In the 1800s, political combat in Germany helped form conflicting political ideologies, including modern liberalism, Marxist communism, Nietzchian conservatism, and the seeds of Nazism. A century of national and international struggle, within Germany and without, put Hitler into the chancellery in 1933. Today, it is all too easy to see Hitler as inevitable for 1930s Germany, and to forget the liberal German philosophies opposed to Nazism and the constitutional strengths of both imperial Germany and the Weimar republic.
The United States now finds itself in a situation in many ways resembling Germany in 1933, with the fascists now effectively in control of a major political party, and that party ignoring or even celebrating their links to avowed racists, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and religious fascists. The Democrats are attempting to rally the forces of American democracy against the new specter of fascism; but right now the polls indicate that the US lies on a precipice overlooking an unprecedented national catastrophe.
Is this an exaggeration of our national situation? Would Donald Trump, if elected president, really present a threat to our republic? The Republican Party itself has long predicted disaster that would emanate from Democratic presidencies, particularly the apocalyptic warnings that those like Trump made about President Obama and now about Hillary Clinton. Are we on the Left overreacting and simply repeating the GOP’s own ridiculous exaggerations, allowing the last adult in the conversation to reduce himself to the uneducated mutterings of the other children? Can we perhaps relax and presume that while Trump would steer the nation away from our record of progress and success, the republic is strong enough to survive him?
These same questions were asked by Germans on the eve of, and just after, Hitler’s ascendance to the chancellery. A nation which had long inspired the world with its liberal visions, and had also infused politics with more radical philosophies like socialism and communism, saw Hitler’s power as a survivable necessity, something that would be a defeat for the forces against him but which could nonetheless experience some measure of success and which certainly would soon see other, more reasonable forces back in power. But unlike the failure of American Democrats to live up to Trump’s and other Republicans’ warnings, Hitler and his movement showed German liberals and moderates and even conservatives what comes from underestimating a demagogue with a strong, populist backing. Those liberal, moderate, and conservative voices quickly found themselves in “protective custody” in Dachau and elsewhere.
Germany’s Weimar government did not provide for the powers of a führer, and the powers of Chancellor were in fact quite limited. These limitations on power did not stop a man “speaking plainly,” or his followers, from using legitimate powers of government to expand Hitler’s political authority until there was nothing left of the Weimar constitution. This is the danger we must be wary of with Trump. The US Constitution limits and checks the powers of the presidency; but Trump now has a viable path from these limitations and checks to the unlimited powers of dictatorship. This is not a threat to be taken lightly.
The threat posed by Trump consists first of the nature of his rise to power, and second of the weaknesses our system has for preventing a dictator from gaining power through the electoral process. First, Trump himself has not shied away from evoking an image of himself as führer, from the Nazi-style salute used at his rallies, or his deleted tweet of German SS re-enactors paired with his face on the American flag, to his calls for violence to be part of the political process (promising to pay the legal fees of supporters employing violence at his rallies, saying he would himself like to punch the detractors, etc.). But Trump’s Hitlerian vision go far beyond enjoying displays of Nazi rally techniques. Trump seeks to control the press, a control at times resisted and later succumbed to by the chief conservative agitprop outlet, Fox News. Trump gained popularity among his fascist base not only by attacking fellow conservative TV personality Megyn Kelly with grotesquely misogynist reductions but also through his degrading mockery of a disabled journalist, Serge Kovaleski. Trump showed other journalists that he would accept no one falling outside his own eugenically limited definition of humanity, and he seeks to limit thereby the presence of nonconformist and non-fascist media. He continues to try to control the press through a multitude of actions, like lawsuits, blacklists, and insults; and he seeks to reduce reporters’ First Amendments rights to free speech and freedom of the press.
Trump’s nomination also saw Hitlerian and unconstitutional calls (championed by Governor Chris Christie) to jail their political opposition. Christie’s own experience as a prosecutor ought to have dissuaded a less opportunistic and cynical jurist from a mob-justice, call-and-response conviction based solely on fact-free expressions of wrath toward a woman daring to enter the male-dominated field of politics. Jailing leaders of the opposition on propped-up charges, or on no charges at all, was a chief, early tactic of the Nazis, even before they gained full control of the government. Were Trump to gain the presidency, his “law and order candidacy” suggests that not just Clinton, but all vocal opposition would soon find themselves in jail, regardless of the nation’s established justice procedures.
Trump has called for mass deportations of undocumented workers, and for a registry of American Muslims, both of which evoke early Nazi moves toward “purifying” the nation’s racial profile. The uncontested popularity of these suggestions with white supremacists and with ultranationalists both in the US and overseas, shows the frightening sync between Trump’s new order of fascism and Hitler’s old scheme. The unconstitutionality of his suggestions bother neither himself, his advisors, the GOP now that he has been nominated (disregarding some bickering and whining before they knelt before him to crown him as their führer), or the extremist fascists who form his base. Trump’s racist proposals, and his violently racist followers, show clearly the nature of the neo-racist state that they hope to build across the nation in our hallowed halls of federal, state, and local government, and disregarding all parts of the Constitution with the exception (for the moment, at least) of the Second Amendment. The fascism of Trump and his supporters is frightening and indisputable, presenting a nauseatingly long list of offenses committed openly and on purpose, to expand the envelope of publicly allowable violence and hatred perpetrated against fellow Americans.
With a republic over 240 years old, and with multiple checks and balances acting on the federal presidency, how could Trump possibly warp the powers of the presidency into a dictatorship? The same process that Hitler used would serve Trump or any other demagogue to bypass the Constitution.
First, now that he is the official nominee, Trump is also the new leader of the Republican Party. He can now begin reforming the party, executing at will his own “Night of the Long Knives” to ensure Republican compliance. Certain political measures might wait until after the election, to encourage moderate independents to vote for him in November. After the election, however, Trump can begin pruning moderates and conservatives from the party, completing its transformation into an extremist party more in line with his hunger for power.
Second, the next president has an immediate vacancy to fill on the Supreme Court, due to Scalia’s death and to the GOP’s unprecedented obstruction of the constitutionally mandated processes of government. Trump, if elected, would fill that slot as one of his first presidential acts, putting on the bench someone he knows would support his unconstitutional approaches to government. In addition, leading liberal justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83, and centrist justice Anthony Kennedy is 80. They are the next likely justices to retire or die on the bench, and their seats may both potentially need filling during the next term of president. Putting three “trumpets” on the bench to ensure that no challenges to Trump’s contempt for constitutional law survive, Trump can effectively operate without fear of a SCOTUS overturn; and he can also stamp the next 20-30 years of American jurisprudence with his sad little brand and his extremist vision.
Third, having greater control of a more conformist and extremist Congress (through greater control of the Republican Party), and a more conformist and extremist Supreme Court, Trump can also solidify extremist control of state and federal district gerrymandering to further their gains, to cement their control of districts, and to divide opposition communities from within and keep them electing conformist, extremist Republicans. SCOTUS will continue to strip voting protections from minorities and from women, and will solidify extremist voting results. No Republican would dare stand in the way of such an onslaught; fearing if not for their lives than at least for their careers and political relevance. And whenever Trump chooses, he can simply ignore whatever provisions of the Constitution he wishes, with neither his puppet Congress or his puppet Court opposing him.
Finally, if these measures do not appeal enough to his entitled yearning for adulation and obedience, then there is always the Reichstag fire. Trump continues to fan the flames of hatred; and he continues to urge greater veneration of gun ownership and public carrying. These two weaknesses together guarantee a growth of domestic lawlessness and terror under a Trump regime. It will be easy either to engineer a staged incident or to encourage or exploit a real one, and then to call for “emergency measures” that, as in Germany, only “temporarily” suspend the Constitution. With his opponents in jail, with Congress and the Court dominated by his puppets, no one would be left with the power and will to keep such “measures” from happening, or to ensure that they are “temporary.” The “emergency” will be the duration of Trump’s regime; a duration that then can also be maintained for as long as Trump sees fit to remain in power.
Is this an extreme view of Trump’s vision and the threat posed by him to our republic? It is intended to be. Have other, reasonable politicians been accused by Republicans in Godwinite exaggerations of being “Hitler,” with no validity? They have, indeed. But Republicans do not get a “nominate Hitler for free” card by painting Hitler mustaches on President Obama’s likeness, or by confusing the provision of health care with the Holocaust or with slavery. Such extremist ridiculousness does not mean that when a real wolf finally shows up, we have to let the sheep keep sleeping. When the boy cries, “Wolf!”, we have to at least stop to consider whether a wolf is in fact present. Trump has angered people of all “races” (including “white”), all genders and identities (including male and straight), all religions (including Christian), and all political thoughts (including conservatives and Republicans) with his extremist voice, and with that of his followers; and with his extremist approach to law and to contracts; and with his extremist style of “debating” and campaigning. Godwin has left the building; and Hitler is threatening to break out of Trump’s ridiculous hairdo. Trump may have no intention of going anywhere as far as I have suggested; but he can, and can we afford to risk that? Should we risk that? There may not be an apocalypse around the corner. But as the missiles are armed and the launch hatches opened, should we not consider the possibility that this just might be our last real election if we do not stop this idiocy right this very moment?
Headline image from Huffington Post blog, “Donald Trump: The Man, the Candidate, the President,” 2/15/16.