How Civilized Countries Fall Down The Fascist Rabbit Hole

@LucianKTruscott
How Civilized Countries Fall Down The Fascist Rabbit Hole

Donald Trump

When I was a boy and then a young man, I found it inconceivable how a nation like Germany could descend into and embrace fascism. Didn’t Germany’s long history argue against that?

Germany had long been a trading hub within Europe and beyond with its ports in Hamburg and Bremen, exposed to the rest of the world by both its exports and imports. Germany had a glorious history in culture and the arts – its philosophers were taught around the world; a German, Martin Luther, single-handedly shifted the religious landscape by inventing Protestantism; a German, Guttenberg, invented the printing press, democratizing the spread of information; German composers like Bach and Handel and Beethoven and Brahms and Mendelssohn and Strauss were princes in the world of classical music; German writers like Goethe and the Brothers Grimm and Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann and Gunter Grass were known and celebrated worldwide; the Bauhaus movement of Walter Gropius spread modernism around the world and Mies van der Rohe’s glass skyscrapers changed the look of cities in every industrialized country in the world; and German industrial innovation was admired and copied everywhere.

With all of that, what the hell happened to Germans that they would fall under the spell of a despicable, distasteful man like Adolph Hitler? He was a grasping, power-hungry egomaniacal madman who instead of concealing his character beneath a scrim of political conventionality and moderation, put everything there was about himself right on the surface. He made known his antisemitism and his theory of the so-called Jewish Question, that the goal of the German government “must unshakably be the removal of the Jews altogether” as early as 1919. He began working for the Nazi Party in 1920 and designed its symbol, the swastika in a white circle with a red background. He began making speeches to large gatherings, blaming all the ills of German society on others: scapegoating Jews, Marxists, Communists, other political parties, the treaty of Versailles, Gypsies, intellectuals, college professors, lawyers and what he saw as the discrimination of the German legal system against ordinary Germans like…well, like him

Hitler was at the center of it all. If he didn’t come right out and say it in a single sentence, it was in everything else he said: Only I can fix it; only I can save this nation; they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you.

Those last authoritarian quotes, of course, were not Hitler’s words. They are Donald Trump’s. Every time he opens his mouth and utters those words – and he does it again and again like a human jackhammer -- he gets thunderous applause. Trump has what historians long ago said of Hitler -- an instinctive understanding of crowd psychology. It is doubtful that Trump studied Nietzsche or even knew who he was, but like Hitler he made use every day of one of Nietzsche’s axioms: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”

So, if we want to understand how a great nation goes down the rabbit hole of fascism, we have our answer: We, too, have our long history of art and music and industry and literature, yet some of us listen, then they shout, and then they follow.

It is astounding to read the history of Hitler’s climb to power in Germany from the perspective of 21st century America. It’s like looking in the mirror. Germany as a parliamentary republic had a different form of government than we have, but there are unnerving similarities. Hitler remade the political party he chose, the Nazi Party, in his own image. He used the 1933 Reichstag fire to achieve the signing of the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended basic rights, allowed detention without trial, and allowed emergency measures to protect public order and safety.

Trump has already said that if elected, he will invoke the Insurrection Act “on day one” allowing him to deploy federal troops in the streets to keep order and control demonstrations. I’m not going to go through the whole panoply of actions a second Trump administration would take if he is elected – I’ve done so in previous columns. But when you hear Trump and his spokesmen like Stephen Miller talk about “detention camps” and the suspension of the Posse Comitatus Act which would allow U.S. soldiers to be used in a law enforcement capacity, enabled to make arrests and detain people without charges, you can see the comparisons to Hitler’s reign of power. He began by declaring himself Fuhrer and using the so-called Enabling Act to make opposition parties illegal, disband them, and seize their assets. He did the same thing to unions and other potential political opponents.

Not only did Hitler create a government that would go along with everything he wanted to do, he merged the government with himself as Fuhrer. Becoming commander in chief of Germany’s military, Hitler immediately changed the oath soldiers took from loyalty to the state to loyalty to Hitler personally, by name. Trump is promising similar loyalty oaths to himself throughout the government if he becomes president.

The similarities go on, and how it worked in Germany in the 1930’s is frightfully similar to how it’s working right now, today, here in the United States of America. Hitler didn’t hide his personality; he reveled in it. Ditto Trump. Hitler didn’t make secret his aims as a ruler, he shouted them at rallies and imposed them by rule and decree. Trump is going the same route. He’s even had the Heritage Foundation draw up an authoritarian plan for a second Trump administration, spelling out Trump’s plans to use the conventions of our democratic system against itself.

The Republican Party has already begun a long-term process of taking over the judiciary, right up to and including the Supreme Court. Now Trump is promising to harness the Department of Justice to his will and bring it under White House control, reversing a policy that goes back to the days of Watergate, when a former attorney general ended up being jailed for his involvement in illegal activities. Trump is promising to oust those not loyal to him from positions in government and replace them, against norms but within the far edges of the law, with Trump loyalists. Decapitating the Pentagon leadership and replacing it with loyalists is another of his threats.

Trump has already promised to use a federalized force of soldiers to put down demonstrations against himself and his policies. It's a short step from these sorts of threats to making political opposition to Donald Trump an illegal act. Trump has already threatened to turn the DOJ loose on Biden and his family. Can the Obamas be far behind?

In Germany, Hitler and Nazism took control of the levers of government, demonized the opposition, demonized an entire religion, and imposed controls on the media. Trump is already making a boogeyman of MSNBC, promising to sic the FCC on them, despite the fact that as a cable network, the FCC has no authority there. During the period after Trump lost the election of 2020, he claimed there were laws and policies and even parts of the Constitution that he could cancel, because the election had been so “unfair”…because he had lost. He has been detailing his plans and repeating his threats over and over at rallies and on social media platform.

The question remains, why are all these authoritarian promises popular with what we now call MAGA Republicans? One reason is that they see themselves not as the subject of Trump’s promised authoritarianism but as its beneficiaries. Who cares about MSNBC when you’re watching Fox News? Who cares about Trump's unveiled antisemitism when you’re not a Jew? Who cares about rounding up immigrants when you’re not one of them? Who cares about Trump’s threats to shoot-to-kill shoplifters “coming out of the store” if you pay at the register and walk out with a receipt in your bag? Who cares about policies that benefit the ultra-wealthy when you’ve been schooled for decades to idolize them? The Apprentice, anyone?

You have heard that old aphorism from Martin Niemoller, a man who lived through Nazism: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a socialist…then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a trade unionist…then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Jew…then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Donald Trump has built his support on this simple authoritarian rule: by making certain his MAGA followers understand they are not on the receiving end of the equation in the aphorism. Trump instructs his MAGA followers over and over again on the difference between us and them. What he’s telling them is this: If you listen and shout your loyalty to Trump and follow him, you’re one of us. Everyone else is one of them. They’re going down, not you.

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

Please consider subscribing to Lucian Truscott Newsletter, from which this is reprinted with permission.

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