Given the unexpected success of Donald Trump in the current US primaries, and the increasing violence and vitriol at Trump rallies, I am seeing more and more articles and memes comparing Trump with Hitler. Together with this spike, I am also seeing a fair amount of push-back, often from Jewish Americans, saying that this comparison is at best Godwin-ing, at worst disgusting, hyperbolic and a slap in the face to the millions of people who died during the Holocaust.
Now I agree that there is a certain amount of hyperbole going on when some people talk about Trump. I don’t think that every open-minded American should flee to Canada with their hair on fire if Trump wins the primaries. I don’t think, if Trump wins the general election, that concentration camps filled with Muslims and Latinos will become the new normal in the USA. However, having said that, I also don’t think that this is what most people who make this comparison think, either. We can be so shocked, so floored by the magnitude of the devastation of the Holocaust that we forget that this actually happened, in real life, not too long ago, and that certain rhetoric and economic circumstances paved the way for it to happen.
For me, this first line from an editoral in the Washington Post put it best:
Like any number of us raised in the late 20th century, I have spent my life perplexed about exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany. Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand.
We need to remember that Hitler did not just pop up in Germany like a badly mustachioed little mushroom, snap his fingers and then, suddenly, millions were dead. His rise to power was progressive, and it started with overt nationalism, scapegoating a group of people, and fomenting hatred. In his early days, many thought that Hitler did not really mean what he said, that he was just tapping into populism to gain attention and votes. It turned out that he was far more extreme than any would have believed.
Once again, this is not to say that I think Trump is, or would have any intention of, walking in Hitler’s footsteps. What I am saying is that the whole point of learning from history is to catch the early signs of terrible things happening. You’re not learning from history if you idly wait around for fascism to take root, wait for the body count to match up, and then say “O.K. now we can compare this to the Holocaust” while simultaneously scratching your head, looking around and asking “Well golly gee, how did we let this happen again?!”.
Turning patriotism into something ugly, inciting hatred, normalizing racist rhetoric, riling people up to mob violence, these are the early signs of fascism. And these are exactly the things that Donald Trump is doing.
And if you truly want to learn from history, you need to nip them in the bud.
You need to unapologetically point at them and say That! That is fascism! We’re NOT going down this road again! That is not. fucking. cool. We’re not having that.
You don’t need to think that Trump wants to bring back the gas chambers. You don’t even need to think that Trump means any of the horrific things he says. However, I think it is clear that he his paving the way for real fascism to take hold by pretending that his racist rhetoric is simply a legitimate political view worth discussing.
And in that way, I think that the comparison between Trump and Hitler is a valid one to make. Not Hitler in the height WWII, but in the sneaky way that Hitler gained popularity and eventually power.
I may be speaking from a point of privilege when I say this, as I am not Jewish, but I do not think that making this comparison trivializes the lives lost during the Holocaust. If anything it should show that people are paying attention, and will not let that same kind of hatred take root again, before it is too late.