very, very strong radical left. There was a perceived threat of Bolshevik revolution or something along those lines. Europe was intensely polarized.
Although the United States feels polarized, nobody’s threatening to nationalize the means of production. We are very armed, which scares me, but Germany was armed in a different way. Almost all of the major political parties had armed militias in the 1920s and early 1930s. There was already a paramilitary presence in Germany that was very frightening.
Another difference is Germany was a real democracy coming out of the 1920s, but it was a new, still relatively fragile one. German institutions were nowhere near as strong. There was a much larger and more politically potent left, which helped lead to this failed alliance of the middle class and the private sector and the Nazis. It led to a good chunk of the private sector and the middle class getting in bed with the Nazis out of fear of the left. You see a little bit of that here, but it’s nothing like Germany at that time.
How does Trump’s use of Nazi-style rhetoric affect society more broadly?
Dehumanizing rhetoric, to the extent it’s widely diffused and accepted, makes it easier to oppress the targets of that rhetoric. When human beings are not viewed as equals — whether they are Palestinians living in Gaza or the African slaves in the US South or African Americans living in the early 20th century United States or immigrants — if they’re viewed as animals or vermin or as an element that’s poisoning the bloodstream, that makes it easier for people to sign off on abuse and mistreatment and violence.
You don’t have to be an extremist or an authoritarian to be anti-immigrant. There are anti-immigrant groups across Europe, across the world. You don’t have to be violent or authoritarian to be anti-immigrant, but when you begin to sell that message with a dehumanizing element it increases the likelihood that individuals will attack them or politicians will pass laws that threaten their rights and will be accepted by mainstream groups in society. That’s the risk.
Is there a good way to counter this and show people this kind of rhetoric is not acceptable?
The best way to counter all of this stuff — and it increasingly seems like a pipe dream — is for elites on Trump’s side to use their voices to counter him. The public is much more prone to accept or internalize this kind of violent or authoritarian discourse if there’s nobody out there contesting it. Obviously Democratic or progressive elites need to contest it, and President Biden did, which was a good thing.
But it’s much more credible if right-wing figures do it. Most Trump supporters don’t give a hoot if Joe Biden doesn’t like what Trump says. If religious leaders say, “This is not compatible with Christianity,” if business leaders say, “We need immigrants and need to treat them like human beings,” if Republican politicians say “This is a step too far,” if people on Fox News or anyone Trump supporters at least seriously raises their voice, it makes a difference. If nobody raises a voice, then Trump’s got a monopoly on the discourse, and it will inevitably sink in, which it has.
That’s it for today
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